Power to the People – Nuclear energy in South Australia

Update: Listen to me on ABC Radio, talking about nuclear power, fast breeder reactors, renewables, and the inevitability of growing societal energy demand. This also features an interview with Dr Jim Green, and my response. It runs for about 16 minutes in total: http://tr.im/vXE2

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Published in the Adelaide Advertiser, 4 August 2009 (pg 18). This opinion editorial I wrote builds on the recent flurry of interest in the Australian media on introducing nuclear power.

BARRY BROOK IN MY VIEW

Imagine someone handed you a lump of silvery metal the size of a golf ball. They said you might wish to put on some plastic gloves to hold it, although that would not be necessary if you washed your hands afterwards.

You look down at the metal resting on your palm. It feels heavy, because it’s very dense.

You are then told that this metal golf ball can provide all the energy you will ever use in your life. That includes running your lights, computer, air conditioner, TV, electric car, synthetic jet fuel.

Everything. Using 1 kilogram of uranium (or thorium, take your pick).

That is what modern nuclear power offers. An incredibly concentrated source of energy, producing a tiny amount of waste.

Taken over its life cycle, when used in next-generation fast spectrum nuclear reactors, this energy generation will produce less carbon dioxide emissions than wind turbines. It gets better.

Your lifetime’s worth of energy waste, also weighing just under a kilogram, will be less radioactive than the natural rocks around Roxby Downs within 300 years. Not 100,000 years. Only 300 years.

South Australian rocks contain this metal in great abundance. We live in one of the most energy rich areas on the planet.

We are endowed with far more energy than all the oil and gas in the Middle East. We already export a few thousand tonnes of it each year, and are planning to ship much more overseas in the future. Yet, we don’t use it ourselves.

We recognise the fact that our natural gas supplies are limited. Worse, burning this fuel produces vast amounts of carbon dioxide, which is destabilising the climate system.

Coal, found in great abundance in Australia’s east coast states, is twice as bad as natural gas in terms of carbon emissions, and also dumps heavy metals, soot and chemicals causing acid rain into the air. Clearly, we must unhitch ourselves from the fossil fuel energy bandwagon, and quickly.

Right now, we are pushing for more and more wind and solar power. This is well and good, but these variable and diffuse renewable energy sources have severe limits that often go unacknowledged.

They cannot power a large fraction of the needs of future all-electric society without major breakthroughs in energy storage technology, and much cheaper backup options than now exist.

Energy found in hot rocks deep beneath our deserts holds great promise, but is shadowed by many unknowns. We’d be taking a great risk if we gambled our entire energy future on this one possibility.

My research has convinced me that nuclear power is by far the best prospect that we, as South Australians and as a global community, have of drastically cutting carbon emissions.

The world is experiencing a nuclear renaissance, with almost 50 new reactors now being built, and another 350 being planned, in places like China, India, Europe and North America.

Nuclear power station companies are now focusing on designing smaller sized reactors that are built to a standardised, ultra safe design, in a factory, and then shipped to site. This brings economies of scale to bear, which means cheaper electricity.

Also, because each individual reactor can be quite small, you can simply add more units as your energy needs grow, and as your retire old infrastructure. The age of huge plants, which can be difficult to finance and take many years to build, may soon be history.

It’s time for Australia to embrace nuclear power as a major enabler of a low carbon economy. Companies like Rio Tinto recognise this need. We all should.

After all, South Australia is perfectly positioned to be a leader in this new energy revolution.

Barry Brook is Sir Hubert Wilkins professor climate change at the University of Adelaide’s Environment Institute.

INSET BOX

  • Almost 90 per cent of the world’s — and Australia’s — electricity is powered by fossil fuels.
  • Despite conservation efforts, global demand for electricity is growing at about 2 per cent a year.
  • Australia’s use of electricity is expected to double from current levels in the next 30 to 40 years.
  • About 36 countries use nuclear power, which accounts for almost a quarter of electricity generated in OECD countries.
  • In France, 80 per cent of electricity is nuclear.
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    63 Comments

    1. Barry Brook – A few things –

      “Taken over its life cycle, when used in next-generation fast spectrum nuclear reactors, this energy generation will produce less carbon dioxide emissions than wind turbines. It gets better.”

      Where did you get this statistic from? As there are no operating commercial fast spectrum reactors how can you tell what their life-cycle CO2 emissions are?

      “We recognise the fact that our natural gas supplies are limited. Worse, burning this fuel produces vast amounts of carbon dioxide, which is destabilising the climate system.”

      Burning CH4 does not release ‘vast’ amounts of CO2 as methane is a low carbon fossil fuel. Also nuclear needs natural gas as much as wind for peaking. Nuclear will not displace this natural gas generation any more than wind/solar will. We need electric storage to displace the fossil fuel peaking power that a balanced grid needs. We can use solar power to manufacture hydrogen (perhaps converting to methane as I once proposed) that will be used in the hydrogen cars that seem inevitable as all the major car companies are pushing them for all they are worth. Solar intermitancy matters nothing when producing hydrogen.

      “Nuclear power station companies is now focusing on designing smaller sized reactors that are built to a standardised, ultra safe design, in a factory, and then shipped to site. This brings economies of scale to bear, which means cheaper electricity.”

      Unless my memory is remiss I recall that although some parts of the IFR are modular the double walled stainless steel containment vessel must be constructed on site. Or are you talking nuclear batteries here or GEN III designs?

      “They cannot power a large fraction of the needs of future all-electric society without major breakthroughs in energy storage technology, and much cheaper backup options than now exist.”

