With thanks to a generous donor, a 2015 edition of Zero Carbon Options is now available!

ZCO 2015

The new edition features:

  • Foreword by Senator Sean Edwards
  • Foreword by Professor Corey Bradshaw
  • Over a dozen endorsements from academics, politicians, activists and analysts
  • New preface from me
  • Revised introduction

The preface to the 2015 edition is published below. 

logo onlyA lot changes in three years.

When we launched Zero Carbon Options in November 2012 it was the culmination of six months of unpaid work. We delivered an original methodology and important findings, packaged in a fantastic graphic design.

We filled the room, yet it felt a little empty. Despite inviting every Member of Parliament in South Australia, none attended. None sent official representation. It seemed nuclear remained a political no-go.

Fast-forward to the first half of 2015 and the South Australian government of Premier Jay Weatherill will investigate expansion into the nuclear fuel cycle via a Royal Commission. Political winds are changing. The Royal Commission has been launched from a political party with a history of antagonism to nuclear technology (Labor- left).

Senator Sean Edwards

An ambitious vision from South Australian Senator Sean Edwards (Liberal- right) would make South Australia a global hub of storage and recycling of once-used nuclear fuel. The realisation of this economic strategy would permanently displace coal from South Australian electricity generation. Both the Federal Government (Liberal) and the Federal Opposition (Labor) have now clearly indicated that national policy on nuclear will be driven from the outcomes of the Royal Commission. It’s on us now.

The nuclear conversation is moving from a whisper among friends to a mainstream conversation in the community. What changed? How did this happen?

We can imagine that November 2012 was simply the “wrong” time and now the time is “right”. That belies a massive effort, both within Australia and around the world, that has amplified the growing realities of the energy and climate challenges we face.

In mid-2013 the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering held a two-day conference called Nuclear Power for Australia? The resulting communiqué and subsequent publications of ATSE did much to build interest and credibility in the nuclear discussion in Australia.

4447Documentary film maker Robert Stone released Pandora’s Promise and brought it to Australia in late 2013. He was aided by supporters in every Australian capital city. The distributor, Gil Scrine of Cinema Ventures, was prepared to cop the criticism from his arts community. We sold out several screenings, sold loads of DVDs, Robert did Q&A in his indefatigable style and Australian media loved him.

By the end of that year, climate scientists were taking the fight up to environmentalists. A powerful open letter from Ken Caldeira, Kerry Emmanuel, James Hansen and Tom Wigley to every major environmental non-governmental organisation in the world, requested a demonstration of “real concern about risks from climate damage by calling for the development and deployment of advanced nuclear energy”.

Professor Corey Bradshaw

Another climate scientist, Australian coral reef specialist Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, added his voice to the calls for nuclear power in the middle of 2014. Then Australian Professors Barry Brook (University of Tasmania) and Corey Bradshaw (University of Adelaide) assembled 75 other leading conservation scientists from over a dozen nations to “entreat the conservation and environmental community to weigh up the pros and cons of different energy sources … rather than simply relying on idealistic perceptions of what is ‘green’”.

The commissioning of the world’s largest solar farm in the Mojave desert underscored the vast territory that is required for a modest and variable electricity supply, reflecting the land use concerns we raised in Zero Carbon Options. Outcomes of feasibility studies were released for the solar thermal concept for Port Augusta in South Australia, which served as a point of comparison in our report. This revealed pricing to be economically unviable and near-identical to that which we published in Zero Carbon Options two years earlier.

Kirsty Gogan, Energy for Humanity

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change chose to reflect the emerging evidence. As academic Suzy Waldman identified, the Fifth Assessment Report firmly re-grouped nuclear and renewables as the low-carbon energy sources. The agreement on emissions reduction between the USA and China in late 2014 exposed the critical role of nuclear energy in meeting climate goals of worthwhile ambition. We saw the birth of Energy for Humanity, a not-for-profit organisation prosecuting the case for plentiful clean energy with nuclear technology as a core solution. The CEO, Kirsty Gogan, is another long-standing environmentalist who put concern for climate change above dogmatism over solutions.

In South Australia, random polling confirmed what many had suspected: support for nuclear power was far higher than popularly perceived. Peak business group Business SA stated “we should be mature enough to have an informed public debate on the pros and cons of developing a nuclear industry”.

In late 2014 US-based film maker Gordon McDowell created a crisply edited and entertaining version of my 2014 Google Earth presentation to the Brisbane Global Café. He laid out the case for nuclear in Australia with an amazing mix of dialogue, images and text. Adelaide’s own Geoff Russell wrote and published the informative e-book Greenjacked! , which is among the best explorations of the history of our fears and understanding of radiation I have ever read.

