I went to Brisbane to join a panel discussing the which of the “Big Five” Energy Options that could replace fossil fuels. It was very, very interesting. Read the review from an audience member.

I consider it a real privilege to be able to run reviews of events written by audience members rather than by me, the participant. In this case previous DSA guest post-er Rachel Bailey calls it like she heard it in Brisbane recently in this review of the University of Queensland Big Five Energy Panel discussion. Thanks Rachel. I would love to see some comments from others who were there. What did you take away from the event?

Wednesday 29 August 5.30-7.30pm, Customs House, The Long Room, Queen Street, Brisbane

Well, let me start this review by saying that the starting premise of many aspects of this event cannot be questioned.  It truly was the epitome of axiomatic progression.  The quality of the sparkling wine served at the end, being a case in point.  This student appreciated every drop, and yes, progression to the night getting better and better followed from there.

Our MC for the evening was the very intelligent and talented Liz Minchin, of Mediability

The focus of all panellists on outlining the conundrum of successfully delivering secure energy in the face of forecast rising global energy demands, coupled with increased global population levels, changing demographics, and the subsequent link to increased greenhouse gas pollution is another case in point.  The logical progression from here was to outline the necessity that we have to deliver higher standards of living for all, most especially to the developing nations, without continued mounting levels of pollution.  And here is the rub.  In the past, as all panellists were keen to emphasise, this was delivered through the coupling of rising energy consumption via rising economic status, with rising pollution levels.  The conundrum?  To decouple this link.  Other aspects of the starting premise were questioned through the night as we will come to see by the end of this jaunty article.

The theme of the night was “predator or prey”.  Which of the top five renewable energy sources will turn predator or prey in the fight with fossil fuels to establish their territory in Australia’s future energy landscape?

Biofuels – The Rhinoceros

Associate Professor (A/Prof) Ben Hankamer

Enter the first so called predator, biofuels, represented by Associate Professor (A/Prof) Ben Hankamer. Despite a discouraging piece of scribble written in my notes saying “way too many stats!” this learned gentleman outlined a pertinent point very neatly.  Namely that most energy policy focuses on the electricity market, despite only 44% of market share of fuel consumption being for this use, according to calculations done by his Biofuels consortium.  What of the remaining 56%? This is the market share that biofuels can occupy according to A/Prof Hankamer.

This then is a different starting premise to the other renewable energy sources, especially in the face of lowering costs to enter the market as the cost of traditional petroleum fuels rises in line with the increased costs of extraction.  This, it was contended, is what will enhance the viability of biofuels, turning them into a true predator.

The more alluring prospect of the role for algae was cut tragically short by the call of “times up”.  This indeed was to become the bane of all the presentations on the night.  Complex matters it seems cannot be broken down into sound bites, at least not by the majority of people who continue to think in fully formed sentences.

Fortunately the advantages of using algae as the feedstock for biofuel and how it elegantly sidesteps the ethical quagmire of using food crops for fuel was highlighted in the discussion at the end.  Algae also has the advantage of being able to use saline water, occupy non arable land, facilitate the recycling of nutrients, as well as occupy an enormous market share on the energy landscape. In conclusion I am not sure that the “Rhinoceros” title was fair nor accurate, as biofuels heads inexorably towards a brighter future.  Not at all resembling a short lived sprinter in cumbersome armour.

A future in meeting transport energy needs? Perhaps, and wouldn’t that be good. But as Ben Hankamer made clear, refining a product with all the necessary qualities is one of the challenges

Geothermal – The Leopard

Susan Jeanes, Chief Executive of the Australian Geothermal Association

If Ben Hankamer got to outline an alluring prospect for algae’s use as a biofuel, then the most alluring introduction would have to go to Susan Jeanes, who was described by the MC Liz Minchin, as having the ability to get “hot and steamy” by representing the geothermal industry.  A pithy quip I thought.  An introduction to Geothermal 101 and how it all works was quickly detailed.  A talking up of the technological capability of Australia’s skills base was presented.  Proof of concept for several companies working in this arena was tabled.  But it has to be said that although geothermal was listed as being adaptable especially when being deployed in tandem with mining sites, or delivering to other remote infrastructure, it faces large cost curve barriers.  Investors shy away from an industry that has so much potential, until more research and development is deployed. This scenario means that little research and development is occurring due to lack of private finance.  A classic “Catch 22”, involving first movers disadvantage. The title fits with Leopards being described as the smallest of the big four cats, and not likely to put a dent in fossil fuels predator status for several years yet, at least not in an Australian context.