      Not really as wind needs only a bit more backup than nuclear thermal. As what the research that has been done tells us, well dispersed wind can displace an amount of baseload power such as nuclear thermal or thermal coal equal to its average output with 1/3 to 1/5 of the wind backed up with peaking generators. As SA is a pretty big state the diffuse nature of wind and solar do not matter. Land that has wind turbines is not lost to agriculture so again it does not matter if a wind farm occupies a large amount of land. I don’t actually get your diffuse argument. There are some countries where this will be important however Australia has no such problems.

      Solar thermal needs no breakthroughs as molten salt storage is ready for commercial operation and gives 24X7 power.

      “My research has convinced me that nuclear power is by far the best prospect that we, as South Australian and as a global community, have of drastically cutting carbon emissions.”

      I would really like to see this research – perhaps you could lay out your arguments that prove technosolar, as you term it, cannot power a technological society. I have read your previous posts however they are reviews of Ted Trainer, who thinks no energy source can do it, and the Great Solar Fraud. I have not seen your arguments presented that prove scientifically that it is impossible for renewables to work.

      Additionally a really important part of a renewable solution is energy efficiency and conservation. Focusing on the supply side is not in my opinion correct as the demand side needs just as much attention. We can limit the growth of energy demand without reducing our economic output by being smarter and doing more will less.

      “It’s time for Australia to embrace nuclear power as a major enabler of a low carbon economy. Companies like Rio Tinto recognise this need. We all should.”

      Gee who would have thought that Rio Tinto would be pro-nuclear :-)

      “After all, South Australia is perfectly positioned to be a leader in this new energy revolution.”

      However right now it is leading in the energy source that right now, today, is growing at almost the required rate to start displacing a serious amount of coal – Wind.

      “As of April 2009, South Australia has nine completed wind farms, with 360 wind turbines, and an installed capacity of 739 megawatts (MW).[2] More wind power is generated in South Australia than any other Australian state or territory and by the end of 2009 wind farms are expected to provide about 20% of the state’s power.[2] The South Australian wind farm industry is expected to reach a capacity of 1,500-2,000 MW by 2015.[2]”

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wind_power_in_South_Australia

      why not support this instead of nuclear which so far is a non-starter. How long would it take for the IFR to catch up to wind?

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    2. As the German’s are discovering, Wind comes with it’s own set of problems http://www.windaction.org/news/8083

      I think a more pressing issue at present is that of how the Carbon Market will operate. We need to have another look at the ETS v’s Carbon Tax debate before we commit ourselves to a new market that may fail as spectacularly as the Financial Markets did last year.
      http://www.cosmosmagazine.com/features/print/2874/why-a-carbon-tax-better

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    3. Gordon – From the excellent article that you linked to:

      “One recommendation would require upgrades to wind-power systems to allow grid operators to directly control these generators. ”

      I heartily agree. Wind farms should be specified with a minimum ride through capability to cope with such issues. Germany is a special case as it was an early adopter of wind power it has a lot of older constant speed turbines with direct connect induction generators. These have very poor reactive control and ride through characteristics. Newer designs use variable speed generators that include electronic controls that are far better. These will gradually replace the older turbines which should minimise this problem. Modern wind turbines are almost all remotely controllable in blade pitch which would control the over supply as wind could be dumped in this manner.

      I also believe wind farms should be legislated to have a certain amount of storage available. Even if it was 15 minutes this would mitigate most of the risks associated with variability. This would require no breakthroughs in batteries as Ultracaps connected to the electronic power converters could handle this easily.

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    4. “They cannot power a large fraction of the needs of future all-electric society without major breakthroughs in energy storage technology, and much cheaper backup options than now exist.”

      One storage option I forgot to mention is smart fridge thermal storage.

      http://www.abc.net.au/ra/innovations/stories/s2586200.htm

      The idea is to link up refrigeration so that it can be controlled. Domestic and industrial fridges could be linked up in this way. It works by ‘storing’ electricity in making things a few degrees colder so that later on when it it required these stores can be turned off in effect making a thermal battery. The only cost is the smart controls which is an area that Australian engineers excel in and could be a major export. At the same time some money could be spent on upgrading inefficient domestic and industrial fridges to the latest technology saving vast amounts of energy, as in some cases the newer fridges can use 20% of the energy of old fridges.

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    5. South Australia’s water and energy problems are severe and show few signs of easing. Cooper Basin gas is in its twilight years. Leigh Ck coal is poor quality and will deplete within a generation. The fast dwindling River Murray is still needed as a major water source. Further river flow decline and SA population growth will lock in the new found dependence on desalination, itself a major consumer of energy. 900 MW of nameplate windpower while laudable may not help crucially when Adelaide’s summer temperatures routinely approach 50C. The Olympic Dam expansion alone will need 700 MW of power.

      The obvious answer to me is nuclear electricity to replace coal and gas. Combine it with multiflash (not reverse osmosis) desalination as part of the reactor’s external cooling system. Connect the electrical output to Olympic Dam and put the surplus on the HVDC network proposed by Neil Howes. A reactor linked desal hundreds of kilometres from Adelaide could still reduce the water draw from the Murray.

      An AP1000 + desal + HVDC could cost $6-10bn. The money must be there somewhere just cancel some jet fighters or broadband rollout.

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    6. Nuclear power convinced me too, even when I’m a great promoter of Solar Energy, the only way we can stop emiting CO2 is using nuclear power at huge scales. Of course we must use wind, geothermal and solar too, but alone with them, we are disabled to address Climate Change, that’s a fact.

