The Catch-22 of Energy Storage

Pick up a research paper on battery technology, fuel cells, energy storage technologies or any of the advanced materials science used in these fields, and you will likely find somewhere in the introductory paragraphs a throwaway line about its application to the storage of renewable energy.  Energy storage makes sense for enabling a transition away from fossil fuels to more intermittent sources like wind and solar, and the storage problem presents a meaningful challenge for chemists and materials scientists… Or does it?


Guest Post by John Morgan. John is Chief Scientist at a Sydney startup developing smart grid and grid scale energy storage technologies.  He is Adjunct Professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at RMIT, holds a PhD in Physical Chemistry, and is an experienced industrial R&D leader.  You can follow John on twitter at @JohnDPMorganFirst published in Chemistry in Australia.


Several recent analyses of the inputs to our energy systems indicate that, against expectations, energy storage cannot solve the problem of intermittency of wind or solar power.  Not for reasons of technical performance, cost, or storage capacity, but for something more intractable: there is not enough surplus energy left over after construction of the generators and the storage system to power our present civilization.

The problem is analysed in an important paper by Weißbach et al.1 in terms of energy returned on energy invested, or EROEI – the ratio of the energy produced over the life of a power plant to the energy that was required to build it.  It takes energy to make a power plant – to manufacture its components, mine the fuel, and so on.  The power plant needs to make at least this much energy to break even.  A break-even powerplant has an EROEI of 1.  But such a plant would pointless, as there is no energy surplus to do the useful things we use energy for.

There is a minimum EROEI, greater than 1, that is required for an energy source to be able to run society.  An energy system must produce a surplus large enough to sustain things like food production, hospitals, and universities to train the engineers to build the plant, transport, construction, and all the elements of the civilization in which it is embedded.

For countries like the US and Germany, Weißbach et al. estimate this minimum viable EROEI to be about 7.  An energy source with lower EROEI cannot sustain a society at those levels of complexity, structured along similar lines.  If we are to transform our energy system, in particular to one without climate impacts, we need to pay close attention to the EROEI of the end result.

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An open letter to the ABC about Catalyst’s latest Fukushima piece

Mark Horstman travels to Fukushima Prefecture in Japan to investigate where the radioactive fallout has travelled since the Daichi nuclear power plant accident over three years ago.

This was the profile of a recent ABC Catalyst documentary investigation on the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear event. You can watch the 17 min report here.

Below is a critical reply by Geoff Russell, framed as an Open Letter. Comments welcome below — and write to ABC if this motivates you!

An open letter to the ABC about Catalyst’s latest Fukushima piece

Geoff Russell, August 2014

Dear ABC,

Can anybody imagine ABC’s Alan Kohler without his graphs?

Can anybody imagine him leaving the units of measurements off his axes? Instead of ‘$’s, ‘percent’s or something similarly meaningful, what if he started labelling his X or Y axis as ‘wiggles’ or ‘puds’. I’d reckon the ABC would get more than a few complaints.

So why can Catalyst’s Mark Horstman cite radiation units, which are about as meaningful as ‘wiggles’ to most of the population, without explaining what they mean? Isn’t explaining stuff what science communication is all about?

Horstman recently presented a Radiation fallout Catalyst story about the long term radiation impacts of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdowns. He opens with a statment about forest areas having a radiation count of 7 micro Sieverts per hour (uSv/hr).

Horstman could have explained what 7 uSv/hr means. I’m sure he knows. But the closest we got to any kind of information about this level was his claim that 5 uSv/hr was “50 times the maximum dose rate considered safe for the general public”. Without information about how risk changes as the dose changes, this is vacuous at best and misleading at worst. Taking a teaspoon of wine a day may be safe, but what about half a glass a day? That’s 50 times more than a teaspoon, but does it matter? Does raising a safe dose by 50 times make it low risk, high risk, deadly, or perhaps even make it beneficial? Maybe 50 times safe is still just safe.

And Horstman didn’t even get the numbers right. Let’s go through it slowly. Horstman could have got the Catalyst graphics team to do a nice little image. I’ll rely on words.

