“Dear Giles…” A letter to the editor of RenewEconomy

Dear Giles,

Some friends brought to my attention that a recent article at Reneweconomy provided, shall we say, a rather creative review of my presentation to the Brisbane Global Cafe on November 12, 2014 at Brisbane City Hall (Memo Coalition: If you want to talk nuclear, talk about its costs)

What really delighted me about your piece is how familiar it is. I have experienced this kind of criticism before. It’s craven, lilly-livered, sniping, over-worked and under-cooked. I know exactly where it comes from. It comes from people who, despite every determined effort and expectation to the contrary, found themselves compelled by an argument in opposition to their own. No sooner have the clanging alarm bells of cognitive dissonance subsided than the pant-damaging realisation sets in that if you found it compelling… imagine what the audience thought.

Oh no…oh no…whatever will I do now? I know… I’ll attack the person. I’ll spin them and their message so hard and so fast that my audience will come to associate him and his name with everything they hate. I’ll contest his contentions with my own Ouroboros of references that are to peer-reviewed literature what cow dung is to caviar. That’ll do the trick.

Well Giles, perhaps it will but on this I’m sure we can agree: it’s a lot harder to pull off when the cameras are running and I am wearing personal voice recorders now, isn’t it?

So let’s revisit your article and compare the assertions with the footage. You said:

In a recent presentation to the Peabody Coal-sponsored energy seminar in the lead up to the G20 meeting in Brisbane, for instance, nuclear cheerleader Ben Heard blamed everyone from lefties to greenies for the current state of the nuclear industry.

Goodness me… did I? Perhaps I dozed-off during my own boring presentation but… I didn’t actually provide any commentary whatsoever on the fate, fortunes or current state of the nuclear industry. I had 15-20 minutes to speak to about 200 guests from around the world and… no, just reviewing my scripts, not a cracker on this topic.

Perhaps you mean question time? Just checking the voice file…no. Sorry, no questions on that topic, and no discussion. What are you talking about? Were you thinking of this article perhaps? You better believe I sheet home some serious responsibility to the environmental movement. But it wasn’t mentioned in this session.

On that topic of responsibility, I like the way you linked me to session sponsor Peabody Coal. I saw what you did there!

I was the guest of event organisers Brisbane Marketing. I didn’t know who was sponsoring this or any other session and nor did I care. The first I knew of Peabody Coal in this event was when I ferreted through my showbag in the hotel room the night before to find their malodorous marketing material.

The fact is I don’t give a monkey’s whether it’s Peabody Coal, Anglo Coal or Old King Cole sponsoring an event. I say what I want to say because I represent myself. So, what did I have to say about coal on this day? Check in at 2 m 20 s.

At 820 g per kWh, we will be spending this week enjoying our time with one of the dirtiest electricity supplies in the world…This brown coal power station is responsible for 19 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions every year… In the fight against climate change, places like Loy Yang are ground zero. If we aren’t succeeding in driving plants like that out of our economies, we aren’t succeeding at all… we can see the machines simply raking away strip after strip of land. Never to grow trees, never to grow food, never to host biodiverisity. Just sacrificed in our addiction to coal.

Did you see the Peabody execs fist-pumping at that bit? No? Me neither. Funny, I don’t know about you but I did not score an invite to to the Peabody-sponsored lunch after the session… do you think it was something I said?

But back to what you said:

Heard, meanwhile, did the usual pro-nuclear thing of attacking renewables – criticising their “intermittency” a disingenuous meme we hear often in the government and conservative commentariat.

Wha… the Government and conservative commentariat? The last public thing I had to say about the Government was this piece chastising Treasurer Joe Hockey for not understanding our greenhouse accounts. In an earlier piece I criticised the climate policies of the Coalition, Labor and Greens all at once.

As to attacking renewables… did I? That would be a little bit split-personality of me since in two recent and highly viewed pieces I have argued for policy that would all-but-ensure renewables meet 20-30 % of Australia’s electricity requirements.

No, what I did was point out accurate and relevant limitations to what renewable technologies can deliver us in the face of the epic scale of the challenges we face. “Intermittency” is not a conservative political value, it’s an operational reality.

Heard, for instance, argued that wind farms take up too much space – omitting to note that the land can and is used for grazing, crops and other farming activities.

Did I? Have a look from 9 m.

We can look at the size it takes to provide 1320 MW of wind power. It’s 13 kilometres squared of the best windy territory.

