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?

Book Review: “Energy in Australia – Peak Oil, Solar Power, and Asia’s Economic Growth”

Guest post by John MorganJohn runs R&D programmes at a Sydney startup company. He has a PhD in physical chemistry, and research experience in chemical engineering in the US and at CSIRO. He is a regular commenter on BNC.

You can follow John on Twitter @JohnDPMorgan


Let’s get one thing out of the way – the parochial title.  Graham Palmer’s Energy in Australia is not about Australia, any more than, say, David MacKay’s Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air is about the UK.  Both books make use of local case studies, but they are both concerned with fundamental aspects of our energy system that will interest readers regardless of nationality.

Likewise, peak oil and Asia’s economic growth are minor players in this story, characters that don’t really warrant top billing.  So, what is this book really about?

EiA is an extended discussion of the high level issues in energy system transformation, in particular, energy return on energy invested (EROEI), intermittency, and electricity grid control.  A short, punchy book of only 80 or so pages, it is broken down into many bite-sized pieces and is an easy read for the non-specialist, despite being published under an academic imprint.

The book argues that solar and wind exist within the existing fossil fuel / synchronous grid framework, and have a role to play in abating emissions from those plants, and in network peak load support, but that they do not allow us to break out of that system.  That would require an energy source with high EROEI driving synchronous generators that can progressively replace those driven by coal and gas in the existing grid.

The system level issues are summarized by Palmer in the figure below, as they relate to plans for renewable energy.  Many proposals for 100% renewable energy systems put together some combination of wind, solar, biogas, etc. that meets historical demand.  As Palmer puts it,

The underlying theme of 100% renewable plans is the assumption that through increased complexity, an optimal set of synergies can be discovered and exploited.  The difficulty is that the plans operate solely within the shallow “simulation layer” … With few exceptions, little consideration is given to the deeper first- and second-order layer issues.

The first half of the book explores those deeper issues, and is a fascinating description of the operation of the grid, its control schemes, the role of baseload, peak demand management, storage, capacity factors, availability and so on.  This really should be compulsory reading for anyone serious about a transition to a low emissions electricity grid.

Fig3-1PalmerA startling figure from this discussion is the world’s electricity generation mix expressed, not as contributions from coal, gas, hydro, wind etc. as we usually see, but as the fraction from “synchronous rotary machines” – that is, mechanical generators with rotating shafts which are synchronized to the electrical frequency of the grid.  96% of global electricity is provided by such machines.  In a sense, we have almost no diversity in electrical generation.

These machines are ubiquitous because they offer a solution to the historically difficult problem of grid control – making sure that electricity generation exactly meets demand at any instant.  This is done by frequency stabilization – the rotation of all the generators on the grid is synchronized, and as loads are connected to the grid, the rotational frequency drops, which is the signal used to bring on board new generation.

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“Energy in Australia” book

Graham Palmer, a regular BNC community member, has published a new book. It is titled “Energy in Australia: Peak Oil, Solar Power, and Asia’s Economic Growth” and is published by Springer (in their “Springer Briefs in Energy” series). It’s a slim, taughtly written volume (91 pages) that can be read in 1 or 2 sittings. If you have a Kindle, you can purchase it on Amazon.com.au.

I enjoyed the book and got a lot out of it — a combination of useful facts/figures and practical, hard-nosed analysis. I won’t go on too much about the details of the content in this post, because I’ve asked John Morgan to do a full review of its contents for BNC, which he will write up shortly. So stay tuned.

But meanwhile, here is a short precis from the author (Graham), written for this website:



Since the cost of energy represents a relatively small proportion of GDP, the standard neoclassical economic theory of economic growth assumes that it is not a significant factor of production. Therefore improvements in the productivity of energy systems are assumed to make only a minor contribution to economic growth – global primary energy consumption is assumed to rise with global GDP subject to improvements in the energy intensity of production, and price and income elasticities. Indeed, the IEA, EIA and IMF energy forecasting models are computed from GDP growth forecasts – energy supply is assumed to be unconstrained (see Ayres and Voudouris 2013).

The alternative ecological economics perspective is that the increase in energy flows, since the industrial revolution, has been integral to economic development, and that the low cost of energy is a reflection of the ready availability of energy dense fossil fuels. Rather than GDP driving energy consumption, high-EROI energy has enabled GDP growth (see Ayres and Voudouris 2013, Sorrell 2010, Alcott 2012). The very high energy return on investment (EROI) from fossil fuels has enabled the development of the modern state, with advanced education, healthcare, welfare, and the richness and diversity of modern society.

Fig 4.5 (pg 37) from Palmer (2014), Energy in Australia (Springer books)

Fig 4.5 (pg 37) from Palmer (2014), Energy in Australia (Springer books)

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New critique of AEMO 100% renewable electricity for Australia report

Guest post by Dr Ted Trainer, University of NSW (http://ssis.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/).