First, let’s convert the hourly rate to an annual rate so we can compare it to normal background radiation, which averages about 2.4 milli Sieverts per year (mSv/year). Background radiation varies from place to place but usually ranges from 1 mSv/year to around 7 mSv/year. If you were to lay on one of Brazil’s black monazite beaches 24×7, you could get a hefty 800 mSv/year. So 5 micro Sieverts per hour (uSv/hour) is 5 x 24 x 365 = 43800 uSv/year and since there are 1000 micro Sieverts per milli Sievert, this is 43.8 mSv/year. Divide this by the global average background level of 2.4 mSv/year and you get 18.25. So 5 uSv/hour is 18 times the global average background radiation level. Is Horstman telling us that the global average background level is dangerous? If he is, he’s simply wrong. How wrong? The background level of radiation in Finland is 7 mSv/year, much higher than in the UK where it’s below 2 mSv/year, but the cancer rate in Finland is actually a little lower than the cancer rate in the UK. So it seems reasonable to regard the Finnish background radiation rate as safe. Then since 5 uSv/hour is about 6 times higher than the Finnish background rate, I’d say it’s only 6 times higher than a safe rate.

But Horstman’s arithmetic mistakes are a minor matter. Whether it’s 6 times or 50 times greater than something that’s safe doesn’t tell us anything at all about how safe it is.

Is there any evidence that a level of radiation 18 times the global average is dangerous? Not that I know of. But there is certainly quite good evidence that it is harmless.

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Greenjacked! The derailing of environmental action on climate change

Regular BNC commenter and my friend Geoff Russell (@csiroperfidy) has published a new book. It’s called “Greenjacked!: The derailing of environmental action on climate change“. The blurb:

Today’s anti-nuclear movement began as the anti-atomic weapons movement in the late 1950s. At this time, DNA repair mechanisms were unknown and there was only one known cause of cancer … radiation. Then, during the next half century, DNA repair mechanisms of immense power were discovered along with many more causes of cancer. We now know radiation is a minor player compared to cigarettes, alcohol, red meat, processed meat and obesity; to name a few. We now know why Japanese people moving permanently from Tokyo to either Paris, New York or Sydney would experience a much bigger rise in cancer risk than if they moved into the area currently evacuated around the Fukushima reactors.

Nevertheless, despite growing and increasingly sophisticated knowledge about cancer causes, the anti-nuclear movement kept nuclear power hamstrung using obsolete notions of the risks posed to DNA by radiation. This paved the way for our fossil fuelled world and kept our cleanest most potent energy source off the table as a response to climate change. GreenJacked explains, in lay language, the progress in our knowledge about cancer and shows that nuclear power is our best hope in the battle against a deteriorating climate and why we have to overturn long held but obsolete fears.

Nobel Prize winning biologist Peter Doherty has endorsed GreenJacked, along with climate scientists and activists. If you are an anti-nuclear environmentalist concerned about our planet, then you need to open your mind, prepare to be amazed and read this book.

You can buy it as a Kindle book (which is readable on Kindle devices, iPads, PCs, Android readers, etc. all with free software, so no excuses) and it less then the cost of a couple of cups of coffee. Get it! (Australians must buy it on the Amazon AU electronic store, here).

I have to say, Geoff has come a long way on the issue of sustainable nuclear energy since I first persuaded him to look at the issue seriously back in 2009! The next post on BNC is a new critique by Geoff of a recent Catalyst TV program on the Fukushima aftermath, so read on…

 

Nuclear energy: the debate Australia has to have

On July 28, I (Barry Brook) was an invited participant in a public discussion and Q&A session on the future of nuclear energy for electricity generation in Australia. It was organised and hosted by the Inspiring Australia initiative, and ran at the National Library of Australia in Canberra. The moderator (who did an excellent job) was ABC radio 666 presenter Genevieve Jacobs. The two other panel members were Prof. Ken Baldwin (ANU) and Ian Hore-Lacy from the World Nuclear Association (who writes and maintains their excellent information archive).

