Energy Futures delivers a null outcome

When a group of about one hundred Australians are invited to participate in an energy forum to be broadcast for an international audience, could anyone be faulted for bringing high expectations? This week’s Energy Futures forum in Perth provided an opportunity to address Australia’s contribution to what is arguably the conundrum of the century: a high energy planet that must become carbon neutral. The results were deeply underwhelming. It seems those of us most saturated in reliable energy are also the most insulated from its simple realities.

I was pleased to participate in the Energy Futures forum in Perth this week, the first in a three part series for 2014 by CNBC, sponsored by Shell. My sincere thanks to CNBC for the invitation and also to Shell for the hospitality for the evening. The evening will be broadcast next month, with the next 2014 fora to be held in Singapore and Ontario. I took the opportunity for a longer visit to Perth and surrounds, and enjoyed myself immensely.

What a shame then that the event itself delivered a null outcome. Despite a wonderful set up and a well-conceived hypothetical, the hand-picked assembly manifestly failed to deliver.

Having been warmly welcomed with dinner and drinks, participants joined tables of 6-8 where we found a flat, three-tiered octagon, scratchy textas and a voting keypad.

Our challenge and process was as follows.

We would be given a hypothetical and fifteen minutes to document ideas for addressing it on the outer tier of the octagon, with the aim at this stage of “quality, not quantity”. Stage two required the table members to elevate their favoured ideas to the next level of the octagon and vote, using chips, on their favourite idea. The winning idea would then be documented on the top tier and presented to the assembled group in a ninety-second elevator pitch. All assembled would give each pitch a score out of ten and at the end of the evening scores would be announced.

I joined a table with the following participants:

  • Paul Anastas, Lord Mayor’s Personal Aide, City of Perth
  • Marita Bradshaw, Senior Science Advisor, Energy Division, Geoscience Australia. This organisation prepares the Australian Energy Resource Assessment
  • Chris Fair of Oilfield Data Services
  • Alex Gosman, Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Industry Greenhouse Network. This organisation represents Australia’s largest greenhouse emitters
  • Dylan Korczynskyj, Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, University of Notre Dame Australia
  • Ray Wills, Managing Director, Future Smart Strategies, a private sustainability consulting firm

This was the hypothetical for which we needed to propose a pathway:

“Australia’s energy sector achieves the impossible, becoming the world’s largest producer while attaining carbon neutral status in the same year (2035)”

Unfortunately participants were not provided with any numbers in which to frame this hypothetical. Therefore the quality of the outcomes relied, in large part, on pre-existing literacy regarding the global energy challenge and Australia’s energy footprint. This knowledge varied a great deal among the participants. I’ll take the opportunity here to put some simplified numbers around it based on Australia’s published energy flows.

Australia’s balance of total primary energy is roughly 16,500 PJ. Of that, about 13,500 PJ is dirty energy in the form of coal export (8,000 PJ), gas export (1,000), oil export (1,000 PJ) and non-renewable end use within Australia (3,500 PJ). Our clean energy is approximately 3,500 PJ of which 95% is our uranium export (3,250 PJ) and 5% is renewable electricity and biomass (250 PJ).

Australia’s largest energy contribution is coal export

For a coarse definition of the carbon neutral concept (in energy alone) included in the hypothetical, let’s assume Australia needs to consume and export equivalent or greater zero-carbon energy than it consumes and exports in fossil fuels. That assumes perfect substitution of a PJ of zero carbon energy for a PJ of any fossil fuel. That’s incorrect but suffices for this purpose. The other way of resolving the challenge of the hypothetical is to make enough of the dirty impacts of the dirty energy disappear i.e. carbon capture and storage.

Now, we can get a rough idea of the challenge. To achieve the carbon neutral goal based on our current position, assuming no reduction in fossil exports (i.e. a net increase in energy), we would have needed to consume and export just shy of four times the amount of clean energy, to achieve 13,500 PJ of clean energy. Assuming clean energy exports substituted for fossil exports rather than adding to them, (i.e. the total energy figure remains the same), we would have needed about 2.3 times the consumption and production of clean energy, while the fossil consumption and export drops by about 40%.

Bear in mind, the hypothetical also called on Australia to become the world’s largest energy exporter in 2035. All of those energy numbers would need to increase dramatically to account both for us jumping to first place and for the projected growth in global energy demand by 2035. For the sake of simplicity I’m going to complete the discussion using current figures.