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    7. Stephen – we have been through all this with you ad nauseam on Barry’s blog. Answers have been given and ignored so why re-hash it all again.
      It is quite obvious that nothing will convince you to change your long held bias against nuclear power.
      Here’s an idea – why don’t you write an opinion piece yourself, giving your own idea as to why nuclear is a no go and showing how alternatives can meet the base load needs now and more particularly in the future.
      BTW – nowhere, as far as I have read, does Barry discount or advise against the use of renewables as part of the answer.

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    8. Perps – “Answers have been given and ignored so why re-hash it all again.”

      With all due respect I can say exactly the same and I guess that is why I have not been posting much here quite apart from my insane workload at the moment. I guess then that debate is pointless and there is only one point of view on this and that nuclear must be correct.

      The problem I have is that the same wrong ‘answers’ that ‘prove’ renewables cannot do the job are brought up again and again despite the increases in technology. As for the opinion piece I have written extensively on the subject however as it did no good whatsoever I took down my blog as I got sick of maintaining it.

      Barry has written and posted an opinion piece here are we not to question it?

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    9. Perps – “BTW – nowhere, as far as I have read, does Barry discount or advise against the use of renewables as part of the answer.”

      I did not say that he did – this is what he did say:

      “Right now, we are pushing for more and more wind and solar power. This is well and good, but these variable and diffuse renewable energy sources have severe limits that often go unacknowledged.

      They cannot power a large fraction of the needs of future all-electric society without major breakthroughs in energy storage technology, and much cheaper backup options than now exist.”

      In my opinion these things are simply not true and there is research available to back this up which I can supply if necessary. Again are we just to accept things that we believe are not true?

      Just for the record I do support limited nuclear energy. I have stated this on a number of occasions. I fully support the use of the LFTR to dispose of current waste and provide energy where renewables cannot work for reasons of weather or topology. However I only support it in the framework of EE&C, Renewables and Smart Grids. I see nuclear power as only having a minor role and only using Thorium.

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    10. Interesting article in Clean Break

      http://www.cleanbreak.ca/2009/07/27/lower-demand-nuclear-renaissance-being-pushed-aside-in-favour-of-refurbs-uprating/#more-1747

      “There’s a lot of rethinking going on in the utility sector these days. Utilities once intent on building new nuclear plants are now scrapping those plans and focusing instead of refurbishing existing reactors. Last week Canadian nuclear operator Bruce Power announced it was withdrawing two new-build site licensing applications from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. The company said it would concentrate resources instead on refurbishing several reactors at its site northwest of Toronto. Then Russia’s state nuclear company said it would cut back its new-build program by half. Exelon, the biggest nuclear owner and operator in the United States, has said it would halt all new-build efforts for at least three years (and possibly as much as 20) and instead move toward uprating the capacity of its existing 17 reactor units.”

      Worth a look.

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    11. Perps – perhaps you can read some of these articles by Jerome a Paris who is a leading figure in European wind farms and brokers the finance for these windfarms. I only have a small knowledge of renewable energy however people such as these has a far greater knowledge than me. Most of what I say is taken from such people who seem to know what they are talking about.

      This is the link for all that he has written.
      http://www.eurotrib.com/story/2008/6/5/172819/2079

      Things like this:

      http://www.eurotrib.com/story/2007/1/28/183633/609
      “The output of some renewable technologies, such as wind, wave, solar and even some CHP, is naturally subject to fluctuation and, for some renewable technologies, unpredictability relative to the more traditional generation technologies. Based on recent analyses of the incidence and variation of wind speed, the expected intermittency of the national wind portfolio would not appear to pose a technical ceiling on the amount of wind generation that may be accommodated and adequately managed.”

      and

      http://www.eurotrib.com/story/2007/11/19/41839/451
      “Nope. After describing the current status of GE’s nuclear business, and stating that simply replacing the existing fleet of nuclear reactors will require a huge investment effort (which is not likely to happen yet), the complaint about the competition comes:

      If US utilities were making investment decisions without any additional government incentives, he said, they would choose to invest only in gas-fired power stations and in wind farms.

      Mr Immelt added that the only way to change that would be for the US to put “a meaningful price” on carbon-dioxide emissions, preferably through a cap and trade system of emissions permits.

      I’m stunned. Not by the fact, of course, as I know the numbers. But that it is finally percolating through to big business and the business press.

      One more winter of ultra high gas prices and nothing but wind will be built in the US! ”

      So don’t take my word for it when I say that some of the things that Barry says about renewables are not correct in my opinion – take the word of an industry figure with a far deeper understanding than you or I or with respect even Barry.

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    12. Stephen,

      This stuff is based around technology the CSIRO Energy Technology flagship in Newcastle has been developing and its/they are called ‘smart agents’. Each device sits on an energy using or generating device e.g. a fridge, HVAC, UPS, peaking plant, take your pick and they all talk to each other to balnce the loads etc. So the fridge might turn itself off for half an hour because its cold enough and there is demand else where in the netwrok. It offers a sophisticated way to manage energy useage efficiently.

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    13. John,

      Multiflash desalination with nuclear as the heat source is an interesting idea.

      As well, RMIT has developed a very interesting multiflash desalination system using solar as the heat input. The units are modular so you can site them in the neighbourhood or to supply a whole town. It might be another way. Its ready to go now.

      Either way it means there are good alternatives to reverse osmosis.

      But I have a question. Why must we have continued population growth?

