Four Corners and its field of dreams

On Monday 7 July 2014, the usually hard-hitting investigative current affairs program “Four Corners” (Australian Broadcasting Commission) showed “Power to the People“. Here was the tagline:

While the rest of the world moves to embrace renewable energy why is Australia drawing back? Four Corners documents the revolution in power generation taking place across the globe.

The lead journalist, Stephen Long, also published a detailed opinion piece on it the next day, which you can read here. Going by the reaction on Twitter (search for the #4corners tag), the reception from most of the environmental community was rapturous.

So, fantastic! Apparently it’s already all over for coal bar the shouting in most countries (e.g., 4Corners focused on various developments in the US), and unless Australia embraces this “Third Industrial Revolution” (via Jeremy Rifkin), it risks ‘going the way of the dodo’. But…

Who noticed the internal contradictions? Claims of massively falling costs that was already making Australian coal uneconomic — whilst at the same time lamenting the upcoming disaster to investment if the mandatory renewable energy target and other subsides were withdrawn or cut back. Eh?

Below, Geoff Russell lifts up the rose-tinted sunglasses for a moment, and takes a more critical look at Long’s claims…

Four Corners and its field of dreams

Geoff Russell, July 2014

How would you feel about an advertisement for a cold remedy with a tag line: “Our remarkable new treatment will see your cold gone in just 4 weeks!”?

That’s about the size of a recent article by Giles Parkinson for The Guardian called … “Solar has won …”. It could also be a suitable paraphrase for an also recent ABC 4-Corners documentary on renewable energy: Power to the People by Stephen Long and Karen Michelmore.

The defining claim in the Parkinson piece is a CSIRO report claiming that by 2040 more than half of electricty may be generated and stored by “prosumers”.

Is this supposed to be impressive?

I’d suggest that same claim, if realised, is good evidence of the ineffectiveness of distributed renewable energy as a climate change response. By comparison, France built an essentially carbon free nuclear electricity system in under 20 years. So while Australian electricity generates 850 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour, France is down around 70 grams per kilowatt hour and she’s been there since 1990. Germany’s renewable revolution has them planning on hitting the same target by about 2050.

As I said in the beginning, renewable energy is the cold remedy for people who want to feel better in a month … or two … while contributing a bucket load of money to their local chemist’s retirement fund.

On the other hand, Long and the 4-Corners crew seemed totally messmerised by fields of mirrors; or panels. They filmed them here, they filmed them there, it seems they’re springing up everwhere. I half expected an army of Kevin Costner clones to emerge from behind a heliostat holding a banner saying “Build it and they will come”. Well they’ve arrived and they’re travelling in a van with an ABC logo.

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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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Highly Cited Researchers

Thompson Reuters (who produce the Institute for Scientific Information journal impact factors) have released the first update of Highly Cited Researchers in the sciences and social sciences since 2004.

I’m happy to report that I (Barry Brook) made the new (2014) list, which is easily searchable by name, institution or other keyword (it’s flexible) — so find your favourite scientist! (perhaps…)

I note that Australia is well represented in the Environment/Ecology field of research in particular.

The background and methodology of “Highly Cited” is explained here. In brief, it’s derived from Essential Science Indicators data, and is based on the number of top  1% cited papers (in the peer-reviewed literature), by field and year, that a scientist has accumulated over a 10-year period (as indexed in the Web of Science).

You can see my ResearchID profile here and my ORCID here, which shows all my publications. I also have a Google Scholar profile, which is based on a different method (not as rigorous as ISI, as it is prone to picking up various web-based [non-peer-reviewed] citations).

Germany’s ‘Energiewende’ as a model for Australian climate policy?

Guest Post by Graham Palmer. Graham recently published the book “Energy in Australia: Peak Oil, Solar Power, and Asia’s Economic Growth” (“Springer Briefs in Energy” series).

Germany’s Energiewende as a model for Australian climate policy? A critical review.

Graham Palmer, June 2014

The Energiewende is the world’s most audacious energy policy experiment and comprises Germany’s biggest infrastructure project since post-Second World War reconstruction. No other national energy policy has attracted such international interest, nor polarised opinions. Energiewende – literally translated as “energy turn” or “energy transition” – has two main elements – a withdrawal from nuclear power and an increase in the penetration of renewable energy via a feed-in tariff (FiT) system. The FiT scheme, originally introduced in 1991 and enshrined in the EEG Act, is based on the principle of protecting renewable investors with a guaranteed grid connection and revenue, with differing returns based on the type of renewable generator. In theory, this was also supposed to encourage innovation, although most of the benefits have come through volume manufacture driving prices down the cost curve, and the benefits of “learning by doing”.

But for Germany, this is about much more than their national energy policy. This is Germany’s Apollo space program. If it were to work, Germany would be the world leader in renewables integration with a potential multi-billion Euro export industry. But unlike the essentially technical challenge of putting man on the Moon, the Energiewende faces unprecedented challenges beyond merely the technical. A nation’s standard of living is underpin by the capital and labour productivity of its energy systems, along with a sufficiently high net-energy.

