“Proponents of 100% renewable Australia can keep running to the next study, the next argument, the next rally or the next success story. But where ever they go, reality will be waiting for them when they get there, ready to bite.  To continue running this campaign in the face of mounting evidence against it is starting to look not so much misguided as downright irresponsible.”

It seems that with every passing month or so, a new component arrives to support a more realistic picture of how Australia needs to act in planning an energy future that makes a serious response to climate change. Guess what? Chances of a 100% renewable future are not firming. Not at all.

Firstly, Solar Flagships. Late last year I wrote of my support for the ongoing development of solar power, but maintaining my insitence on being realistic about what they will deliver. At that time the Federal Government had just committed nearly three quaters of a billion dollars in direct funding for new solar farms. The two facilities in question were to be two orders of magnitude larger than any solar facility operating in the country today. They were demonstrably not good value in providing power, but were being feted as the next step for Australia in solar.

Fast forward six months or so and what do we find? One of the two projects, the Moree Solar Farm, has completely folded. It will not be going ahead. The other, Solar Dawn, has secured a six month extension to raise the additional finance it requires.

Moree Solar Farm. Forever to remain an artist's impression

Recall that these two developments had been granted fully one dollar in three from the public purse to reach development. It is a very large, direct and completely undisguised subsidy. It has not been enough.

The failure of one project and troubles of the other say nothing about the ability of the technologies to produce electricity. It says nothing about the many other ways that the solar industry could be supported for more steady and sustainable growth. But the fact is that financial and market realities are every bit as relevant to the outcome as if the technology simply did not work: either way, no new zero carbon energy comes on line. No fossil energy is closed or displaced. Momentum for tackling greenhouse gas emissions takes another hit.

Meanwhile, work by Ellison et al seeks to answer whether a system of 100% renewables can meet Australia’s 2011 electricity demand. Detailed critique and analysis shows that it cannot. Costing done independent of the study itself (which did no costing) suggests the following:

For the EDM-2011 baseline simulation, and using costs derived for the Federal Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism (DRET, 2011b), the costs are estimated to be: $568 billion capital cost, $336/MWh cost of electricity and $290/tonne CO2 abatement cost.

That is, the wholesale cost of electricity for the simulated system would be seven times more than now, with an abatement cost that is 13 times the starting price of the Australian carbon tax and 30 times the European carbon price.  (This cost of electricity does not include costs for the existing electricity network).

Once again, reality bites. Running the scenarios to check technical possibility is useful. Pretending costs don’t matter is to live in a fantasy of the type that will drive us to climate oblivion. The mere passage of a carbon price has unseated a Prime Minister and an Opposition Leader and in large part driven the election of a tenuous minority Government. This should be evidence enough that the massive costs associated with this 100% renewable dream is well in excess of anything our liberal democracy will tolerate. Anyone wanting serious climate action needs to understand this. The Arctic is one the way out. There is no climate shock large enough, before it is too late, that will carry the necessary support for this type of plan. So unless one’s idea of victory is that winning combination of moral superiority, political marginalisation and total failure to effect change that seems to be the stock in trade of so many environmentalists, a different strategy is in order.

What else is news? Well, The Grattan Institute, which I generally find a realiable source of useful analysis, released its report No easy choices: which way to Australia’s energy future?

While I disagree with some of their concerns regarding nuclear power, they come to a very sound basic conclusion:

This report and its companion detailed report assess the prospects for seven technologies that generate electricity with near-zero emissions, and which are already developed enough that large-scale deployment by 2050 is plausible. They are wind, solar PV, geothermal, nuclear, concentrating solar power, carbon capture and storage and bioenergy. We assess the current performance and future potential of each, and what would need to change for it to be deployed at large scale and at sufficiently low cost. Each of these technologies might materially contribute to Australia’s future energy mix. All
face obstacles to achieving their full potential.  Considering the seven technologies together, Australia has no quick fix or easy choices.

Despite current projections, it is possible that none of the technologies can produce power at a scale and at costs similar to today’s electricity. In other words, existing policies will not on their own produce the transformation we need. The carbon pricing scheme, while a good start, is not enough. So what is to be done?

Good question. You might start forming an answer by looking at what is not to be done. What we don’t do is insist on the exclusion of the only one of the seven technologies that has delivered zero carbon electricity on a major scale in the world that does have the potential for implementation at scale in Australia as soon as we are ready to start the process: nuclear power. To do so is to render what is difficult, instead, impossible.