Our task: to provide a vision for achieving this challenge. Without a useful, workable set of numbers to frame the challenge, discussions readily degenerated into unreality. Three major discussions emerged at our table.

Firstly Ray Wills declared “The future is renewables. The coal and gas industries will crash between 2025 and 2030. We have this renewable energy, so the challenge we have is catching it get it there”.

I called this as nonsense at the outset, suggesting that those markets cannot crash on the back of renewables until the solution is well established and proven, and it isn’t. Willis assured me this was happening now. I queried whether he grasped the quantity of energy we currently export and the quantity of growth to come, by pointing out to our table that on average a Kenyan has access to just 1/100th the electricity generating capacity of a South Australian. Wills informed me that the amount of energy needed to address energy poverty was actually very small, clarifying that “he doesn’t mean buying them a TV”.

It may come as a surprise to some that Kenyans, along with everyone else, buy their own TVs and they do so without asking our permission. Willis’ version of addressing energy poverty seems consistent with the United Nations description of meeting “basic human needs” of 50-100 kWh per person per year. That is enough electricity to operate “a couple of light bulbs, a fan and a radio for five hours per day“. That would be an awful lot better than nothing at all, but let’s not kid ourselves. The median Western Australian household uses that much electricity in just ten days.

Meme by Tim-Rasmus Kiehl

With the benefit of the basic numbers we can put the renewables-driven concept to the test. Use and export of renewable energy would need to be increased 14-fold to cover just our dirty domestic energy consumption. On a substitution basis, to neutralise the impact of the exports too, our output of renewable energy would need to increase another 32-fold. To fulfil the promise of crashes in fossil fuel (i.e. meeting the full level of fossil exports with renewable energy) it would need to be increased another 40-fold. So, to neutralise both domestic use and exports we need to grow renewable energy output by 46 times. To wipe fossil out of the picture we need to grow renewable energy output by 54 times.

Of course, that’s not even the nub of the problem. Just how are we supposed to use and export at least 46-54 times our current production of renewable electricity? Currently we can’t even implement cost-effective systems of storage to shave off a bit of peak demand. We cannot sell sunshine, wind and hot rocks. We have no way of packing this energy into a useful, portable form that is anything like a match for the energy density of coal, gas, and especially uranium. The only technologically conceivable route is the direct connection and sale of a frighteningly large amount of HVDC electricity. Try to picture a system that can deliver 40 times Australia’s total energy end use in the form of electricity. Picture all of our export markets happily forgoing the flexibility, convenience and security provided by stockpiled fuel, and instead purchasing every single kWh in real time from our island nation.

To Wills’s credit he chose not to elevate such a vision to the second stage. He was stumped by the challenge and no solution came to mind.

The second major concept came largely from Marita Bradshaw with support from others, and went roughly as follows. Based on the achievement of a major climate compact in Paris in 2015 between the USA and China, strong climate action is entrenched. Australia is elevated to the world’s largest energy exporter through growth in the full energy “portfolio” (Aside: portfolio is fast becoming my most hated weasel word in energy discussions. It’s code for “cop out”. End aside) This portfolio included growth in coal and gas. Uranium was included on a token basis, largely to placate me, and I think renewables were mentioned somehow.

When I pointed out that a growth in fossil exports from current levels fails to meet the carbon neutral component of the hypothetical a priori, the response was that carbon capture and storage is delivering on the challenge by then. I observed that this sounded like every Australian Government policy document I have read in the last five years and not the type of idea that could actually meet the hypothetical. I cautioned the table that while this vision may get up in our vote, it would be treated harshly by the room and is therefore not worth supporting. I was told that it was not about winning. In summary, this vision was vision BAU fossil growth, crafted to challenge, excite and offend no one.

I offered the third alternative based on our uranium resource. It should be obvious to even the casual observer that since uranium is 95% of our total clean energy and 100% of our clean energy export, the key to meeting this challenge lies in growing the export of uranium, the super-dense clean energy fuel. An increase of just 2.5 times the uranium export in substitution for coal would meet my coarse carbon neutral definition. That is so achievable it’s almost boring. Australia is not even the world’s largest uranium exporter right now. We are third, even though we have the world’s best uranium reserves. Even if expanded alongside, instead of in substitution for fossil fuels, a four-fold growth in Australian uranium would meet the carbon-neutral challenge articulated above. Considering our current energy export in uranium is delivered via less than 7,000 t U3O8 per annum, compared to exports of about 150 million tons of thermal coal per year, it’s a logistical non-event.

