A few weeks ago, one of my favourite writers and thinkers, journalist George Monbiot, shaped up in the pro-nuclear corner in a debate with none other than Greenpeace, perhaps the world’s pre-eminent environmental organisation.
In this post I provide a review of the debate and the key points raised by the speakers. The post will run in two parts, in the order of the speakers. Part one will cover Monbiot and Roger Levitt, part two will cover Malcolm Grimston and Doug Parr.
True to my purpose of developing a successful regional model for achieving decarbonisation, I apply some of the key points of the discussions to the specific challenge faced in South Australia. I hope the approach is instructive, useful, and somewhat generalisable to other regions. You will enjoy this post most if you have watched the debate or watch along as you read
I’ll start with the opening speaker, George Monbiot himself.
If you are unfamiliar with Monbiot, I hope the video of this debate give you an idea of why I admire his work so much. What a blistering and uncompromising 7 minutes. My immediate reflection here is that Monbiot embodied a concerning phenomenon I am seeing more and more often: Those environmentalists who are prepared to see nuclear power deployed are the only ones that hold themselves, without compromise, to a realistic appraisal of the climate crisis. They are the ones for whom the penny seems to have dropped regarding the actual consequences of rise in temperature of two degrees or more and, even worse, the truly frightening increase in the likelihood of this occurring. The others, well… I moaned to my wife the other day that the quickest way to solve the climate crisis was to just mention nuclear power, because the second you do the crisis seems to disappear altogether!!!
Well, bugger that, I’m with George. I’m not going to artificially downgrade my rating of the problem just because I don’t like the solution. Until observations indicate that we have more time, not less, with which to act, Decarbonise SA will continue aiming to help people actually understand and accept the reality of what our best scientific endeavours are telling us: that this century may be the last in which we inhabit a hospitable planet unless we get serious and decarbonise rapidly, starting now.
He also raises the very sound point about the overall increased demand for electricity in particular, as we seek to displace fossil fuels from things like transport. This is wholly relevant here. We are hugely car dependent in South Australia. This year I have provided consultation feedback on a low-emissions vehicles strategy, which is seeking to foster a supportive environment for uptake of electric vehicles (and other low-emission options, whatever they may be).
Over the same period that we installed the most wind energy in the country (i.e. from 2003) our emissions from electricity fell, but remain at over 8 million tCO2-e per year. That’s far higher than the 6.5 million tCO2-e that we emitted in 1990. So how are we supposed to also provide additional clean electricity for transport and actually get emissions rapidly moving the right direction without nuclear? When the wind isn’t blowing, it will be gas or coal that charges these cars. [An important edit has been made to this paragraph. In the course of researching part two of this post, I finally found the information to tell me in detail the electricity emissions in SA year to year from 2000 to 2011, covering the period of wind installation. Previously, I only had figures from the National Greenhouse Accounts comparing 1990 to 2010, which showed a huge increase. The introduction of wind has driven a reduction in total emissions from the electricity sector which is good news. This will be covered in detail in an upcoming post]
The only answers are monstrous and very expensive over-build of current renewable technologies to cover all of these loads, or a dramatic acceleration in the timeframe of something like hot dry rock geothermal. Now, if I was one of those selectively-deluded environmentalists who can turn the climate crisis either on or off depending on the conversation, those options might seem reasonable strategies. But I’m not, so they don’t.
Monbiot makes the harsh call that in energy “small is useless”. Well, South Australia is instructive in that regard. With only 1.65 million people, by March 2011 we had installed nearly the same amount of rooftop solar PV (19.8 MW) as NSW (21 MW), despite NSW having more than 7 million people. That took 14,700 home solar PV systems, with an average size of 1.35 kW (all figures from Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency). As you can see in the figure below, it has been an absolute explosion of activity in the last few years with a dramatic peak and collapse. This matches in a very straightforward way the retreat of Federal subsidies, and then various State governments trying to extricate themselves from feed-in tarrifs that they have concluded they cannot afford. So we know that if you subsidise solar PV to the point where it is a true no-brainer, Australians will respond, South Australians in particular. Australian governments will also respond, by killing the subsidies because the response was bigger than budgeted for…
So, we have had a red hot go at the “small” in South Australia. Has it been useless? Well, lets interrogate the figures a little more closely to find out. Firstly, with around 500,000 households in Adelaide (ABS says 465,000 in 2006) the explosion you see above, with a disproportionate share in SA, has meant a penetration of solar PV to around 3% of Adelaide households. Virtually all of that has happened over a period of 3 years, which is not bad I suppose. But clearly there is a long way to go. At that pace, which seems to have been generally regarded as breakneck, it would of course take 100 years to get one on every roof.
