Some of you will recall that a few weeks ago I reported on The Age newspaper running a reader-driven poll for topics that they will address as part of The Climate Agenda. I was calling on votes for the very good question posed by Russell Hampstead about the rejection of nuclear power as a solution for Australia.

That question got the fourth highest number of votes, and The Age will be covering the top ten, so I look forward to their response. However they have started and recently posted the response to this question, reproduced below in full.

Solar powered 24-hour baseload power is available now, see for example http://beyondzeroemissions.org/blog/spain-now-producing-24-hour-solar-power-110708 where you can download a most impressive free report. So why do you allow pollies and shock jocks to get away with saying coal or uranium are still needed for baseload? Has The Sunday Age reported on the fact that the US Department of Energy has identified fuel ethanol from Australian eucalypts as essential for its strategic future? Do your readers know Virgin Blue will get its aviation fuel from gum trees? My point is that people are entitled to detail on renewables that are viable now.

This is a great question (seriously) because it addresses some prevalent thinking for  a lot of Australians: “In this sunny country, why are we not just cracking on with solar power?”

The response from The Age is, I think, not half bad (you can read along to it here). As is my wont, I’m adding my two cents.

Firstly, a bit of deconstruction of the question.

So why do you allow pollies and shock jocks to get away with saying coal or uranium are still needed for baseload?

I kick around ideas with a lot of people that understand the role of baseload power and the fact that we need something to fill that role, and read closely the ideas of many more. Most of those people are pretty experienced. By and large there is a striking consensus that the most suitable energy sources for baseload are are either fossil or uranium. None of these people are pollies or shock jocks. They are university professors of various colours, an animal liberation activist, environmentalists, electricity system network engineers, and other professional environmental consultants like myself. I wouldn’t really know about the shock jocks, but I rather suspect a lot of the pollies are listening to what some of the people listed above have to say on the matter, and that’s hardly an unreasonable thing to do. It’s a revealing statement of what some people automatically regard the pro-nuclear position to represent: vile right wing industrial-political power structures.  I’m pretty sure I’m none of that, just for the record, so I reiterate a point made in an earlier post: we need to get the concept of the pro-nuclear environmentalist more bedded down in the national consciousness to make it that bit harder for people to just write off the suggestion of nuclear power.

Second bit of deconstruction:

Solar powered 24-hour baseload power is available now, see for example http://beyondzeroemissions.org/blog/spain-now-producing-24-hour-solar-power-110708 where you can download a most impressive free report.

“Available now”. You couldn’t have said that six months ago. The systems that are being advocated as the baseload solar dream produced 24 hour power for the very first time in July 2011. Three months ago.

I had the privilege of tutoring a course at Adelaide University this year called “Thinking critically about global warming”. The first two words there are the ones that count. Applying a bit of critical thought, the notion that something has only being doing the essential job for three months should be a trigger to query the readiness of the technology to serve as the backbone for a developed nation economy like Australia. Three months. Not a single operational year in the bank to understand the performance. This is not a mature technology, this is infancy. What’s more, the Torresol plant that is being referred to is only 20MWe. That’s. Not. Big. Those promoting this technology to replace just the 240MW Playford solar power station are therefore talking about building something over ten times bigger than the current global flagship, and that would just be a starting point. The Torresol plant has covered 1.85 km2 in heliostats for 20 MWe, so (being very shorthand in my calcs) we are talking about a solar field of around 20km2. For the locals, that’s something a bit larger than the entire Adelaide City Council municipality.

“Just cover that red bit in mirrors for us would ya? Cheers”.

That’s really the thing with renewables. When you get your head out of the cloud of excitement over the idea and start trying to actually deliver it, it’s like the ground shifts under your feet, such is the brute force of reality. Maybe that’s why so many of the “pollies” keep harping on about that bloody coal and uranium.

I admire the geometric beauty of these creations. But they don’t produce much power.

On to The Age’s response. It opens with this:

IN THEORY, 100 per cent of Australia’s electricity needs could be provided by renewable energy using available technology. But it would be very costly.

I think this statement is a beautiful thing. I have previously commented that running Australia on renewables was “impossible”. In some correspondence with some high school students in Victoria, I qualified my use of the term thusly:

When I say impossible, what I really am saying is expensive and difficult to the point where it represents a highly risky strategy, and when climate change is so serious high-risk strategies are unacceptable.

So I am quite fond of how The Age struck out on this response. Anything’s possible people, dream your dreams. But if what you are actually trying to do is make an energy plan well, I’m afraid 1) “theory” won’t cut it, and 2) money matters.

I think The Age have done a pretty respectable job of taking commentary from a  range of sources in their response . The backbone source of the piece is Dr Mark Diesendorf of the University of NSW. For the uninitiated, Mark (I don’t actually know him by the way) is a staunchly anti-nuclear renewable advocate who specialises in energy. In my earlier days where I rejected consideration of nuclear, I drew on Mark’s work quite a bit as a reference for my consulting work. I understand a lot of his work is held in high regard.