Uranium oxide carries 14,000 – 23,000 times the energy of coal per unit weight

The challenge is more so the growth of the market itself. That was the crux of the concept I offered the table, termed Intermediate Fuel Storage + Integral Fast Reactor (IFS+IFR). It goes like this. Australia establishes the world’s first multinational spent fuel repository. This is established on the ironclad commitment to develop a fleet of integral fast reactors (commercially known as PRISM) to demonstrate and expand the recycling of the spent nuclear fuel for another 99 times more zero-carbon energy. The development of the intermediate repository and the first reactors is funded by our international partners who purchase the service Australia provides, so it is at worst revenue neutral for Australia at the outset. The commitment to PRISM development negates the need for geological repository on science fiction time scales. The 30-year half-life of the eventual waste products permits far simpler storage solutions on an intermediate time scale (hence intermediate fuel storage). By unblocking the back end of the nuclear fuel cycles for our international partners and customers, rapid nuclear development in Generation III+ technology receives a strong boost and uranium exports begin strong growth as nuclear power pulls share from coal in global energy growth. Each PRISM development adds 622 MWe of saleable zero-carbon generation to Australia which further improves the revenue position and drives down our domestic energy footprint, bringing the carbon neutral goal ever closer. At maturity, Australia is running on PRISM reactors fuelled by the spent fuel we received. The world is running on a much large number of Generation III+ reactors that we supply with our uranium exports under a fuel leasing model. The transition to PRISM world-wide is underway on the back of Australia’s pioneering embrace of the technology with support of key partners. Australia is exporting the starter bundles of metal fuel from our own PRISM fleet while continuing to derive revenue from the multi-national repository and uranium exports.

I won’t pretend that’s easily done. But it meets the challenge of a hypothetical that called on Australia’s energy sector to “achieve the impossible”.

This vision picked up votes from three at the table: myself, Paul Anastas and Chris Fair. The portfolio vision scored votes from four: Marita Bradshaw, Alex Gosman, Dylan Korczynskyj and, to my considerable consternation, Ray Wills, a sustainability consultant who threw in behind fossil-fuel BAU rather than give oxygen to a nuclear vision. Stranger still, he stood up and presented it. There was something profoundly allegorical about how this played out. With nothing to offer to meet the challenge of a high energy, decarbonised planet, so many renewables advocates will flee to the safety of climate change rather than entertain a nuclear pathway. My vision lost, and BAU won. At least, at our table.

The pace was frantic and discussions were heated

When the elevator pitches arrived, presentation after presentation gave a rehash of the same blue-sky, motherhood statements around carbon capture and storage, renewables here and elsewhere, engineered draw-down of carbon dioxide and the like. Two presentations suggested Australia would begin accepting, by the tanker load, imports of carbon-dioxide from our trading partners for sequestration in Australia. Several groups made passing, joking, semi-scathing reference to Australia becoming a nuclear “dump” to fund these grand ideas.

The scores told the story. All eleven tables were scored between low 4s/10 and at best a high 6/10. Our table scored in 8th place with a score in the high 4s. Given that tables could boost their own chances by voting for themselves, it’s clear that we delivered shades of mediocrity to answer this serious hypothetical. In defence of my fellow participants who may be less specialised than I, more information on energy was required.

And that was that. We emerged for drinks and networking.

I departed quickly, feeling deeply disconcerted and even angry at what I had seen and heard. As an assembly of hand-picked Australians, we would have represented a far upper percentile of wealth in even our own wealthy nation. We had flown in from around the country, and driven to the event in petrol powered cars along bitumen roads. We enjoyed hot food and cold beer in excess, doubtless throwing out more food per head than the town’s poorest would see in a week. We watched the city of Perth light up below us from our own well-lit, air-conditioned venue before returning to modern hotels. We were filmed and recorded, and will be showcased to an international audience. Everything about the experience was the result of energy. Plentiful, dependable energy provided, but for a scraping of renewables, from dense fossil fuels whose waste is threatening to bring the house down around our ears this century. We Australians appear so utterly detached from both the quantity of the energy that sustains us and the impact it is having on the world. We owed far, far more to the process and our hosts than we delivered. We owed more to those who live without energy, and more to those who would have given anything to participate in such a forum.

