For the third year I enjoyed contributing to the discussions on climate and energy for the Governor’s Leadership Foundation.
My sincere thanks to the chair, Sally Wheldrake and her team both for the invitation and for such a well organised session. Thanks also to the participants for their attention and great questions. Thanks also for the patience! This was one of the … spicier panel sessions I have done in quite some time, to my surprise. I fear many participants felt confused by the level, tone and content of some of the discussions. As a panel we can do better next time.
When I step back, a great deal of ground was covered. Having just ten minutes to present, and fulfilling my remit to focus on leadership, opportunities to discuss the role of nuclear in meeting the climate change challenge were somewhat constrained.
Chatham House rules prevent any overly specific discussion from the evening. I would like to reflect in general terms on some of the discussion and provide just a little more detail on my position and how and why I take the position I do in nuclear. I hope this is interesting for participants who may visit the blog, and also as something of a digest for others interested in nuclear.
South Australia is part of the NEM
A high level of focus on the impressive penetration of wind and solar in South Australia can deliver a misleading perspective. At 25%+ of electricity delivered, the South Australian wind story is certainly one of creating the best investment environment for wind and reaping the reward. However, South Australia is part of the National Electricity Market. We buy and sell electricity from the geographically largest grid in the world with over 8 million customers, and we are a small part of that. Wind has prospered on the ability to engage in this trading, and South Australia remains a net importer of electricity from the NEM. So, from a system perspective, the successful “integration” of 25%+ wind into the South Australia needs to be reframed as the successful integration of about 5% wind into the NEM. Before anyone gets too excited, or scoff at those raising concerns of the addition of variable generation like wind, let’s just take a pause. To make that claim we either need to a) cut off the interconnectors or b) give wind the chance to do 10%, 15%, 20%, 25% of the whole NEM and then look again at the system impact and cost. I am happy to see greater levels of wind in the NEM in future.
Rather than just buying, now we buy and sell. SA wind would not work without the NEM
Meanwhile, our beloved solar PV is a runaway success in terms of what we once thought success would look like: solar panels on roofs. The amount of electricity generated remains decidedly modest compared to the wind sector, let alone coal and gas, and sales are collapsing with the progressive withdrawal of subsidy. For more about that please check this post.
Please also consider that the proportion of electricity from zero-carbon generation has plunged since 1960. We need to break the habit of patting ourselves on the back while failing. If our efforts are swamped by other variables like growth, the result is that we lose. That’s why we need more and bigger clean energy, and that’s why we need nuclear. For more on this background of Australian electricity please see this post.
This is not success.
The world needs more energy
No one will get argument from me that Australians are profligate in their energy use. Just as we use too much, others use too little energy. The thing is there are many more of them than there are of us.
If the most profligate energy users in the world slashed their per capita energy consumption by between 20%-60% (depending on where they are starting from) to 4000 kWh per year, and we brought the poor world up to that level of consumption, then by 2050 we would have achieved the most phenomenal success on the basis of both efficiency and equity. We would also be consuming double the current level of electricity. All of that electricity, be it what remains in Australia and what is new in Nigeria, all needs to be zero-carbon to get ahead of climate change. We need LOTS of clean energy. That’s another reason I got behind nuclear. For more on that issue please see this post on consumption and this post on population.
Renewables vs Nuclear is the wrong battle
Climate and energy commentators owe it to their audience to be unceasing in their search for sophisticated understanding and insight into these issues, as impartially as possible, and to then bring what they learn and communicate it to build insight and knowledge more broadly.
All energy sources bring advantages and disadvantages. As a staunch nuclear advocate I will unflinchingly point out that the up-front capital requirements are a real barrier, the size of most reactors are unsuitable for the Australian network as currently structured, and the culture of arch conservatism that runs through most of the OECD nuclear industry has delivered us something that is incredibly safe and also created real barriers to innovation and deployment. For some of my openly published criticism please see this post.
To criticise renewable technology is not to reject it. Criticism ought be perceived as a search for understanding so as to make wise decisions. Renewable technologies have some strengths and they have some weaknesses. The weaknesses are not the nefarious concoction of the coal, gas or uranium industry, they are inherent to the technologies. Most importantly the weaknesses become really apparent if we have lots and lots of renewables in the system.
It’s my informed assessment that the weaknesses of renewables are insurmountable in the face of the urgent need for decarbonisation. It’s also my informed assessment that many renewable technologies will help us get there. That’s why I argue renewables vs nuclear is the wrong battle, which you can read more about in this post to ABC. We have our solar. We have our wind. We will be having more of both and much of last night’s discussion was something of a distraction from the bigger picture. It calls on an extra level of maturity and sophistication to appreciate that it’s possible, and in fact essential, that we return nuclear to the forefront of the challenge of displacing fossil fuels and to do so does not require us to reject renewable technologies.
Australia has deployed fossil fuel and renewables. Denmark and Germany have deployed more renewables, fossil fuels, and are shutting nuclear. Switzerland, Sweden and France have deployed nuclear and renewables (principally hydro power)
|Nation||Emissions (g CO2-e/kWh)||% nuclear||Residential price (US$/MWh)||Industry price (US$/MWh)|
Nuclear advocates are not leaning on new technology
Pointing out what Australia might achieve with new technology is not to lean on it. To say so is to build a straw man. The table above shows what nuclear technology has achieved to date. So does the health and safety related table below, published in The Lancet, as results of the massive ExternE actuarial study conducted by the European Union. Most nuclear advocates do not lean on new technology. The track record of the nuclear industry to date is extraordinary and poorly understood.
I am not a vested interest
Since become a nuclear advocate, I have continued to earn my living through activities like greenhouse gas assessment, carbon neutral strategies, energy efficiency strategies and modelling, writing grants for commercial solar systems and teaching. Latterly I am under scholarship with the University of Adelaide. There is not one person or organisation who would have held me to account had I not presented or panelled last night. There was not one person or organisation vetting what I said or how I said it. I was not paid to attend and it was not an expected part of any salaried role. Those who are vested interests may find it easier to project that onto others when accounting for the constraints they bring.
Why did I become pro-nuclear?
I was asked this and was able to provide a partial answer. I had the opportunity to revisit this in an article for InDaily last year, published here. I also covered this ground for a debate in Sydney, and the video is here.
Thanks again for having me Governor’s Leadership Foundation.