Techno-fixes for climate change

Last week I presented at the Australian Academy of Science on ‘techno-fixes for climate change’. This talk was part of an AAS series organised by Bryan Gaensler called “Science Fiction becomes Science Fact“.

My talk was vodcast, and goes for 38 min, followed up by about 17 min of Q&A with the audience at the Shine Dome in Canberra (Australia). In it, I discuss climate scenarios, the energy problem, advanced nuclear energy, plasma-arc torches, geo-engineering, vertical farms, desalination, synthetic fuels, and much more. I also introduce the paradigm of ecomodernism.

I hope you enjoy it.

It was also covered in a report on BuzzFeed.

Making sense of the Tesla Triumvirate – solar, batteries and electric vehicles

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).

The Tesla Powerwall is promised as the critical third key to unlocking the Tesla Triumvirate – solar, batteries and electric vehicles. The Powerwall provides an opportunity to look at the opportunities and weaknesses of distributed power, and examine the long-run sustainability of such a system. To do this, we can turn to life-cycle assessments and the field of Energy Return on Investment (EROI).

EROI is the ratio of how much energy is gained from an energy production process compared to how much of that energy is required to extract, grow, or get a new unit of energy. Advocates of EROI believe that it offers insights about energy transitions in ways that markets can not. The availability of surplus energy has been one of the main drivers of economic and social development since the industrial revolution.

At the start of the 1990’s, Pimentel launched a debate that was to be long running, on the effectiveness of corn ethanol production in the United States. Pimentel drew attention to the energy intensity of the ethanol life cycle, including nitrogen fertilizer, irrigation, embodied energy of machinery, drying, on-farm diesel, processing, etc. Although not settled decisively, there is a consensus that the EROI of US corn ethanol is below the minimum useful threshold. Brazilian ethanol seems to be better, and there is hope that second generation biofuels will be better again.

The relative fraction of residential energy end-use in Australia helps to give a sense of the scale between our direct household energy use, and the total energy consumption in Australia – according to the Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics (table 3.4), residential energy consumption made up 11% of total energy consumption, with electricity a little under half of that. As a community, the vast majority of our energy footprint is embedded in the goods, food, products, and services that we consume.

We can also apply EROI principles to electricity production. However electricity is only valuable within the context of a system and isolating the EROI of individual components is more challenging. We can, however apply life-cycle inventories to individual components, including solar, batteries, and electric vehicles, and see how they perform. Life-cycle assessments measure the lifetime environmental impacts of greenhouse emissions, embodied energy, ozone depletion, particulates, water and marine toxicity and eutrophication, and other effects.

The UK-based Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership compared a range of low emission vehicle options in the UK. This considered the full life-cycle of the vehicle including production of the vehicle with a driving range of 150,000km. The conventional vehicle was based on the VW Golf, and the electric vehicle was based on the Nissan Leaf.

Based on the current European grid, it concluded that EVs generally have lower life-cycle emissions than an equivalent petrol vehicle, but the outcome is dependent on the electricity grid and other factors. The report also projected the analysis out to 2030, assuming improvements in energy and vehicle technologies. For the ‘typical 2030’ scenario, the emission intensity of the UK and European grid was assumed to drop to between 0.287 and 0.352 kg CO2-e/kWh (around a third of Australia’s current emission intensity).

Figure 1 – lifetime greenhouse emission based on “typical 2030” scenario

Figure 1 – lifetime greenhouse emission based on “typical 2030” scenario

The most important outcome of these life cycle assessments is that the embodied energy of the battery and the emission intensity of the grid are the crucial determinants of the emission intensity of EVs. The report assumed a battery capacity of 24 kWh for the EV, or less than a third of the Tesla Model S battery.

Continue reading

Complaint about misleading Helen Caldicott article in “The Saturday Paper”

Guest Post by Geoff Russell. Geoff recently released the popular book “Greenjacked! The derailing of environmental action on climate change“.

Preamble Following a recent article by Helen Caldicott in The Saturday Paper I submitted the following complaint to The Australian Press Council. Unfortunately TSP isn’t a member of the Press Council. Nonetheless they were kind enough to review my complaint and informed me that op-ed articles are judged rather differently from news reports and that even if TSP were a member, they would take no action. Given the high number of factually incorrect claims by Caldicott, I asked for an example of a false or misleading claim that would warrant Press Council action. None was offered. Accuracy features strongly in the Press Council General Principles, but where nothing is inaccurate enough to warrant censure, then it hardly matters what they claim to give a damn about.


