Recent discussion and commentary on this blog has, due largely to the highlighted topics I’ve chosen, focused on the relative feasibility of alternative energy types. This has led to some fascinating back-and-forth debate and counterpointing in the comments section of the last few posts, on the merits, feasibility, desirability and limitations of alternative zero-carbon (post-manufacture) power generation methods. Yet it has inevitably also created some confusion and misinterpretations. So to clear up these matters, this ‘thought experiment’ aims to sketch out what I see as a plausible future energy plan for Australia in the context of global action.
As I sit in my house in quiet surburban Adelaide, in the midst of one of the worst heatwaves ever experienced here (last night was the hottest ever recorded, with an overnight min of 33.9C!), I dare to contemplate a positive vision for future energy supply and carbon emissions in Australia. The grand failure of almost all past efforts at technological prognostication gnaw at my subconsious, but I nevertheless permit my imagination to have a go. Here is what I see…
Required goal: (derives from the climate and resource sustainability imperatives): The Australian economy will be a zero net producer of carbon emissions (and climate forcing equivalents) as soon as possible, and certainly by no later than 2050. Negative emissions (i.e. CO2 drawdown) are highly desirable for the decades after 2050.
- Both coordinated and unilateral global actions results in similar zero-carbon outcomes worldwide (see postscript).
- The Australian and world economy continues to thrive, but in a way that does not undermine long-term sustainability of its environment. For instance, ’economic growth’ may well continue (e.g. expanding knowledge base, technological improvements, increasing efficiency), but not the form that is predicated on the historical model of exponentially increasing exploitation of finite resources (which assumes the Earth is a magic pudding).
Energy restructure timeline for Oz:
2010 – 2019:
- Set a rising carbon price and return the income so accrued to accelerated alternative energy development and per capita dividends. Quickly eliminate ‘compensation’ and perverse subsidies for fossil-fuel energy generators.
- Massive programme of investment in, and legislation to mandate, energy efficiency and sensible forms of energy conservation behaviour. Impose minimum (and tightening) standards on the energy demands of applicances, housing and commerical building codes, vehicle mileage, etc. Provide low-interest loans to facilitate uptake.
- Accelerating roll-out of wind and solar thermal power generation capacity, including the demonstration of a variety of models of large-scale plants with energy storage capabilities (e.g. solar thermal with molten salts, solar towers, compressed air storage). Fixing of the currently distorted Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) and Mandatory Renewable Energy Target (MRET) to allow extra room for effective voluntary additions to legislative requirements and to close loopholes and perverse incentives to double count and reward dirty pollutors.
- Heavy investment in R&D and commerical-scale demonstration of wave, tidal, geothermal and microalgal biodiesel energy sources (including both direct government co-investment partnerships and commercial incentives via a carbon price). Also provide encouragment (e.g. tax breaks) for companies to establish alternative-energy component manufacturing facilities in Australia.
- Publically funded investment in the transmission line infrastructure, to connect the QLD-SA-WA grids with high voltage direct current (HDVC) and lay out additional internal connections within NSW, Vic and QLD. This helps with load balancing nationally (big savings, avoids brown-outs) and runs an efficient energy delivery infructure through areas primed for renewable developments (such as the Eyre Peninsula and Great Australian Bight in SA/WA and the geothermal and solar resources around northern SA, western NSW and SW Queensland).
- Active international engagement with, and support of, the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) , Generation IV International Forum (GIF), and their inevitable successors, thereby strongly supporting efforts by nuclear club nations such as the US, EU countries, China, Japan and India to complete commerical demonstration, certification, design standardisation and industrial-scale construction of the first of what will soon be a factory-build fleet of modular Integral Fast Reactor type (Gen IV) nuclear power stations. Point is, Australia doesn’t need to (can’t!) leadthe world with IFRs, but we can support and participate in the international development programme.
- Participate in the development of a United Nations style organisation to supervise standards, construction, management and oversight of nuclear power under public ownership (Blees calls this system the Global Rescue Energy Alliance Trust, or GREAT — more details forthcoming).
- Support for R&D and demonstration efforts to develop, commercialise and upscale boron-powered vehicles and MSW plasma converters. Much important engineering work can be done in Australia to hasten international progress.
- Clearly and accurately (no spin!) educate the public and decision-makers about the advantages of next-generation nuclear energy, including fostering healthy debate to ‘clear the air’ about the differences between old-style and ‘newclear’ (and the problems Gen IV nuclear solves). Then, after about 2015, certify and construct one or more advanced (Gen III+) light water nuclear reactors (LWR), such as the Westinghouse AP-1000 or General Electric’s Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor (ESBWR). Actively foster upskilling and education in nuclear physics and engineering through Australian Universities and via international partnerships and personnel exchanges.
