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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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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“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

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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BNC 2.0

2013 was a quiet year for the Brave New Climate website.

After a number of years of heavy blogging from 2008 to 2011 (averaging about 150 posts per year), I guess I’d run out of steam by 2012, and that lack of activity just got worse in 2013. Although my Twitter feed (@bravenewclimate) remained vibrant, the blog itself got only a drip feed of occasional guest posts (though of high quality, I would argue!), and saw increasingly long intervals between updates.

I also switched over the the BNC Discussion Forum and closed comments here, which was a mixed success at best.

For 2014, I’ve hit the reset button.

The blog visuals have been given a fresh coat of paint (new, clean, simplified theme), most of the old links, images and organizational structure have been thrown in the bin, and various pages have been updated or removed. (The old post/comment content is all still in the archives and searchable, so nothing important has disappeared).

More importantly, my approach to blogging will be revitalised, with the aim of re-building (and, over time, expanding) the once-flourishing BNC community:

  • I will write more regularly, but typically in shorter, punchier, single-topic posts.
  • The scope of topics covered will be extended, particularly around technology solutions to global change, forecasting (futurist), and space exploration.
  • Commenting on the blog posts will re-open (but remain moderated, with participants expected to following the commenting rules).
  • The external discussion forum will remain active and integrated with the blog, for when you want to create your own topics that are not related to my blog posts.
  • Guest posts will continue to be hosted, if they are related to the theme of the blog and fit with its style and function.

Spread the word (see social media links at the foot of this post). BNC is back, and will be better than ever!

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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