When I was recently writing a piece for The Conversation with Corey Bradshaw,  I included a line in the draft saying that despite our efforts with renewables “the fundamentals of Australia energy have not changed”. The editor very sensibly sent it back and said, in not so many words “prove it”.

It turns out I was wrong. It’s much worse than I thought. It’s not a situation of no change. In terms of clean electricity share Australia has gone backwards in a big way.

The following figure is taken from a 2011 report by Environment Victoria, Australia’s Electricity Generation Mix 1960-2009.
Australian electricity 1960-2009 png

This is mind-blowing. In 1960, when climate change wasn’t on the radar, Australia got 19% of its electricity supply from renewable sources (well, source. This was basically all hydro power). Fast forward to 2009 and the share has crashed to 7%. Before anyone quibbles, Energy in Australia 2013 which lags only a year behind in data has renewables at 7.7% of the total share of generation.

To make matters fantastically, stupendously worse, total electricity generation has grown 10-fold over that same period, with coal growing 12-fold and renewables only 4-fold in total electricity generated. This is the picture of energy growth that is being played out all over again in the developing world.

Australian electricity generation by fuel type 1960-2008 (Environment Victoria 2011)
Australian electricity generation by fuel type 1960-2008 (Environment Victoria 2011)

What this woeful history tells us it that we need lots and lots and lots more clean energy. We need it in Australia. We need it in the world. Bring it on. It also tells us that a fixation with a class of technologies we have labelled “renewables” (such as how fast they are growing, what they are doing, the latest breakthrough, the barriers against them) is akin to putting the blinkers on and shutting out reality.

So, perhaps the next time someone presumes I don’t know what is happening in my own state and says “don’t you know South Australia gets 30% of its electricity from wind?”  I will point them to the chart above and say “Yes, and it’s in the wee green bit up the top. Does that look like success to you?”. Or perhaps I will muster a less glib response like this: good arguments for renewables are not the same thing as good arguments against nuclear.

South Australia’s experience (to date) with wind generation is primarily a success story that should be learned from. In ten years our small state (about 1.5 million people, with 1 million in Adelaide) has gone from nothing to 27% generation from wind, with a concurrent reduction in emissions. System wise it has not been problem-free, but in the context of a climate crisis, this is entirely acceptable.

The success has also been dependent on our connection to the mega-market of the NEM (covering about 90% of total electricity in Australia), where wind generation sits at a woeful 2% overall. South Australia has had an ability to trade electricity to and from that market when the wind is either blowing madly or not at all. So do all the other states. Two percent NEM-wide is pathetic. So Australia? Use more wind.

South Australian electricity imports and exports
South Australian electricity imports and exports (AEMO 2013)

The other success stories we must learn from are the high-penetration nuclear markets of France, Sweden and Switzerland. The article at The Conversation attracted some ridiculous number of comments (347 to date…). Plenty of folk were out to tear us down. Strangely, none of our critics referred to this table…

Nation Emissions (g CO2-e/kWh) % nuclear Residential price (US$/MWh) Industry price (US$/MWh)
Australia 847 0 $292
Denmark 385 0 $454 $128
Germany 468 23 $285 $127
Switzerland 27 40 $264 $156
Sweden 22 40.5 $246 $103
France 77 76 $159 $104
All data are from the International Energy Agency 2012 except the Australian price, which is from the Australian Energy Market Commission 2013. Prices have been adjusted for purchasing power parity based on OECD August 2013. (Heard and Bradshaw, 2013)

Large scale nuclear programs work. More than that, they remain the only case studies for effective decarbonisation of electricity in developed nations. Look at France. Highest nuclear penetration. Best prices. Emissions 11-fold less than Australia. Second-largest exporter of electricity in the world. It was all done in 22 years and it sucked up every bit of demand growth along the way.

France's nuclear success is a crucial model for action
France’s nuclear success is a crucial model for action

So, blinkers off. We need lots and lots and lots of clean energy, and we are only going to need more. Support for nuclear power is no threat to market-ready renewables in Australia. This concept is the self-flattery of activists with no basis in reality.

