When a group of about one hundred Australians are invited to participate in an energy forum to be broadcast for an international audience, could anyone be faulted for bringing high expectations? This week’s Energy Futures forum in Perth provided an opportunity to address Australia’s contribution to what is arguably the conundrum of the century: a high energy planet that must become carbon neutral. The results were deeply underwhelming. It seems those of us most saturated in reliable energy are also the most insulated from its simple realities.
I was pleased to participate in the Energy Futures forum in Perth this week, the first in a three part series for 2014 by CNBC, sponsored by Shell. My sincere thanks to CNBC for the invitation and also to Shell for the hospitality for the evening. The evening will be broadcast next month, with the next 2014 fora to be held in Singapore and Ontario. I took the opportunity for a longer visit to Perth and surrounds, and enjoyed myself immensely.
What a shame then that the event itself delivered a null outcome. Despite a wonderful set up and a well-conceived hypothetical, the hand-picked assembly manifestly failed to deliver.
Having been warmly welcomed with dinner and drinks, participants joined tables of 6-8 where we found a flat, three-tiered octagon, scratchy textas and a voting keypad.
Our challenge and process was as follows.
We would be given a hypothetical and fifteen minutes to document ideas for addressing it on the outer tier of the octagon, with the aim at this stage of “quality, not quantity”. Stage two required the table members to elevate their favoured ideas to the next level of the octagon and vote, using chips, on their favourite idea. The winning idea would then be documented on the top tier and presented to the assembled group in a ninety-second elevator pitch. All assembled would give each pitch a score out of ten and at the end of the evening scores would be announced.
I joined a table with the following participants:
- Paul Anastas, Lord Mayor’s Personal Aide, City of Perth
- Marita Bradshaw, Senior Science Advisor, Energy Division, Geoscience Australia. This organisation prepares the Australian Energy Resource Assessment
- Chris Fair of Oilfield Data Services
- Alex Gosman, Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Industry Greenhouse Network. This organisation represents Australia’s largest greenhouse emitters
- Dylan Korczynskyj, Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, University of Notre Dame Australia
- Ray Wills, Managing Director, Future Smart Strategies, a private sustainability consulting firm
This was the hypothetical for which we needed to propose a pathway:
“Australia’s energy sector achieves the impossible, becoming the world’s largest producer while attaining carbon neutral status in the same year (2035)”
Unfortunately participants were not provided with any numbers in which to frame this hypothetical. Therefore the quality of the outcomes relied, in large part, on pre-existing literacy regarding the global energy challenge and Australia’s energy footprint. This knowledge varied a great deal among the participants. I’ll take the opportunity here to put some simplified numbers around it based on Australia’s published energy flows.
Australia’s balance of total primary energy is roughly 16,500 PJ. Of that, about 13,500 PJ is dirty energy in the form of coal export (8,000 PJ), gas export (1,000), oil export (1,000 PJ) and non-renewable end use within Australia (3,500 PJ). Our clean energy is approximately 3,500 PJ of which 95% is our uranium export (3,250 PJ) and 5% is renewable electricity and biomass (250 PJ).
Australia’s largest energy contribution is coal export
For a coarse definition of the carbon neutral concept (in energy alone) included in the hypothetical, let’s assume Australia needs to consume and export equivalent or greater zero-carbon energy than it consumes and exports in fossil fuels. That assumes perfect substitution of a PJ of zero carbon energy for a PJ of any fossil fuel. That’s incorrect but suffices for this purpose. The other way of resolving the challenge of the hypothetical is to make enough of the dirty impacts of the dirty energy disappear i.e. carbon capture and storage.
Now, we can get a rough idea of the challenge. To achieve the carbon neutral goal based on our current position, assuming no reduction in fossil exports (i.e. a net increase in energy), we would have needed to consume and export just shy of four times the amount of clean energy, to achieve 13,500 PJ of clean energy. Assuming clean energy exports substituted for fossil exports rather than adding to them, (i.e. the total energy figure remains the same), we would have needed about 2.3 times the consumption and production of clean energy, while the fossil consumption and export drops by about 40%.
Bear in mind, the hypothetical also called on Australia to become the world’s largest energy exporter in 2035. All of those energy numbers would need to increase dramatically to account both for us jumping to first place and for the projected growth in global energy demand by 2035. For the sake of simplicity I’m going to complete the discussion using current figures.
Our task: to provide a vision for achieving this challenge. Without a useful, workable set of numbers to frame the challenge, discussions readily degenerated into unreality. Three major discussions emerged at our table.