Geothermal in Australia battles high costs for exploration and development. Click the image for FAQ from the Australian Geothermal Association

Nuclear – The elephant in the room?

Ben Heard, Director-ThinkClimate Consulting and Founder- Decarbonise SA

Well…That’s a bit much really! But is it?  Ben Heard from Decarbonise SA outlined the energy challenge detailed above succinctly, with a staccato of bullet points. Thrown into this mix was the danger to our health and the environment that traditional fossil fuel use elicits.  The largest benefit that Nuclear could deliver was that it acted like a fossil fuel and therefore was a perfect match to dovetail straight into our already existing electricity infrastructure.  The flexibly to move the fuel efficiently due to its incredibly high energy density was emphasised. The safety record when viewed through different measurement lenses such as in comparison to the risks that cumulative fossil fuels represent to human health was emphasised.  The Generation 4 “IFR” technology and its potential to deliver energy as well as clean up the waste stockpiles was emphasised.

But the fanciest footwork I have ever seen an elephant dance, was displayed when a nimble dodge was enacted during question time.  As this was a discussion on denting the market share of the fossil fuel giants, one patron questioned how the nuclear industry could overcome the “not in my backyard syndrome” that is so prevalent within Australia’s policy planning landscape.  Proving that this elephant was no Dumbo, the question was quickly turned around by pointing out that Australians needed to have an accurate look at what was already in their backyard, where sulphur oxides, nitrogen oxides, fine particulate soots, and radiation bearing compounds were being emitted in an uncontrolled fashion.  The deleterious effects of these pollutants for people’s health and the environment should provide the first point of comparison, when trying to change the status quo of what goes on in anyone’s backyard.

Does the elephant title fit? Not at all. The dance was far too elegant. Besides, the excessive number of groupies wanting to talk to Ben Heard at the end of the night was a clear indication that this was no “elephant in the room”.  They all wanted to talk about it.

2x 728 MWe CANDU units from Qinshan, China. Unit 1 went from concrete pouring to criticality in 51.5 months. This could be readily reduced to 48 months with capital costs cut by 25%. Click the image to read about this

Wind – A Buffalo?

Ken McAlpine, Director of Policy and Government Relations, Vestas

Despite wind power having a reputation for being intermittent Ken McAlpine from Vestas, stipulates that wind is rapidly becoming a predator in the Australian market.  It has a long technology development lead in time, and as such has been able to refine economic efficiency gains.  In comparison to the other options on offer it also has the added advantage of not needing to utilise any water for cooling purposes.  A large advantage on the driest continent on Earth. The fuel does not need mining, is endless and free.

Impressive market gains have been made in demand for wind turbines even in the face of the GFC.  This, it was postulated, was because the price curve for delivering the technology has rapidly decreased in line with the increased capacity for larger and larger turbine sizes.  As all arguments about reality and perception are fascinating (beware, my inner geek is revealed), the claim about the real cost of coal versus wind left me captivated.  Namely, that most would cite that the cost of delivering new wind power is markedly more expensive than its cheaper fossil fuel rival in the form of a new coal power station.  The reality McAlpine stipulates is that they are very nearly on par.

Of course there was the normal argy bargy about lack of storage capacity, and the cost of selling onto an ever expanding electricity grid, and the way wind power can be used to subversively promote natural gas consumption. But it was clear that the future for wind power is a bright one and by no means is well represented by a “boof headed vegan buffalo”.

Solar Power – King of the jungle, or a toothless Lion?

Paul Meredith, Clean Energy Program Leader, University of Queensland

Paul Meredith representing the University of Queensland clinched the argument for solar power within Australia by reminding us all of the tremendously elevated rates of irradiance that this big brown land is blessed with. Descriptions of the solar flagship programs, the massive uptake rates of private residential rooftop Solar PV installations, and the advent of solar thermal projects herald exciting times for this industry were outlined.  However a cautionary note was sounded following drop off rates a year ago.  Was it my waning interest levels or was he talking too fast? Me thinks it was the latter.  I never did discover why rates dropped off despite terminology like “semi dispatchable, future costs, levelised costs of energy, and deployable technology types” were being thrown around.  What did make sense to me was his opening statement that the whole premise of this debate was somewhat contrived.  A fundamental objection to pitting renewable technologies against one another was tabled, when the real fight should be taken up to the fossil fuel industries.  A plethora of options will be needed to fuel our future, and Paul Meredith thinks all of them should be on the table. The title of King of the Jungle may well be merited in this instance, but like I said I never did get the nuances of it.