Renewable-only dogma is the enemy of climate action. It bring the uniquely dangerous kicker that it specialises in screening information to make failure sound like success.

The message of climate urgency is deservedly dismissed when the messengers themselves clearly don’t believe it.

Like what you see here? Please subscribe to the blog, Like Decarbonise SA on Facebook and follow @BenThinkClimate on Twitter. Read more about the potential for nuclear power in Australia at Zero Carbon Options


  1. Bravo. Not only does this need to be on the conversation but in both news ltd and fairfax press. This is a very very solid argument. Seriously, send this in a letter to the environment and energy ministers and see how far it goes.

  2. For some reason people can immediately see reasons why it may be impractical to grow bananas in the Simpson Desert. However when it comes to 80% renewables (or whatever) the view seems to be ‘why not?’. I think several pieces of evidence show why not
    – the election was in effect a referendum on high power prices
    – we have 1m but may never get to 2m solar roofs now the 8c FiT is Australia wide
    – good wind sites near transmission and away from NIMBYs are harder to find
    – Germany is telling us it gets a lot harder after 25%.

    I’m not anti-renewables after all I’ve had PV since 2005, cook on a wood stove, make biodiesel and help with micro hydro projects. However these options are not available to the bulk of people in the suburbs. Nor does Gwh scale energy storage appear economic anytime soon, either distributed at the household level or centralised. We need something else to replace realtime generation by coal and gas.

    Ben I’m surprised you haven’t linked to this article since you are mentioned in it

  3. Good piece Ben. But let’s consider where we could have been if we’d started with nuclear 10 years back instead of wind … total electricity in SA is 13 TWh annually. During the 11 years from 2009 to 2020, the South Koreans will build 4 reactors for the United Arab Emirates which will produce about 44 TWh/yr. So, if we had the will and the money we could have built 4 much smaller nukes to supply the entire 13 TWh/yr and be generating clean electricity for the next 60 or so years. Instead, we have spent a decade building wind farms and putting panels on roofs to deliver 3.5 TWh/yr.

    Of course, 10 years back, I would have been out on the streets demonstrating against such a plan. Would I have done the requisite reading and thinking to change my mind back in 2003? I doubt it. I wasn’t sufficiently aware of the perils of climate change to force me to reevaluate such a long held dogma.

    1. You might want to consider the LOCE of nuclear which is much higher than onshore wind. Even Citi Research says wind and solar will erode coal and nuclear in USA and everywhere else on cost alone, without a price on carbon being factored in or subsidies and legislative “fixes” the nuclear industry would require to get 10 plants up in Australia. The price of the recently commissioned two UK reactors is highest ever paid for nuclear. It’s cost curve is up. Renewables cost curve is down and falling fast.

      1. The LCOE for nuclear is, in most places, slightly higher, not much higher than that of wind. Given that a new nuclear plant has perhaps triple the lifespan and far greater dispatchability, there is decidedly room for development of both. I don’t see much competition between wind and nuclear power; I know of no proposals anywhere to run whole networks on wind, and significant contributions from wind do little to reduce the potential role of nuclear. In terms of renewable technologies nuclear is more appropriately compared to solar thermal with storage, geothermal, ocean power or biomass, and in both cost and other sustainability metrics it compares very, very favourably. If you are interested in what it happening in the US, the big story is gas eroding coal in a huge way, and nuclear struggling against regulation and private energy markets. Wind is doing quite well there too.

        I beat you to in in terms of criticism of the Hinkley price, see my related article published here and at The Breakthrough Institute. Nonetheless note the price to be paid is less that that expected for on-shore wind, much less than off-shore wind and way less than solar. So to be internally consistent, if the nuclear price is bad, the renewable price is horrible.

        The recently commissioned EPR in China was brought on line for about $2,000 per kW, showing a fantastic cost curve. We can cherry pick examples and data or we can challenge ourselves to see the whole picture.