Helen Caldicott is a well known ex-pat anti-nuclear activist. She recently (30/5) published an article in The Saturday Paper called “SA’s short-sighted view of uranium and nuclear options”. It’s some 1700 words long and a written in a gish-gallop debating style, packed full of technical jargon, sweeping and unsupported claims. (Editorial note: It was a similar performance by Dr Caldicott that turned George Monbiot’s opinion on nuclear around, as explained here and referenced in the blog post’s lead image above). It would have taken many thousands of words to respond to all of its claims, so rather than do that I wrote a 1300 word response which explains in lay language enough of the modern scientific picture of DNA damage and disease to explain why Caldicott’s three decades of predictions of nuclear catastrophe have failed dismally. I thought concentrating on explaining basic principles was preferable to a blow by blow rebutt al. That she is wrong matters less than understanding why.

Erik Jensen of The Saturday Paper rejected the piece saying they didn’t have space and suggested I submit a 100 word letter instead. I later found out that he had also rejected a response from Ben Heard who was named and subjected to an ill-informed hatchet job in the article. Ben subsequently gave up arguing with Erik who refused his reasonable requests for a proper response. Instead, Ben published a piece on his DecarboniseSA blog.

I decided instead to make a complaint to you, The Press Council, in the hope of getting an apology from The Saturday Paper both for publishing an article so clearly in violation of the Press Council General Principles; an article replete with misinformation and the omission of key facts. I also want TSP to publish a suitable response to Caldicott’s article; something of similar length.

I’d be happy, if required, to send the Press Council a copy of the original piece I sent TSP; but what follows is a more clinical blow by blow analysis of Caldicott’s misinformation and why it breaches Press Council Principles.

About the article itself

As I said above, dealing with a 1700 word article with sometimes multiple mistakes per sentence is a big job, so I’ll restrict myself to the most important examples which I believe violate the Press Council’s General Principles. Indented paragraphs are quotes from Caldicott’s article.

  • [MISLEADING: solar farms use far more concrete] Construction of the huge reactor complex adds substantially to global warming as it is largely made of concrete – a CO2-intensive product.

This is misleading because it omits a key fact, namely that nuclear power plants require considerably less concrete (and steel) per unit of energy than either a solar or wind farm.

For example comparing materials per megawatt hour for the Spanish Andasol I solar thermal farm in comparison to a Westinghouse AP1000 nuclear reactor shows the solar farm uses 15 times more concrete (and 75 times more steel, not to mention 2,530 times more land). And this is a generous comparison, because the reactor will last twice as long, so you’ll be building the solar farm twice.

  • [MISLEADING: irrelevant] …[a] 1000-megawatt reactor requires one million gallons of water a minute, for cooling.

Again misleading. Most nuclear reactors use water for cooling, just like all thermal power stations, whether they be coal, gas, biomass or solar thermal. Any power plant which heats water to drive a turbine is most efficiently designed using lots of water for cooling. But it isn’t strictly necessary, it’s just more efficient than air cooling. Typically, many nuclear plants are on the coast precisely to make use of the water because water cooling provides efficiency gains. You may not have this flexibility with coal or solar because the former need to be near mines and the latter need to be on cheap land, which isn’t normally coastal. The amount of water required has nothing to do with whether a plant is nuclear but on its thermal efficiency and the ambient temperature of the water. Continue reading

Less than the sum of its parts: Rethinking “all of the above” clean energy

Guest Post by John Morgan. John is Chief Scientist at a Sydney startup developing smart grid and grid scale energy storage technologies.  You can follow John on twitter at @JohnDPMorgan.

The fastest path to decarbonization would seem to be combining every kind of low carbon energy available – the so-called “all of the above” camp of clean energy advocacy.  The argument runs that different kinds of clean energy are complementary and we should build as much of each as we can manage.  This is not in fact the case, and I’ll show that a mix of wind and solar significantly decreases the total share of energy that all renewables can capture.  The “all of the above” approach to emissions reduction needs to be reconsidered.

