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.


Introduction

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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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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4 million views on BNC

Today this modest climate + energy blog passed 4 million page views.

My thanks to all the regular guest posters and commenters on BNC for building up and critiquing the archives of content — 550 posts and rising.

This blog has been dedicated to the enormous challenge of replacing fossil fuels by mid century.  That goal continues. Whatever our core future energy generation sources turn out to be –  nuclear or renewables – if we can solve the ‘sustainable energy problem’, the possibilities for humanity are many and exciting.

So let’s keep thinking, and debating, and advocating, for good policy and smart use of technology. The biosphere depends on us getting this right. As does the prosperity of our own species. Onward!

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?

Fukushima – Jim Green’s distractions and James Hansen’s warning

Yesterday, Jim Green, anti-nuclear spokesman for ‘Friends of the Earth’ in Australia, published an opinion article on Climate Spectator entitled “Fukushima apologies and apologists“. This piece included an attack on Geoff Russell and me, in which he demanded that we make an apology. Today they published our response, which I reproduce below.

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It’s been interesting to see the media response to the third anniversary of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Has the focus been on mourning and commemorating the 18,000 deaths or on kicking the anti-nuclear can over the triple meltdown at Fukushima which killed nobody?

Jim Green’s recent Climate Spectator article neglected any mention of the 18,000 deaths caused by the quake and tsunami and chose instead to fiercely debate whether the meltdowns had killed anybody. Of the 18,000 actual deaths, many were due to engineers or penny pinching local officials designing or building protective sea walls for a much smaller tsunami than the one which actually arrived. They were wrong and thousands died. Green is predictably silent about these engineering failures which killed thousands and only has eyes for the nuclear failures which didn’t.

This is classic Green. Always trying distract people from thinking about the big issue. The big issue is climate change and whether nuclear power should be part of the global response. The way to come to a rational decision is to weigh up the pros and cons.

Pick a number from Green’s estimates of the number of cancers that might be caused over the next 30 years by Fukushima radiation and write it down as a con along with whatever figure you’d like to put down for the Chernobyl toll of premature deaths. On the other side you should note the 1.8 million premature deaths already prevented by nuclear power by reducing the toxic pollution from coal fired power plants. You should also write down about 64 gigatonnes of CO2 saved by current nuclear plants.

At that point, it’s pretty much a slam dunk, you could stop writing. Any negative impacts of nuclear power have been swamped by the positive impacts.

But it’s useful to build another list of pros and cons which represent the impacts of the anti-nuclear movement over the past few decades.

On the pro side of the ledger will be the accidents we didn’t have because we built coal power stations instead of nuclear. Until very recently, the anti-nuclear movement has protested any nuclear construction vigorously and been totally silent about coal, so this is a fair comparison.

So what if we had continued the nuclear rollout of the 1970s and now had 10 times as many reactors producing all of our electricity? We’d have had a few more accidents, how many? Let’s say 10. So write down however many premature deaths you think is reasonable on the pro side and now on the other side write down the saving of 18 million premature fossil fuel related deaths together with the saving of 640 gigatonnes of CO2. Note that this anti-nuclear consequence of some 640 gigatonnes of CO2 has single handedly delivered us into the gaping jaws of a horribly elevated risk of dangerous climate change. What do you write down for that?

But let’s go back to that 1.8 million premature death saving estimate. The authors were NASA climate scientists Pushker Kharecha and living legend James Hansen. It was a very conservative estimate. In places like China and India, nuclear has been displacing not just coal, but wood fires in people’s living areas. Wood cooking stoves annually kill about half a million children under 5 years of age with an added illness toll much larger. Hansen has recently written an opinion piece with the striking title of ‘World’s Greatest Crime against Humanity and Nature’.

What’s he talking about?

Hansen wants the US to assist China with its nuclear rollout because he thinks it’s blindingly obvious that without nuclear, there is simply no way to avoid dangerous climate change. As part of the argument Hansen charges those who believe in a non-nuclear 100 percent renewable response to climate change with the major responsibility for the rise of both gas fracking and the exploitation of tar sands and other unconventional oil technologies. This is supported by falling natural gas production during the US nuclear roll and the subsequent resurgence after the anti-nuclear movement got spurred on by the Three Mile Island meltdown and Chernobyl.

But we suspect Hansen may be wrong about one thing … which is that given the astonishing Chinese progress in nuclear technology in recent years, we’d be thinking that it might be the US who need Chinese production engineering assistance, but that’s another issue.

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Geoff Russell is an author with qualifications in mathematics and philosophy. Barry Brook is an environmental scientist and director of climate science at the University of Adelaide’s Environment Institute.