I would like to see the debt repaid. If there is a sponsor who would support another event where we capture the process of writing an inspiring, high energy carbon neutral future for Australia, I’m in. I’ll bring our greatest creative energy minds with me, and we will deliver.

Perth by night, seen from our forum venue. We are a high-energy people. We need to get informed and get honest about that.

Like what you see here? Please subscribe to the blog, Like Decarbonise SA on Facebook and follow @BenThinkClimate on Twitter. Read more about the potential for nuclear power in Australia at Zero Carbon Options

Polls and perceptions: Support for nuclear in SA is far greater than popularly perceived

In this month’s SACOME journal, the published results of independent random polling of over 1,200 South Australians settles a hotly contested point: far more South Australians support uranium mining (55.0%) and the development of a nuclear power sector (48.0%) than oppose (25.5% and 32.6% respectively). The “strong support” for nuclear power (29%) outweighed the “strong opposition” (20%). In both cases just under 20% of South Australian’s are neutral on these issues.

Let’s hope this important finding provides the evidentiary circuit-breaker our politicians require. No longer can our political leaders retreat behind the obvious canard of public opinion being against nuclear power. When they do so, it is they who act contrary to public opinion. Our politicians can lead on this issue confident in the knowledge that nearly 50% of South Australians are right behind them, and 20% of South Australians are not opposed.

So, here’s a message to the political leadership in South Australia and Australia. In a week in which the IPCC hands down yet more concerning news on our climate change challenge, I contend that our political leaders have a duty to the public they serve, the offices they hold, the democracy they represent and the future they can shape to listen to their constituents on nuclear power. Listen to your voters, represented here in this survey. Listen to your business community, represented by Business SA. Listen to your pre-eminent scientific and technological minds, represented by ATSE. Listen to the call from a coalition of our leading climate scientists .

We get that politics is tough and we have done what you have told us we need to do. You can’t mistake our position. We have spoken, not quietly, but loudly. If you still can’t hear us, you may need to take your fingers out of your ears.

Congratulations SACOME for funding this independent polling, and on this excellent article authored by Dayne Eckermann. The issue also features a great column, Let’s talk nuclear, from my debate buddy Michael Angwin.

P.S. The most important finding, for me, in the above is the gender division. We must clearly improve at delivering our messaging to and for women, and seek the involvement of our many female experts at every opportunity. If that difference could be eliminated in favour of nuclear power, this would be a slam dunk.

Thanks for having me Governors Leadership Foundation- my reflections

For the third year I enjoyed contributing to the discussions on climate and energy for the Governor’s Leadership Foundation.

My sincere thanks to the chair, Sally Wheldrake and her team both for the invitation and for such a well organised session. Thanks also to the participants for their attention and great questions. Thanks also for the patience! This was one of the … spicier panel sessions I have done in quite some time, to my surprise. I fear many participants felt confused by the level, tone and content of some of the discussions. As a panel we can do better next time.

When I step back, a great deal of ground was covered. Having just ten minutes to present, and fulfilling my remit to focus on leadership, opportunities to discuss the role of nuclear in meeting the climate change challenge were somewhat constrained.

Chatham House rules prevent any overly specific discussion from the evening. I would like to reflect in general terms on some of the discussion and provide just a little more detail on my position and how and why I take the position I do in nuclear. I hope this is interesting for participants who may visit the blog, and also as something of a digest for others interested in nuclear.

South Australia is part of the NEM

A high level of focus on the impressive penetration of wind and solar in South Australia can deliver a misleading perspective. At 25%+ of electricity delivered, the South Australian wind story is certainly one of creating the best investment environment for wind and reaping the reward. However, South Australia is part of the National Electricity Market. We buy and sell electricity from the geographically largest grid in the world with over 8 million customers, and we are a small part of that. Wind has prospered on the ability to engage in this trading, and South Australia remains a net importer of electricity from the NEM. So, from a system perspective, the successful “integration” of 25%+ wind into the South Australia needs to be reframed as the successful integration of about 5% wind into the NEM. Before anyone gets too excited, or scoff at those raising concerns of the addition of variable generation like wind, let’s just take a pause. To make that claim we either need to a) cut off the interconnectors or b) give wind the chance to do 10%, 15%, 20%, 25% of the whole NEM and then look again at the system impact and cost. I am happy to see greater levels of wind in the NEM in future.