Colorado Integrated Solar Project. Solar-fossil hybrid was touted as a good way to get more renewable energy into the grid. For many reasons I am deeply concerned about that notion. Click the image for one of these reasons.

Why is it all so hard to explain?

Of course at this junction the floor was opened up for patrons to ask questions, and of course nearest and dearest to my own heart was the one which asked; “Why is energy policy and the real price rises for electricity so hard to explain in an Australian context, and how much of this perceived inability to communicate clearly impinges on the renewables gaining a foothold in the market”? Answers varied.

(1) It is an analogous skewing of the debate by journalists who are trying to present a debate, because that is the format in which they are expected to report, when the domineering view is one of consensus.  Similar to what is seen in the reporting mechanisms of the Climate Science debates.

(2) Energy is by nature part of a market that is cyclical and this perception needs to be understood.

(3) Reliability of supply is sought as a political premium, and this skews regulations for distribution.

(4) Energy policy should be viewed through the prism of a “nation building exercise”.

(5) Because it is complex, and cannot be reduced to reductive sound bites.

(6) Elections are fought, lost and won on these issues.  No one wants to be responsible for “the lights going out”.  The stakes are high.

And finally (7) what is sexy and able to be explained, is often different from what specialists are able to convey.

This inability to translate technical policy and cut through to mainstream media is likely to increase as specialist journalists are facing higher job cuts.

I for one thought the night a terrific success.  It gave me fuel for thought, even as it sought to fuel Australia’s future energy needs.  My only complaint was that most speakers struggled to fit to the short time frame they were given to outline complex matters, and this detracted from the presentations.

To quote Liz Minchin who was MC for the event “It’s a jungle out there and they’re evolving”. I concur.

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  1. “groupies”?! Maybe nuclear advocacy would be more popular if these sorts of side benefits were more widely known! Or was it just Ben’s sheer animal magnetism?

    But seriously, thanks Rachel. Sorry to get back to groupies, but the reference made me wonder: what was the gender balance of the audience?

    1. “Groupies” is overstating things… I went to the movies afterward, alone… Still, nuclear groupies… nukies… I like ’em, ’cause it usually means a big penny has just dropped and they are about to shoot up the knowledge curve on nuclear as they begin to question what they thought they knew. Just what we need, those people become awesome advocates in their peer groups.

      Gender balance, I am thinking 60:40 male, female. Rachel, what do you reckon?

      1. Certainly I like to try and make my writing entertaining and with a certain flair but in this instance I do think “Groupies” appropriate. Despite being somewhat keen to catch up with Ben Heard on the night after the debate he was surrounded by a formidable circle of interest persons. As to the gender demographics in attendance, I think 60 male: 40 female sounds right as a quick calculation.

        On a more serious note your point about the way “Nuclear advocacy” is presented is a valid one, wherein much discussion on the night was devoted to how much of a role PR played in the share that the renewables could gain in penetrating into the market. It was concluded that it is of the utmost importance. Indeed I have heard Ben Heard speak to the actual nuclear industry, or at least the supply end involved in Uranium and urge them to change tack in how nuclear is promoted to really tackle the lowering of Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHG). So making it relevant, and interesting is important. Gaining “Groupies” can be seen as a side effect of this more important purpose.

  2. Predator-prey models look for equilibrium solutions such as oscillating populations (eg of rabbits and foxes) or the steady state ignoring evolutionary factors. I think we should aim for the latter and ask what is the right percentage of each technology in the mix absent subsidies (=hand feeding) or quotas (culling of competitors) for certain technologies. That equilibrium could be the natural or unforced least cost combination whereby we have hydro in the Snowy Mountains but not in the Simpson Desert.

    My guess is that easily integrated wind could be about 20% of the stationary energy mix with mainly nuclear, gas peaking and minor coal. Solar thermal needs to prove itself at scale. This may sound strange as I depend on both but I think both biofuels and PV may already be too large due to mandates. Biodiesel made from used cooking oil is an obvious niche but not ethanol from grain. In my opinion those who think that current forms of solar will make a nontrivial dent in coal or that biofuels will make a dent in oil are kidding themselves.

    1. Well I would be interested to hear from Ben Hankamer on this but I did not get the impression that he felt widescale shift toward biofuels in transport was imminent. It’s an incredibly conservative area and for obvious reason. Cars, trucks and other plant are just so expensive, any proposed substitute needs to excel in every respect in terms of performance. Then you consider, much like electricity, the simply unbelievable quantity of the stuff we consume and you realise that, like electricity, even the most efficient “grow your own” solution may struggle to scale to meaningful levels.