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    14. Some more factoids on dry SA. There are 2 planned RO desals; Pt Stanvac 270 ML/day with a direct electrical connection to the big gas fired power station and Whyalla 120 ML/day power source unknown but it will pump water ~300 km to Olympic Dam. No announcements on the solar desal at Pt Augusta which is handicapped since the local sea water has elevated salinity. About 100 ML/day is taken from the R. Murray at Morgan and pumped to Pt Augusta – Whyalla and now way beyond since local groundwater is depleting.

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    15. “Based on recent analyses of the incidence and variation of wind speed, the expected intermittency of the national wind portfolio would not appear to pose a technical ceiling on the amount of wind generation that may be accommodated and adequately managed”

      How very interesting. And which analyses would these be, pray tell? The National Grid statement doesn’t seem to say. And note in that reproduced Figure 9, how the capacity displacement asymptotes at an uncomfortably low 10%… Who pays for all the standby coal-fired (or nuclear) power and extra spinning reserve?

      “If US utilities were making investment decisions without any additional government incentives, he said, they would choose to invest only in gas-fired power stations and in wind farms… One more winter of ultra high gas prices and nothing but wind will be built in the US!”

      Ahhh, well, that’s great to know. So the US can revoke its direct subsidies to, and mandates on the use of, wind power then? It apparently doesn’t need them. Oh, wait, he said “additional government incentives”, didn’t he. Silly me.

      Anyway, I’ll be doing a series of posts on this soon, so there will be plenty more time to argue with me.

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    16. “Taken over its life cycle, when used in next-generation fast spectrum nuclear reactors, this energy generation will produce less carbon dioxide emissions than wind turbines. It gets better.”

      Where did you get this statistic from? As there are no operating commercial fast spectrum reactors how can you tell what their life-cycle CO2 emissions are?

      A straightforward energy accounting, with conservative assumptions would get you there.

      We’ve been mining uranium for a long time, and know roughly how much energy it takes to mine a kilo of the stuff.

      We know roughly how much energy it takes to build a reactor facility, of existing designs.
      The facility infrastructure and construction materials requirement for an IFR, say, would be pretty similar to an existing LWR. If you were to use the embodied energy cost for an existing reactor as an approximation for an IFR you’d be in the right ballpark. In fact I would imagine it would be a conservative approximation, because the IFR, operating at ambient pressure, would not need the huge pressure vessel and containment structure of a LWR.

      The pyroprocessing facility is an additional process module in an IFR, but would add little to the energy costs of construction and operation. For one, the additional complexity of including that module is probably offset by the simplicity of the reactor itself, relative to a LWR. For another, the energy of the process – heat and electrolysis – is trivial compared to the energy content of the nuclear fuel. Punch some numbers into the Nernst equation to check if you like.

      So its no stretch to estimate the CO2 emissions associated with the plant and the fuel.

      Its also no stretch to estimate the energy output. We know what we get from uranium in a LWR, at about 1% efficiency. So multiply that by about 100 to get the output for a 99% efficient breeder reactor.

      You then need the plant lifetime. We don’t know what this would be for new designs but basing it on existing plants would be a fair starting point.

      I put some numbers against this a while ago (on the ABC Unleashed comments) and got an EROEI in the thousands, consistent with other estimates here, and enough to overwhelm out the uncertainties in the assumptions. Compare that to wind EROEI figures, and there’s nothing remarkable in Barry’s statement.

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    17. @Stephen, it’s a well established fact that on a MW per MW basis, *land* based wind turbines use about 4 to 8 times the raw material than nuclear does. This is why the European commission report that did comparative CO2 outputs has wind and nuclear as more or less even (nuclear goes both ‘over’ and ‘under’ wind in the same report)…the nuclear ‘catches’ up based on the mining of raw uranium ore. The IFR would never need mining so it’s CO2 output drops, over it’s lifetime.

      Secondly, I like Jerome of Paris too, but he bases *everything*, and he’s upfront about this on one thing: the “Feedin Tariff”. It’s up over 8 cents euro a kWhr. 8 cents!! Without this, it ALL goes away. At any rate, Jerome, bless his honest money making heart, is a BIG supporter of nuclear energy and he puts little stock into expensive, non-existent industrial scale storage systems. He sees “lots of nuclear” as anchoring “lots of wind” and working symbiotically together.

      @John. A voice of rational discourse, as usual.

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    18. David Walters – “Secondly, I like Jerome of Paris too, but he bases *everything*, and he’s upfront about this on one thing: the “Feedin Tariff”. It’s up over 8 cents euro a kWhr. 8 cents!!”

      True enough however without subsidies or state run utilities nuclear goes away as well so where does that leave us? Wind has only been a player for the last 20 years or so and still needs subsidies. I would have thought a mature technology like nuclear would not need anything by now.

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    19. Re: Nuclear still needing subsidies, I wrote about this in another comment (see below). Further, the new ISA analysis by Manfred Lenzen backs up the above — it puts subsidies for nuclear power as lower than any other energy technology, based on the 2007-2009 literature.

      ————
      Many people are concerned that nuclear has received the lion’s share of government funds. In the US (for which I have figures), Federal DOE energy subsidies for solar+wind amounted to $0.026/kWh of electricity generated. Nuclear power received $0.00038/kWh of electricity generated. That is, ‘technosolar’ got 68 times more funds per unit generation than nuclear. Of course this is only direct subsidy — it does not include tax credits, subsidies by power companies that must maintain spinning reserve for times when wind is weak, or subsidies by customers who regularly pay a few cents per kWh for Green Power. Wind in the US has also received a production credit (subtracted from taxes, not income) of 1.8 c/kWh.

