I have been a long way from home this week in more ways than one. South Australia has a lot to learn from North America and at the same time we are showing the world a thing or two.

Many of us have done it at some time; I have done it twice before. Yet the distance from Australia to North America still manages to surprise me. It’s not actually longer than going to Europe. So why does it feel longer? Perhaps it’s the intimidating expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Or perhaps in Europe they at least have the courtesy to speak different languages than we do. It seems somehow preposterous to travel so many hours and disembark in nations so eerily similar to my own. It’s more like traveling to an alternate dimension than another country.

Take Ottawa for example. While at home it was stinking hot, outside in Ottawa it was freezing cold. We both typify some of the extremes of human settlements, each living near-identical lives of comfort and security despite the environment around us. Yet while I spoke on stage in Ottawa I was powered by electricity at 22 g CO2 per kWh. It blew my mind to think I was delivering slides I had prepared at about 600-800 g in Australia the week before (SA or NEM average, depending what you prefer). A 25-35-fold difference in greenhouse gas emissions for an indistinguishable outcome, and the difference is simply nuclear technology. I was glad to see this was not entirely lost on the Ottwans. They knew they had achieved something and they talked a lot about it… to themselves. It’s a story that needs to get out to the world. Solving a major chunk of the climate conundrum is no mystery whatsoever. The proof is found in Ottawa. The Canadian nuclear industry can offer a lot to the world. One big thing it can offer is the boldness to not get prematurely bored by their own success. When you come from a nation that lives off the teat of coal, Ontario and Ottawa are like a dream come true. Us, without the pollution. It can be done.

 

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Speaking in Ottawa
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Meanwhile outside it was no sun, little wind but we had reliable, carbon-free electricity

Before Ottawa was New York. It’s the city that sometimes sleeps: trust me, my jetlagged-self went jogging with no-one for company but the good folks of the New York Sanitation Department. But it’s the city that basically everyone loves, a template for cities of the new world. Humanity converges upon it and the result is stunning, stimulating and exciting. It’s a city of many villages, with one knowing insider telling me the secret: it’s a small town. Del Amitri sang about somewhere where “every third car is a cab”. In New York, it’s pretty much just cabs. The thought of using a car didn’t cross my mind until an unfortunate subway fail. You walk and use the trains, and for all the locals I met from Jersey and Brooklyn and beyond this was a pleasant and mostly efficient fact of life. I read a quip on Facebook today, that a civilised country is not where the poor own cars, but where the rich use public transport. There’s something in that.

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Benefits of jetlag: sunrise on the Brooklyn Bridge

So it leaves me feeling desperate that Indian Point is the latest nuclear plant in the US to hit the crosshairs of what seems to be the United States anti-nuclear establishment. It represents 2,000 MW of badly needed clean energy generation; a dense source of energy to match the dense human settlement nearby. These plants are aging somewhat but the energy maths are simple. Devolving from fission back to combustion will cause more environmental harm when plants are operating normally than Indian Point has ever or could ever conceivably cause in abnormal conditions.

Just as we in South Australia seem to be fighting to expand into nuclear, New York seems to be clawing its way to a backdown. I can’t help but see a parallel in the pushback against vaccinations; when we live with something beneficial for a couple of generations, we seems to wantonly dismiss the benefits it ever brought us and believe we can do without. I am glad to be living through the South Australian situation. We have proven beyond doubt that groundswell change can take place in attitudes to nuclear, in time-frames of great relevance to the challenges we face. This week Government MP Tom Kenyon has hit upon a narrative I have been ranting about privately for the last few weeks: let’s use the used-fuel windfall to rehabilitate our natural environment.

Reading this from afar I was both delighted and frustrated. This type of thinking, surely, should have been the domain of our so-called Conservation Council of South Australia. Yet instead of seeking to potentially extract a once-in-many-generations opportunity to fund conservation to the hilt, they have taken a probably-intractable position of protest. This is based on no science and a seemingly reflexive anti-nuclear stance that should have been left in the last century. It’s both tragic and hopeful. Perhaps a genuine conservation dialogue can open between government and the actual conservation experts (many of whom reside with me in the School of Biological Sciences at University of Adelaide) to fund a roadmap to a richer environment in South Australia. I’ll call some credit here. With Senator Sean Edwards, we flagged this exciting potential in his submission to the Royal Commission. What does it say that the establishment “environmentalists” are the last to think of this?