Rather than just buying, now we buy and sell. SA wind would not work without the NEM

Meanwhile, our beloved solar PV is a runaway success in terms of what we once thought success would look like: solar panels on roofs. The amount of electricity generated remains decidedly modest compared to the wind sector, let alone coal and gas, and sales are collapsing with the progressive withdrawal of subsidy. For more about that please check this post.

Please also consider that the proportion of electricity from zero-carbon generation has plunged since 1960. We need to break the habit of patting ourselves on the back while failing. If our efforts are swamped by other variables like growth, the result is that we lose. That’s why we need more and bigger clean energy, and that’s why we need nuclear. For more on this background of Australian electricity please see this post.

This is not success.

The world needs more energy

No one will get argument from me that Australians are profligate in their energy use. Just as we use too much, others use too little energy. The thing is there are many more of them than there are of us.

If the most profligate energy users in the world slashed their per capita energy consumption by between 20%-60% (depending on where they are starting from) to 4000 kWh per year, and we brought the poor world up to that level of consumption, then by 2050 we would have achieved the most phenomenal success on the basis of both efficiency and equity. We would also be consuming double the current level of electricity. All of that electricity, be it what remains in Australia and what is new in Nigeria, all needs to be zero-carbon to get ahead of climate change. We need LOTS of clean energy. That’s another reason I got behind nuclear. For more on that issue please see this post on consumption and this post on population.

Renewables vs Nuclear is the wrong battle

Climate and energy commentators owe it to their audience to be unceasing in their search for sophisticated understanding and insight into these issues, as impartially as possible, and to then bring what they learn and communicate it to build insight and knowledge more broadly.

All energy sources bring advantages and disadvantages. As a staunch nuclear advocate I will unflinchingly point out that the up-front capital requirements are a real barrier, the size of most reactors are unsuitable for the Australian network as currently structured, and the culture of arch conservatism that runs through most of the OECD nuclear industry has delivered us something that is incredibly safe and also created real barriers to innovation and deployment. For some of my openly published criticism please see this post.

To criticise renewable technology is not to reject it. Criticism ought be perceived as a search for understanding so as to make wise decisions. Renewable technologies have some strengths and they have some weaknesses. The weaknesses are not the nefarious concoction of the coal, gas or uranium industry, they are inherent to the technologies. Most importantly the weaknesses become really apparent if we have lots and lots of renewables in the system.

It’s my informed assessment that the weaknesses of renewables are insurmountable in the face of the urgent need for decarbonisation. It’s also my informed assessment that many renewable technologies will help us get there. That’s why I argue renewables vs nuclear is the wrong battle, which you can read more about in this post to ABC. We have our solar. We have our wind. We will be having more of both and much of last night’s discussion was something of a distraction from the bigger picture. It calls on an extra level of maturity and sophistication to appreciate that it’s possible, and in fact essential, that we return nuclear to the forefront of the challenge of displacing fossil fuels and to do so does not require us to reject renewable technologies.

Australia has deployed fossil fuel and renewables. Denmark and Germany have deployed more renewables, fossil fuels, and are shutting nuclear. Switzerland, Sweden and France have deployed nuclear and renewables (principally hydro power)

Nation Emissions (g CO2-e/kWh) % nuclear Residential price (US$/MWh) Industry price (US$/MWh)
Australia 847 0 $292 -
Denmark 385 0 $454 $128
Germany 468 23 $285 $127
Switzerland 27 40 $264 $156
Sweden 22 40.5 $246 $103
France 77 76 $159 $104


Nuclear advocates are not leaning on new technology

Pointing out what Australia might achieve with new technology is not to lean on it. To say so is to build a straw man. The table above shows what nuclear technology has achieved to date. So does the health and safety related table below, published in The Lancet, as results of the massive ExternE actuarial study conducted by the European Union. Most nuclear advocates do not lean on new technology. The track record of the nuclear industry to date is extraordinary and poorly understood.

I am not a vested interest

Since become a nuclear advocate, I have continued to earn my living through activities like greenhouse gas assessment, carbon neutral strategies, energy efficiency strategies and modelling, writing grants for commercial solar systems and teaching. Latterly I am under scholarship with the University of Adelaide. There is not one person or organisation who would have held me to account had I not presented or panelled last night. There was not one person or organisation vetting what I said or how I said it. I was not paid to attend and it was not an expected part of any salaried role. Those who are vested interests may find it easier to project that onto others when accounting for the constraints they bring.

