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

Large solar and small nuclear: Coming together, yet worlds apart

The big news in energy this week is large solar. It’s exciting to see such developments, but just what does this mean for our energy challenge in the 21st century? Large solar provides appreciable quantities of energy, hamstrung by fundamental limitations in scalability and the potential for very real environmental impacts. A future with more solar is assured. But using this to argue an environmental case for a future without more nuclear too is simply deluded.

With the opening of the world’s largest solar power station I have been struck by the convergence in generating size between large solar and small nuclear. Solar is trying to get bigger. Nuclear is trying to get smaller. Both are now converging on around 300 MW- 400 MW in size.

There, the similarities end. Those who are familiar with my Zero Carbon Options project will know that I favour comparisons as a useful way to shed light on our collective energy choices, so that we might truncate the ideological hand-waving that accompanies energy discussions at large. Comparison of large solar and small nuclear holds some very important lessons for constructing a future that is both energy-rich and decarbonised for around 10 billion people.

The 392 MW, $2.2 bn Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (SEGS) has just started delivering electricity. For the record, SEGS was developed with a $1.3 billion loan guarantee from the US Government. Contrary to popular anti-nuclear belief, loan guarantees are not a subsidy concocted by and for the nuclear industry. SEGS also does not include any component of energy storage, however it delivers a high (for solar anyway) capacity factor of 31.4%. That’s thanks to a “remarkably intense solar resource of 2,717 kWh/m2/yr” combined with the dual-axis tracking.

So from the outset, it’s clear that the performance of a solar power station has a lot to do with the location, a critical constraint. Move away from areas of “remarkably intense” solar resource and the performance will dwindle in kind. So as far as scaling up this solution goes, how are we placed for raw resource? Figure 1 gives us the answer.

Australia’s geothermal hot rocks: cooking with gas?

This week we have learned that Petratherm, one of Australia’s most prominent and longstanding players in the exploration and development of hot dry rocks (HDR) geothermal power will now become a developer of gas i.e. another fossil fuel vendor

Zero Carbon Options: Report Launch Videos!

My heartfelt thanks to all supporters who made this launch, and these videos, possible. It has taken some time to get them up. Please forgive me, as 2013 ticked into being I needed to put a lot of focus back on ThinkClimate Consulting. But here are the first two videos of my presentation. Still to come is a highlights video of the presentation from Doug Boreham and our fantastic panel discussion.

Like what you see? 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

Landscape Impacts: Wind vs Nuclear

Here is an outstanding graphics video for illustrating some points I have sought to make repeatedly with regard to wind power. I see no need to rule the technology out. I gladly acknowledge the positive impact it has made in decarbonising South Australia where we have put in a lot of it. I am as annoyed by spurious and idiotic objections to wind power as I am by spurious and idiotic objections to nuclear power.


… if we are really wanting to displace fossil fuels entirely from our energy supply, then forming strategies that arbitrarily exclude nuclear power and glossing over the problem of scaleability of technologies like wind and solar is terrible mistake. It will only extend the window in which fossil fuels will continue to dominate.

Time to go against the Flow

“Anti-nuclear arguments of “too slow” and “too costly” ring hollow when smacked with simple numerical truths”

This is an energy flow diagram for Australia in 2009/2010, taken from the Federal Government’s Energy in Australia 2012. If you are in the fossil fuel game, it’s a dream. If you are concerned about climate change, it’s a nightmare.

Energy flows 200910

There is a lot to glean from this. Here are a few interesting points:

  • Coal energy exports are over 4 times larger than domestic coal use
  • Uranium energy exports, on the assumption of use in current generation light water reactors, are 1.7 times larger in energy terms than our entire domestic coal generation, and the electricity they produce releases no greenhouse gas
  • Uranium energy exports, if deployed in Integral Fast Reactors that extract energy from all of the uranium, would provide roughly the same energy as our entire domestic coal and coal exports, with no greenhouse gas… fifty times over

Ask the Right Question

Yes, wind is cheaper. Provided your expectations are lower.

Well, it makes a great headline.

“Renewable energy now cheaper than new fossil fuels in Australia”

Vive la Revolution! From now on, fossil fuels will not be built, renewables will because they are cheaper! Hurrah!!!

This headline comes from new analysis from research firm Bloomberg New Energy Finance  who have foundelectricity can be supplied from a new wind farm at a cost of AUD 80/MWh (USD 83), compared to AUD 143/MWh from a new coal plant or AUD 116/MWh from a new baseload gas plant”.

This may have caught people by surprise, not just that the wind is cheap(ish) but that the new fossil is costly.

But if you have already spotted the flaw, you get a star. This analysis, and the breathless headline accompanying it, are a great demonstration of how to be correct and irrelevant all at the same time.

