The clock is ticking on the drive for sustainable energy

The below is a (short) chapter I wrote for the recent book “The Curious Country“, published by the Australian Office of the Chief Scientist.

This excellent and well-illustrated book can be downloaded for free here. The blurb:

During 2013, The Office of the Chief Scientist asked Australians what they would like to know more about; what scientific issues concern them and what discoveries inspire them.

The results shaped this book – a collection of essays about the scientific issues affecting Australians today.

The Curious Country is available as a free download from ANU E Press. It is currently available as a pdf, so can be downloaded and read on your e-book reader, tablet, computer or mobile phone


POWERING THE FUTURE – The clock is ticking on the drive for sustainable energy

(Download the PDF for this article and the other energy-related chapters, here)

ACCESS to cheap and reliable energy has underpinned Australia’s development for decades. Fossil fuels — coal, oil and natural gas — provided the concentrated energy sources required to build our infrastructural, industrial and service enterprises. Yet it’s now clear this dependence on carbon-intensive fuels was a Faustian bargain and the devil’s due, because the long-run environmental and health costs of fossil fuels seem likely to outweigh the short-term benefits.

In the coming decades, Australia must tackle the threats of dangerous climate change and future bottlenecks in conventional liquid-fuel supply, while also meeting people’s aspirations for ongoing increases in quality of life – all without compromising long-term environmental sustainability and economic prosperity. Fortunately, there are science and technology innovations that Australia could leverage to meet these goals.

Seeking competitive alternatives to coal

How can Australia shift away from coal dependence and transition to competitive, low-carbon alternatives, and what role will science and engineering play in making it happen? To answer these questions, a key focus must be on electricity generation technologies — electricity is a particularly convenient and flexible ‘energy carrier’— and to consider the key risks and advantages with the alternative energy sources that will compete with fossil-fuel power.

In 2012, the majority of Australia’s electricity was generated by burning black and brown coal (75 per cent), with smaller contributions from natural gas (13 per cent), hydroelectric dams (8 per cent) and other renewables (4 per cent). The nation’s installed capacity now totals over 50 gigawatts of power generation potential, with stationary energy production currently resulting in the annual release of 285 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, about 52 per cent of our total emissions.

CurCountry_Box1

Clearly, the non-electric energy-replacement problem for Australia would also need to consider transportation and agricultural fuel demands. In a world beyond oil for liquid fuels, we will need to eventually ‘electrify’ most operations: using batteries, using heat from power plants to manufacture hydrogen from water, and by deriving synthetic fuels such as ammonia or methanol.

Under ‘business as usual’ forecasts produced by Government energy analysts, electricity use in Australia is expected to grow by 60 to 100 per cent through to 2050 with hundreds of billions of dollars of investment needed in generation and transmission infrastructure just to keep pace with escalating demand and to replace old, worn out power plants and transmission infrastructure. At the same time carbon dioxide emissions must be cut by 80 per cent to mitigate climate-change impacts, via some combination of enhanced energy conservation and new supply from clean energy sources.

An uncertain mix of future options

Although there are a huge number of potential energy options now being developed that might one day replace coal in Australia not all alternatives are equally likely.

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IPCC double standards on energy barriers

Advocating energy policy to ecologists…

It’s been quite a while since my last BNC update! My excuse is a heavy travel schedule – first to Moscow to help decide the winner of this year’s Global Energy Prize (see here) as part of the International Awards Committee, and then to Raleigh, North Carolina, to visit a long-standing colleague (Scott Mills and the ‘hare lab’) at NCSU and deliver a couple of talks (one on meta-modelling and another on energy policy – see here for a write-up of the latter talk). I also snuck in a visit to the spectacular Hanging Rock.

Anyway, to the main point of this post. The IPCC have released statements regarding their Working Group III report for AR5, on mitigation, with the full report to be released tomorrow (15 April). Summary for Policy Makers is here. See here for some responses from experts in Australia.

Today, a colleague pointed out to me what appears to be double standard in how IPCC depicts problems with nuclear versus renewable energy.

For nuclear, IPCC notes “a variety of barriers and risks exist” and specifies them: “operational risks, and the associated concerns, uranium mining risks, financial and regulatory risks, unresolved waste management issues, nuclear weapon proliferation concerns, and adverse public opinion (robust evidence, high agreement).”