I had the opportunity to see him speak at the now somewhat infamous debate between Brook/Blees and Noonan/Diesendorf. On that occasion I think Mark did not cover himself in glory. Things got pretty heated from the anti-nuclear bench a few times. This is all a long way of saying I have had no personal interaction with Mark Diesendorf, but have both read his work and seen him debate.

Dr Mark Diesendorf of the University of NSW

The Age response quotes the work of Mark’s team running a computer simulation of Australia’s energy use which concludes that

a combination of solar, wind, gas derived from plant material and hydro-electricity could bear the load.

”There are challenges,” says Associate Professor Mark Diesendorf, who is part of the team. ”But they are solvable. They are not roadblocks, they’re potholes. Some of them are a bit large, but they’re potholes.”

Large potholes. Hmmm. The universe is a “large” place. Suggesting the challenges to the renewable dream are “potholes” is a gross and unrealistic dilution of their scale. Mark pretty much confirms this when asked about costs.

How much would this cost? ”We haven’t done the economics yet,” Diesendorf says.

Well Mark, please do. Because until then it’s theory, not plan, and we really don’t have the time to waste on theory. Funnily enough, it is Mark who uses the exact same terminology I recently have, in correspondence to political circles, to describe the costing of the Beyond Zero Emissions plan (the “free report” referred to in the question) :

This is not the first attempt to work out how Australia’s energy needs might be met with renewables. A group called Beyond Zero Emissions did it last year using what Diesendorf describes as ”some heroic assumptions”, such as a massive transmission line across the Nullarbor. Beyond Zero Emissions costed its plan at $370 billion by 2020, or $8 per week on the average power bill.

Well, it’s nice to know it’s not just us fisson-freaks who found that report a little hard to swallow. I have to assume that when Mark’s team does get around to doing the costs with less heroic assumptions, it will come in quite a bit higher than the BZE report. Far smarter people than I have dissected those costs of course.

Martin Nicholson, who wrote the book Energy in a Changing Climate, claims it is more like $1.7 trillion. To pay for this, he argues, the weekly hit to your electricity bill would need to be more like $50.

You may recognise the name Nicholson. His detailed critique of the BZE report with Peter Lang is posted at Brave New Climate, and he is the lead author (along with Berger and Brook) of the recent (and extremely accessible) paper in Energy on the costs of different Fit for Service baseload technologies (for a copy of the paper contact Barry Brook). I’ve read the critique in some detail and Nicholson and Lang apply assumptions that, in my opinion, are far less heroic and far closer to reality. Their $50 per week is   $2,600 per household per year. That’s well more than our current political system can absorb, rightly or wrongly. I’m sympathetic to the argument that we should all just cough up, but the smart people are looking for ways to avoid that fight by being open to all options. This always but always lets us find the lowest cost solution.

The Age concludes the solar discussion with some pretty concise suggestions that our Government has concluded that solar just ain’t gonna happen at scale, but the renewable hopes are instead being pinned on geothermal. The Age says this:

This illustrates one of the key problems with the move to large-scale renewable energy: the moment you begin investigating it you end up with what people in the industry describe as the ”beauty parade”, where the cost, reliability and availability of dozens of different options are relatively untested, and are therefore argued vigorously.

Well quite, although the beauty parade I watched at a CEDA energy function back in July had been whacked with the ugly stick; the experts were very frank about the intense difficulties being encountered in exploiting this geothermal resource.

Engineered geothermal. Hard.

In conclusion, I took away the distinct impression that The Age had done a reasonable amount of homework and could not concoct a response that reinforced the emphatic cry for a solar-driven renewables solution. The realities appeared to be pretty well laid out: not impossible, but very costly. The last word went to Diesendorf:

The world is moving in the direction of renewable energy, but whatever happens, according to Diesendorf, ”Electricity is going to have to be dearer. And there’s no point people whinging about it.”

I’m totally down with that. But it we are seriously trying to remedy climate change, rather than solve the renewable energy riddle, then those of us presuming to concoct plans had better realise that money talks to voters big time. We are only picking unwinnable fights if we fail to constrain that cost by applying the full range of zero carbon technologies as their advantages and disadvantages dictate. That has to include nuclear power.

18 comments

  1. Really nice take, Ben; the deconstruction rings especially true. I’d like to think that The Age’s response to the question was steered to some extent by the comments that I and many others made on it at the Our Say site.

  2. I think the idea is that people who live and work in the red bit drive out to the wheat fields on a Sunday afternoon to see the mirror towers and enjoy some kind of green rapture. Mind you that might be a bit far to drive when oil runs out. In so doing they drive right past the industrial suburbs that house the gas fired plant that actually enables non-hybrid CSP.

    I like to see how such facilities could power an aluminium smelter that draws 200 MW at 2 a.m. after an overcast week.

    1. How does the grid work now if an aluminium smelter needs 200MW when all the baseload is committed? Gas by any chance? Does it matter what time-of-day it is?