These figures compare the cost of electricity production between:

  • Marginal costs of introducing incremental new wind, which will be intermittent with capacity factors around 30%
  • Marginal cost of introducing new modern coal, which would be baseload and quite large, with potential capacity factors above 85%
  • Marginal cost of introducing new baseload gas, which would be combined cycle plant, again quite large, again with potential capacity factors above 85%

All three produce ostensibly the same product (electricity), but they do not provide the same service. A new wind farm, with the well understood intermittency does a poor job of meeting our requirement for baseload, being the minimum electricity demand required at all times.

If you want to compare these sources fairly, you need to set them the same challenge, namely that of providing baseload.

That’s what we did in Zero Carbon Options. The challenge was to replace two small coal plants of 740 MWe in South Australia, with success defined as reliably producing 4,650 GWh per year. We compared a renewable option as proposed by renewable proponents with a nuclear option.

logo only

It is when you ask renewables to respond to this specific challenge that the full story is revealed.

The renewable option could not be wind only, as that fails the reliability test. It was a hybrid proposal of solar thermal with storage (760 MWe) and wind (700 MWe). So that’s 1,460 MWe to replace 740 MWe.

The capital cost is horrendous at over $8 billion, most of which is the solar thermal. The price of electricity is telling: wind cheapest, then nuclear, then miles of daylight, then solar thermal.

The renewable option had 2,810 GWh of the electricity coming from solar thermal at (low estimate) $250 MWh, and 1,840 GWh coming from the wind at (low estimate) $90 MWh. So the average cost of the electricity production was $186 MWh. As you can see, that is way, way higher than either the coal or the gas as priced by Bloomberg.

Even with this, the reliability test was poorly addressed. The level of storage was unspecified, but this solar thermal proposal had a capacity factor of 40%. Two wrongs don’t make a right, and two intermittents don’t make a baseload. To get a higher capacity factor would mean more storage, which would mean more cost.

The bigger you scale this, in trying to replace many different baseload plants in many places, the more the ancillary costs mount, as the ability to move huge quantities of power over great distances becomes critical for reliability and stability.

The nuclear option performed much better, with about half the capital cost, very high capacity factor, no question mark on reliability and electricity for (low estimate) $101 MWh. That is to say nothing of the advantages in lifespan, land use, water security and material consumption.

2x 728 MWe CANDU units from Qinshan, China. Unit 1 went from concrete pouring to criticality in 51.5 months. This could be readily reduced to 48 months with capital costs cut by 25%. Click the image  to read about this
2x 728 MWe CANDU units from Qinshan, China. Unit 1 went from concrete pouring to criticality in 51.5 months. This could be readily reduced to 48 months with capital costs cut by 25%. Click the image to read about this

The point here is not that wind is cheap, expensive, good or bad. It’s that replacing old baseload with new baseload is costly, no matter the tech, but the renewable pathway is most costly of all. If we are serious about replacing our aging fossil baseload with zero-carbon alternatives, then we need all options on the table. If Bloomberg New Energy Finance are serious about informing, not exciting, they will provide a fuller picture next time.

Update: This piece has sparked quite a bit of discussion. Lots of folk seem to want to say I am wrong, or argue that I will be in time. Bloomberg have taken note. Their lead clean energy researcher offered this over Twitter…


…which is of course my point. Where is the discussion of the “low pen(etration)” in the article? The price at “low penetration” means the price if we don’t build too much, and don’t try to use it to fill the role currently filled by coal and combined cycle gas. This makes their comparison entirely redundant. So it may be “news for most ppl”, but if we want an intelligent energy conversation then “most ppl” should be given the complete picture.

Try this headline:

“New wind power at low penetrations cheaper than new baseload fossil in Australia”

Subtly different, but now it is actually in context, informative and useful in building understanding of energy.

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BraveNewClimate puts out the challenge: Support Zero Carbon Options

There have been occasions where those I admire have said positive things about my work. Each time, I feel humbled. Professor Barry Brook has been one of the most influential figures in my nuclear journey. As the author of one of the world’s premier sites for nuclear news, information and discussion, Barry (both as an individual and through BraveNewClimate) has maintained a crucial and powerful independent voice and fostered amazing discussions. He has given much, and asked for nothing. 

As you will read, for the first time he is asking for something, and he has done it on behalf of the Zero Carbon Options report. Please read on to this cross-post from BNC (originally published here) for Barry’s request, and an original article from me. 

Zero Carbon Options – Support the Report

“I am very pleased to announce today the upcoming launch of the report Zero Carbon Options – Seeking an economic mix for an environmental outcome. The report will be launched in Adelaide on December 5, and I need your help.”

Clean energy: predator or prey in the fight with fossil fuels? A review by an interested student

I went to Brisbane to join a panel discussing the which of the “Big Five” Energy Options that could replace fossil fuels. It was very, very interesting. Read the review from an audience member.

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