This is correct. I didn’t talk about other land use because I wasn’t talking about land use! I was illustrating an issue about energy density and the area required to provide 1320 MW peak wind power. Sure, use the land in the middle for grazing, crops and other farming activities. It still takes that much room in prime wind country to provide that much peak wind power and that’s a real concern when people argue for 100 % renewables. What else did I say, that you omitted to report? 9 m 40 s

I’m a supporter of renewable energy. I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing. Am I prepared to bet the climate on it? No. Am I prepared to bet the provision of reliable electricity for those who need it, on it? No. No I’m not.

That’s the divider. I’m behind renewables without being so myopic as to imagine they will do it all, with lives of the global poor as my chips on the casino table.

Meanwhile the “pot shot” I took at Ivanpah is a simple and troubling fact and one you acknowledge in your own circular referencing: they, the proponents of the project, do not control the weather. What did I actually say? 10 m 25 s

That is the risk in building a 100 % renewable energy system based on climatic systems.

If you have a few of these systems it doesn’t matter much. It’s a low level of penetration, so a crap year of output hurts the investors, primarily. The existing system reserves can deliver when the renewables fail. Like for South Australia’s successful integration into the NEM of wind. It has piggy-backed on the robustness of the existing system which, I might add, is quite ok by me. The issue here is the notion of 100 % renewables based on climatic variables. That’s an entirely different proposition that you seek to downplay or simply ignore. It’s a challenge that former US Energy Secretary Steven Chu was quite clear about this week in Canberra for the launch of the World Energy Outlook (see my Twitter feed from the day). Was he taking “pot shots” too?

You then seek to use the example of Hinkley to big-up the cost challenge of nuclear.

Mate, I beat you to it. No sooner were the costs announced than I criticised it as too expensive to get the job done on a global scale, a piece that was then republished and widely read. In it I concluded:

Nuclear power is clean. It’s safe. It’s efficient. It can make a big difference, fast. Waste can be managed until we use it as fuel, and fear of radiation can be defused. It is, as I have said, great value. What advocates cannot do is make it cheaper than fossil fuels when it isn’t, in a world with weak consensus on climate change action and lackluster energy planning.

We need to keep working for that climate consensus, for sensible long-term policy to support massive clean energy and to overcome the ill-conceived objections to nuclear. At the same time we urgently need a stronger and more visible vision and plan for better nuclear prices and faster roll out, and this needs to come from the industry.

Is that the conduct of a nuclear cheerleader? According to you “what they – and the pro-nuclear advocates – never mention is cost”. I mention cost all the time. Like in this article with Barry Brook. Cost is a real issue for nuclear. It’s not some fairy tale of the rusted-on anti-nuke. It’s real and it’s something I want to see people talk about more, not less, provided the discussion is well informed and in context of our options.

That the cost-problem is the same, but much worse, for dispatchable renewable technologies is why we called for a technology-neutral policy to reward firm capacity from zero-carbon sources in a competitive way. If nuclear loses that fight, fine, I really don’t care. What I care about is decarbonisation.

So Giles, please work harder. This type of writing is garbage. You deliberately and blatantly misrepresented me and the session and, in so doing, kept your loyal readership in the dark.

If nothing else mate, a tip: next time check for cameras?

Kind regards,

Ben Heard; Director: ThinkClimate Consulting; Doctoral candidate, University of Adelaide; blogger and commentator through DecarboniseSA

Nuclear power isn’t “economically feasible” in Australia, but…

This post was written by Barry Brook and me and published today in The Conversation

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No sooner had foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop announced that Australia should take a fresh look at nuclear power than Prime Minister Tony Abbott responded that nuclear power would only be supported if it was “economically feasible” and would not receive government subsidies.

Tony Abbott can rest easy in his position knowing this much to be true: thanks to an oversupply of incumbent, polluting electricity in the Australian market, nuclear energy is not economically feasible in Australia … but neither is any other new energy source without a policy to guide investment.

We do it for renewables …

Such a policy is exactly what the Renewable Energy Target is doing for renewable sources, and we are currently seeing what happens when you introduce uncertainty into the sector.

Cut the large-scale renewable energy target, and wind development will halt on a dime.

Cut the small-scale renewable energy scheme, and feed-in tariffs and rooftop solar will fall off a cliff.

Remove carbon pricing (as Australia did in July this year), and serious investment in carbon-capture and storage technology becomes a fantasy.

There is no policy-free pathway to replacing Australia’s established and highly polluting coal- and gas-fired power stations.

Too much electricity

Abbott’s position is reinforced by the current level of over-supply in the National Electricity Market.