Why did I become pro-nuclear?

I was asked this and was able to provide a partial answer. I had the opportunity to revisit this in an article for InDaily last year, published here. I also covered this ground for a debate in Sydney, and the video is here.

Thanks again for having me Governor’s Leadership Foundation.

The ACF needs to come clean: environment and conservation is not on their energy agenda

The Australian Conservation Foundation needs to come clean.

I have just perused the submission of the ACF to the Energy White Paper.

The submission is a thinly disguised rant against nuclear power, with some padding up the front.

Here is a chart of the word count of the submission content, under ACF headings:

Here is a word cloud of the top 50 words in the submission. Click for the large version. Exclude “energy”, “Australia” and “Australian” and what jumps out?
Wordle: ACF EWP Submission

The submission itself can be downloaded here.

The ACF is not concerning itself with either the environment or conservation with this submission. It is just trying to halt nuclear power in Australia. This, funnily enough, is exactly what the coal industry tried to do last time the issue was under serious consideration.

Australians are being betrayed by their largest environmental organisation who have become the useful idiots of the coal industry.

The Silent Fire

The out-of-control burning of an abandoned coal mine is threatening the health of thousands. Children are exposed and vulnerable and there are suggestions of corporate malfeasance. It’s visible, it’s dramatic, and it’s hurting people. It’s also coal, the energy life-blood of Australia and much of the world. Predictably, it’s a big deal in Victoria and otherwise the event has received minimal attention compared to Fukushima. This reminds us again that the great dangers of coal are made all the worse for their lack of novelty, which breeds a collective complacency and acceptance of serious hazards.

For the last 15 days, an energy disaster of spectacular proportions has been unfolding in the La Trobe valley region of Victoria, in south-eastern Australia.

Following terrible bushfires that accompanied our record-breaking, scorching hot summer, an abandoned section of the Morwell brown coal mine caught fire and has been burning ever since.

The fire is raging across approximately 3 km of the old mine. It appears to be very difficult to control. There are (not yet officially confirmed) reports that fire-fighting equipment of the necessary calibre for such an event was removed from the old mine some time ago. Firefighters are reportedly needing to limit their exposure due to the threat of radiant heat and carbon monoxide, and also limit the input of water to prevent collapse of the mine face itself.

Meanwhile residents of Morwell are suffering. This is no invisible menace. Thick smoke has blanketed the town. Ash is falling from the sky. Residents are falling ill. Local health centres are reporting a five-fold increase in respiratory complaint. School children are being billeted outside the town to protect their health, and residents at large have been recommended to leave Morwell over the weekend if possible to “get some respite”. Advice provided from the Chief Health Officer, Dr Rosmary Lester, reinforces the seriousness of the hazard , at least in the short term.

Of special concern is the concentration of fine particles. The spokesperson for the Victorian EPA advises “These of course are being blown up from the mine whenever there is a west-south-westerly wind. We’re seeing PM 2.5 particles; they’re those really small particles that you can’t even see but get stuck in your lungs. They’re the ones that are of course of concern, and we ask people to bunker down, to get some respite if they can, get out of Morwell across the weekend”.

To assist residents in managing the situation, the EPA has, to their great credit, quickly upgraded the provision of information from their monitoring stations to an hour-by-hour graphical and data representation on their website. It is concerning that there would appear to be no monitoring in relation to the PM 2.5 and little monitoring in relation to the PM 10. Residents will need to make inferences from the other ratings and their own observations and experiences.

There are the suggestions of corporate and regulatory malfeasance in relation to the condition of the abandoned mine. This large, exposed face of coal appears to have been left largely unrehabilitated and exposed to the entirely realistic risk of bushfire, with the necessary fire-fighting equipment allegedly withdrawn.

So far, the decision remains that the health hazards are manageable and evacuation is not an appropriate measure. This is a very difficult decision and an important one. As we have learned (I hope) all too well from Fukushima, evacuation itself poses grave hazards for the vulnerable and brings with it a whole host of stressors. It is completely appropriate for authorities to weigh these realities in their considerations. How tragic that the dread of radiation spurred such an over-reaction compared to the measured response on display in relation to the risk of smoke.