- Open no new coal-fired power stations. Continue balanced investment in, leading to finalised development and demonstration of, coal- and gas-fired power carbon capture and geosequestration (storage; CCS) via international partnerships. Start equipping existing plants with carbon capture and storage, where it is feasible.
2020 – 2029:
- Assess progress made by energy efficiency and actively seek remaining untapped opportunities for ongoing innovation and technological development (accepting that these will increasingly be diminishing gains).
- Evaluate major gains and unscheduled breakthroughs, costs, logistics and limitations of the last decade of large-scale renewable energy roll-out. Continue targeted investments and appropriate ‘clean energy’ incentives (including a rising carbon price) in proven or promising areas. By this stage, we should have a robust idea of how much power renewables will ultimately be able to provide to our national grid. My hunch is that this will end up constituting around 30% of 2030 electricity demand, but it may be as high as 50% or more (this is real speculation territory!).
- Start transitioning our nascent nuclear industry, which by 2020 – 2025 will comprise a handful of Gen III+ LWRs, to Gen IV Integral Fast Reactors. In many nuclear club nations, heavy investment in IFRs will result in a widepread roll outof new reactors between 2020 and 2030. In Australia, from about 2030 onwards, the IFRs will be the only sort of nuclear power plant worth building, but our existing LWRs will continue to supply safe power for decades and their high level waste can be processed by the fleet of IFRs that come online over the next few decades. In this way, there is no risk or ‘penalty’ in Australia starting with LWRs and then moving mostly to IFRs as the nuclear power scale-up continues apace. At this stage, we should have a decent idea of how many IFRs we might ultimately need to complete the energy supply puzzle, and can plan our building works schedule accordingly. A building rate of 24-36 months per IFR module cluster (each supplying around 2.5 GW), with a couple being built around the country at any one times, will be eminently feasible.
2030 – 2050:
- Phase out the last of Australia’s coal-fired power stations that do not full capture and sequester all of their emissions, and, where possible, replace their coal furnaces with ‘drop in’ IFR reactor modules and control rooms, to convert geographic areas with stranded assets, such as the Latrobe and Hunter Valleys, to IFR superclusters. Supply IFR-based nuclear batteries to remote areas that may not be able to fully meet their needs with renewable energy.
- Settle on final workable contribution of renewable energy in Australia and set conditions to encourage on-going innovation in improving capacity factors and energy storage capabilities.
- Continue large scale IFR roll-out in partnership with GREAT (or its equivalent) and its numerous participating countries. By now, IFR manufacturing facilities should be developing rapidly worldwide, including in Australia. Taking account of the load already borne by our diversified renewable energy grid, add sufficient numbers of IFRs to provide the power needed to always meet (or exceed) maximum peak-load demands. The additional off-peak capacity will NOT be wasted! It will be used to run desalination works, fire the plasma burners used to generate syngas (for small, highly portable engines and perhaps aeroplanes), recycle metal wastes, and produce rock wool for construction or other nifty purposes such as artificial reefs. A major use of this ‘surplus’ energy will of course used to reduce (de-oxidise) boron (or other energy carriers) to fuel our transportation sector.
- Participate in ongoing international development of nuclear fusion power (successors to ITER, for instance), right through to commerical-scale demonstration and deployment if feasible before 2050.
- Participate in global geoengineering solutions, if required, to mitigate ongoing unavoidable climate change. This will almost certainly include methods to capture free-air CO2 (e.g. biomass power plants with carbon capture and storage, geochemical ocean sequestration, etc.) and potentially, active cooling such as albedo increases.
Worldwide, the relative mixes of energy supply are likely to vary substantially, depending on resource availability (coastline, access to hot dry rocks, insolation and humidity, requirement to rescue stranded assets).
For instance, China may have to go 70% IFR-style nuclear, with reactor modules dropped into the hundreds of stranded cooling tower + turbine infrastructure units that once serviced their massive fleet of coal-fired power stations, and where suitable geological repositories exist, it may use perhaps 10% carbon capture and storage. Its remaining mix could include wind from the southeast coast, solar PV and thermal from its deserts, and biomass.
Iceland might be 90% geothermal, Saudi Arabia could be 70% solar, and many island communities might be largely serviced by an array of wave power units, and so on. Most nations would probably have decent contributions from IFR nuclear, especially to supply energy for their boron-powered vehicle fleet. Indeed, I suspect (but cannot be sure!) that majority of the energy hungry current G20 nations will be powered largely by IFRs, and with other developing nations initially taking to nuclear batteries and renewables in a big way.
A zero carbon nation, and world, by 2050, is clearly possible. But we must have the clear vision to see it as not only vitally necessary but eminently feasible – a vision that is not clouded by preconceptions about about what solutions are ‘acceptable’ and what are not (provided the required goal (for Australia) and global context are satisfied).
So there you have it. The above sketch plan needs a lot of honing, but I reckon it’s a decent start…