Thanks to the combination of an exodus of several large industrial customers in the industrial and manufacturing sector, influx of new wind and solar with the assistance of the Renewable Energy Target, and a greater emphasis on energy efficiency in households, we have seen in the last few years a waning demand for electricity while supply remains high.

So there is no market incentive for investment in new large generation such as nuclear power … or anything else for that matter. Even if there were, this would just be new clean generation on top of old dirty generation.

Whether one prefers the flavour of solar, wind, geothermal, wave or nuclear power, the fact is nothing much will change in the foundations of the Australian energy scene in the foreseeable future unless we demand change. We are not running out of cheap coal; we have to choose to DO something.

Cleanest technologies

However, if we decide that we want to generate electricity without increasing carbon emissions, the story is completely different.

According to the updated Australian Energy Technology Assessment 2013, the five lowest-cost electricity-generating technologies, based on dollars per kilowatt hour, are, in ascending order:

  • Wind, on-shore
  • Fixed solar photo-voltaic (no tracking of the sun’s movement)
  • Gigawatt-scale nuclear light-water reactor
  • Other biomass waste power plant (wood)
  • Single axis tracking solar photo-voltaic (tracking the sun in one axis).

These costs are projected for 2020, based on recent trends in electricity costs using the metric “levelised cost of electricity” (LCOE). All of these technologies produce zero carbon emissions at the point of generation, and we would expect all of them would do well under a policy that sought a major increase in zero-carbon electricity.

The problem of supply

But these very different technologies also come with a range of economic advantages and disadvantages.

For instance, solar panels and wind turbines have the advantage of incremental expenditure (you add relatively small amounts of new generation at a time) which is easier to finance.

But the electricity they generate is at the whim of climate: without storage, they depend on the sun shining and the wind blowing.

This is the difference between capacity and generation, which the LCOE costs we refer to above don’t account for. While we can install a certain capacity of wind and solar, we can guarantee it will not generate electricity at that level all the time.

As we explore in an upcoming paper (along with co-author Corey Bradshaw), this is not a big deal when variable generators such as wind and solar are only used at low levels (currently, variable renewables provide less than 5% of total supply in the market). In this situation, there is always spare capacity from other sources such as hydro, coal and gas waiting to take up any slack.

At high levels (literature suggests more than 20-25% of total generation), however, the tables turn very quickly. There comes a point when adding more variable energy sources just won’t make economic sense. Nor will it increase the reliability of the overall system.

To fill the gap, we need a source with a large capacity factor that depends on a storable fuel rather than favourable weather.

On these criteria, nuclear power stands out in the top five. It is more sustainable and is more scalable than biofuels that brings with it major negative impacts in land-use and air quality. And it doesn’t depend on the weather like solar and wind. Nuclear power stations in Australia could provide close to full power at all times.

Another way of saying this is that nuclear offers a complete “plug-in” replacement for the role that coal-fired power stations play in the electricity system, both in the amount of electricity supplied, and its reliability.

Earlier work from one of us (Barry, along with Tom Biegler and Martin Nicholson) confirmed that nuclear is the most cost-effective substitute for coal that would respond earliest to a carbon price.

More recent work from Barry, Sanghyun Hong and Corey Bradshaw at the University of Adelaide found that an optimal scenario of zero-carbon electricity for Australia included nuclear providing more than 40% of total electricity.

Zero carbon, technology neutral

So, what’s the best way to level the playing field?

First, we need to rescind the arbitrary prohibition of nuclear energy in Australia. To that extent we welcome the statements of foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop.

Second, we need a technology-neutral clean energy target. One of us (Ben) argued recently, that a 95% Clean Energy Target that is open to all technologies (not just renewables), which offered differentiated payments between variable and non-variable electricity sources, would likely make big winners out of solar and wind in the early stages, followed by a swing toward nuclear in the near future. Such a policy would put the arguments of economic viability to the only test that really matters: the market.

But, to go back to where we started, in the absence of that type of policy for change in our energy sector, any such future is stalled.

Nuclear, in the current context, is uneconomic in Australia. But so are large-scale renewables that will meet demand.

The marketplace is a societal construct, not a natural law. Provided the atmosphere is treated as a free dump, and climate stability is treated as inconsequential to our well-being, the market winner in Australia is incumbent coal. That won’t alter unless we demand change.

Nuclear and renewables in the name of national interest

Australia retains one of the most coal dependent electricity supplies in the world. How can proponents of renewables and nuclear power respectively get out of our trenches and pull together for the national interest in a responsible path for decarbonisation?