      I would have thought the shift to electrification of light transport was essentially a lock; the tech is beautiful and already commercial, we just need lower costs and slightly better performance and it leaves a petrol car for dead. Heavy transport seems to be the challenge.

      1. I think light trucks, buses and farm machinery could convert to CNG with LNG for big rigs. Industrial gas users are mortified by $6/GJ prices but I think truckers would happily pay $40. All the more reason not to waste gas making baseload power.

        A few weeks back nearby it was -11C one morning. Driving to an appointment on biodiesel the fuel system froze and it took an hour to get going again. This is one reason why the airlines aren’t keen on ester type fuels; they turn to snot when cold. Also there will never be enough.

        1. Agreed, CNG is a worthwhile pathway to reduction in that sector. I have looked at it for waste collection vehicles. The infrastructure costs a bit but not too much, and the turn around on such vehicles with high wear and tear is fast enough that we are not talking about technological path dependency of many decades as in the case of baseload power generation infrastructure.

  3. Nuclear would have run coal out of business long ago [before 1970] if the coal industry hadn’t propagandized you into irrational fear. There is an enormous amount of stuff to say about this subject. Please look up “Natural Background Radiation.”

    Please read this book: “The Rise of Nuclear Fear” by Spencer Weart. The fear started thousands or millions of years ago with the fear of witches, wizardry, magic etc. The design of the human brain is very bad. See “Religion Explained” by Pascal Boyer.

    “The Rise of Nuclear Fear” by Spencer Weart needs “Religion Explained” as background. A lot of modern first world people do magical thinking rather than logical or scientific thinking [not all logical thinking is scientific]. That is, they think of technology and things they don’t understand as magic. That is especially true of anything “nuclear.”

    Please read this book: “Radiation and Reason, The impact of Science on a culture of fear” by Wade Allison.
    Professor Allison says we can take up to 10 rems per month, a little more than 1000 times the present “legal” limit. The old limit was 5 rems/lifetime.
    Divide 5 rems by your present Natural Background Radiation. For Americans, Natural Background Radiation is at least .35 rems/year. Our Natural Background Radiation uses up our 5 rems/lifetime when we are 14 years old.

    Coal contains: URANIUM and all of the decay products of uranium, ARSENIC, LEAD, MERCURY, Antimony, Cobalt, Nickel, Copper, Selenium, Barium, Fluorine, Silver, Beryllium, Iron, Sulfur, Boron, Titanium, Cadmium, Magnesium, THORIUM, Calcium, Manganese, Vanadium, Chlorine, Aluminum, Chromium, Molybdenum and Zinc. There is so much of these elements in coal that cinders and coal smoke are actually valuable ores. We should be able to get ALL THE URANIUM AND THORIUM WE NEED TO FUEL NUCLEAR POWER PLANTS FOR CENTURIES BY USING COAL CINDERS AND SMOKE AS ORE. Unburned Coal and crude oil also contain

    See: http://www.ornl.gov/info/ornlreview/rev26-34/text/colmain.html

    Renewable energy DOES NOT WORK because it is intermittent and diffuse. There are 2 technologies that we don’t have, either of which would solve the problem: Feasible energy storage in vast quantity or ambient temperature superconductors.

    1. Look, it really depends on what you mean by “works”. We have to be careful with statements like that. All these technologies are giving power somewhere, and in some cases like SA with wind, in appreciable amounts. So do they “work”? Yes they do. Will they “work” to eliminate fossil fuels in time to avoid climate breakdown? In that case I agree they certainly will not. But brash statements risk pushing people away from nuclear, rather than getting them to use their rationality to realise its essential role.

      I have Weart’s book on the way. Allison’s book is just excellent, except for getting a few things wrong on future pathways for power technology right at the end. But as a discussion of radiation for the non-professional, it must be nigh-on unbeatable.

  4. High temperature geothermal only works in some places. Nuclear works everywhere. In some cases, high temperature geothermal may trigger a volcanic eruption. In many places, a hole cannot be drilled deep enough to get high temperature geothermal heat because that far down, the pressure is so high that your steel well casing is crushed into [becomes] a solid rod.

  5. Thanks for the entertaining writeup Rachel. After seeing Ben’s recent talk in Sydney here clearly has the ability to sway an audience – I’m glad he’s taken the show on the road again, to Brisbane.