        1. The LCOE for nuclear is, in most places, slightly higher, not much higher than that of wind.
          That of wind goes down with ~4%/a (the past) or ~2%/a (the future), while that of nuclear goes up with inflation, etc. Taking into account the long building time for nuclear (~10years), the price difference by that time may be a factor 2.

          I don’t see much competition between wind and nuclear power; I know of no proposals anywhere to run whole networks on wind,
          Check Denmark. Not a proposal but growing fact: http://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/postcard-from-the-grids-future-record-breaking-wind-integration-in-denmark

          1. Are you for real?

            Denmark has more expensive retail electricity than Germany and runs on 70% coal and natural gas for their electricity, not to mention their heating.

            Bas, you are an ideologue with whom I have finally lost patience. You have either accidentally or deliberately missed the point of this site, which is decarbonisation. Not “nuclear in any and all circumstances”, not “renewables in any and all circumstances”, decarbonisation. Your insistence that the experience with renewable technologies means nuclear is not a major necessary part of what we all need to do is completely innumerate from a climate and energy perspective, and flies in the face of the real world where the only places to have successfully decarbonised their electricity supply have done so with varying mixes of renewable and nuclear generation. Your conspiratorial harping about the CfD policy in the UK, and false comparisons with policies in other countries, illustrates that you are more anti-nuclear than pro-climate action.

            In which case you can just leave. http://thebulletin.org/nuclear-vs-renewables-divided-they-fall

  4. The Australian Industry Group who insisted the carbon tax be removed now want subsidies to soften looming price rises for east coast natural gas. A spokesman said there could be a case for temporary financial support for businesses whose competitiveness is at risk from the gas price surge. Geez they don’t want much.

    Other commenters note that the wholesale price for gas in SA was $4 a GJ in 2012 and in 2015 it may nudge $10. That’s because Cooper Basin gas will get double the return flowing to the Gladstone Qld export LNG plant under construction rather than to Adelaide. This could be a major betrayal of politicians of all sides in SA who thought gas was the future. Was it Redmond who was the gas fired trigen enthusiast? I suspect Weatherill and others are holding their breath for a major wobbly and will ask for federal intervention next year. I guess SA just doesn’t have any other energy resources.

  5. Why change the interval in the diagram? First 10years (1960, 1970, 1980, etc) then 9 years.
    Is it because the grow of renewable, especially solar, came after 2008?

    1. Bas,
      1. You would need to ask Environment Victoria. They published it in 2011.
      2. Wind has been coming on steady and strong since around 2001
      3. The growth in solar is a pimple on the mountain of Australian energy I am afraid.

      Fast forward the chart to 2013 and you would see more renewables (mostly wind) and a bit less coal (mostly drop in demand, wind, and solar in that order). The fundamental picture would be unchanged.

      1. SolarPV is a pimple that delivered big costs savings to Australian by reducing peak load demand during the last heat wave. And this pimple is soon to become full blown acne as prices continue to tumble with regular doublings in deployment. New technologies incrementally improve solarPV on a monthly basis.

        1. Like wind, solar PV does little to diminish the valuable potential role of nuclear power. Meeting a portion of demand on some hours of some days does not a decarbonisation strategy make. The numbers are pretty simple. A 1.1 million+ rooftop PV systems with capacity of over 3 GW are currently providing around 6.5 TWh, with penetration of 14%. Assuming constant demand (unlikely), and 100% penetration (unlikely) will give us 43 GWh or 17% of our total national consumption [update: oops. Did I say that? Getting my GWh mixed up with my TWh. Australian electricity consumption per annum is in excess of 250 TWh. That makes the 43 GWh… ], all delivered between sun up and sun down, on sunny days only which will frankly play havoc with networks unless peak demand can somehow be shifted to midday.

          It’s all good, you would be a mug not to have it on your roof. But seriously, don’t leverage that technology against a need proper planning involving other important technology. It’s just unhelpful tribalism.