Below is the video of the event — a high-quality professional recording.

The session starts with about 30 minutes of direct discussion among the panellists, led by the moderator. This is followed by an hour of Q&A with the audience – over a dozen questions covered overall I think, typically with in-depth answers by multiple participants.

I hope you enjoy it, and if you have feedback or further questions, please comment below! (I know that quite a few regular commenters from BNC were in the audience, because they either asked questions or came and spoke to me after the event).

 

Where do you want to put nuclear waste?

The following article by Ben Heard and me was published on The Conversation today. This is a repost on BNC.


Nuclear waste is safe to store in our suburbs, not just the bush

For years, Australia has been looking at remote Indigenous land to store its nuclear waste. But now that Muckaty is off the table, it’s time to consider big city locations. Caddie Brain/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Right now, radioactive material is stored at more than 100 locations in cities and suburbs across Australia. Yet after the withdrawal of a proposed remote site for a “nuclear waste dump” at Muckaty Station in the Northern Territory, we’re back to square one to find a longer-term nuclear waste site.

Instead of trying to dump the dump on one remote community, we should be looking in our own backyards – including in the suburbs of our biggest cities – to solve Australia’s growing nuclear dilemma.

Mucking up the process at Muckaty

After years of debate, last week’s withdrawal of Muckaty Station as a possible nuclear waste site was the inevitable outcome of a flawed process.

By failing to trust average Australians for so many years, successive federal governments have been unwittingly co-opted into the role of villains in an orchestrated campaign of radiological fearmongering.

Nuclear technologies are used all over the world, and bring great benefits in generating zero-carbon electricity, as well as applications in health science, food hygiene, industrial processing and fundamental research. Many of those technologies are in use here in Australia, including at hospitals and at ANSTO’s OPAL reactor in Lucas Heights, 40km south-west of Sydney’s city centre

Inside the Opal nuclear research reactor at Lucas Heights in Sydney, operated by ANSTO.AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy

Radioactive waste is not automatically more hazardous than others waste. Indeed, it is demonstrably less hazardous than the organo-chlorine pesticides, poly-chlorinated biphenyls and heavy metal mixtures that also feature in Australia’s hazardous waste portfolio.

Our radiological waste is produced for good reasons. The most radiologically hazardous waste is the result of producing life-saving diagnostic medicines (radio-phamaceuticals) that are essential in our health-care system.

That’s why we need a centralised facility to house our waste in Australia. Fortunately, this material is relatively small in volume: about 4500 m3, or roughly the volume of a couple of Olympic swimming pools for the entire country. That waste is predominantly lightly contaminated soil, mostly relatively low in hazard, and well understood with mature techniques for treatment and storage. These are quantifiable facts and it’s an entirely manageable problem.

But our point is this: if the authorities know, as we know, that this waste stream just isn’t that dangerous, why outback Muckaty or similarly remote sites in the past?

How have we ended up with a process that includes only one site, with that site in the middle of nowhere? What message does that send to every Australian about this waste stream?

“Wow. It must be really, really dangerous if we have to put it there”.

And if that’s the message, what might any Australian with an interest in the land in and around Muckaty think about ending up with the facility in their backyard?

“How completely unfair. No way!”

The irony is that while the first statement is dead wrong, the second statement is quite reasonable.

Our cities are already home to nuclear waste

When dealing with any controversial issue – especially something as emotive as a nuclear waste “dump” – fairness eats facts for breakfast.

Once a process is popularly perceived as “unfair” and the proponent perceived as untrustworthy, the facts about the hazard itself are irrelevant. So why have successive Australian governments from both major parties seemed hell-bent on starting a process from that impossible position?

Most of our radioactive material can and should be transported and stored safely above ground in a suitably dedicated centralised storage facility for use on an intermediate basis (that is, for some decades). The identification of suitable sites for this storage facility ought to be principally a matter of infrastructure and zoning. Suitable sites for open discussion could and probably should be in the outer industrial areas of our capital cities.

That’s right. Australian capital cities.

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