      We just finished a project for an aluminium smelter; purchasing their own CCGT well under the off-the-grid purchase price of electricity. Nuclear won’t help them either …..

      1. Riding in a cable car at a hydro dam I was told big power users like the Hobart zinc smelter get preferential supply. Other customers have interrupt clauses in their contracts.
        However zinc electrorefining uses an aqueous medium so a blackout is less serious than a freeze of the molten salt ‘pots’ at an aluminium smelter. Oddly if CSP with storage connects to aluminium smelting it involves two lots of molten salt.

  3. There is an inherent bias when discussing this with Australian academics. There is NO (or a miniscule amount) research funding for nuclear. Therefore they must propound the benefits of whatever their technology is – which is where the research money is. Follow the money.

    The cost of electrical power is a critical issue to our way of life. The majority of people have not yet linked the Greenwash of wind and PV to their power bills. When they do, the politicians will listen to alternatives. Cost is an issue – possibly THE issue. Notice how per household comparative costs are never used by the researchers and project proponents. They just say that power is too cheap!

    I think we need to continuously ask the question – ” yes – but at what cost”? and when? “. Simple questions endlessly repeated to break the green stranglehold on the “good” side of the debate.

  4. Many geological survey organisations around the world have begun or completed intensive mapping of their deep geothermal resources lately. The most recently completed examples are Canada and Japan. The resource is HUGE.

    Most of the companies trying to liberate the energy are financially starved rather than technically challenged. Geodynamics is a good example. They’ve had a successful closed hot loop for more than 2 years with a 1MW plant attached. Until recently they operated on a shoe-string, with next-to-no help or R&D funding, but they’ve received investment from Tata and Origin Energy, plus a $90m grant from the Federal Government (which is the largest ever under the Renewable Energy Demonstration Program).

    Geodynamics are on the new generators list for AEMO, with a 500MW+ proposal from memory. It’s a matter of time and investment, not technology.

    1. Sounds great, and bring it on. I’ve never doubted the size of the resource. But you’d well know that’s the least of the issues, after all, the solar resource is HUGE, it’s just a bastard to do anything useful with it. I’d also note that 1) that’s a pretty different perspective to that given by Professor Mary O’Kane of ACRE. Not saying you are wrong, just saying I have heard otherwise 2) We don’t have time. We have the opposite of time so we should be looking to all possible solutions right now and 3) none of this makes any difference to the issue of whether or not South Australia should consider the mature zero carbon technology that is nuclear and could be purchased of the shelf tomorrow, unless of course one is ideologically anti-nuclear and searching for something else that might do the same job. As I’ve demonstrated in my presentation and worked through repeatedly here, nuclear is a terrific, safe and very clean power source with benefits that massively outweigh drawbacks. While I think it would meet our needs for the new generation of baseload nicely, I’m not calling for nuclear to be installed across the board at the exclusion of considering anything else. As I state in my concluding point to this post I’m calling for fair, unprejudiced consideration of nuclear alongside everything else that is zero-carbon. If, case by case, nuclear ticks more boxes (readiness, cost, certainty) it ought be deployed in the interest of cutting greenhouse gas emissions to zero as quickly as possible and constraining the cost of doing so, which will be the key to winning and maintaining public support for full decarbonisation. If something else, geothermal or otherwise, is better, lovely, I don’t care. Not a tough concept, at least it shouldn’t be.

      1. Maybe I should have said “time or investment”.

        They have to find low permeability sources. It’s a slow process with one expensive drill rig (time). More drill rigs (investment), more permeability testing/mapping.

        Geodynamics have found 2 so far (Habanero & Jolokia) estimated to provide 500MWe. That’s what you see in the AEMO report.

        1. If finding low permeability sources was the only challenge, there would be a wealth of data available to solve that issue. After all, hydrocarbon exploration companies have been puncturing the earth with thousands of drilling rigs for many decades and keeping detailed records of what they find.

          They have not determined that it is beneficial to exploit geothermal energy despite the size of the potential resource.

          1. I think the depths and geographical areas of interest are not comparable or even overlapping. There’s no point looking for oil in Australia’s Cooper Basin for example, so no oil company has drilled to any depth or extensively. Nor were they intending to look for linked undergound structures.

            I’m aware some areas of Canada (for example) have started with old oil drilling data, which is in some cases useful. However, oil companies were not in the habit of pressuring the wells they drilled (at shallow depths) to fracture the associated rock layers to see if the injected fluid (water) leaked away.

  5. “I had the privilege of tutoring a course at Adelaide University this year called “Thinking critically about global warming”.”

    How did I not know about this and is this happening next year? (I study at Adelaide)

    1. The course was offered as a short course over the winter break. I would love to offer it again, but it all hinges on demand. Perhaps it could be delivered again over summer. If you are interested I suggest you contact Jackie Venning and express interest. The course was really well received by the students who took it, and its a great unit.

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