It was great to publish the first pass at the Energy Plan for South Australia and read the feedback. The additional knowledge I have gained out of the process has already proven very valuable. For those who haven’t read it, it’s probably essential background to this update.
To sum up feedback from Part I, my subscribers queried:
- The emphasis on a new design (the mPower Small Modular Reactor), favouring instead a focus on existing designs with a clear record of cost and performance
- Emphasis of like for like replacement, to the extent of using the exact same locations
- Questions of consolidation of generating sites
In this post I will better explain my particular vantage points and my next round of thinking in the context of responding to some of those queries.
TIMING- POLITICS AND SOCIAL ACCEPTANCE
The core criticism of the focus on the mPower is that is brings uncertainty. While the design appears to be gathering a great deal of momentum, it is not yet approved and has not yet been constructed, so the criticism is perfectly valid. Now, while the argument of “nuclear power will take to long” is fallacious for a great many reasons, some realities though are worth keeping in mind when thinking about what ideas to take to people. These realities are partly about nuclear, and partly about any initiative of this scale.
South Australians next go to the polls in 2014. So that begs the question: would either of the major parties take a platform of energy reform and climate change, including the consideration of nuclear power, to that election? I dearly hope so but there is no guarantee. However the issue is sufficiently critical that it will almost certainly start coming up after that. So I have provided a potential timeframe for the implementation of nuclear power in South Australia assuming I get my wish and it is taken to the next election as an issue. You can sink your teeth into/ criticise/ correct this to your heart’s content.
Government or Opposition introduces energy reform and climate change as an issue for South Australia, with specific inclusion of nuclear power in discussions
Returned/new Government takes office with a mandate to investigate nuclear power for meeting South Australia’s energy needs
Feasibility investigations, and regulatory preparations. Government is returned with mandate to construct
Purchasing and approvals for first nuclear power plant
Nuclear power plant generates electricity for South Australia
I hope it is lost on no-one that in this approximate 12 year timeframe, only 4 or so years are for the actual nuclear power plant bit!!! The rest is us getting our act together. It’s that part that I hope Decarbonise SA can help to condense . This scenario does not assume a firm lead shown at the Federal level of Australian Government that could potentially bring these timelines forward. It could move back assuming that no one wants to talk about it in the next three years. Given that energy is becoming such a critical issue I really hope this won’t be the case. But it may be.
To me, considering the mPower design or similar for its many design advantages is not so risky in this context. Of course it is not the only thing Decarbonise SA should promote. But confining the discussion to AP1000’s and CANDUs seems unnecessarily limiting. However, it’s a very good idea to know and understand these technologies to be able to tell South Australians what could be built immediately if we really got our skates on.
A CANDU 6 reactor at Pt Lepreau, Canada
No base load power replacement for South Australia is going to be what you would call cheap, but compared to the other main option that will be pushed very hard (gas), in capital terms nuclear is still expensive. Unlike gas of course it’s fully insulated from a future carbon price and largely insulated from future fuel prices, and it has been shown to provide electricity at good prices. But nonetheless, the upfront cost matters. South Australia is committed to some pretty big bits of infrastructure (stadium, hospital) at present.
Proposed Adelaide Oval redevelopment. Not small potatoes
I will discuss costs more specifically, but I am first doing some more homework in this area, since “understanding the cost of new generating capacity and its output requires careful analysis of what is in any set of figures” . It matters a great deal whether we talk about Capital cost only (incorporating engineering-procurement-construction (EPC), plus owners costs, cost escalation and inflation), or Capital plus Financing (Financing costs being highly sensitive to construction delays, as nuclear opponents know and exploit). A lot of the costs mentioned above are, or should be, non-exclusive to nuclear power. Owners costs, inflation, and financing costs should be perfectly relevant to any competing technology as well as nuclear.
The Andasol Concentrating Solar Thermal plant in Spain. I’ll go out on a limb and say this sucker had one or two costs above and beyond capital for the plant…
But you can see the next substantial advantage of small modular designs; the ability to invest lesser amounts over a longer period of time and build up the capacity into the future. This makes financing easier and cheaper, and lessens the risk of financing cost blowout. Even with the current uncertainty of the new design, this again raises the appeal of an SMR focus.
This is probably one of the lesser influences, but leadership has a definite political appeal. South Australia being a relatively small pocket of the world, we are always pleased to be doing something that is right out in front. The mPower design or similar meets that criteria; there would be the potential for South Australia to be among the very first customers.