      In the UK, between 1990-2005, total government allocations to renewables R&D (including research council projects but leaving out fuel cells & embedded generation) was about £180m while nuclear fission & fusion got about £370m- more than double.

      My numbers quoted for the US were subsidies for different generation sources per kWh. Using the 2004 UK electricity figures, non-hydro renewables produced 13.6 TWh of electricity and nuclear produced 73.7 TWh. Taking these as average figures over the 1990-2005 period of 16 years, that amounts to £0.00083/kWh for renewables and £0.000314/kWh for nuclear — so on that basis, renewables gets 2.6 times more funds than nuclear. This is actually a little unfair on nuclear, as over the period it has produced a lot more energy, on average, than non-hydro renewables, which were close to nothing in 1990 (whereas nuclear was 58 TWh).

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    20. Barry Brook – “Federal DOE energy subsidies for solar+wind amounted to $0.026/kWh of electricity generated. Nuclear power received $0.00038/kWh of electricity generated.”

      I guess that would be true if you only counted direct subsidies however you must acknowledge the indirect subsidies over the 60 or so years that nuclear power has been around as well as the technology transfer from military applications.

      It would be very difficult to exactly pin down the total amount of money spent on nuclear however if you prefer the direct DOE figure then go ahead and quote this one.

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    21. Hi Stephen…setting aside for a second the ‘indirect subsidies’ nuclear has received, the main point is that wind and solar really wouldn’t even run, at all, without these huge subsidies per kWhr they get. Period. They wouldn’t pay for the maintenance and staffing on existing plant and material. This isn’t true due to the massive revenue flow nuclear gets. Nuclear would keep on going, *everywhere*, basically.

      Now…the indirect subsidies. Yes, these are “historical” subsidies, 94% (approx) received *prior* to 1974. In fact, it’s very hard to parse out. Some were in fact *direct* and not “indirect”. But most it was as a result of the Navy and Army nuclear program which the civilian side was a spin off. The first civilian plant at Shippingport was a former Navy nuclear reactor where they ran a variety fuels — including thorium — for R&D (all the while pumping out MWs).

      But how long does one ‘hold this ‘against’ nuclear? Really. The subsidey was paid. Now, ever KW of power produced slowly reduces the % of that subsidy to the overall ‘cost’ of a nuclear KW, doesn’t it? Should we NOT use nuclear because it had massive subsidies, most of which was for military nuclear propulsion programs?

      Today, nuclear in my opinion is important enough TO subsidize. I’m all for it. It’s a proven carbon mitigator. The subsidies have been more than worth it. The US gov’t should set aside about 10 billion USD *specifically* to deploy a variety of Generation IV reactors and get it over with.

      David

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    22. David Walters – “But how long does one ‘hold this ‘against’ nuclear? Really. The subsidey was paid.”

      I am not holding this against nuclear at all. Barry stated that technosolar receives/received more subsidies that nuclear however the analysis that he used seemed to only include direct DOE subsidies. New industries competing against incumbent mature industries need subsidies to get them off the ground. My only statement was that nuclear after 60 years should be viable on its own without subsidies after all it is just a different way of boiling water. At least half of a nuclear power plant is technology from the early 1900s and in use in thousands of thermal coal plants. Solar panels and wind turbines in their modern form have been around for about 20 years and commercially still need subsidies to exist with mature technologies.

      “This isn’t true due to the massive revenue flow nuclear gets. Nuclear would keep on going, *everywhere*, basically.”

      This is not even close to the truth. In the USA and Canada where nuclear has to be commercial it has stopped for commercial reasons. To restart it, the latest bill before Congress includes quite large subsidies for nuclear to get it going. If nuclear was commercially viable as you say then the USA would have been building nuclear plants for the last 20 years however the facts show that they have not also it would not need any extra money from the government to get it going.

      The commercial reality of baseload power is that it is supplying the cheapest section of the market because nuclear is even less despatchable than thermal coal. So when the surplus power is not needed it has to be given away however repayments for new plants still need to be made.

      Natural gas makes far more commercial sense as a combined cycle plant can be up to 55% efficient and can be baseload or intermediate. Peaking gas plants can do baseload, intermediate or peaking so they are even more versatile and can also sell power in the expensive end of the market not the cheapest.

      Wind/Gas is the best of both worlds as the gas can interact with the wind automatically as is done in Esperance. Also both elements are relatively cheap and quick to deploy minimising the commercial risk.

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    23. Barry,
      I am coming to the conclusion that CO2 levels have to be reduced by all means available ASAP but no later than 2020. Nuclear plants under construction or upgraded to higher capacity or in the planning stages now, will be able to contribute to that reduction. I don’t think that costs should be very relevant, we have to do everything possible.

      The lowest cost CO2 reduction is conservation. The next lowest cost is switching coal fired power to NG. Nuclear and renewable energy are all going to need some subsidy. Even if we want to start building nuclear there may be a back-log of manufacturing capacity so while we need to progress firm plans for a future nuclear industry I am not sure that SA is the best location. NSW and Victoria use a lot more coal and NSW in particular doesn’t have as good wind resources as SA or VIC but has good CSM deposits. Similarly for QLD. These states would be the best location for nuclear, probably Javis Bay for the first 4 modular reactors, as it’s close to the core of the NEMCO grid.
      We can probably do more in the next 10 years by putting most effort into wind and solar energy because of the rapid build times and at least for now there seems to be a little excess wind turbine capacity although this may change quickly if many countries become serious about CO2 reductions.

