Category Archives: Nuclear Power and Climate Change

The Myth of the Myth of Baseload

A popular discussion point for the 100 % renewables set over the last three or four years, particular in Australia it seems, has been the declaration that the need for baseload power is a “myth“.

It goes something like this. We don’t actually need a system based on electricity generators that can supply electricity 24/7, 365 along with peaking plant and enough back-up for when things goes wrong (“contingency events” being the lingo). That’s baseload, and that’s so passé.

The most important thing is to have enough electricity generators with supply that is “dispatchable”, meaning the power can be sent out in response to demand. With enough different types of dispatchable supply in the mix, supply can meet demand at all times. The dispatchable supplies can be wound up or wound down to accommodate the non-dispatchable suppliers. To put that last bit in lay terms, when the wind is blowing and/or the sun is shining on PV panels, we can turn the other stuff down (or off). When the wind is not blowing and/or the sun is not shining, we can turn the other stuff up. Ergo, “baseload” is a myth.

From there, it is possible (and in some circles it seems, encouraged) to get a little conspiratorial about baseload. “Baseload” is really just a ruse to maintain centralised power generation. Consumers are lulled into providing load for electricity by cheap over-night prices.

So that’s the baseload myth. Its chief purveyor in Australia is probably Dr Mark Diesendorf of the University of New South Wales (though honourable mention goes to Prof Ian Lowe). You may have enjoyed Mark and I having a bit of argy-bargy on these matters on the recent episode of “Awaken” on NITV. It’s largely the work of Mark and his team that I will be referring to from here, from their first in a series of related papers, Simulations of scenarios with 100% renewable electricity in the Australian National Electricity Market. I’ll be saying EDM (Elliston, Diesendorf, MacGill) for short.

So… is baseload a myth? Or is the myth of baseload a myth?

I’m going to start with those key terms: “baseload” and “dispatchable”. Continue reading

Critiquing “Deep Decarbonisation Pathways Project”

Earlier this month my friend James Brown (analyst, economist and co-author of Zero Carbon Options), drew my attention to a new report: the Deep Decarbonisation Pathways Project Interim Report, Australia Chapter. The project is international, and is being run with some connection to the United Nations. This all sounds rather impressive, important and right in my area of interest. However James was concerned that some of the assumptions were peculiar. He had emailed the international project head to raise his concerns.

I took a look at the report. The closer I looked, the less comfortable I felt. While the ostensible goal is one I wholeheartedly embrace, I was concerned this report would potentially send the national conversation backward, rather than forward. I brought it to the attention of a few other parties including my friend Professor Tom Wigley. He, James and I committed to drafting a critique of the report and we got to work.

Late in the piece, a strange thing happened. While approaching some other parties for their review of the critique and potential endorsement, the draft critique was leaked to the authors of the Australia Chapter. Email communication was incoming immediately. To cut a long story short, we declined an offer of personal engagement to instead finish the draft and submit the critique as planned, which was a matter of days away. Our suggestion to the authors was that the critique should be published, along with their response, in the interests of transparency and following the example set by the IPCC.

The authors would not commit to this. They instead reserved the right to respond as they saw fit.

For that reason we have decided to publish the Interim Report and our critique here at Decarbonise SA.

We note here, as in the critique, that this is only an interim version of the report that we are commenting on and more information and a final version will be forthcoming in the near future. We note also that in the main report (as opposed to the Australia Chapter) we find much to agree with in terms of the value in developing deep decarbonisation pathways as part of a decisive response to climate change. As will be apparent in the reading, we have many and serious concerns about the Australia Chapter and we think a published written critique is the correct step. We were not, and are not, seeking explanations relating to the report. Rather, we believe reports like this should not require explaining. This distinction matters a great deal.

We don’t take the decision to critique this version lightly. A great deal of effort went into it. Nor do we take lightly the decision to publish our critique.

James, Tom and I share a conviction: achieving meaningful action on decarbonisation in a politically and economically complex world demands, as a starting point, work that is balanced, fully cognizant of the many complexities and uncertainties, and of the highest quality to underpin arguments and decision-making processes. Anything less and we are destined to repeat the past: environmentalists talking to themselves while the world heats up for another generation.

This is the Australia Chapter of Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project.


This is our critique.



The final version of the report has now been released. We have noted two changes.

1. Correction of the error relating to electricity making up two thirds of Australia’s emissions. This sentence has been eliminated

2. The contingency scenario with nuclear now has less nuclear. It has been lowered to 14 %.

There appears to be no other change of material significance whatsoever.