Some time ago I wrote for ABC’s Environment Blog that Renewable versus nuclear is the wrong battle. With the review of Australia’s Renewable Energy Target taking up so much air time, it’s important to reflect on how far Australia has come with renewables and decarbonisation and think about where we should go next. Renewables versus nuclear may be the wrong battle, but what might the right one look like?

Much of the current commentary on the Renewable Energy Target resembles trench warfare between two fundamentally opposing sides. What we know about trench warfare is it’s a lot easier to spend all day shooting at each other if you have completely de-legitimised the opposing point of view and the evidence supporting it.

To this observer and commentator it seems that both the naysayers and boosters of renewable energy each have a lot to answer for. Continue reading

“What can I do?” I have three things for you!

One of the questions I am happiest to be asked, and I am asked it a lot, is “What can I do to help?”.

Being able to answer that efficiently and effectively is one of the reasons I started this blog over three years ago.

Upon reflection, I suggest actions pretty rarely. That’s because I don’t want to waste people’s time, I don’t want to burn people out and … I want you to respond when I do ask!

Today, I have two important actions for the Australian readers and a third for all readers. Here they are.

  1. Respond to the gazettal from the Department of Industry in relation to siting a low/intermediate level waste repository

Currently, the Federal Department of Industry has released a notification of intent to open the process of siting a low/intermediate level waste repository to a nation-wide, voluntary process. This notification is open to feedback and the feedback really does matter. So, if you support the notion of a bottom-up, voluntary process where land with clear title can be brought forward for consideration in hosting this facility then please, follow the link and say so.

As I have argued this year both in on-line print and on radio, a facility such as this is both essential and safe. That being the case, I believe a bottom-up, voluntary process is absolutely the correct way to proceed. It provides the opportunity to do this right, with realistic reflections on the need for the facility, the negligible hazard it represents and the serious opportunity is may represent for a region, without the encumbrances of real-or-perceived imposition by Government.

Please consider, Australia is a nuclear nation. We have been for the long time. We have one of the world’s most important research and medical reactors. Our inability, thus far, to licence and operate a LLW/ILW repository, something that is a non-issue in about 30+ countries is a major gap in our maturity as a nuclear nation and it must be resolved. This is a strong step in the right direction so please, tell the Department. They need it on the record. This process closes on 11 November 2014, so set some time aside and make sure you do it.

2. Respond to the Energy Green Paper


The Energy Green Paper has been released and you can make a submission. Now, the paper is not a tub-thumping march toward nuclear energy in Australia. Nor is it a total cop-out on the nuclear topic, as was the case in the work done by the previous Labor Government. There are important signals of intent in relation to the removal of arbitrary legislative barriers for uranium mining and nuclear energy, and the discussion of nuclear energy is fair and shows that the informed pro-nuclear voice has been heard.

Don’t let the opportunity pass. Make a submission that supports these directions. It’s clear, to me at least, that these potential changes are more about a desire to improve regulation across the board, and less (if at all) about unshackling nuclear for its decarbonisation potential. But the result is the same.

Please, if submitting, do so in the format that is called for, and refer directly to the questions asked by the submission tool to which you wish to respond. You don’t need to respond to every question. Your responses can be short and to the point. Often that will be preferred. Make it easy for the people at the other end. Green Paper processes are not the time for essays and dissertations; they are generally not appreciated and don’t really help. Save your energy!

This process closes on 4 November 2014 so again, set some time aside and make sure it happens.

Update: Here is an example submission. Brief, clear, to the point, and the author chose not to address every question. The author is also energy writer Martin Nicholson. Feel free to use this as an idea of how to respond. It really won’t take much time.

Example response

3. Sign up to Energy for Humanity!


Many of you will have noted the arrival on the scene of Energy for Humanity. This new organisation is the first global, civil, independent organisation for the promotion of nuclear power for environmental and humanitarian reasons. It is the product of Robert Stone (Director of Pandora’s Promise) and Kirsty Gogan (CEO) with philanthropist Daniel Aegerter. I am delighted to have been invited to join the advisory committee of the organisation, a role I have accepted.

EfH in many ways represents exactly what I would have created if I thought I could, except better than I could have done it J. It’s an organisation so many of us can support with our hearts, our time and our wallets when the need arises. I had the honour of meeting Irene and Simon Aegerter yesterday. I remarked that I feel like I have a home again. I have been in the wilderness for years since I felt no option but to withdraw my support for the ENGOs that had been with me since my early twenties. No longer. EfH puts humanity back in to the middle of environmentalism, where it belongs. It has joined the dots on how we can create and preserve the greatest possible version of both Earth and humanity, with our inextricably linked futures, in the 21st century. It is eco-modernism, taking up the climate fight with the brains and compassion that environmentalism seemed unable to muster.