Joyashree Roy, co-author of the Ecoomdernist Manifesto
Joyashree Roy, co-author of the Ecoomdernist Manifesto

In April 2015, an international coalition of 18 analysts and academics published the Ecomodernist Manifesto. This provided a unifying, hopeful vision of the future with plentiful, clean energy as a prerequisite. The following month, 39 nuclear societies issued a declaration that shares the objective of limiting global warming and calls for greater recognition of nuclear technology as essential in meeting this challenge.

The “right time” does not happen, people make it happen. Those of us who wanted evidence-based change in our collective approach to climate and energy have been working hard to make the right time “right now”. That includes a veritable army of energetic supporters, a dawning movement of ecomodernists, taking up the challenge across our social media platforms.

I’m proud to re-release Zero Carbon Options this year. Aside from the forewords and the commentary from readers the 2015 report is largely as it was published in 2012.

I and many others continue to field variations of the question “can’t we do it all with renewable energy?” This report is my contribution to assisting Australians to draw their own informed conclusions on the basis of evidence from a simple, transparent methodology.

To those doubting the capacity for change in our society and institutions, I invite you to review the last three years in South Australia, take heart, and be the change you wish to see.

Ben Heard, June 2015

Hard copies of the report are available on request at a cost of $15 including postage. Email ben.heard@thinkclimateconsulting.com.au


  1. Haven’t digested every word yet but I like the general line of argument. The EC6 is off-the-shelf, about the right size until power exports are confirmed, load follows OK and can make a head start on some IFR type tasks (low effort fuel recycling, thorium) until it comes on the market. The Chinese might lend some money and know-how as with Atucha 3.

    A novel argument for the adequacy of SA’s existing wind build follows from the recent empirical study by Wheatley that 5% windpower is 80% effective at emissions displacement while 15% penetration is just 60% effective. Interpolating (using the formula E=90-2P) I make 30% wind penetration just 30% effective while 45% windpower gives 0% displacement. SA has got enough wind power and needs new dispatchable generation.

    I’ll read ZCO 2015 in more detail tomorrow.

    1. Thanks John. I *had* been reading Zero Carbon Options, then I got sidetracked by your Joe Wheatley reference — that, and the latest sea-level scare from Hansen et al. The take-home from both being that if you want to build out windmills, by all means subsidize windmills. And if you want to stop carbon emissions, tax the extraction of carbon. Just don’t think the two are the same: even in the absence of actinides, building windmills for the sake of building windmills will not reduce carbon emissions to the extent that would a carbon tax, with the same or lesser build of windmills.

  2. I like the word ‘windmills’ as in going back to a windmills and firewood economy. That’s what the Australian Labor Party will take to the 2016 federal election. They propose 50% renewables by 2050 plus carbon pricing via an emissions trading scheme. Plugging P = 50% into the inferred Wheatley formula E = 90-2P gives -10% emissions displacement i.e. a 10% increase. Mind you most of Australia’s coal fired stations will be retired by 2050 and eastern Australia is exporting 70% of its gas production so those big batteries had better be working well.

    I take ZCO 2015 to be in effect a submission to the SA Nuclear Royal Commission. I note general submissions close by August 2nd.

    1. John – that’s 2030, not 2050.

      I wonder which modelling they were sold on?

      As you know I have previously extrapolated from best achieved Australian wind+PV addition rate and come up with 37 years to get to 50% of current electricity consumption.

      IMO rich Germany has demonstrated that system impacts arise well before such a high penetration is reached – without achieving any appreciable emissions reductions. It sure won’t happen in budgetarily-challenged Australia.

    2. I think they wish to call modern wind generators “wind turbines” both for the cache, and to distinguish them from “old technology” as their blades incorporate a fair amount of lift in addition to momentum transfer. And “new” technology is always better than “old” technology — otherwise we wouldn’t need renewables to solve the carbon problem. Even at that, “turbine” is a bit of a misnomer, as no turbine is involved. A better name might be aerofoil-powered generator, but call it that and no one would know what you were talking about.

      Age is a silly distinction of course. Einstein received his 1926 Nobel Prize for explaining the Photoelectric effect 20 years earlier. Windmills were popular for rural (farm) electricity generation about the same time, and vanished with the arrival of the first coal-based electrification coops. Wind electricity generators date from 1887, even those first are frequently referred to as “wind turbines.” Windmills are still used to pump agricultural water, particularly at remote cattle stations. And there’s nothing particularly “new” about hydro, either: dating to 1880 (125 years) in the U.S.

  3. But back to John Newland’s Joe Wheatley paper, an empirical study of electricity CO2 emissions in Ireland, which John has mentioned before. This present comment is going to be a bit lengthy, but the final result is a (little) bit surprising, so please bear with me and do correct me where I’m wrong.