Successive state governments would have the capacity to support vibrant communities, address poverty and familial dysfunction and support the preservation of nature. Our parks and wild places could receive greater protection, restoration, enhancement and scientific research for the benefit of us, our children and their children

 

While in New York I traveled to Columbia University where I had the pleasure of meeting Jim Hansen (for the second time) and Pushker Kharecha (for the first). Along with Simon Irish I provided them with an update on the progress of Terrestrial Energy in bringing the Integral Molten Salt Reactor into being. Long story short, it’s going well, with Terrestrial achieving the milestone of formal engagement with the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. This coincided with a meeting with Travis Bradford, a Columbia professor whom I met previously in Paris just a few months ago. A published aficionado of solar energy, Travis takes a far more restrained view than I relating to the role of nuclear in future electricity systems. But heat… ah, the heat. As he explained when we met in Paris, industrial heat is a monster in the energy use pie and, aside from fission, there is simply no credible zero carbon answer. My interest was more than a little piqued, having been immersed in electricity for so long and I quickly realised he was dead right.

Heat is the largest energy end use sector and, barring a sliver called “renewables” (which I presume to be biomass with its frequently dubious sustainability credentials), it’s a fossil sector of direct combustion, and guess what? There no answer in the renewables sector. While I argue the renewables-only answer in the electricity sector is woefully undergunned, Travis observes that the heat sector is literally uncontested space. With the IMSR providing outlet temperatures of 700 degrees C, reliably, with 7-year core life, starting at 80 MW thermal and going up to as high as you need, we have the beginning of an answer to a major part of the problem. Add the remarkable safety profile and atmospheric pressurisation that can cascade to an altogether different cost proposition, well… Travis sees the future we need to create.

Terrestrial Energy’s IMSR, a next generation Molten Salt Reactor, is designed to fill one of the most critical gaps – a scalable, clean, carbon-free industrial heat and power solution.  Today’s announcement puts the Company firmly on the path to being a significant part of the climate solution within the critical response horizon of the 2020s.- Professor Travis Bradford

We can use that zero-carbon heat to make synthetic fuel to attack the third giant in the energy pie: transport. We will need that fuel for our heavy transport at the minimum however in Vancouver I got another glimpse of the transport future with electric vehicle start-up Electra Meccanica. President and CEO Jerry Kroll is exactly what you imagine (and want) in an EV start-up: enthusiasm bordering on mania underpinned by serious business and technical nous. His company is bringing to market a single-occupant electric vehicle, the Solo, at a reasonable price. This could offer the essential quality of mobility in a package that is lighter on the road, lighter on the planet… and a disgusting amount of fun. I drove the prototype precursor, the Sparrow, and got out with a big smile on my face. It was like tasting the future and goddam, it was fast. Concepts like the Solo provide yet another avenue to getting what we love about modernity at the merest fraction of the impact. An essential pre-condition is the pairing to decarbonised grids: a Solo in Australia’s National Electricity Market is different to a Solo in Ontario’s nuclear/hydro/wind/gas low-carbon nirvana.

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L-R Canon Bryan (Terrestrial Energy), Jerry Kroll (Electra Meccanica), Ben Heard

However I wasn’t just struck by the car, I was struck by the guy. Jerry Kroll possesses the singular quality of vision and puts his money and effort where his vision is. In that, he reminds me of the team coalescing around Terrestrial Energy. No one intends to fail, yet the potential to fall is internalised as the cost of flying high. For all her faults (and she has many), North America owns that attitude in a way that makes Australian determination seem embryonic in comparison. For example, while there is the scope for a great leap forward in the interim findings of the Royal Commission, we can yet do so much more if only we are prepared to be truly great.

It’s a long way. But with this much to learn from each other, it’s worth the distance.

 

8 comments

  1. Ontario shows that NP and RE can complement each other though hydro may be more flexible than mandated wind and solar. The NEM carbon intensity is said to be 870 grams CO2 per kwhe. Bizarrely if SA imports more Vic lignite power after sub-bituminous Northern closes SA emissions intensity could go up.

    They are finding ways to get non-fossil process heat. For example a brick kiln in Tas uses sprayed sawdust not gas or oil. Grit not a problem but it wouldn’t work for glass making. I see problems with high temperature NP being next to factories. In hot Australia they put ice skating rinks next to refrigerated cool stores but there are are no security issues. Also steel may be sturdier at -10C than 700C. Synfuel may be safer for bakeries and baked bean canneries.

    The US may be the only democracy with $2/GJ gas big mistake if they think it’s permanent.

    Are Terrestrial prepared to say they will have machines for sale by say 2025?