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

Nuclear Q&A with OETEC

This week I have been responding to a detailed series of questions from Federic Bernal, director of OETEC, one of the most prominent energy think-tanks in South America. He is gathering opinions from 30-50 international multidisciplinary commentators for compilation and publication. This effort coincides with the new nuclear reactor in Argentina beginning to provide power. It will be at full power by November, at which time I look forward to joining Kirsty Gogan, Stephen Tindale and others at a panel meeting, “Nuclear Energy, Energy Security and Climate Change”.

My answers are to be translated and published to the OETEC site soon. Here they are in English for your enjoyment! Continue reading

Hurts and hopes, past and future

I spent this morning at NITV studios recording an episode of current affairs panel show “Awaken”. The topic was Uranium: Friend or Foe?

I was one of what turned out the be a lot of special guests so the show was fast paced, busy and covered a lot of territory.

I had fair coverage and offered my perspectives. I also got the chance to do a lot of listening, which was excellent.

The legacy of hurt and pain around the nuclear testing at Maralinga expressed by many guests was palpable and from the heart. As someone who abhors nuclear weapons and injustice, and a South Australian who loves his State, that history and the seemingly insufficient remedies put in place disgusts me. But it was not done to me. That must be an altogether different shade of pain that I will hopefully never know for real. It is easy to see how this legacy is carried through to distrust and anger for many indigenous Australians in dealing with Australian authorities and companies. When those dealings then relate to disturbance of the land again (i.e. mining) for none other than uranium… well, I feel I appreciate a great deal more just where people are coming from. When we seem to think we need to make managing Australia’s radioactive waste an Aboriginal responsibility, which Barry Brook and I have argued is flat wrong, well, I really understand better why the answer from some traditional owners may always and forever be no. Those issues as expressed by the indigenous guests make perfect sense to me and have my full respect.

As an aside, my sadness extends to the Australian soldiers who were exposed to the blasts in the course of doing their duty. This diminishes not one bit my above statements. End aside.

Several other commenters seemed to leverage out of these matters into matters of international energy needs and security. Here, my respect for the positions, and the commentators, wanes considerably from the point of view of the factual quality of the rhetoric and the evidently narrow understanding on display. I would have liked more time and opportunity to take up these matters in more detail, however that was not to be today.

In the various intros and outros, I lost track of the number of mushroom clouds. This remains a real problem. Nuclear energy and nuclear weapons just isn’t the same thing. This too deserves a lot more exploration. We also saw a lot of ominous looking footage of Onkala waste repository in Finland, mainly clips from Into Eternity. No one mentioned, and I lacked the opportunity to point out, that the community in question embraced that facility after a long and good process, beating two other communities who were actively looking to host it. Surely that, if anything, must provide some clues as to how Australia might reconcile it’s nuclear past with the waste challenges of our present and our global clean energy responsibilities for our collective future?

There is a lot more to be done. Thank you NITV Awaken for having me as your guest. May this be the beginning of many more discussions.

Of forests, fences and foxes: A South Australian reflection on George Monbiot’s “Feral”

Your regular nuclear advocacy programming will resume shortly. As a (disputed!) environmentalist I like to keep thinking and learning outside my direct area, and in other spaces that engage my passion. Hence I have been sitting on a copy of Feral since the day of release which I finally managed to read recently while flying to-and-from Spain (yes, when you live in Australia that’s more than enough time to read a book!). This is not a book review. You will find plenty of those for Feral if you want one. Suffice to say, I think the book has serious merit. I hope you will read on.

Australia remains a wild place. This is a country where the crocodiles eat the people, and the pythons eat the crocodiles. This sparsely inhabited continent is home to the oldest continuing human cultures on earth and an extraordinary collection of world-famous wildlife. We have a bird that can disable a large dog, the most poisonous snakes on the planet, and kangaroos that get pretty aggressive if you walk through their lie on the golf course. So the concept of “rewilding”, as raised by George Monbiot in his most recent book Feral, might, at first consideration, seem inapplicable. If George is as determined to experience death-by-nature as some of his exploits suggest, he could do worse than to emigrate and settle down-under. Continue reading

Worlds Without Nuclear

Many of you will be aware I recently attended the International Youth Nuclear Congress 2014 in Burgos, Spain. I had an outstanding week of learning and meeting wonderful people and I will provide a fuller write-up in coming weeks.