Firstly Ray Wills declared “The future is renewables. The coal and gas industries will crash between 2025 and 2030. We have this renewable energy, so the challenge we have is catching it get it there”.
I called this as nonsense at the outset, suggesting that those markets cannot crash on the back of renewables until the solution is well established and proven, and it isn’t. Willis assured me this was happening now. I queried whether he grasped the quantity of energy we currently export and the quantity of growth to come, by pointing out to our table that on average a Kenyan has access to just 1/100th the electricity generating capacity of a South Australian. Wills informed me that the amount of energy needed to address energy poverty was actually very small, clarifying that “he doesn’t mean buying them a TV”.
It may come as a surprise to some that Kenyans, along with everyone else, buy their own TVs and they do so without asking our permission. Willis’ version of addressing energy poverty seems consistent with the United Nations description of meeting “basic human needs” of 50-100 kWh per person per year. That is enough electricity to operate “a couple of light bulbs, a fan and a radio for five hours per day“. That would be an awful lot better than nothing at all, but let’s not kid ourselves. The median Western Australian household uses that much electricity in just ten days.
Meme by Tim-Rasmus Kiehl
With the benefit of the basic numbers we can put the renewables-driven concept to the test. Use and export of renewable energy would need to be increased 14-fold to cover just our dirty domestic energy consumption. On a substitution basis, to neutralise the impact of the exports too, our output of renewable energy would need to increase another 32-fold. To fulfil the promise of crashes in fossil fuel (i.e. meeting the full level of fossil exports with renewable energy) it would need to be increased another 40-fold. So, to neutralise both domestic use and exports we need to grow renewable energy output by 46 times. To wipe fossil out of the picture we need to grow renewable energy output by 54 times.
Of course, that’s not even the nub of the problem. Just how are we supposed to use and export at least 46-54 times our current production of renewable electricity? Currently we can’t even implement cost-effective systems of storage to shave off a bit of peak demand. We cannot sell sunshine, wind and hot rocks. We have no way of packing this energy into a useful, portable form that is anything like a match for the energy density of coal, gas, and especially uranium. The only technologically conceivable route is the direct connection and sale of a frighteningly large amount of HVDC electricity. Try to picture a system that can deliver 40 times Australia’s total energy end use in the form of electricity. Picture all of our export markets happily forgoing the flexibility, convenience and security provided by stockpiled fuel, and instead purchasing every single kWh in real time from our island nation.
To Wills’s credit he chose not to elevate such a vision to the second stage. He was stumped by the challenge and no solution came to mind.
The second major concept came largely from Marita Bradshaw with support from others, and went roughly as follows. Based on the achievement of a major climate compact in Paris in 2015 between the USA and China, strong climate action is entrenched. Australia is elevated to the world’s largest energy exporter through growth in the full energy “portfolio” (Aside: portfolio is fast becoming my most hated weasel word in energy discussions. It’s code for “cop out”. End aside) This portfolio included growth in coal and gas. Uranium was included on a token basis, largely to placate me, and I think renewables were mentioned somehow.
When I pointed out that a growth in fossil exports from current levels fails to meet the carbon neutral component of the hypothetical a priori, the response was that carbon capture and storage is delivering on the challenge by then. I observed that this sounded like every Australian Government policy document I have read in the last five years and not the type of idea that could actually meet the hypothetical. I cautioned the table that while this vision may get up in our vote, it would be treated harshly by the room and is therefore not worth supporting. I was told that it was not about winning. In summary, this vision was vision BAU fossil growth, crafted to challenge, excite and offend no one.
I offered the third alternative based on our uranium resource. It should be obvious to even the casual observer that since uranium is 95% of our total clean energy and 100% of our clean energy export, the key to meeting this challenge lies in growing the export of uranium, the super-dense clean energy fuel. An increase of just 2.5 times the uranium export in substitution for coal would meet my coarse carbon neutral definition. That is so achievable it’s almost boring. Australia is not even the world’s largest uranium exporter right now. We are third, even though we have the world’s best uranium reserves. Even if expanded alongside, instead of in substitution for fossil fuels, a four-fold growth in Australian uranium would meet the carbon-neutral challenge articulated above. Considering our current energy export in uranium is delivered via less than 7,000 t U3O8 per annum, compared to exports of about 150 million tons of thermal coal per year, it’s a logistical non-event.