For other critiques of the “100 Per Cent Renewables Study – Draft Modelling Outcomes” report on BNC, see here and here.

Summary: The AEMO report concludes that 100% of Australian electricity demand could be met by renewable energy sources. The claim is far from established and highly challengeable because some of the assumptions etc. are implausible and not likely to be borne out, and some crucial factors haven’t been taken into account. Intermittency has not been dealt with at all satisfactorily, embodied energy costs seem not to have been considered, and it is admitted that some major costs have not been included. It is clear that a thorough study would have arrived at an annual capital cost in the early years of construction that was several times the sum claimed. The main issue with renewables is not whether it is technically possible for them to meet total demand – it is whether the large amount of redundant plant needed to deal with intermittency could be afforded.

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This study concludes that 100% of Australian electricity demand could be met by renewable energy sources.   I think it is a valuable study, providing useful information, the kind of exploration we need, and in general its pronouncements are acceptable —  if the assumptions and inclusions/exclusions that are made clear are accepted.  However the 100% claim is far from established and highly challengeable because several of the assumptions etc. are implausible and not likely to be borne out, and some crucial factors haven’t been taken into account.  Intermittency has not be dealt with at all satisfactorily, embodied energy costs seem not to have been considered, and it is admitted that some major cost factors have not been included.   It is clear that a thorough study would have arrived at an annual capital cost in the early years of construction that was several times the sum claimed..  Following is a brief indication of some problems.

The amount of redundant, back-up plant required.

The core issue with high penetration renewables claims is to do with the amount of plant that would be needed to deal with the intermittency of wind and sun.  When both are low supply can be maintained only if there is a substantial amount of some other kind of generating capacity, or of storage capacity, that can be turned to.  Proposals attempting to provide for this end up having to assume very large quantities of back-up plant.  For instance in the Elliston, Diesendorf and MacGill proposal (2012) the multiple is 3.37.   In the Hart and Jacobson proposal for California (2011) the multiple is 4.3.  They found that in order to meet a 66 GW demand with low carbon emissions no less than 281 GW of capacity would be needed.  This would include 75 GW of gas generating capacity which would function a mere 2.6% of the time (p. 2283) and it would provide only 5% of annual demand.  This means 75 power stations would sit idle almost all the time.

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Log, slash, truck and burn – welcome to renewable electricity nirvana

Guest Post by Geoff RussellGeoff is a mathematician and computer programmer and is a member of Animal Liberation SA. He has published a book on diet and science, CSIRO Perfidy.

Back in 2011, the federal Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency commissioned the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) to investigate two future scenarios in which the National Electricity Market was fuelled entirely by renewables … as defined by the Department. An essential component of AEMO’s 100 percent renewable solution involves the annual transport of 50 million tonnes of plant material from farms, native forests and plantations in what can only be described as a massive soil mineral mining operation. Log, slash, truck and burn. For details read on.

AEMO has just released draft findings and been met with typically enthusiastic headlines among renewable advocates: “100 percent renewable is feasible: AEMO” and “100% renewables for Australia – not so costly after all”. It took the Financial Review to point out that “not so costly” means doubling the wholesale price of electricity. The AEMO report was welcomed by the Australian Conservation Foundation “100 per cent clean energy on the way”.

Martin Nicholson on BraveNewClimate.com responded quickly saying it’s possible to meet the modelled electricity demand using nuclear power for less than half the lowest cost scenario of the AEMO report. This is $91 billion compared to the range estimate of $219 to $332 billion for 100 percent renewables with Nicholson using the same source of costing estimates as AEMO.

A nuclear solution would also avoid some of the uncosted gotchas, the extra “challenges” contained in the report: land acquisition of half a million hectares, boosting the distribution network, electric vehicle charging infrastructure, biomass logistics infrastructure, and DSP. What’s DSP? … demand side participation. A wonderful piece of euphemistic jargon whereby people either do without or get their electricity at some inconvenient time. E.g., Why cook dinner when you get home from work when you can cook it at lunch time when the solar PV is powering and just re-heat it later? All you need is the will and a new oven remotely controlled by your smart phone. I call it the demand side kitchen rules.

Let’s first sketch AEMO’s broad findings before looking at the most contentious issue.

Climate change isn’t just about electricity

Firstly, note that the study doesn’t deal with Western Australia or the Northern Territory. It’s strictly about areas in the NEM (National Electricity Market), the eastern Australian grid.

Second, the AEMO study is about electricity. Electricity is about 1/4 of our fossil fuel energy use, and about 230 of our 580 million tonnes of CO2eq (carbon dioxide equivalent) greenhouse gas emissions. The AEMO study dealt with switching to electric vehicles by assuming that all charging would be done at times of high solar PV output and would thus absorb it’s entire assumed rooftop PV output.

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