Nuclear and renewables in the name of national interest

Australia retains one of the most coal dependent electricity supplies in the world. How can proponents of renewables and nuclear power respectively get out of our trenches and pull together for the national interest in a responsible path for decarbonisation?

Some time ago I wrote for ABC’s Environment Blog that Renewable versus nuclear is the wrong battle. With the review of Australia’s Renewable Energy Target taking up so much air time, it’s important to reflect on how far Australia has come with renewables and decarbonisation and think about where we should go next. Renewables versus nuclear may be the wrong battle, but what might the right one look like?

Much of the current commentary on the Renewable Energy Target resembles trench warfare between two fundamentally opposing sides. What we know about trench warfare is it’s a lot easier to spend all day shooting at each other if you have completely de-legitimised the opposing point of view and the evidence supporting it.

To this observer and commentator it seems that both the naysayers and boosters of renewable energy each have a lot to answer for.

Critiquing “Deep Decarbonisation Pathways Project”

Earlier this month my friend James Brown (analyst, economist and co-author of Zero Carbon Options), drew my attention to a new report: the Deep Decarbonisation Pathways Project Interim Report, Australia Chapter. The project is international, and is being run with some connection to the United Nations. This all sounds rather impressive, important and right in my area of interest. However James was concerned that some of the assumptions were peculiar. He had emailed the international project head to raise his concerns.

I took a look at the report. The closer I looked, the less comfortable I felt. While the ostensible goal is one I wholeheartedly embrace, I was concerned this report would potentially send the national conversation backward, rather than forward. I brought it to the attention of a few other parties including my friend Professor Tom Wigley. He, James and I committed to drafting a critique of the report and we got to work.

Late in the piece, a strange thing happened. While approaching some other parties for their review of the critique and potential endorsement, the draft critique was leaked to the authors of the Australia Chapter. Email communication was incoming immediately. To cut a long story short, we declined an offer of personal engagement to instead finish the draft and submit the critique as planned, which was a matter of days away. Our suggestion to the authors was that the critique should be published, along with their response, in the interests of transparency and following the example set by the IPCC.

The authors would not commit to this. They instead reserved the right to respond as they saw fit.

For that reason we have decided to publish the Interim Report and our critique here at Decarbonise SA.

We note here, as in the critique, that this is only an interim version of the report that we are commenting on and more information and a final version will be forthcoming in the near future. We note also that in the main report (as opposed to the Australia Chapter) we find much to agree with in terms of the value in developing deep decarbonisation pathways as part of a decisive response to climate change. As will be apparent in the reading, we have many and serious concerns about the Australia Chapter and we think a published written critique is the correct step. We were not, and are not, seeking explanations relating to the report. Rather, we believe reports like this should not require explaining. This distinction matters a great deal.

We don’t take the decision to critique this version lightly. A great deal of effort went into it. Nor do we take lightly the decision to publish our critique.

James, Tom and I share a conviction: achieving meaningful action on decarbonisation in a politically and economically complex world demands, as a starting point, work that is balanced, fully cognizant of the many complexities and uncertainties, and of the highest quality to underpin arguments and decision-making processes. Anything less and we are destined to repeat the past: environmentalists talking to themselves while the world heats up for another generation.

This is the Australia Chapter of Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project.


This is our critique.



The final version of the report has now been released. We have noted two changes.

1. Correction of the error relating to electricity making up two thirds of Australia’s emissions. This sentence has been eliminated

2. The contingency scenario with nuclear now has less nuclear. It has been lowered to 14 %.

There appears to be no other change of material significance whatsoever.

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

Prime-time nuclear: telling Melbourne how it is on 3AW

So, after 7 hours of sleep in a quiet hotel for this father of two wakeful kids had rushed past, my alarm went off for day one of the conference. I had barely silenced it when the phone rang. A friendly producer from 3AW was telling me that I was quoted in The Australian, and that the show wants to talk about how nuclear power can save us money. Would I be ready in 45 mins?

Punishing ourselves through deliberate power blindness

“We are getting this so, so wrong because we are pricing emissions without permitting a major technological player help us optimise the result. The losers will be Australian households and businesses.”

Here are a couple of bullet points from modelling done for the Australian Government by SKM in relation to the impact of a carbon price on electricity for Australia, with my emphasis added:

The medium action case contains a number of features that are likely to impact on price trends:

  • Changes to gas prices put upward pressure on pool prices, and this is particularly evident in the DKIS (Darwin-Katherine Interconnected System) price, where CCGT (combined-cycle gas turbine) plant sets the price and is the marginal new entrant
  • The assumed emissions intensity limit for new plant of 0.86 t CO2
  • Inclusion of the New South Wales GGAS (Greenhouse Gas Abatement Scheme) and the Queensland GEC (gas electricity certificate) Scheme, both of which subsidise low emission generation and put downward pressure on prices e/MWh precludes the entry of new brown coal plant in Victoria, and as a result CCGT plant is the marginal plant there because there is no other viable thermal power alternative. However, the escalating cost of gas means that eventually it becomes cheaper to import energy into Victoria from conventional coal-fired base load plant in New South Wales by upgrading the transmission system. This explains the price separation between New South Wales and Victoria post 2030, which is when new base load capacity is required in Victoria

What on earth are we doing?

