“It’s our job to make sure when the time comes, that the commonsense option of nuclear power, plus renewables and energy efficiency, gets clear space to speak.”
A debate is under way regarding the future of clean energy. In one team we have “cleaner than coal, cheaper than renewables” natural gas. In the other team, there is “we can do it with zero carbon” renewables. Both are fighting for pre-eminence as the main way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while maintaining energy supply. Both make good points against the other. Both are right. Which means neither is the solution.
The main proponents of natural gas tend to be fossil fuel interests. They point out the pitfalls of renewables. Being diffuse, intermittent and location specific (or all three) means that reliably providing large amounts of power from renewables requires money to be spent not only on the generating technology itself, but also on major upgrades in networks, storage, and back-up generation (which is likely to be provided by gas). This means lots of money, time and complexity overhauling systems that have been designed around centralised generation. When you look hard enough at the challenges, it’s not unreasonable to conclude that placing renewable energy sources in the centre of a strategy of rapid decarbonisation is, in fact, an impossible folly. Albeit, one predominantly born from the noblest of intentions.
Renewable proponents on the other hand point out that a 50% solution to climate change is no solution at all. They are right. Any honest reading of the scientific literature tells you that we need reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that are deep and rapid. A climate change strategy built around investments in infrastructure with a lifespan of decades that are merely 50% better than coal is utterly pointless. There is no such thing as half pregnant, and there is no such thing as half screwed by a runaway climate that has passed its tipping points. Talk of natural gas buying us “breathing space” to tackle climate change is un-scientific nonsense. It buys breathing space for fossil fuel companies whose products will be jettisoned by serious efforts to reign in climate change.
Meanwhile, looking on from the wings, is nuclear power. It’s zero carbon, scalable, and essentially portable and transferable. It uses the most energy dense of fuels, has a 50 year track record, and currently supply’s 15% of global electricity generation. It can be centralised with larger power plants, minimising cost and complexity of change over. It can be decentralised with the latest Small Modular Reactor designs, or the baby-sized reactors known as nuclear batteries. It provides baseload. Its safety record is extraordinary. Today’s Generation III+ technology is brilliant, and tomorrow’s Generation IV technology is 100 times better.
Why on earth is nuclear not part of this debate? Simple really. To the fossil fuel companies, it represents the only serious threat to their global energy dominance, and they know it. They would prefer to ignore it, and allow perceptions of nuclear as dangerous to go unchallenged, despite it being safer by orders of magnitude that coal and gas.
To the renewable-only proponents, nuclear power normally has no place in their world view. Moving from opposition to acceptance of nuclear power means a virtual shift in identity, and that’s difficult. Good news though; it’s possible. I’m proof. Renewables have a role, and that role is set to grow handsomely. It just can’t do the heavy lifting of baseload energy generation at the scale and in the time required.
So, South Australia, be on the lookout. With our energy generation infrastructure ripe for replacement, the fake debate is on its way to us. It’s our job to make sure when the time comes, that the commonsense option of nuclear power, plus renewables and energy efficiency, gets clear space to speak.