    Wheatley found the following emissions

    peat: 1.19 tCO2 / MWh (similar to lignite)
    coal: 0.89 tCO2 / MWh
    OCGT: 0.57 tCO2 / MWh
    CCGT: 0.35 tCO2 / MWh (calm day)
    CCGT: 0.40 tCO2 / MWh (windy day)

    .. and broke CCGT into with-and-without wind because he found that in actual operation the combined-cycle gas plants were those that were cycled when wind showed up. And like most thermal plants, they lose efficiency when rapidly changing output. The result was that the effective CO2 abatement for wind generation was only 0.28 tCO2 per MWh of wind.

    Ideally, one would hope that wind would displace peat or coal but nooooooo. Turns out that its so much more expensive to cycle peat and older coal plants that you can actually end up emitting more CO2 (and other pollutants) when combined with intermittent wind than if you’d just let peat and coal handle the full load themselves. See one of Wheatley’s references: How less became more: Wind, Power and Unintended Consequences in the Colorado Energy Market.

    “How less became more” was commissioned by the Gas industry, so it shouldn’t be surprising its bottom-line recommendation is “deploy more CCGT before getting too excited about wind,” and cites similar findings from Texas.

    Disclosure: I live in Colorado 🙂

    But Wheatley’s Irish study suggests the same thing: when it blows, wind displaces CCGT, the most efficient (both thermally and emissions) generator on the grid, and that at but 0.28 tCO2 avoided on the generated MWh. On a generation basis, CCGT avoids (1.19 – 0.35) = 0.84 tCO2/MWh for peat (or lignite…) and (0.89 – 0.35) = 0.64 tCO2/MWh for coal. So on a grid generation basis one gets over twice the emissions reduction by replacing coal with CCGT (and over 3 times for lignite or peat) than one gets by adding an “equivalent” amount of wind generation.

    It isn’t “equivalent” of course, as wind is intermittent and unreliable, while CCGT is about as dispatchable as it gets (after OCGT). And Levelized cost of electricity is about the same for both, at $73 – $75 / MWh.

    So your CO2 avoidance dollar goes twice as far with gas as it does on wind, and you get some particulate and mercury reductions in on the bargain. Plus dispatchability.

    Then there’s nuclear. For an initial estimate we’ll assume nuclear and CCGT are both drop-in replacements for baseload coal, and that nuclear ghg emissions are effectively zero. We’ll also assume the above EIA reference’s nuclear LCOE estimate of $95.2 / MWh. Relative to baseload coal, nuclear avoids 0.89 tCO2 per MWh generated.

    Cost of new generation for avoiding 1 t CO2 emitted from coal :
    Wind: $73/MWh / 0.28 tCO2 avoided per MWh wind = $261 / t CO2 avoided.
    CCGT: $73/MWh / 0.64 tCO2 avoided per MWh gas = $114 / t CO2 avoided
    Nuclear: $95/MWh / 0.89 tCO2 avoided per MWh uranium = $106 / t CO2 avoided

    Cost of new generation for avoiding 1 t CO2 emitted from lignite or peat (at 1.19 t CO2 / MWh lignite or peat):
    Wind: same as above as its actually CCGT emissions that wind avoids: $261 / t CO2 avoided.
    CCGT: $73/MWh / 0.84 tCO2 avoided per MWh = $87 / t CO2 avoided
    Nuclear: $95/MWh / 1.19 tCO2 avoided per MWh = $80 / t CO2 avoided.

    That’s for Ireland. Factors of 2 and 3 eventually add up. If avoiding total CO2 emission is actually one’s goal, and one is on a budget, one concludes one’s best strategy would be to first replace all baseload lignite and coal with nuclear and gas (depending on realistic build rates), then think about replacing some of the gas with wind. One also asks how dissimilar the outcome will be for Germany, Australia, and the U.S.?

  4. A range of CO2 avoidance costs were estimated in response to the review of the Renewable Energy Target
    Perversely the RET picks the winners in advance as mainly wind and solar yet acknowledges the high cost. If on the other hand emissions minimisation (for a given cost) was the objective other technologies would be preferred to wind and solar. South Australia with 30% wind penetration is now facing a major industry exodus. However the current federal government is unwilling to impose serious CO2 constraints that would hurt coal. The alternative national government wants to increase the RET fast so what ails SA will spread nationwide.

    Some might find their eyes glaze over with all the numbers. An argument that might appeal to them is to build a medium size power nuke somewhere (ideally SA) and see how it works out as to cost, reliability and public acceptance. Then they’ll know instead of wild predictions.

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