While the planned German nuclear exit following Fukushima was, at face value, an over-reaction given the lack of seismic and tsunami risk, German ambivalence towards nuclear has been building since the 1970s. The student protests of the late 1960s produced a fusion of anti-Americanism, anti-capitalism, and anti-nuclear, where nuclear power became aligned with distrust of capitalism and militarism. The “laughing sun” symbol appeared everywhere – Atomkraft? Nein Danke (Nuclear power? No thanks!) – and became recognizable as an expression of “polite dissent” as it became cool to be anti-nuclear [1].

This alignment was not altogether surprising – the legacy of the Holocaust and the Second World War, West Berlin as the focal point of the Cold War, with Germany hosting NATO Cruise and Pershing missiles along with American, British and French forces. These fears became entrenched through anti-nuclear activism by scientists such as Klaus Traube Traube, who was originally a proponent of nuclear power, but became one of the most prominent and influential critics [2]. And it was also the local “Citizens’ Initiatives” organised around local issues that formed the basis of the grassroots campaigns, such as opposition to the siting of a new nuclear power plant in the wine-growing village of Wyhl in 1975 [2].

Similarly, the Australian anti-nuclear movement grew out of the 1960s protest movement but had a unique Australian flavour [3]. This was the period of the Vietnam War, land rights for Aboriginal people, French nuclear testing at Mururoa atoll, the aftermath of Maralinga weapons tests, and the hero of the left, Gough Whitlam. This was also the period before the functional separation of state-sponsored weapons programs and commercial nuclear vendors – the choice of the British Steam Generating Heavy Water Reactor (SGHWR) for the proposed Jervis Bay nuclear power plant (NPP) in the late 1960s, together with the reluctance to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, suggested a strategy of retaining a future option for dual-use capability [4].

Upon winning government in 1972, Whitlam signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), banned nuclear power, and introduced universal higher education. Suddenly, it became de rigueur in academia and the political left to oppose nuclear power.  This earlier period defined Australian anti-nuclear canon, which remained as unchallenged doctrine for decades. Jim Green’s [5] introduction of the term “radiation racism” in the late 1990s, representing a drawing together of Green-left activism, uranium mining, Aboriginal land rights, weapons testing, and nuclear power, typifies this enduring but now archaic narrative.

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Critique of the proposal for 100% renewable energy electricity supply in Australia

Below is a new, detailed critique by Dr Ted Trainer of the simulation studies by Elliston, Diesendorf and MacGill on how eastern Australia might be run off 100% renewable energy. The summary:

Three recent papers by Elliston, Diesdendorf and MacGill (2012, 2013a, 2013b) elaborate on a proposal whereby it is claimed that 100% of present Australian electricity demand could be provided by renewable energy. The following notes add considerations arising from the last two papers to those discussed in my initial assessment of the first paper. My general view is that it would be technically possible to meet total Australian electricity demand from renewables but this would be very costly and probably unaffordable, mainly due to the amount of redundant plant needed to cope with intermittency. This draft analysis attempts to show why the cost conclusions EDM arrive at are probably much too low.

Ted has also updated his critique of the Zero Carbon Australia’s report on 100% renewable energy by 2020. The original BNC post is here, and the updated PDF here.

Ted notes the following:

These efforts have taken a huge amount  of time and I am still not clear and confident about my take, mainly because neither party will cooperate or correspond.  Thus I have not been able to deal with any misunderstandings etc. I have made.  Both critiques are strengthened by information I have come across since circulating previous commentaries, but they are essentially elaborations on the general line of argument taken in earlier attempts.

I find this unwillingness to engage on these criticisms by the primary authors disappointing, but typical.


I think these three papers are valuable contributions to the considerable advance that has occurred in the discussion of the potential of renewables in the last few years. My understanding of the situation is much improved on what it was three or four years ago and I now think some of my earlier conclusions were unsatisfactory. EDM take the appropriate general approach, which is to look at how renewable technologies might be combined at each point in time to meet demand, or more accurately, to estimate how much capacity of each technology would be required, especially to get through the times when solar and wind input is minimal. EDM put forward a potentially effective way of coping with the problem of gaps in their availability via biomass derived gas for use in gas turbines. My earlier analyses did not consider this.

It is not difficult for an approach of this kind to show that electricity demand can be met, and many impressive 100% renewable energy proposals have been published. (For critical analyses of about a dozen of these see Trainer, 2014), but a great deal of redundant capacity would be needed, and the key questions are, how much, and what would it cost? My present uncertain impression is that Australia might be able to afford to do it, but if it could it would be with significant difficulty, i.e., with major impacts on lifestyles, national systems and priorities, and on society in general.

A major disappointment with the EDM analyses is that for some crucial elements no data, evidence or derivations are given and as a result the proposal can only be taken as a statement of claims. We need to be able to work through the derivations in proposals such as this to see if they are sound or what questionable assumptions might have been made etc. Consequently I have had to spend a lot of time trying to guestimate my way to an assessment of the cost conclusions and it is not possible to confident about the results.

Required capacity?

A merit of the EDM approach is to take as the target the present demand. This avoids the uncertainty introduced when attempting to estimate both future demand and the reduction in demand that conservation effort etc. might make.

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