Burgos Group









I was honoured to be recognised by the judging panel for the Best Oral Presentation of the congress for Worlds Without Nuclear: A systematic review of the literature exploring 100 per cent renewable electricity.

The presentation was not recorded so I have attached a shareable PDF of the slides. Continue reading

Solar thermal, Alinta, Port Augusta… what does this all mean?

One would be hard pressed not to have picked up on the decision announced by Alinta to progress the option of stand-alone solar-thermal power for commercial feasibility study. There seems to be a certain “dancing in the streets” vibe from much of the early commentary.

What does this announcement really mean?

It pays to recall where this all began. Back in 2011 Beyond Zero Emissions put forward a proposal in a report called Repower Port Augusta to replace the coal-fired generation (760 MW) with a hybrid renewable option of solar thermal (760 MW) and wind (712.5 MW) to produce 4650 GWh per year.

Concerned as I and others were at how this proposal sought to limit our decarbonisation options, I, along with James Brown, produced Zero Carbon Options to compare the BZE proposal to a reference nuclear option against thirteen criteria. Our overriding point then was this: if decarbonisation through the permanent closure of large fossil fuel generators is the imperative, we are unlikely to reach it by a process of attempting to corral community and political stakeholder support for only one option that lies at the very highest level of cost and other impacts. We have a much better chance by focusing on the outcome and impartially considering our options.

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The fact is, stakeholders and particularly market forces simply cannot be corralled in this way if the cost difference is too great, the uncertainties too high and particularly if it is pulling hard against given ideological bents. Outcome-driven processes that are less specific about the solution stand a much better chance.

So, how has the process proceeded to now?

Alinta has announced that it will progress a 50 MW stand-alone solar thermal power tower with energy storage for commercial feasibility. This decision comes from the findings of the first part of the $2.3 million dollar feasibility study which is half publicly funded (Aside: James Brown and I worked hard, unpaid, for about 6 months to produced Zero Carbon Options and then crowd funded $10,000 to print and launch it. End aside).

RePower Port Augusta wanted 1472 MW of new capacity in 2011. Come mid-2014 the process is now down to 50 MW.

The preliminary costs for this option are $15,926 kW-1 installed with electricity priced at $258 MWh-1. This is around double the capital costs of the most famous global nuclear cost overrun at Olkiluoto in Finland and the electricity price is bang-on the range James Brown wrote up for Zero Carbon Options.

Way over budget and way cheaper than solar thermal with storage

Way over budget and way cheaper than solar thermal with storage










Alinta Energy states in the report that commercial development would require “long-term offtake agreements with one-or-more customers to purchase the electricity generated from the CSP” (Alinta Energy 2014, p 19). At $258 MWh-1 that simply won’t happen unless the customer is the Government in the form of a subsidy of greater than 50 %. The volume-weighted average price of electricity for South Australia was $74 MWh-1 in 2012-2013 (Australian Energy Regulator 2013).

Alinta Energy has been upfront in stating that these costs are prohibitive (Alinta Energy 2014, Media Release). Alinta says the commercial feasibility of this option will be studied further “with the due diligence it warrants” to provide information for potential investors “should the cost of technology or regulatory environment change” (Alinta Energy 2014 Media Release).

So, as someone who really likes technology and really wants decarbonisation, what would I be hoping for from here?

I would be hoping that the commercial feasibility delivers a radically improved assessment of the costs. I would be hoping the cost gap closes sufficiently that the required subsidy is a much politically easier challenge. I would be hoping the mechanisms to support renewable energy all make it through this political period unscathed. I would be hoping that somehow the 50 MW build can go ahead, that it exceeds expectations, identifies multiple cost-saving improvements for subsequent expansion and the process gets easier and easier from there.

Hope, however, is not and will never be a plan. All of the above may happen. However I doubt that it will and if it doesn’t? Where does that leave us in the decarbonisation challenge from late 2015?

If, as stated earlier, the goal is decarbonisation, not simply the promotion of some technologies, then the forces marshalled behind this solution for Pt Augusta are making terrible strategic and commercial errors by insisting on limiting our options in this way. It is entirely possible that every bit of effort from every single person (and dollar) behind this campaign will produce little more than studies of one option that won’t get up.

I (and nearly all those I have regular dealings with) am not anti-renewable technology. But the technology must be subservient to the outcome. The outcome stands a much greater chance of surviving the process if we keep our options open. Most especially we need to be open to the only technology South Australia can deploy that is proven to decarbonise large, developed-economy electricity supply.

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