By contrast, the word “barrier” is not mentioned with renewable energy, much less its obvious specific problems e.g., massive land use requirements and intermittency. As such, the clear sense a policymaker would get is that with only a bit more subsidies, renewables are the future. Whereas the other fissionable option is too fraught. The path is apparently clear!

Here are the two pertinent statements:

Since AR4, many RE technologies have demonstrated substantial performance improvements and cost reductions, and a growing number of RE technologies have achieved a level of maturity to enable deployment at significant scale (robust evidence, high agreement). Regarding electricity generation alone, RE accounted for just over half of the new electricity‐generating capacity added globally in 2012, led by growth in wind, hydro and solar power. However, many RE technologies still need direct and/or indirect support, if their market shares are to be significantly increased; RE technology policies have been successful in driving recent growth of RE. Challenges for integrating RE into energy systems and the associated costs vary by RE technology, regional circumstances, and the characteristics of the existing background energy system (medium evidence, medium agreement). [7.5.3, 7.6.1, 7.8.2, 7.12, Table 7.1]

and…

Nuclear energy is a mature low‐GHG emission source of baseload power, but its share of global electricity generation has been declining (since 1993). Nuclear energy could make an increasing contribution to low‐carbon energy supply, but a variety of barriers and risks exist (robust evidence, high agreement). Those include: operational risks, and the associated concerns, uranium mining risks, financial and regulatory risks, unresolved waste management issues, nuclear weapon proliferation concerns, and adverse public opinion (robust evidence, high agreement). New fuel cycles and reactor technologies addressing some of these issues are being investigated and progress in research and development has been made concerning safety and waste disposal. [7.5.4, 7.8, 7.9, 7.12, Figure TS.19]

Anyone bothered by this double standard?

The REAL reason some people hate nuclear energy

Guest Post by Martin Nicholson. Martin studied mathematics, engineering and electrical sciences at Cambridge University in the UK and graduated with a Masters degree in 1974. He published a peer-reviewed book on low-carbon energy systems in 2012The Power Makers’ Challenge: and the need for Fission Energy


When people express their nuclear hatred, they usually argue about: the dangers from radiation leaks, the risk of weapons proliferation, the nuclear waste problem, that nuclear power is too expensive and in any case we just don’t need it!

None of these reasons have solid scientific backing. If they did, countries around the world (like USA, UK, France, Finland, Russia, China, India, South Korea, UAE) would not continue to build new nuclear power plants to supply their growing need for energy.

So what is going on?

I have recently read David Ropeik’s book How Risky Is It, Really?, (2010 McGraw-Hill) and it could provide an explanation.

Ropeik is a consultant in risk perception and introduces us to the psychology of fear. He looks at why our fears don’t always match the facts. He provides an in-depth view of our perceptions of risk and the hidden factors that make us unnecessarily afraid of relatively small threats and not afraid enough of the bigger ones. He introduces the important concept of the Perception Gap – the potentially dangerous distance between our fears and the facts. We need to recognize this gap if we are to reduce it and make healthier choices for ourselves, our families, and society.

Risk Perception Factors

Ropeik explores a number of what he calls Risk Perception Factors. These factors can make fear either go up or down. Usually more than one factor is involved in our overall perception of a threat. Below I list some of the key factors and provide my examples of how these factors could have impacted attitudes towards nuclear energy over the last few decades:

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Stayin’ alive in the gene pool – Part III

This is the third and final part of a comprehensive series on radiation that has been published on BNC in weekly instalments during November 2013. This week — cancer…

Guest Post by Geoff Russell. Geoff is a computer programmer, vegan, environmentalist, and more generally, a ‘by-the-numbers’ polymath. For a list of all of his posts on BNC, click here. He also has collections here and here.

Part I and Part II of this series showed that radiation, whether from reactor accidents or even nuclear war, pose no long term global risks for the biosphere.

If humans were malicious or stupid enough to engage in nuclear war, we would have much bigger things than radiation to worry about, both during and after. Worrying about the radiation impacts of a nuclear war is rather like worrying about the bad hair impacts of self immolation. The World War II atomic bombs killed most of their victims in exactly the same way that other bombs killed people. The fire bombing of Japanese cities killed more people and left a far larger legacy of horrific and frequently permanently painful burn injuries. During 1994 the humble machete killed over half a million people in Rwanda. In comparison with missing limbs and horrific burns, radiation’s impacts on most survivors was mundane. We’ll see later that sausages can increase cancer risk by more than being an atomic bomb survivor. The increased cancer rate in survivors gave them an average lifespan reduction of some two months and has had no long term impacts on later generations.