Clearly, as you see from the collapse of installations in the figure above, the underlying cost of the systems still has a long way to fall before a return to the “no-brainer” conditions that might deliver this 1% per year rate of installation. Anecdotally cost of this technology certainly is falling, so we should get there soon but we are not there yet.
Has it been good value? Consistent with the purpose of this blog we should compare to nuclear. Let’s assume an average cost of $7,500 per kW installed (MMA in their May 2010 report to the Australian Government assume $7,000 for 2010 and 3% price drop per year, so I think $7,500 for the last 3 or so years is about right). That would mean we have collectively dropped nearly $150 million so far for our 19.8 MW. Furthermore MMA suggest a capacity factor of not greater than 20% for solar PV. That’s for rooftop PV, but as we have seen in a previous post, even here in sunny Australia, the biggest and best solar has to offer remains a very, very expensive way of getting our power.
Global median price of nuclear is US$4,100 per kW installed. It can deliver at >90% capacity factor, but if replacing coal in our peaky grid would deliver at around 60%. I don’t want to labour the point unnecessarily but nuclear simply kills solar on the cost numbers. I absolutely get the appeal of solar PV; it sits quietly on the roof and generates, what’s not to like? But I am inclined to echo Monbiot when he says that if you are a PV supporter, “…don’t say a word to me about the cost of nuclear power”. It has, to date, been a very expensive decarbonising exercise.
So is small useless??? I feel I have backed myself into something of a corner. No it isn’t; I truly believe that everything helps, including all renewables deployed in a sensible way. However if we want to decarbonise rapidly, then the evidence from South Australia to date suggests that small, decentralised, intermittant energy solutions cannot be the central plank of the strategy. I think PV has unduly caputured our imaginations for a little too long, and it is time we thought bigger. Try this…
Between 1990 and 2010, South Australia’s emissions from electricity grew nearly 40% to 9.1 million tons per annum. This covers the period of solar PV explosion, and the installation of over half of Australia’s wind generation capacity. I lack the data from around 2000 to give the picture more accurately. All we can say is that in the absence of these things the growth in emissions would have been even more grotesque than 40%.
If, at the same time as we started building wind (2003), we had built 500MW of nuclear power, by now we could have closed the Northern and Playford Power Stations, and be saving 5.37 million tons of greenhouse gas per year, over half our total from electricity. So if we want to decarbonise rapidly, small may not exactly be useless, but big is beautiful.
Ok, that’s enough from George. On to Roger Levitt, Independent Energy Consultant and first of the antis. For those of you who never knew the old, anti-nuclear Ben, Roger’s 7 minutes embodies some of it. It’s that view of the world that says “if only everyone would just…(insert great sustainability idea here) we wouldn’t even need it”.
I don’t have a particular problem with any of Roger’s proposed “solutions”. To the contrary, they all sound like smashing ideas for making England, and Australia, a more liveable place in all sorts of great ways. The benefits in social capital and other environmental issues like air pollution are all profound in this world view. Similarly, I don’t have much argument with many of the underlying drivers Roger identifies, and the moral bankruptcy that is evident in much of the way our economy functions that Roger is keen to point out. These things do, indeed, help to keep us locked on an unsustainable trajectory and need to be challenged.
However, Roger’s ideas basically embody 1) effective planning and design 2) More simplistic, frugal living. I am quite at a loss to understand how the pursuit of investment in zero-carbon nuclear undermines them. Unless of course the likes of Roger view climate change as the lever that might finally make all this happen at scale. To this possibility I make two brief responses:
- It isn’t working. Neither effective planning and design nor frugal and simplistic living has experienced a supercharged acceleration on the back of climate change concerns. How much longer are we expected to wait?
- What if it works as well and as rapidly as we might ever possibly achieve, and fails to do the job? Is it worth the risk?
I’m going to run a bit of a visioning exercise for Adelaide to illustrate my concerns. For those not familiar with my home town:
- It’s old by Australian standards, founded in 1836
- About 1 million people and (very slowly) growing especially to the north and south
- Small CBD/downtown area. Large area of very low density suburbs. Lots of ¼ acre blocks
- Some ok public transport, but basically very car dependent. Nice and flat for bikes but pretty crappy system of lanes
- CBD/downtown is ringed by a huge and beautiful area of preserved parklands
- Our main arterial roads through the suburbs basically serve as a car-focussed catchment system to get people in and out of the CBD/downtown area. They have some nice shopping areas, but they are not liveable high streets in the best English mold or even that I enjoyed while living in Melbourne.
