Dean’s column

UNSW Engineering continues to make a major contribution to our energy future

The recent review of Australia’s energy system by the Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, makes one realise what a significant role we play as engineers in our nation’s future. Finkel trained as an electrical engineer, later working as a biomedical engineer and founding his own technology startup. And he maintains that unique engineer’s attitude to solving problems: he uses critical thinking, analysis, optimisation and teamwork. Any successful, high-growth economy requires a strong engineering workforce to underpin it.

However, it is only in times such as this – when electricity prices are spiralling higher and our political leaders cannot resolve differences around energy and climate – that we suddenly see engineers not only working in the background building a strong economy, but taking leadership roles.

His review was asked to develop national policy based on sound technical principles in an area – electricity generation and use – that is fundamental to the economic and social wellbeing of our nation. In this, UNSW Engineering, as a leader in energy expertise and the source of Australia’s top engineering graduates and the largest number of newly minted engineers, is particularly important.

We played a crucial role in the world’s conversion to renewable energy resources.

Not only were the technologies behind the solar cells on rooftops and solar farms around the world developed at UNSW, but the engineers who went on to dramatically cut the cost of solar energy – making it affordable – came from our ranks. The reason solar energy generated at source is now markedly cheaper than coal is thanks to the excellence of our researchers and lecturers at Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Engineering. Solar may not be the primary source for our electricity needs, but that is largely due to its intermittency and the fact that energy storage costs need to fall further. We’re working on that, too.

We’re also lucky to be the home to one of the world’s top Mining Engineering schools, and Australia’s top School of Petroleum Engineering – an entity now far more focused on gas and geothermal energy sources than oil and its by-products. This places UNSW Engineering in a unique position to contribute, in policy and technical know-how, to the energy transitions facing the world. In support of this, we have created the UNSW Energy Institute, ably led by its COO, Justine Jarvinen. However, we should never forget that our greatest impact – in energy or any other area of engineering – will always be our graduates.

While they may be exposed to the best research and learn from leading practitioners, it is they who go out and change the world.

Professor Mark Hoffman

Dean of Engineering

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