If you want to compare two causes of cancer then you count cases or perhaps deaths. Something that causes a million cancer deaths is worse than something that causes a thousand. Focusing on one person’s suffering in that thousand can cause a cruel, unjust and immoral allocation of resources away from the many to the few.

Peter, Paul and Mary and the no-nukes sales anthem

Thirty years of adverse branding has raised radiation’s minor disease contribution well above and beyond it’s station. Most of our current crop of politicians, including people like Bill Clinton, who killed the US Integral Fast Reactor program in 1994, grew up in a cultural soup of references to radiation as poison. For decades now, the anthem of the no-nukes movement has frequently been considered to be the Peter, Paul and Mary song “Power” with its many cover versions (here’s one … at 7:35). It has an ironic refrain:

Just give me the restless power of the wind
Give me the comforting glow of a wood fire
But please take all of your atomic poison power away.

Poetic license is no excuse for getting stuff back to front.

Wood fires are deadly. Cooking fires, mainly wood but also cattle dung, kill half a million children annually and another 3,000,000 adults. Woodsmoke is certainly natural. A naturally toxic soup of nasty natural chemicals.

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Stayin’ alive in the gene pool – Part II

This is the second part of a comprehensive 3-part series on radiation that is being published on BNC in weekly instalments during November 2013. This week, we look at… mutations!

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Is this caused by radiation exposure, or…?

Guest Post by Geoff Russell. Geoff is a computer programmer, vegan, environmentalist, and more generally, a ‘by-the-numbers’ polymath. For a list of all of his posts on BNC, click here. He also has collections here and here.

Part I noted the extraordinary levels of radiation needed to cause similar levels of damage to normal (non-radiation) processes. But evolution has produced some horrors which can slice and dice DNA far worse than a mere 200,000 times the natural level of background radiation.

I’ll see your 200,000 and raise it 10 times!

People with a rare disease called Bloom’s syndrome experience about 10 times the normal level of double strand breaks. That’s like the DNA damage from 2 million times normal background radiation.

Genetic diseases have been around near enough to forever. In particular, Bloom’s looks to be at least a couple of thousand years old. Some mutations in the BRCA1 gene, one of which was given global fame recently by Angelina Jolie, probably originated about 1800 years ago. One million Japanese carry a mutation set which could give an unlucky child 10,000 times the risk of skin cancer (xeroderma pigmentosum). This charming little evolutionary gift is also thousands of years old. Cystic fibrosis goes back at least to the iron age. People with all these mutations have thus far managed to leave enough children to offset any tendencies of natural selection to bar them from the gene pool.

While these diseases, and thousands of others like them, have shortened lives and caused immense suffering for a very long time, none were caused by a nuclear accident or war. And it should now be obvious why no nuclear accident or war could possibly create as many double strand breaks as people with Bloom syndrome experience.

And there’s a new kid on the block

The really big news on genetic disease that has emerged during the past decade or two is not only that radiation accidents are obviously innocent bystanders to the thousands of known genetic diseases, but that you don’t even need mutations to produce a genetic disease. And if you don’t need mutations, then you don’t need double strand or any other kind of DNA damage. And when it comes to cancer, you don’t even need carcinogens in the normal meaning of the word.

It’s kind of obvious when you think about it. The cells in both your brains and your biceps have exactly the same DNA but operate very, very differently. There has to be a way of turning off genes that make muscle body proteins in your brain and vice-a-versa in your biceps. There really have to be ways of turning on and off any and every gene in every cell in your body. And there are.

Massive DNA damage, caused by exposure to… milk. Click on the image for details, in Geoff Russell’s post “Would sir like a caesium salad with his steak?”

Molecular genetics has long studied regulatory mechanisms within DNA, but over the last 20 years various new classes of mechanism have been discovered which have spawned a sub-branch of genetics called epigenetics. Part III will explain the connection between epigenetics and cancer, but the one sentence preview is that science is now starting to understand causes of cancer and other diseases beyond mutations and some are incredibly mundane. But that’s for later.

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