PERCEIVED SAFETY AND OTHER FEATURES OF PUBLIC APPEAL
When one is essentially on board with nuclear power as safe, reliable and part of the solution, it is easy to think in simpler terms of the best technology for change over right now. But there is still a huge job to be done in bringing South Australians around to nuclear power. I believe discussing the mPower design would assist that cause considerably due to three main features with substantial appeal:
1) The onsite storage of waste for the 60 year life of the plant
2) The below ground containment of the reactor and all fuel
3) It’s small. I think small is beautiful in the context of asking South Australians to consider nuclear power for the first time
Considering the timeframe outlined above (or something like it), I think it is perfectly possible to put this on the radar as a conversation starter without insisting that it is the sole or best option for SA.
RIGHT SIZING/ CONSOLIDATION
Smarter people than I will be in charge of decisions regarding the right level of investment in new generation in South Australia, and where to put it. However, from a communication point of view, the replacement approach is useful as it gives people a vision that is easy to grab and own. It also reflects:
- A relatively slow growing economy and population in South Australia (with a caveat that I anticipate a trend toward electrification of transport that will drive increased electricity demand)
- The benefit of utilising existing locations, with anticipated simplification of assessments and approvals
- Minimising the need for ancillary network investments that would drive up costs
It is only sensible to look at the generation system as a whole devise an optimised system. But I am deferring that task until I have had the opportunity to sit down with some of the state’s network engineers, because my knowledge there is rudimentary.
I do understand is that some level of “balance” in generation across the network is beneficial i.e. power being generated close to the different centres of demand. You can approximately see that in the grid in SA right now. The Whyalla Plant is close to Whyalla One Steel. Playford and Northern serve Adelaide to the south and presumably also help to push some power further north. Torrens Island and Pelican Point take care of Adelaide, and then you have a few smaller generators in a pocket in the South East, close to Mt Gambier and some other regional centres. So it’s not automatically true that we could/should just bundle the lot up into three AP1000s on the same site and everything will be sweet. That makes changing the Whyalla Plant to nuclear, without an SMR, a lot harder because it is far from anywhere. However, if it were replaced with a CANDU 6E at 700 MW, that would boost the regional generation a heck of a lot. This could really assist with the increase in mining that may occur on the Eyre Peninsula, such as near Tumby Bay to the south-west of Whyalla. That could be perfect.
Whyalla OneSteel. Big.
But I think the main consolidation issue comes from the capacity factors of the current base load. Subscriber Neil Howes put me on to this. Based on my calculations (that reinforce those Neil gave me), Northern and Playford Power Stations run at capacity factors of a little over 60%… that’s not very high. I’d like to know if there is a good reason for that. To derive the amount of electricity these two plants give us (which is about 4.2 million MWh per annum from combined capacity of 780 MW), would actually only require 500 MW of capacity operating at 95%. My numbers for Torrens Island give me a capacity factor that is so low I don’t want to post it until I can confirm. Did the task at hand suddenly get a whole lot cheaper??? Please enlighten me if there are good, sensible reasons for three baseload stations operating at around 60% or less.
What’s up with the low capacity factors at Playford, Northern and Torrens Island?
CONCLUSIONS FOR DECARBONISING SA PART II
I think it is wise to continue my public engagement by providing two different nuclear power set-ups for consideration. One, perhaps to be termed “Rapid, Current Designs” could be more reflective of the feedback from Part I of the plan, focussing on AP1000 and CANDU technology. This scenario would earn points for certainty in cost and design, ability to implement sooner if other factors can be brought forward, and the use of CANDU that can run on natural uranium from our back yard. The other, perhaps to be termed “Incremental, Small Modular” could show a focus on the blend of AP1000 and Small Modular Reactors as I outlined in Part I. This scenario loses points on certainty of cost and design (in 2011), but gains points for safety, leadership, public and political appeal.
I’ve provided three tables below. The first is our baseload as it stands. The second is the “Rapid, Current Designs” nuclear implementation scenario. The third is the “Incremental, Small Modular”. These will of course change as we go on, but they should be adequate to the task of getting South Australians learning and talking about nuclear power and how it might fit into the state. I hope to restructure my presentations to bring these in for discussion. In the background, I think it is time to start talking with some network experts to refine and put more rigour around these scenarios for the more senior levels of engagement in business and government. I also need to get properly up to speed for discussions of costs.
So there’s Part II- an evolution, not revolution, of Part I. Let me know what you think.