Which brings us to the split personality of our new Energy White Paper. As John Morgan explored for us at Brave New Climate and I further condense here, the paper states:

The Gillard Government unambiguously does not support the use of nuclear energy in Australia…

However, noting the multi‐decade focus of this draft Energy White Paper, it cannot simply be assumed that future Australian governments will necessarily hold this view. To provide a comprehensive assessment of future possibilities, it is prudent to consider under what circumstances a future government may conceivably wish to revisit this position, and what would be required should such a choice be contemplated…

The best case supporting future consideration of nuclear power would be the failure to commercialise new low‐emissions baseload energy or energy storage technologies within the timeframe that economic analysis suggests is necessary to meet long‐term global and national emissions reduction objectives (from 2025 onwards).

Who in the hell are they trying to kid? There is not a well constructed analysis in the land that supports the case that “new low-emissions baseload energy or energy storage technologies” are going to do the job we need in the timeframe we need it. There are plenty of sensible analyses to suggest that nuclear can and in fact must, but that there are social, legal and regulatory barriers that are going to take time to overcome before the environment is ready for this major level of investment. As a Craig Schumacher of Nucleus 92  astutely and rightly noted in the BNC comments:

Before considering the circumstances which would count as a failure of renewable technosolar and thus act as the trigger to abandoning it as a mainstay of energy policy, perhaps there needs to be a set of goals which technosolar must demonstrably achieve before it deserves consideration as such a mainstay in the first place.

Too right Craig. Which means it is time to get honest and serious about the task of decarbonisation and give the deserved priority to dismantling the barriers to nuclear power in Australia, if only to make a fair competition between generation sources even possible by that magic 2025 deadline.

A teacher of mine once taught me “Where ever you go, there you are”. Whatever you carry in yourself, you cannot run from, so you had better make peace with reality and seek harmony.

Proponents of 100% renewable Australia can keep running to the next study, the next argument, the next rally or the next success story. But where ever they go, reality will be waiting for them when they get there, ready to bite.  To continue running this campaign in the face of mounting evidence against it is starting to look not so much misguided as downright irresponsible.

The rest of us need to beat a different path to decarbonisation; one that makes friends with reality.

5 comments

  1. Great post Ben. Obviously, reality must bat last, but if we are to have a rational approach to rapid and effective decarbonisation, reality needs to open the innings (or at least come in at first drop). The key, as you point out, is not to exclude possible low-carbon energy options on an a priori (and too often ideological) basis. It is to allow them to compete fairly, and to work with the market rather than against it. Putting up socio-political barriers to block non-preferred options like nuclear (on philosophical rather than technical or economic grounds) simply appeases the status quo – which is an utter domination of the energy system by fossil fuels.

    I did a comparison of the Moree solar project with other options, before it was shelved. Really, it was no wonder… http://bravenewclimate.com/2011/10/21/tcase15/

  2. Great lead quote Ben.

    People need to get their heads around the fact that economic constraints are real constraints, every bit as real as the physical constraints. Not quite as absolute, perhaps, but only barely.

  3. Actually, it looks like the Moree Solar Farm is still going ahead, but will have a restructured proposal according to that article you linked (http://www.solarserver.com/solar-magazine/solar-news/current/2012/kw06/australian-government-re-opens-solar-flagships-program.html). I actually attended a presentation in mid-January on the project and I recall the presenter saying something about BP Solar still investing in the project, but the consortium will be buying PV cells from other manufacturers instead (read: China). A lot of the problems seem to be arising due to the state of the electricity grid in the area though.

    I think Australia will have to take a more realistic approach to renewables – a 50% mix of wind and solar might be a much better way forward in the long term, with a focus on getting penetration of up to 25-30% in the shorter term in certain areas.

  4. Well, if we quote the relevant passage…

    “The Australian Government had given developers of the Moree Solar Farm until December 15th, 2011 to reach financial close on the project as a condition of an AUD 306 million (USD 332 million) grant.
    A consortium of developers did not meet this deadline. Additionally complicating matters, developer BP Solar is no longer in business.

    Remaining developers Fotowatio Renewable Ventures SL (Madrid, Spain) and Pacific Hydro Pty Ltd. (Melbourne, Australia) will be submitting a new application. The government notes that developers are proposing “substantial” changes to the PV project, which was originally 150 MW in size.”

    So the major partner is no longer in business. The new application will have “substantial changes”. Moree Solar Farm as previously understood is no longer, and the rest is just so much spin in my opinion.

    As for your conclusion I think you are spot on. Why on earth not go for something that is at least possible but that will still be a heck of a stretch for all involved? I think the answer is that that kind of honesty leads to awkward questions about where the rest of the zero carbon electricity is going to come from and too many renewable advocates seem to have trouble pronouncing the word “nuclear”. Which is, in my opinion, ridiculous as I regard the technologies as perfectly complimentary and not remotely in competition.

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