          1. More penetration of cheap solar and wind implies that nuclear can only fill the gaps when the sun does not shine and the wind does not blow.

            That makes a nuclear power plant with its high fixed costs (capital, staff) extreme expensive measured in $/KWh.

            1. If that’s your idea of a good outcome, then you really are just a technology tribalist, not someone who want efficient an effective decarbonisation. Because that gap when your pet technologies let everyone down will be filled with gas.

  6. France doesn’t share your enthusiasm on price of new nuclear power. Talking with Germany and EU about a consortium to produce solarPV and maybe CST, like the Airbus manufacturing to make all new generation capacity renewables. UKs nukes didn’t come at all cheap. If nukes were the magic bullet on CC, even though I’m concerned about the risk factors and decommissioning I’d support it, but the argument you make, while having some merit isn’t strong enough for me.

    1. You remind me of me about 5-10 years ago. That comment is a good example of preferencing anecdotal information that serves a viewpoint above actual data. I used to do that as a matter of course. I was still doing it when I was supposed to be a professional providing solid research and independent analysis. Such is the nature of ideology, it is brilliant at focusing on what it wants to see.

      France is just shy of 80% nuclear supplied. It has among the cheapest electricity, residential and industrial, in all of Europe. It has clean air. It has among the cleanest electricity in the world. New plants are being built there. Despite the rhetoric of the existing Government, there is no way the contribution of nuclear power is going to fall too far. Despite anecdotal talk of solar developments in France, it is nuclear that has successfully decarbonised France, Sweden, Finland and Ontario where coal just doesn’t play a part anymore.

      Nuclear is not the magic bullet on climate change, just the coal and gas element of the electricity supply element of climate change. In this case, it pretty much is a case of switching one tech for another. Which is why this is frustrating, because other elements of climate change mitigation are actually hard and need our attention, like transportation and land use. This is fucking simple, we should be doing it and moving on.

      And by the way, no one ever convinced me of anything. I did that bit myself. So please, keep reading, keep questioning, keep exploring, and steer towards data.

      1. France intends to lower the present 77% share of nuclear towards 50% in 2025.
        They will close the first 2 reactors (Fessenheim) next year.
        It announced stimulations for wind and solar. So it is following Germany.

  7. Just bookmarking this post for the next time a nuclear advocate says to me “we never attack renewables, so why do renewables advocates attack nuclear”.

    And what an astonishing cherry pick and straw man. Your data finishes in 2008! Why not apply the same argument to nuclear world wide? Will I find the proportion of nuclear has increased or decreased? If the proportion of nuclear power in the world has decreased since 1968 will that mean it is incapable of contributing to climate change?

    French example is an incredible one to try and apply to Australia. For starters they wanted, and got, The Bomb during this program. Also it is a hell of a lot more socialist than Australia, and very easy for the government to make decisions and implement them. The claim that “it was all done in 22 years” beggars belief as well. Was there any planning in the years before they started construction? Was there any community consultation? Did they already have a nuclear industry from which to draw people? If you think this is in any way a model solution for Australia I think you badly underestimate the political process in Australia.

    1. Evan,
      “Your data finishes in 2008!” The report was by Environment Victoria, not me. However, thinking ahead, I called up the most recent available data at the time and included it in the post, in the section presciently headed “Before anyone quibbles…”. Feel free to grab recent reports from BREE, AEMO or AER to see the status today.

      If we did the same thing for nuclear would you see a small recent drop off in proportion supplied. I would use it to support calls for more clean energy, not less, and for deployment from all sources.This post does not argue against renewables, it argues for reality. Like the bit where I say “Bring it on…Australia, use more wind”

      Of course there are limits to the direct applicability of the French experience. That’s your straw man, not mine. To smooth things out of course we can include Sweden, Switzerland and Ontario in our considerations. None will be perfectly transferable, and all have something rather important in common that we should consider.

      They succeeded where we failed.

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