    Regarding biodiesel, while 56% of energy consumption may currently be served by liquid hydrocarbons, I think that share will be more rapidly captured by electrification than by biodiesel substitution, particularly algae biodiesel. There is an industrial supply chain developing around electrified drivetrains faster than the process industry required by algae biodiesel, which is still in an r&d phase. And electric drivetrains are more efficient than internal combustion engines, so while one joule of biodiesel can displace one joule of fossil diesel, one joule of electricity can displace more than one joule of fossil hydrocarbon.

    Photosynthesis is not a terribly efficient way to convert sunlight to energy – say, ~8%, compared to ~20% for solar panels. Subtract from that the energy required to turn algae into diesel fuel to drive an ICE and there’s not much of that original sunlight that gets used to turn wheels. Using solar panels to charge batteries to drive more efficient electric motors is probably a better overall efficiency.

    But better overall to plug them into a nuclear grid. And for those applications that still require liquid fuels, greenhouse neutral nuclear synfuel should fill the gap. Split water to hydrogen with nuclear electricity (and return the hydroxide byproduct to the ocean – carefully! – to offset CO2 acidification), condense the hydrogen with CO2 to make liquid methanol fuel, and further condense the methanol to liquid dimethyl ether fuel. If the CO2 is from direct atmospheric capture or sustainable biomass, then the fuel is truly greenhouse neutral. And maybe some of that sustainable biomass is algae.

  6. It is very hard to imagine a future world of perhaps a billion vehicles either battery runabouts or synfuelled heavy vehicles. The normally astute George Monbiot endorsed a report predicting world oil would jump from 91 mb/d in 2012 to 110 mb/d in 2020. Industry insiders predict it will never exceed 100, noting the latest idea that Saudi Arabia will not export oil after 2030.

    My guess is that dimethyl ether is going to cost something like $3 per kg. As to plug-in hybrids apparently General Motors loses $49k on every Chevrolet Volt. Apart from primary energy input where will all the sticker price purchasing power come from? We want to believe that today’s impoverished kids in Africa and Asia will grow up to drive an electric car and eat food grown with the help of DME powered tractors. I don’t see it.

    1. Hard to imagine overnight, but I can easily envisage a tipping point in sales toward EVs in the next 10 years. A great deal of the cost is tied up in the batteries. These will be subject to the same downward pressure on price as we have seen for things like solar PV and flat screen TVs. Add just a little bit more pure performance improvements in some slightly better range, and you have a hugely attractive product. Far cheaper to own, cleaner at the local air quality level, cleaner at the greenhouse level, and quieter. I agree, it can’t be about petrol getting to exy, it has to be about EVs getting too cheap to knock back. I think they will.

      1. I have a feeling though that it is going to take a transition through hybrids rather than going from all fuel to all electricity. The habitual method of driving into a petrol station and fuelling up in under 5 minutes vs having to plan your charges/ensure there is enough daily charge (for overnight charging) is going to be a tough one to move to. To much of a sudden shift for the majority and will incite backlash.

        Whereas a fuel > hybrid > electric transition may be enough to wean into electric vehicles. Also give time for battery and storage tech to hit the long range level/fast charge. Australia is a big country and driving from capitol to capitol will require more overnight stops for charging and it’s associated infrastructure. There needs to be a longer smoother transition for it to work.

        1. In regard to your comments about the time it takes to recharge the batteries, the Japanese have taken an interesting approach to this, where they just have a robot, change the entire battery with a fully charged one. Much like gas bottles for barbeques are exchanged here in Australia. Sometimes we just need to think differently about how things can be done. Admittedly Japan has a very dense population, and a high tech demographic for its population, and does not have the potential large distances between towns that we have to contend with. However if
          Australians were able to consider just hiring a combustion engine for the occasions that they do travel long distance and using a electric car for city driving (and lets face it we are a nation of urban dwellers) this could be a solution. Indeed this type of network is currently being established in Canberra by Better Place Australia. See http://www.theaustralian.com.au/business/canberra-powers-ahead-with-electric-car-network/story-e6frg8zx-1226102325857

          1. One of the more interesting areas in fundamental materials research is rapid charging and discharging of batteries. There are now some established materials concepts for extremely high charge/discharge rates, in particular using LiFePO4 chemistry – see here [2009] and here [2011]. These materials support complete charge or discharge in the order of 10 s. Batteries based on these materials aren’t commercial, but I don’t see any fundamental problems – these materials, especially that in the earlier work, appear amenable to scaled up production (and I’m generally fairly skeptical about most touted battery material “breakthroughs”).
            While this work doesn’t increase the battery energy density, it does mean recharging could be just as quick as refuelling is now. The problem that gets pushed back onto the infrastructure is providing that much juice – 100s of kW of recharging power – not exactly viable on our existing distribution network.

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