So, visit www.energyforhumanity.org and sign-up to be a part of it. A few years ago now I called for pro-nuclear to stop being an opinion and start being a movement. Energy for Humanity brings that reality within reach, let’s get on board and make it happen!

One last thing: share this page! Movements need numbers on actions, and that needs networks to pull together.

Thanks!

Ben.

Thanks for having me Women in Nuclear, Sydney 2014

It was my absolute pleasure to join the Women in Nuclear Conference in Sydney today to join their panel discussing communication with Government and Community. For those familiar with my material, I delivered a slightly modified (less practice, more swearing) version of the presentation I delivered to the ATSE Nuclear conference in 2013. That presentation has been professionally animated and narrated and is available here.

I was delighted to be joined by Nadia Levin of ANSTO and Irene Aegerter of Energy for Humanity. I spoke third, and a better lead in I could not have asked for with two excellent presentations. Both Nadia and Irene covered themes of great relevance to my message, particularly the need for branding in the very positive sense of the word: creating a compelling vision of what nuclear technology has to offer.

[Aside: I felt a bit of a fan-boy sitting next to Irene. Founder of Women in Nuclear, physicist and now integral to Energy for Humanity, an organisation I am proud to be associated with. She’s also hilarious and delightful. I tried to play it cool for about five seconds then gave up]

There was a strong response to the presentation and some extremely gratifying feedback. This related particularly to some of the simplicity of the message: gain trust first, educate and inform later. Both your warmth and your competence matter, but use warmth before expecting competence to be of value in discussing nuclear. I give a big nod to Suzy Hobbs-Baker for bringing the warmth/competence literature to my attention, it was a valuable enhancement of this content. I was particularly moved by a question and later discussion from South African delegates. How are we supposed to talk about nuclear being better than coal when these people don’t even have electricity? It’s a very good question and I was glad to help suggest some new approaches. To paraphrase the feedback: “We have been doing this all wrong. We have been going in and talking about atoms when these people don’t even have electricity. They need to trust us and know that our priority is bringing them what they need”.

Something I believe in very strongly is that the role of young nuclear professionals as rule-breakers and game-changers for a conservative industry is huge. For young women professionals as a subset it is even more important. Nuclear is a powerfully gendered issue. Bringing forward and up our women professionals is more than gender politics: it’s of critical importance to the future of an industry that needs to build much greater community acceptance. That makes it very, very good business and the nuclear industry needs to urgently embrace and developed young professionals and especially young women.

That being the case, it was a privilege to join WiN today, a pity to leave so quickly, and I hope the beginning of great things to come. My special thanks to Jasmin Craufurd-Hill for the invitation and coordination.

Inexcusable disinterest: Fudging Australia’s per capita emissions

I have worked hard, over time, to ensure this is a non-partisan blog. By that I mean, the messages I have are for all players, and I don’t actually care who is running the country.

However it is not, and never will be, a politically disinterested blog. I care, very much, how the country is being run, no matter by whom.

I have made strident criticisms of Labor, Liberal and Green parties as and where they deserve it. I have expressed my intention to seek climate advantage from the current Government. Today however, criticism again flows to the Liberals.

Today, it has been reported that Treasurer Joe Hockey gave a scathing dismissal of a question relating to Australia as among the highest GHG emitters in the OECD. This from The Guardian

“The comment you just made is absolutely ridiculous,” the treasurer said in an interview with the BBC when it was suggested to him that Australia was among “the dirtiest, most greenhouse gas-emitting countries in the OECD group of developed countries”.

“We’ve got a small population and very large land mass and we are an exporter of energy, so that measurement is a falsehood in a sense because it does not properly reflect exactly what our economy is,” Hockey said.

“Australia is a significant exporter of energy and, in fact, when it comes to coal we produce some of the cleanest coal, if that term can be used, the cleanest coal in the world.”

The Treasurer is wrong and there is no need for nuance in saying so.

Australia’s ranking in the OECD excludes the emissions from our energy exports, in the same way that they exclude the embodied emissions in our imports from China.

If we counted that thermal coal export in our emissions… as you can see below, we export five times the energy in black coal than we consume domestically


As Australia’s Treasurer, this type of mistake can only come from inexcusable disinterest in the topic.

It may be true that those who care not at all about climate change can still build nuclear power plants and slash greenhouse gas emissions.

But it makes it a damn sight less likely.