      The imagery of a life-times energy in a golf-ball sized sphere is no more persuasive than the roof of a home receiving a life-time of energy. The issue isn’t “do we have the energy?” it’s “can we build machines to use that energy”?

      What we need to focus on is convincing governments to abandon brown and black coal with or without CCS. While CCS is held out as a viable technology no serious attempts are going to be made to shut down coal for good. The coal industry is not prepared to spend on CCS to save itself. Arguing over whether wind is better or cheaper than nuclear or solar energy does nothing to stop coal power. The only arguments should be how quickly can we construct replacements for coal where to locate, what technology to use(GenIII or GenIV? / types of back-up NG or pumped hydro)

      I don’t think we can build any low carbon energy fast enough to reduce coal as quickly as we should that’s why NG is a fast stop-gap measure until nuclear, wind and solar( and geothermal ) can replace NG.

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    24. I agree that nothing really matters unless there is a coal slowdown. Unfortunately there is little sign of that apart from coking coal exports. I see the Energy Users Association has called for a rethink on LNG exports as the premium use for gas. I fear that if new gas fired generators are built we will become complacent and eventually repeat the problems of the UK and North Sea gas.

      However I think SA is the best place to site Australia’s first commercial reactor. SA has lost its nuclear virginity with the Maralinga A-bomb tests and with Olympic Dam as the Ghawar of uranium. Moreover SA desperately needs desalination and co-locating desal with nuclear plant enables 50% energy savings. A remote site like Ceduna offers abundant cooling water, proximity to Olympic Dam, distance from urban NIMBYs and proximity to a future national grid. It should enable the pipeline from the dwindling River Murray to be turned off.

      Other places stand out like Wonthaggi in Vic with Australia’s biggest planned desal which will surely draw on a lot of brown coal power. However the NIMBYs have got everyone agin the desal. If I recall Switkowski envisioned 25 or so Gen IIIs for Australia. I suggest starting at a less controversial site like Ceduna to gauge public reaction.

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    25. Barry

      Firstly, let me commend you on the contribution you make in discussions of climate change science and energy policy.

      I’d describe myself as a utilitarian on most matters and certainly on energy policy. At the point where nuclear power produces the most net goods, I favour it. It seems to me that this condition could well be satisfied in markets like Japan and even China though I’m less convinced it would be so In Russia and large parts of Africa. I do think it likely that thorium will be a better basic fuel than uranium, not only because its energy is more concentrated and its more abundant but on proliferation grounds as well. It seems to me that in India, this would be far better than uranium as India has major supplies of Thorium.

      I might observe that your discussion emissions intensity associated with nuclear — certainly the uranium oxide option — overlooks an important point. That silvery ball in your hand has already been extracted from granite. The energy and the water to do so has already been supplied. How much energy input is needed to extract a Kg of usable fuel very much depends on the quality of the ore body, and unsurprisingly, the richest orebodies are being tapped first. We cannot assume that what applies now will always apply.

      Much of your advocacy for nuclear here though overlooks what I see as a couple of key problems. Nuclear power is sufficiently unpopular amongst the natural supporters of both major political groupings to make either side proposing it a huge political own goal — nuking their chances of achieving office.

      And even if it were not and even if one side won despite all this and fairly soon — the lead time from election victory to conversion of any substantial proportion of existing baseload to nuclear would be decades — and that assumes several successive election victories where this didn’t torpedo the proponents.

      In societies that are democratic in some sense, one can’t ignore the hostility of the population, even if one disagrees with the calculus those who object have made. If running nuclear entails setting up a police state regime to secure it from attack, then that is not something one should regard as trivial. And if the speed at which coal plant needs to be retired in favour of nuclear to get an advantage would entail unacceptably high compensation for sunk cost losses to coal plant operators to make the kind of impact we need to make then this too goes to feasibility of nuclear as a solution. In this country, the advocates of nuclear are in effect, opponents of early action, even where their desire to help mitigation programs is sincere.

      The build times on wind and solar are far shorter and so it stands to reason that these solutions have an inbuilt advantage. Wind and solar are comparatively low tech and can be reconciled with regional employment and development programs. That too is an advantage. One has to look at all the public goods as well as all the public costs.

      In the UK, a CF of 23% is considered standard for wind, but since 2006 nearly all of the US wind farms are running above 30% and some (in Hawaii) as high as the mid 40s. My own view is that 35% is a good benchmark for wind feasibility. I’d favour a lot more offshore, even allowing for greater installed cost, perhaps combined with submarine turbines. Placement at elevated locations — buildings for example — would be low cost, high CF and have good proximity to areas of demand, places where maintenance could take place cheaply etc.

      Whatever combination of technologies we use to produce power, I do believe the key to making best use of them lies in our storage and transmission technologies. Mention has been made of HVDC lines above and molten salt storage (one might have added vanadium flow batteries) but one fairly simple technology is pumped storage — which can be used in conjunction with utterly conventional thermal supply and intermittents. The speed with which it can respond to slews the fairly good round trip efficiency (about 80%) and the innocuous and renewable and ubiquitous quality of the medium (water) recommend it greatly.

      Pumped storage could be constructed in conjunction with water treatment or desal plants and one could choose between desal or power depending on which was in greater need.

      1. The aim of pumped storage could be to provide on-demand capacity for a slew of about 5% for two hours (or the likely slew in any intermittent capacity, whichever was the greater) i.e. enough time to allow thermal capacity such as NG to be brought online and/r demand management to be implemented.