Uranium oxide carries 14,000 – 23,000 times the energy of coal per unit weight
The challenge is more so the growth of the market itself. That was the crux of the concept I offered the table, termed Intermediate Fuel Storage + Integral Fast Reactor (IFS+IFR). It goes like this. Australia establishes the world’s first multinational spent fuel repository. This is established on the ironclad commitment to develop a fleet of integral fast reactors (commercially known as PRISM) to demonstrate and expand the recycling of the spent nuclear fuel for another 99 times more zero-carbon energy. The development of the intermediate repository and the first reactors is funded by our international partners who purchase the service Australia provides, so it is at worst revenue neutral for Australia at the outset. The commitment to PRISM development negates the need for geological repository on science fiction time scales. The 30-year half-life of the eventual waste products permits far simpler storage solutions on an intermediate time scale (hence intermediate fuel storage). By unblocking the back end of the nuclear fuel cycles for our international partners and customers, rapid nuclear development in Generation III+ technology receives a strong boost and uranium exports begin strong growth as nuclear power pulls share from coal in global energy growth. Each PRISM development adds 622 MWe of saleable zero-carbon generation to Australia which further improves the revenue position and drives down our domestic energy footprint, bringing the carbon neutral goal ever closer. At maturity, Australia is running on PRISM reactors fuelled by the spent fuel we received. The world is running on a much large number of Generation III+ reactors that we supply with our uranium exports under a fuel leasing model. The transition to PRISM world-wide is underway on the back of Australia’s pioneering embrace of the technology with support of key partners. Australia is exporting the starter bundles of metal fuel from our own PRISM fleet while continuing to derive revenue from the multi-national repository and uranium exports.
I won’t pretend that’s easily done. But it meets the challenge of a hypothetical that called on Australia’s energy sector to “achieve the impossible”.
This vision picked up votes from three at the table: myself, Paul Anastas and Chris Fair. The portfolio vision scored votes from four: Marita Bradshaw, Alex Gosman, Dylan Korczynskyj and, to my considerable consternation, Ray Wills, a sustainability consultant who threw in behind fossil-fuel BAU rather than give oxygen to a nuclear vision. Stranger still, he stood up and presented it. There was something profoundly allegorical about how this played out. With nothing to offer to meet the challenge of a high energy, decarbonised planet, so many renewables advocates will flee to the safety of climate change rather than entertain a nuclear pathway. My vision lost, and BAU won. At least, at our table.
The pace was frantic and discussions were heated
When the elevator pitches arrived, presentation after presentation gave a rehash of the same blue-sky, motherhood statements around carbon capture and storage, renewables here and elsewhere, engineered draw-down of carbon dioxide and the like. Two presentations suggested Australia would begin accepting, by the tanker load, imports of carbon-dioxide from our trading partners for sequestration in Australia. Several groups made passing, joking, semi-scathing reference to Australia becoming a nuclear “dump” to fund these grand ideas.
The scores told the story. All eleven tables were scored between low 4s/10 and at best a high 6/10. Our table scored in 8th place with a score in the high 4s. Given that tables could boost their own chances by voting for themselves, it’s clear that we delivered shades of mediocrity to answer this serious hypothetical. In defence of my fellow participants who may be less specialised than I, more information on energy was required.
And that was that. We emerged for drinks and networking.
I departed quickly, feeling deeply disconcerted and even angry at what I had seen and heard. As an assembly of hand-picked Australians, we would have represented a far upper percentile of wealth in even our own wealthy nation. We had flown in from around the country, and driven to the event in petrol powered cars along bitumen roads. We enjoyed hot food and cold beer in excess, doubtless throwing out more food per head than the town’s poorest would see in a week. We watched the city of Perth light up below us from our own well-lit, air-conditioned venue before returning to modern hotels. We were filmed and recorded, and will be showcased to an international audience. Everything about the experience was the result of energy. Plentiful, dependable energy provided, but for a scraping of renewables, from dense fossil fuels whose waste is threatening to bring the house down around our ears this century. We Australians appear so utterly detached from both the quantity of the energy that sustains us and the impact it is having on the world. We owed far, far more to the process and our hosts than we delivered. We owed more to those who live without energy, and more to those who would have given anything to participate in such a forum.
I would like to see the debt repaid. If there is a sponsor who would support another event where we capture the process of writing an inspiring, high energy carbon neutral future for Australia, I’m in. I’ll bring our greatest creative energy minds with me, and we will deliver.
Perth by night, seen from our forum venue. We are a high-energy people. We need to get informed and get honest about that.
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