Somewhat contradictorily, we are advised that there are unlikely to be long term health impacts of concern from this event, based on the advice, again, of Dr Rosmary Lester. I sincerely hope this to be the case and that the residents of Morwell can have their town back to normal as soon as possible. I note that this advice must co-exist with the other advice, from the same source, indicating that this is a serious acute (i.e. short-term) hazard for the most vulnerable.

The event is promoting cartoonist humour of a similar hue to the smoke…

Cartoonist is Mark Knight

Cartoonist is Mark Knight

To the residents of Morwell, I’m thinking of you as you struggle with this event. Let’s all hope the impacts can be kept to a minimum and residents can remain in good health. This event, and what you are putting up with deserves more attention.

It is my hope that the event might spur more evidence-based considerations of the relative hazards of our energy choices in future.

My thanks and acknowledgement to the ABC in particular for their coverage of the event.

Large solar and small nuclear: Coming together, yet worlds apart

The big news in energy this week is large solar. It’s exciting to see such developments, but just what does this mean for our energy challenge in the 21st century? Large solar provides appreciable quantities of energy, hamstrung by fundamental limitations in scalability and the potential for very real environmental impacts. A future with more solar is assured. But using this to argue an environmental case for a future without more nuclear too is simply deluded.

With the opening of the world’s largest solar power station I have been struck by the convergence in generating size between large solar and small nuclear. Solar is trying to get bigger. Nuclear is trying to get smaller. Both are now converging on around 300 MW- 400 MW in size.

There, the similarities end. Those who are familiar with my Zero Carbon Options project will know that I favour comparisons as a useful way to shed light on our collective energy choices, so that we might truncate the ideological hand-waving that accompanies energy discussions at large. Comparison of large solar and small nuclear holds some very important lessons for constructing a future that is both energy-rich and decarbonised for around 10 billion people.

The 392 MW, $2.2 bn Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (SEGS) has just started delivering electricity. For the record, SEGS was developed with a $1.3 billion loan guarantee from the US Government. Contrary to popular anti-nuclear belief, loan guarantees are not a subsidy concocted by and for the nuclear industry. SEGS also does not include any component of energy storage, however it delivers a high (for solar anyway) capacity factor of 31.4%. That’s thanks to a “remarkably intense solar resource of 2,717 kWh/m2/yr” combined with the dual-axis tracking.

So from the outset, it’s clear that the performance of a solar power station has a lot to do with the location, a critical constraint. Move away from areas of “remarkably intense” solar resource and the performance will dwindle in kind. So as far as scaling up this solution goes, how are we placed for raw resource? Figure 1 gives us the answer. Continue reading

AETA Model Update: Key Findings for Nuclear

The 2013 update to the Australian Energy Technology Assessment has the potential to generate breathless headlines in favour of renewable technologies and downplaying the potential of nuclear. The truth is a good deal more complex. This valuable resource is imperfect and evolving. This update provides important improvements and highlights areas of ongoing deficiency in comparisons. It needs to be applied in an informed way to promote good decision making on energy and to deflate the techno-triabalism that is hampering our move away from the most polluting fuel sources.


The Australian Energy Technology Assessment (AETA), published by the Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics (BREE) provides near-to-medium term forward cost estimates of the levelised cost of electricity (LCOE) of a wide range of electricity generation technologies in Australian conditions. This is a valuable service, so the 2013 update is therefore of considerable interest. Here is a link to the document.

Aside: LCOE is, simplistically speaking, the price at which electricity can be sold by a generator into the market. The lower the better. It’s a very useful  source of comparison of the economic competitiveness of different electricity generating technologies and a decidedly imperfect one also. It only accounts for the marginal cost of new generation. Admirably, the AETA is upfront about this limitation, with ample discussion on page 13See further discussion here for how over-reliance on LCOE can generate conclusions that are precisely wrong. End aside.

The update provides, superficially speaking,  a poorer cost outlook for nuclear power and a better outlook for renewable technologies. It has the potential to generate fairly breathless headlines along these lines. Indeed, it already has.

A cooler reading of the update suggests a more complex picture. The report provides direction on where efforts are best directed in building a case for a fuller, more rapid decarbonisation using all technologies including nuclear power.

This post addresses four important discussion points for nuclear power:

  1. First year of available construction
  2. Revised FOAK and NOAK costs for nuclear
  3. Forward cost trajectories for nuclear
  4. Overall message from outputs Continue reading