Reducing emissions: Goldberg machines are not meant to be planning advice

Guest Post by Alex CoramAlex is Professor (Emeritus) at the University of Western Australia and a visiting professor at Robert Gordon University and the University of Massachusetts.  He mostly works on problems in mathematical political-economy.


Rube Goldberg machines are devices for achieving some straightforward objective in a manner that requires great expenditure of effort and resources and is so fanciful and complicated that there is little chance of succeeding.  Their appeal results from the fact that they are the consequence of ignoring simpler ways of achieving the same result.  They also demonstrate the mathematical point that an unconstrained solution is better than a constrained solution.  They are about the last thing we should think about when faced with a serious problem.

Right now we are faced with such a problem.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that to reduce the possibility we will push the climate to a new trajectory anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases need to be cut by between 50 and 80 percent on current figures by about 2050.  They need to go to zero sometime after that. If this is not achieved temperature increases may vary from manageable to possibly over 4 degrees centigrade.  In the latter case the result would be large scale species extinction and possible economic collapse.  This is about as bad as it gets, short of maybe an asteroid strike or something similar.

No solution to these problems is simple, of course.  However, some are beginning to look a bit like Rube’s machines.  To see the point consider the following stripped down view of the options.

Plan A.  Follow Clausewitz’s dictum ‘in war moderation is madness’ and throw everything we have at it.  This means solar, wind, bio-fuels, nuclear the lot. Since hydro is difficult to expand I leave it to one side for this discussion.

Plan B.  Exclude nuclear and just use solar, wind and bio-fuels.

As soon as we try for plan B we complicate things by excluding the main potential source of low emissions expandable base load energy.

Suppose we try to get all the energy we need using solar voltaic. First we need land.  There are a lot of maps on the internet that give the total land required as reassuringly small dots that add up to about the size of Texas.  A better way to do it is to scale up solar installations like the Topaz plant in California.  From this we need about 200~km^2 for each average size 1 GWe power station we replace.  Imagine, for example, that the population of India uses about half current US energy per person.  In this case it would be necessary to cover between 10-20 percent of India’s land mass with panels.

To get an idea of the nature of the second problem just draw a horizontal line that represents a few days and draw average energy requirements as a line that goes up and down a bit.  Now draw some humps of about six hours wide once every twenty four hours.

What is apparent is that the gaps are bigger than the energy filled in bits.  And some of the energy is wasted because it is at the wrong time.  Depending what you want to assume about back up, there are periods where we may have to fill in by100 percent.

So let’s add wind to the diagram. Just draw a line that spikes up and down between the maximum and zero in a random fashion.

Is wind totally random?  As far as getting it to correlate with gaps in the sun, near enough. There is no reason why the wind should coincide with our sunshine humps.  Sometimes it adds to surplus when we don’t want it.  Sometimes it adds nothing when we do want it.

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A path to energy nirvana, or just a circuitous detour?

Guest Post by Geoff Russell. Geoff recently released the popular book “Greenjacked! The derailing of environmental action on climate change“.


My previous BNC post started with a story about satnavs, those great little replacements for a dog-eared street directory. Everybody understands the value of planning a route. Everybody understands that just because a road is heading in the general direction of your destination, it may not be good choice; let alone the best choice.

It might be a dead end or take you on a long circuitous route to or past your destination. Everybody knows this but when it comes to climate change, it’s as if basic smarts take a holiday and anything that can demonstrate a CO2 savings (i.e., heads in the general direction of a solution) produces cheering and cries of victory. The article went on to show that we’ve wasted over a decade with biofuels because they demonstrably cannot decarbonise our transportation system. Not ever. It was an easy argument; a slam dunk, a lay down misere.

But what about renewable energy? Specifically wind and solar? Are these dead end technologies? It certainly isn’t a slam dunk, but lets examine what’s been happening in South Australia for the past decade.

On Sunday the 8th of February, South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill called for a Royal Commission into all things nuclear after a long political history of being anti-nuclear and after being heavily involved in the past decade of wind and solar roll outs in South Australia.

This launched a small flurry of opposition with Greens Senator Mark Parnell rejecting the call with claims about any involvement in the nuclear industry by SA leading to dirty bombs; SA Conservation Council CEO Craig Wilkins invoked a threat to our clean food image. Following an op-ed by me in the Adelaide Advertiser, Wilkins followed with a letter claiming that SA couldn’t possibly have a nuclear reactor within 10 years, and went on to say that (Advertiser Letters 18th Feb):

credible commentators are suggesting that SA could be 100 percent renewable in 10 years

Why have nuclear inquiry if success is imminent?

What on earth is going on? If SA could have 100 percent of its electricity being generated by renewables in 10 years, I’d certainly be cheering and dancing in the street. And what’s with Weatherill? Doesn’t he have any “credible commentators” on his staff? Or is he getting advice from real engineers instead of credible commentators.

Let’s look at the numbers.

First a couple of interesting graphs from AEMO’s 2014 South Australian Electricity Report.

The graph shows exports and imports of electricity into SA. After a steep decline in 2006, we see a gradual rise in imports of electricity starting in 2007. Why?

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The Argument For Nuclear Energy In Australia

This is a piece written by me (Barry Brook) and my Ph.D. student, Ben Heard, as part of the “Nuclear Debate” series on the New Matilda news/opinion site. The original article can be read here.


By now, most of you would have heard that the Premier of South Australia, Labor’s Jay Weatherill, has announced a Royal Commission into an expanded future role for the state in nuclear energy. For people like us, who are both strongly focused on tackling climate change by eliminating Australia’s dependence on fossil fuels, and who consider nuclear to be an essential tool, this is real progress.