In a recent essay Breakthrough Institute writers Jesse Jenkins and Alex Trembath have described a simple limit on the maximum contribution of wind and solar energy: it is increasingly difficult for the market share of variable renewable energy [VRE] sources to exceed their capacity factor.  For instance, if wind has a capacity factor of 35%, this says it is very difficult to increase wind to more than 35% of electrical energy.  Lets look at why this is so, and extend the principle to a mix of renewables.

The capacity factor (CF) is the fraction of ‘nameplate capacity’ (maximum output) a wind turbine or solar generator produces over time, due to variation in wind, or sunlight.  Wind might typically have a CF of 35%, solar a CF of 15% (and I’ll use these nominal values throughout).

Jesse and Alex’s “CF% = market share” rule arises because it marks the point in the build out of variable renewables at which the occasional full output of wind and solar generators exceeds the total demand on the grid.

At this point it gets very hard to add additional wind or solar.  If output exceeds demand, production must be curtailed, energy stored, or consumers incentivized to use the excess energy.  Curtailment is a direct economic loss to the generators. So is raising demand by lowering prices.  Energy storage is very expensive and for practical purposes technically unachievable at the scale required.  It also degrades the EROEI of these generators to unworkable levels.

Jesse and Alex make this argument in detail, backed up with real world data for fully connected grids (i.e. not limited by State boundaries), with necessary qualifications, and I urge you to read their essay.

The “CF% = market share” boundary is a real limit on growth of wind and solar.  Its not impossible to exceed it, just very difficult and expensive. Its an inflexion point; bit like peak oil, its where the easy growth ends.  And the difficulties are felt well before the threshold is crossed.  I’ve referred to this limit elsewhere as the “event horizon” of renewable energy.

Continue reading

Solar Impulse; and other comedies

Guest Post by Geoff Russell. Geoff recently released the popular book “Greenjacked! The derailing of environmental action on climate change“.

Many nuclear supporters tend to shy away from overt criticism of renewable technologies because they are confident that in any objective analysis, unencumbered by radio-phobia, nuclear will dominate any effective response to climate change; should the world choose to give a damn. After all there is no shortage of very careful objective treatments that support such a view. But every so often the solar industry, in particular, shoots itself in the foot with a spectacular demonstration of just how bad this technology is and it behooves us all to call a spade a spade and a lemon a lemon.

I’m talking about the Solar Impulse circumnavigation project.

The Solar Impulse is a solar powered aircraft consisting of more than 17,000 solar cells and 633 kilograms of lithium batteries packed into a plane with a wingspan longer than a Boeing 747. Not to mention a cast including 80 engineers, 100 advisers, a 12 year construction time, sponsorship from 80 companies including Google, a real-time website, T-shirts and of course, the obligatory baseball caps. But my personal favourite, because the project hails from Switzerland, has to be the Victorinox commemorative pen knives which will get confiscated should you try to take them on-board a real plane.

How will Solar Impulse compare with Around the World in 80 days? That was a pretty good yarn, written by Jules Verne in 1873. But Verne’s story is fictional. Phileas Fogg didn’t exist and never really attempted to circumnavigate the world in 80 days to win a rather large bet. While it never happened, it did, apparently, create intense publicity at the time because people thought it was really happening. Which neatly mirrors, or perhaps I should say “heliostats”, the renewable energy “revolution”.

Some 140 years after Verne’s book, the Solar Impulse is definitely non-fiction. You can watch it in real time and buy stuff. The initial leg of the journey was on March the 9th and, as I write (May 31), they’re about to take off across the Pacific. Here’s a table of the legs completed so far and the other 6 listed on the website:

By my reckoning they’ll be about 5000 km short of a circumference, but we’ll let that slide. My real interest is how they managed to sell this as an achievement. In 2008 Mark Beaumont cycled around the planet in 195 days pedalling 29,000 kilometers … presumably with some shipping. That’s seriously tough. But it’s no feat of technology and doesn’t demonstrate a superior mode of locomotion or foreshadow a global shift to pedal power.

Does the Solar Impulse demonstrate a superior mode of transport? Does it herald a future of solar planes? Don’t be daft. It’s slow, expensive, risky, fragile, dangerous and the total payload delivered by all those panels and batteries and dollars is just a single person; the pilot. If there were ever a Solar Olympics, the motto would be something like slower, lower, and weaker.

Continue reading