Now, it is actually a smashing place to live, which is why I’m here. But it illustrates many of the sustainability concerns Roger is getting at. He and I are not the only ones who see it; there are a great many ideas and proposals to try to improve this situation. Here are some of the biggies:
- Development of the Bowden Village: A high density, inner urban revitalisation of a crumby old industrial area. This actually looks like being a brilliant example of sustainable planning and design (disclosure: My wife and I own one of the original cottages down there, so I am hardly a disinterested observer). Hopefully it will be emulated elsewhere
- Expansion/reintroduction of trams/ light rail. Our sole remaining tram line was recently extended from a no-mans-land stop at Victoria Square through the true heart of our CBD and down the political/hotel strip of North Terrace and on to Bowden to serve the new Village. Brilliant stuff. There are lots of ideas about what next: a city loop; taking a line to the University precinct at the other end of North Tce; taking a line up King William Rd to North Adelaide and beyond. I would love to see the lot of it.
- Medium density build along arterial strips like Unley, Goodwood and Prospect Rds, and around the parkland borders to create a New York Central Park effect. Again, brilliant. Put the people close to the infrastructure. Make it walkable, bikeable, make public transport a no-brainer.
- Moving new houses from compulsory 5 to 6 star energy rating. Nice
So, now let’s look ahead over a timeframe of, say, 20 years and assume all of the above is implemented, successfully at large scale and has the desired results. For the sake of argument let’s blue sky a few more commonly discussed ideas and pretend they happen too:
- A major investment in the bicycle network
- Doubling the frequency of our buses
- Accelerating some of the existing Government programs for auditing large energy consuming businesses and funding certain capital investments to reduce consumption.
- Some sort of system of energy efficiency audit and upgrade at point of sale for existing houses
- Upgrading our woefully inefficient streetlighting (a big ticket item that I will cover in detail in a future post)
Right. I trust you agree that the sum total of these ideas this would represent a massive sustainability drive by Government. What would be the likely impact on our greenhouse gas emissions from electricity?
At best, a modest decrease, but probably an increase. Why? Because much of what you see there is predicated on higher densities in areas that, ultimately, only comprise quite a small fraction of the city. Given that we don’t really go for forced evictions from the suburbs in this part of the world, what we are talking about is a growing population. I’m ok with that, and before you kill me, consider this. An area of a million square kilometres with only 1.65 million people clearly has role in accepting more people until the globe can get population growth under control. We need to plan to minimise certain local impacts, but there is not much point claiming sustainability under a fortress mentality when the global atmospheric commons is going to pot.
The other suggestions you see above cannot be delivered instantly, far from it. For them to have an appreciable impact will be a generational initiative. Take, for example, the major conundrum of our existing inefficient housing stock. No doubt there is plenty of low hanging fruit there as Roger discusses. But in Australia we have seen the tragic results of a program to insulate rooves being rolled out more quickly that proper governance can accommodate; dodgy operators moved in and people actually lost their lives. Streetlights should be more straightforward but there are serious institutional barriers that need to be broken down. So the upshot is that while the changes outlined above would doubtless deliver greater services and some reduction in GHG per unit energy consumed in our economy, we need to remember that:
a) The growth that underpins much of it all adds to the greenhouse bottom line.
b) The incremental nature of the rest of it can simply only go so far, so fast
We would achieve in the next 20 years what we have achieved in the last: a growing greenhouse gas bottom line from electricity. That seems to be the thing that mysteriously eludes those in power when crafting climate change strategies: the bottom line is the metric that matters most.
So let’s do all of the above. The city will be a cooler, more happening, more exciting, more liveable place, and there is the potential for some of the inhabitants to lead relatively more sustainable lives than is typical of a western city. But I see no reason to pair this with a delusion that it gets us off the hook regarding investments in zero-carbon baseload, starting immediately. Because, to quote Roger himself as he reflects on the challenge of reducing transport energy:
“ ..to flip our vicious circle into the virtuous one…we’ll need to give both the shops a hefty shove back into town, and the shoppers a hefty shove back on to the buses; neither of which they will want to do, and neither or which will be sensible or useful unless the other also happens.”
Well, quite. Is this type of vision impossible? No. Desirable? Yes. Worth staking the atmosphere on? Noooooooooooooooooooooo.
Ok, I’ve done Roger to death. For part two of the post, I will review Malcolm Grimston, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College London and, of course, Doug Parr, Chief Scientist for Greenpeace. Stay tuned.