In a recent article on The Conversation, we explained the types of issues we think the Royal Commission might consider. These obviously only represent our opinions and perspectives, albeit well-informed and researched.

We cover most of the well-trodden ground on radioactive waste management and energy generation. We also explain a number of reasons, ranging from political to economic to geological, why we think South Australia is a particularly good place to kick-start any deeper foray by our nation into the nuclear fuel cycle.

One thing that particularly frustrated us was the immediate condemnation of the news by the SA Greens Party, and disappointingly, also by the Australian Youth Climate Coalition.

The whole point of Royal Commissions is the rigorous uncovering of facts, based on solid research and deep consultation with experts, government and public representatives. So why the objection?

Well, the arguments are well rehearsed and endlessly debated. Nuclear is too costly, unsafe, produces dangerous and intractable waste, is connected with weapons proliferation, is unsustainable, and besides, is unneeded.

Such a ‘washing list’ of objections is superficially convincing, and the last one in particular appeals to most people’s sensibilities. Australia is large, sunny and sparsely populated country with long, windswept coastlines. Surely then, we can (and should) do it all with wind and solar, and forget about dirty and technically complex alternatives like nuclear fission?

The thing is, with an issue as serious and immediate as climate change, we can’t afford to be carried away by wishful thinking, nor get trapped into thinking that ‘hope’ is a plan. We owe it to the future to be ruthlessly pragmatic about solutions, and accept that trade-offs are inevitable.

So, in as brief a summary as we can put it, here is the state of play was we see it.

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Royal commission into nuclear will open a world of possibilities

This is an article by Ben Heard and me, published today in The Conversation. I’m republishing it here.


South Australian premier Jay Weatherill on Sunday announced a formal inquiry into the future role of the state in the nuclear fuel cycle, which will be tasked with considering options across the full gamut of mining, enrichment, energy and storage.

Currently, mining is its only involvement.

We have long supported calls for Australia to engage in transparent discussion around expanding participation in the nuclear industry.

Others have asked how this might possibly happen. Weatherill has given an answer in announcing a Royal Commission to investigate these issues. These independent, trusted processes and the findings are treated with respect. They are tasked with the rigorous uncovering of facts, based on solid research and deep consultation with experts, government and public representatives.

The premier’s decision to turn the powers and non-partisan process of a Royal Commission to a question of our shared future may prove to be inspired.

Maturing debate

Discussion of nuclear energy in Australia has matured in recent years with greater focus on factual arguments, the relativity of risks and the need for robust scientific sourcing of claims.

Yet it has also remained open to distortions, fabrications and fearmongering. Fortunately, such tactics will not withstand the scrutiny of a Royal Commission. As scientists, academics and evidence-based activists, concerned with facts and objective judgement, we welcome this process.

The stakes are high. Several of Australia’s regional trading partners such as South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and China are bound to nuclear energy, with good reason. Their only pragmatic alternative lies with fossils fuels, at great economic and environmental cost.

This international need for nuclear energy is unlikely to diminish, and will likely grow as concerns about tackling climate change rise. It is for us, as Australians, to now decide whether and how we benefit from this, and whether we do or do not take responsibility to make our region and world safer, cleaner and more secure by trading on our competitive advantages.

Storage potential

South Australia’s potential to merge prosperity, clean energy and good global citizenship can barely be overstated. We have no wish to pre-empt the findings of this process. However we invite South Australians to consider these possibilities.

Globally, there are around 240,000 metric tons heavy metal (MtHM ) in spent nuclear fuel, much of which was dug from South Australian ores. By 2040 this will be around 700,000 MtHM.

Our preliminary work indicates that when existing, unspent national budgets allocated to managing this material are added up, we quickly reach a sum in excess of A$100 billion.

In a soon-to-be-published paper, we find simple, robust dry-cask storage is now a demonstrated, reliable and recognised solution for holding this material. It can be quickly, readily implemented by South Australia. Importantly, such a facility would mean the material is retrievable, to enable the extraction of further value through recycling.

A modest storage facility of, say, 40,000 MtHM, would be quickly subscribed by our trading partners for near-term revenues in the tens of billions of dollars for Australia. That’s just the beginning. Continue reading

South Australia announces Royal Commission into Nuclear Energy

We are, at last making real progress.

As Ben Heard explains on DecarboniseSA, the Premier of the state of South Australia has announced a Royal Commission into an expanded future role in nuclear energy. We, who are deeply concerned about making real progress towards eliminating Australia’s dependence on fossil fuels, should celebrate this advance. It is a triumph for common sense and evidence-based policy. We can make a difference, given sufficient time and effort.

Further information in The Advertiser newspaper. The terms of reference, commissioner etc. are yet to be released. As Tom Koutsantonis (State Treasurer and Energy Minister) said in a tweet:

Bold policy announced by @JayWeatherill establishing a Royal Commission into the #Nuclearfuelcycle. Now a mature debate can occur. #Adelaide

As expected, the news of even an investigation was immediately condemned by the SA Greens Party, and disappointingly, also by the Australian Youth Climate Coalition. The whole point of Royal Commissions is the rigorous uncovering of facts, based on solid research and deep consultation with experts, government and public representatives. What, I must wonder, are they afraid of? Sad.

But, as this announcement today proved, they are becoming increasingly irrelevant. Those who can’t take the hard decisions in solving climate change, those who prefer ideology to evidence, should step aside.