  2. Looking out to 2050 (so a 34 year timeframe) the SA Low Carbon Economy Experts Panel predicts a combination of energy conservation, electrification of processes, adoption of arc furnaces, and at least a 9-fold increase in “bioenergy” in order to save 33 million tCO2 from SA’s industrial sector.

    http://www.environment.sa.gov.au/Science/Science_research/climate-change/climate-change-initiatives-in-south-australia/sa-low-carbon-economy-experts-panel

    Where does all this clean electricity come from by then? Over half is expected from solar power. How?

    “Cost-effective energy storage is critical for South Australia to realise its renewable energy ambitions.” (page 33)

    It won’t even be cost effective by 2030 in the most optimistic modeling http://cleantechnica.com/2016/01/25/70-decrease-energy-storage-costs-2030-says-report/

    Last decade it was geothermal. This transitioned through a dream of plentiful SA concentrating solar thermal. Now it’s batteries. [There’s plenty of interesting assumptions about batteries in the modelling done for the NFCRC, too, but the most sensible is from Parsons-Brinkerhoff:

    “It is probable that the demand variability is more predictable than the supply variability [for SA]. Since a nuclear-based system requires storage only to address demand variability, it is likely that the storage requirements to supplement a nuclear-based system and minimise the utilisation of fossil fuel-based assets is less than in a system that is highly renewable dependent.” (page 19)

    http://nuclearrc.sa.gov.au/app/uploads/2016/02/Parsons-Brinckerhoff.pdf ]

    Whatever it takes to avoid nuclear energy, however long it takes, right?

  3. Thanks for the visit, and focus on the best of us!

    Having grown up in the 1950s, when “free competitive markets” were a reality, not just a convenient campaign slogan, I’ve realized the benefits of a strong marriage between both the public and private sectors. Like any marriage, when both parties are strong, really good things happen.

    I still “Like Ike” and fondly recall a time when the public and private sectors actually worked together, to build the infrastructure, essential public services, and educational system which supported emergence of the largest middle class in history. Unfortunately, aptly named Baby Boomers did not carry this perspective, work ethic, and love of competition forward, and we landed here: http://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/grades/.

    Fortunately, Millennials are disrupting the economic mess they inherited, embracing competition, and insisting on building a more “sharing economy,” their way. They all keep me young and hopeful, and “the times, they are a changing…”

    Al Gore actually said the “N” word, about halfway through his engaging Ted Talk a few days ago, and this spirited debate between Michael Shellenberger, Ken Caldera, Mark Jacobson, and Dale Bryk at UCLA is quite enlightening: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w5v-yMFXvdY

    Typically, I am not a fan of debate, because it is always more about entertainment than education. However, I did appreciate Ken Caldeira’s closing remarks:

    “The reality is we know enough to get going and get pretty far down the path. To reach our goals, we are going to benefit from innovation and some of that will come through the deployment process.”

    More importantly, he acknowledged that:

    “We have to do things that work in the real political systems, and that means having a broad portfolio and political base.”

    While the Paris Climate Agreement, EPA Clean Power Plan, California Governor’s Executive Order B -30-15 and Assembly Bill 32 do set clear targets, they all lack a clear path towards compliance with these targets.

    At the risk of exposing my Community Development bias, this work has to be completed before we can truly begin having a meaningful conversation with the public, and building the essential “broad portfolio and political base,” (http://docketpublic.energy.ca.gov/PublicDocuments/15-IEPR-11/TN205398_20150719T170914_Kirk_Gothier_Comments_Kirk_Gothier_Comments_on_Climate_Adaptati.pdf).

  4. The juxtaposition of these dates could be significant
    February 15 – release of Nuclear Fuel Cycle RC tentative findings
    February 19 – release of AEMO report on SA electric reliability
    http://www.aemo.com.au/News-and-Events/News/News/Joint-report-further-investigates-stability-of-South-Australias-evolving-power-system
    The RC report said SA is too small to invest in current sized nuclear power plants. AEMO says SA needs more synchronous generation, interstate connection or energy storage.

    SA defence contractors talk about a ‘valley of death’ between projects. I wonder if SA is also on the cusp of an electricity valley of death. By 2020 I expect nothing meaningful will have been instigated. That includes a nuclear waste repository, enough batteries to make a difference or new powerlines to interstate coal centres.

  5. I think all radioactive material ‘hot’ or ‘mild’ will have to go to Woomera where the property owner is the Department of Defence. There seems to be unending tears over an ILW site
    http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/mar/01/feuds-and-infighting-as-nuclear-waste-dump-plan-tears-communities-apart
    Locals seem convinced any site will also end up as high level. Note the Woomera restricted access zone currently has two depleting mines Challenger and Prominent Hill with decline tunnels from the surface. Either could be restyled in the layout of the Olkiluoto geological repository under construction. Tie that in with a surface facility for intermediate level. No more tears.

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