Neuroscientist, engineer and entrepreneur Alan Finkel AO believes the next decade is shaping up to be the most exciting time in science and technology since the 1960s space race.
At the heart of the revolution is the energy sector, which after about 50 years of relative stability, is transforming at breakneck speed as governments and communities grapple with the social, environmental and economic challenges of climate change.
"It was just thrilling to see between 1960 and 1969 and then we got four or five decades of softer technological advances like the internet and social media but now we are talking about hard technology again that can transform humanity. It's exciting," Dr Finkel said.
Few places on earth have as much skin in the high stakes game as the Hunter Region, which is in the early stages of transitioning from a fossil fuel-driven economy to one based around renewables and advanced manufacturing.
While debate rages about how many years the region's coal industry has left, Dr Finkel is more interested in the technologies that will replace fossil fuels and how they will shape future communities.
"We are not going to get there (reduced emissions) by everybody riding bicycles, living in a shack in the country, population control or buying smaller cars. The fact is we are heading in the other direction - even though cars are becoming more efficient, overall emissions in America are going up because people are shifting from small cars to SUVs," he said.
"We are not going to solve this problem (of emissions) by behavioural change, the only way to solve this problem is through new technology."
Dr Finkel was Australia's chief scientist from 2016 to 2020. He has since been appointed Special Adviser to the Commonwealth Government on the research, development, transition, and application of low emissions technology.
Chemical and renewable energy academic Dr Jessica Allen will interview Dr Finkel next Tuesday as part of the University of Newcastle's Looking Ahead In Conversation series.
While major opportunities for may lie on the other side of the energy transition process, Dr Finkel acknowledged the transformation of an economy as complex and diverse as the Hunter won't come without a certain level of upheaval and cost.
It's a process he has had a front row seat to in his home state of Victoria with the closure of five coal-fired power stations in the LaTrobe Valley in recent years.
The sixth closure came last week when the Yallourn W power station announced it was closing four years ahead of schedule.
"One of the phrases I use in my essay is 'resistance is futile'," Dr Finkel said.
"The world is changing but it's not happening overnight and it's not happening equally fast in all areas, but it is happening.
"There has to be an open communication between the government and the community and the companies to set in place a process for developing new opportunities and that is complex."
"But just holding out and hoping it won't happen is not the way to prepare. There has to be recognition that the change is real and if anything it is happening faster than anticipated. That's for domestic (coal consumption).
"On the other hand, thermal coal use in China and India in particular and developing countries is still going up. Export still has a limited life, it is declining but not as rapidly as for domestic use."
While the Hunter's transition may have similarities to the LaTrobe experience, the region has at least one key advantage - an abundance of solar and wind resources that make it an ideal location to establish a hydrogen industry.
And the region's status as a hydrogen hotspot is growing rapidly.
National Energy Resources Australia announced in February that the Hunter would host one of 13 national hydrogen clusters.
The cluster's partners include the University of Newcastle, TAFE, HunterNet, the Hunter Business Chamber, the Australian Industry Group, and the Hunter Hydrogen Taskforce.
It was followed last week by a state government commitment to establish a $70 million hydrogen hub in the region.
The hubs will provide groups of hydrogen users common infrastructure for the local production, use and distribution of hydrogen.
Dr Finkel, who led the development of the 2019 National Hydrogen Strategy, said the region had the potential to play key role in the evolution of the nation's hydrogen industry over the next decade.
"It could build a very large industry capability through producing hydrogen. But not just hydrogen, hydrogen for export if you can get the volumes up big enough," he said.
"Also converting hydrogen to clean ammonia and using ammonia to make urea and fertilisers. Ammonia can also be used as a fuel for domestic trains and shipping. There's a huge amount of potential but it will take time and investment."
Dr Finkel predicted many interstate trucks, buses and trains would be hydrogen powered by 2030.
"They will be well into the transition by then, but there will still be a long way to go. In a sense this (transition) is happening painfully slowly, but when we look back from 2050 we will say 'that was fast'."
Energy minister Angus Taylor indicated last week that hydrogen could also play an increasingly prominent role in the government's proposed Kurri Kurri gas-fired power station.
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Dr Finkel said he supported the overall strategy of using gas as an interim measure to provide firming capacity to the grid until the hundreds of proposed renewable and battery projects came online.
"If you can build lots of wind, solar and batteries and have natural gas there as a back-stop then that gives us the best possible transition plan because you are not using natural gas for replacement you are only using it for firming and it's only used when it's needed," he said.
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