      Taking a figure of (for NSW) of about 15GW*0.05 = 150MW *2 hours = 300MwH

      2. The Sydney area, for example comprises about 1600Km2. Assuming the creation of five pumped storage facilities each supplying treated water and/or power to the grid as required implies servicing an area each of about 320Km2 — an area covered roughly by a circle of with a 10km radius. Given average population densities of about 30 persons per Ha each area would service somewhere between 800,000 and 1 million people. Note: These densities are much lower than ideal. While Hong Kong is much too densely populated at about 300 persons per Ha to be desirable, somewhere between 75 and 100 would probably be viable for low cost infrastructure … but I digress.

      3. Although you would, ideally choose locations as high as possible on stable ground in the relevant locality, given that you are going to need a low reservoir, one could simply achieve the difference in height one wanted by excavation. Assuming a 100 metre differential you’d need about 1.2 Gl of water stored or about 240ML capacity in each of the five locations. Each reservoir (upper and lower) would have to have a capacity of around 240,000m3. You could store a little more than that amount of water in a cylindrical vessel with a diameter of 86 metres and a height of 43 metres. Assuming the lower band of 800,000 people in a district and 2.4 per household that’s 333,000 households. Assuming your 200Kl each per annum that’s 66,600,000kl or 66.6Gl per annum or 182.4Ml per day — which would be about 75% of the capacity of the reservoir to be pumped in a day. Given the elevation and the nature of the sites, it would probably make sense to locate wind turbines at these points. Given the likely strong winds, VAWT might well be apt.

      I should add that IMO the system should not merely or even mainly be reliant on the outflux of sub-potable water from households that have ultimately sourced that water from places like Warragamba. Instead, what I’d prefer to see is localised water collection from the rooves of residential, commercial and industrial buildings. At the moment, every serious rainstorm causes water to flood stormwater drains with debris and other plastic waste that either winds up in creeks or causes road hazards. Collecting this on rooves, doing basic primary filtration for PM locally, and then pumping that water to the local reservoir would not only massively reduce the call on the major dams, and abate environmental nuisance and road hazards but reduce the distance every cubic metre of supplied water was pumped, both at input to consumers and at outflow. We could radically cut effluent at ocean outfalls and save power and make it part of a system of localised power supply and storage that could lower the emissions intensity of our power grid. And of course, at higher densities and higher relative elevations, it would work even better.

      I realise this post has been a fairly long one, but I hope some here find this useful.

      Can I recommend the following site as a useful link on matters germane here?

      http://www.inference.phy.cam.ac.uk/withouthotair/c26/page_186.shtml

      It discusses in detail much of the load balancing one needs to take into account in any renewable system (albeit within a UK context). The main site would also be of interest to visitors here:

      http://www.withouthotair.com/

      Like

    26. This is a reply to Stephens very well argued and thought out reply to me on subsidies. There is no ‘reply’ link so if this doesn’t show up under his last contribution on the sub-thread, I apologize.

      What do I agree with what you wrote? Nuclear is a very mature, albeit totally evolving, industry. And it’s true that solar and/or wind one would need subsidies to “get going”. I can see that. Certainly, chronologically, they are different. But wind turbines are in fact very old technology and much simpler, of course, so what it means to get going, still, seems exaggerated. but it also misses the point. The point is not just for new builds, it’s for ongoing operations and that’s the rub.

      The crux of my comments Stephen is that if you cut subsidies off, wind and solar would not even operate. There is no amount of commercial stability that will allow a currently operating wind farm, or example, to continue operating without *continual* subsidies.

      When I noted this is not true for nuclear, you replied that I’m wrong, because if they nuclear were commercially independent, say, there would be far a mature new build construction industry.

      But that’s not what I was trying to say. New hydro dams are amazingly cheap to operate, function … forever … basically, have low maintenance, etc etc. They are, intrinsically, commercial successes *once they are built*. But building one? It’s hugely expensive and financing such a project is basically beyond *any* commercial free-market enterprise. Thus subsidies.

      That nuclear ceased being a commercially viable option from the point of view of building new ones is without a doubt the single biggest issue with them. No question about it. Which is why I’m no an advocate of the ‘free market’ choice for any new energy system as no big civil engineering project can be built with the right-wing conservative libertarian perspective. It won’t, because it can’t, nor should it.

      On Natural Gas. Can’t argue with what you state. It’s also the reason I’m opposed to the use of NG. It’s polluting. It’s CO2 heavy…half that of coal is a HUGE AMOUNT of CO2. Cheap to build. And you haven’t been paying attention :)….the new combined cycle single shaft GE H Frame unit is 60% efficient, not 55%. But so what? It puts out prodigious amounts of CO2.

      Is NG very flexible? Yes, any of the units can be used for load following to base loading. But why use this when nuclear can do the same thing. “No” you might respond? Yes…indeed, the reason the load generally is not dispatchable or load following is because they decided, my manner of *policy* to agree to run them in baseload mode. The French do fine with their load following, 30 year old reactors. The new EPR is designed to load follow. What I know about the IFR is it’s not problem at all and the LFTR maybe be better still :).

      My vision of the world is one where there is not fossil burned for energy.
      David

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    27. Stephen,
      It’s pretty obvious why it would be cheaper and smarter to upgrade for two reasons. 1/ is as stated in the comments that if fusion succeeds in the near future it’s the only way to fly and 2/ compliance cost of a new reactor is astronomical at present and who is prepared to be the first to sacrifice themselves on the altar of religious fanaticism in order to install reality.