No other viable thermal power alternative? They mean besides nuclear power the one providing 5.7% of total global energy demand right now.

Just imagine how much simpler and more optimised Australia would be, with plunging greenhouse gas emissions and better protection for all of us from escalating power prices if:

Nuclear retreat leads a clumsy climate dance

My latest piece, just published to Climate Spectator.

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Last week’s announcements by Japan and France to reduce or eliminate dependence on nuclear power were greeted with cautious praise from within the environmental movement. “A nuclear-free future is not a choice, it’s an inevitability,” said Kazue Suzuki, Greenpeace Japan nuclear campaigner. More broadly we are told that these are “momentous times” and that nuclear is battling against “younger and better alternatives such as solar and wind energy – a battle that nuclear power can’t win.”

Leaving such flawed rhetoric aside for a moment, there is scope for both pragmatism and very serious concern in analysis of what these recent announcements mean in the fight against a warming climate. Let’s firstly shine the light of reality on the Japanese situation.

Costs and Benefits: Final in the SACOME Series

This article concludes the series of six articles from Barry Brook and me that have had published in the SACOME journal over the last 12 months.

In a subject like nuclear power which is not easily discussed in sound bytes (presuming it is a mature, responsible discussion you are seeking that is…) it is challenging to establish a quality conversation. SACOME’s support has enabled us to do that here, staying with their readers over six issues of the magazine, covering most of the hotly contested issues with a good 800+ words to play with each time.

The articles have been widely shared and roundly appreciated. We (Barry and I) are looking forward to releasing them soon in an easily shared compendium.

My thanks to SACOME for this opportunity. That organisation is representative of a whole range of energy technology players including those that might compete with nuclear power (and those some commentators mistakenly say compete with nuclear power). So their interest in raising the quality of discussion on nuclear is to be congratulated. It indicates they have the genuine longer term best interests of South Australia at heart, through facilitating more informed choices on energy that will be of benefit to the whole state.

In our final article, we talk turkey…

It does not take long in any discussion of nuclear power before people want to talk turkey. How much does nuclear power cost?

It’s odd that when it comes to nuclear power alone, some environmentalists morph into incredibly hard-nosed economic rationalists. If the solution can’t pay its own way from the get go, bad luck.

That suggests a misunderstanding of not so much nuclear economics, but of energy economics more generally. It also hints at an ideological position if the same criteria are not applied elsewhere.

In considering nuclear at all, we are looking to replace baseload fossil fuels at 100s or over 1,000 MW at a time. Take your pick of technology, including modern fossil fuels: that is never going to be a cheap task. There is no way around the “sticker shock” of a modern power facility.

If we want new, large-scale energy generation in Australia, there is a large price tag, comfortably in the billions of dollars range. If, as we would argue, response to climate change demands that any new baseload is zero-carbon generation, then the options are (currently) restricted to the more expensive end of the range for capital costs (fuel is cheap or free for these technologies).

So, what, in that context, can low-carbon options offer in terms of up-front cost?  Let’s take some real-world examples.

A debate we have to have- the wrap up of CEDA in Perth

Regular readers of Decarbonise SA will be aware that last week I had the priviledge and pleasure of joining a panel of speakers for a function in Perth titled “The Cost of Carbon; Nuclear Energy: Australia’s Clear Energy Future?”.

It was my first visit to Perth. If I had to describe it in just one word, “shiny” would be the one. It looks rather like the CBD was erected ten minutes before I touched down. None of the locals actually denied this either, so I do wonder… I didn’t get much of a look around but I enjoyed the generous opening hours and fantastic selections at Elizabeth’s Second Hand Books.   Aside from that it was mostly business, so hopefully I get the chance to go back for a proper look. I certainly do see the appeal of the place.

The event was well attended, with 70 guests enjoying five very different perspectives on the role of nuclear power in Australia. With no prior planning or collaboration, the speakers delivered a stunningly uniform message to the room: Australia simply must begin engaging in open debate and discussion of nuclear power if we are to make wise energy choices for our future national and global interests. CEDA have informed me that they received “an overwhelming amount of positive feedback” from this event.

As a speaker but also a guest, I enjoyed hearing from my fellow panellists, and I would like to report back to you some of the main messages I took away from the day.

From L-R Tony Owen, Haydon Manning, Ben Heard, Andy Lloyd, Paul Hardisty

Anthony (Tony) Owen, Academic Director and Santos Chair of Energy, UCL School of Energy and Resources, gave a very important discussion of how nuclear power might fit in the Australian energy landscape and the barriers to its uptake. I have shown below two slides in particular that tell an important story. The first tells us something most of us already know: the construction costs of nuclear, in comparison with fossil sources and on shore wind, is high.

 The second tells us something fewer of us know/appreciate/understand, which is that the first chart is not the whole story at all. With nuclear, almost all the money is spent up front. Once constructed it is highly reliable and requires virtually no inputs of fuel. So it then generates electricity at very low cost. This is shown in the next table, which compares the actual cost of the electricity being produced at discount rates of 5% and 10%. The costs shown include a carbon price. Even at the steeper 10% discount rate, the price of nuclear electricity remains either superior of highly competitive across the board. Nuclear, of course, brings that little advantage of being zero carbon and producing no other filthy pollution.

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