      Like

    28. “Wind has only been a player for the last 20 years or so and still needs subsidies.”

      Stephen, in the 1970s there was a huge wind turbine on Diamond Head in Hawaii and I visited the San Joachim valley in California in 1984 to see wind farms of many types of turbines stretching “forever”. I don’t know how long they had been there then but probably at least since 40 years ago.
      Dunlite wind generators were a standard part of outback Australia for at least 60 years, windmills for well over a century in this country and centuries around the world and sailing ships for millenia.
      As a designer and builder of racing yachts I feel I have tweaked wind energy to the max for a long time and as much as I love it I have to say that it is a very limited resource.

      Like

    29. I suspect the path of least resistance is to inherit certification from the US or Europe, as awarded to an AP-1000, ESBWR or EPR, and then set up a monitoring regulatory structure here. It would be crazy for Australia to start the process with our own domestic reactor design (I know you are not suggesting this).

      Like

    30. There is a bunch of interesting stuff I need to react to in the above — some excellent commentary by the way. Hope to have a bit of time to respond to some recent question in this thread (and others) later tonight.

      Like

    31. WRT desalinated water for SA, as a designer of some crazy sea machines that have occasionally worked, I feel that a large, ballasted silo of at say 1000 tons displacement with a doughnut type “handle” like a bike pump of say 100 tons disp would be able to produce large volumes of air at around 1000 psi pressure which would produce fresh water from the sea by RO and pump it ashore from wave action alone without the need for any form of electricity conversion. No doubt there would be plenty of suitable sites close offshore where wave action would be sufficient.

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    32. “In the USA and Canada where nuclear has to be commercial it has stopped for commercial reasons.”

      Two words on the stopping part: regulatory ratcheting

      On the restarting question, it’s all about financial risk vs reward. All low-carbon energy sources need a leg up to overtake coal with sufficient rapidity — nuclear, newclear, technosolar, geothermal, etc.

      Don’t fall into the trap of shilling for gas. It’s a high-carbon fossil fuel. The wind/natural gas ‘synergy’ is a climate disaster.

      Like

    33. Hi Fran,

      Thanks for your detailed comment, I appreciate you taking the time to contribute here. I’ve very aware of David Mackay’s work, I’ve read the “Without the Hot Air” book, and you’ll see that his blog is linked on my sidebar. Regarding a few of your other points, with respect, I haven’t, as you suggest, overlooked anything that you’ve raised. A few examples:

      — Thorium energy is NOT more concentrated than uranium. It’s (very close to) the same. Indeed, thorium can only create nuclear energy by first transmuting into U-233.

      — The ERoEI of mined U or Th, when run through fast reactors, is absolutely enormous. Indeed, if you are worried about quality of ore bodies, let me reassure you by saying that we’ve already mined enough U and Th to power the whole world for around 5 centuries — perhaps more.

      — Consistent recently polling suggest that a substantially >50% of Australians already support nuclear power. It is much closer than you imagine. Further, I’m primarily looking at this as a global solution — Oz will get there eventually. I put my personal energy into getting nuclear power here because I care about my own nation’s future. But whether we get it here in 10 or 30 years is essentially irrelevant for global climate change.

      — If you read this blog, you’ll find that I am most certainly not an opponent of early action — tacit or otherwise. But I’m also after a total solution, and renewable energy aint going to deliver that.

      — You make a number of excellent points on energy storage and backup. I’ll be blogging a lot more about this in the coming weeks and months — it’s the next key issue I need to deal with comprehensively.

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    34. Great article Neil, however, I would like to point this out to you:

      “The average per capita energy consumption in the developed world increased by a factor of three or more during the past 50 years. However at most one billion people, or 1/7 of the human population of today, enjoy this increase. They live mainly in the richer countries and use on average approximately 50,000 kWh of thermal energy from various sources per year. This is three times higher than the world average consumption, roughly five times higher than the average per person energy use in China, and about 10 times larger than in India.”

      You said in a previous post:

      “I am coming to the conclusion that CO2 levels have to be reduced by all means available ASAP but no later than 2020.”

      Do you really think that China and India are going to curtail their aspirations of an increase in living standards based on the theory of AGW? Don’t be surprised if that in 2020 the only thing that has changed is that the “market” prices carbon at $400/Mt for those economies with an ETS.

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    35. Barry Brook – “Two words on the stopping part: regulatory ratcheting”

      However nuclear is now quite safe from a accident point of view. Would you be prepared to compromise this safety for cheaper reactors?

      As an analogy an uncertified Rotax 812 aero engine of 100hp costs about $18 000 while a certified Continental of roughly the same horsepower costs about $30 000 and also costs about $20 000 for an mandatory overhaul every 1000 hours. Is this regulatory racheting as well? You can build an aircraft with a Rotax motor however you are restricted to never flying over built up areas.

      The consequences of a nuclear accident both to the community and industry warrant such safety measures and this sort of thing should be outlawed:

      “This also added to the cost. There has always been a time-honored tradition in the construction industry of on-the-spot innovation to solve unanticipated problems; the object is to get things done.”

      On the spot innovation in a nuclear plant could spell disaster in 10 years.

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    36. Thank you Barry for responding so promptly and on the substance.

      Re: comparative energy density of Thorium. I freely admit to being under informed on this but I do recall reading something along these lines a while back (Kirk Sorenson?) I recall a multiple of about 2-3 for thorium over U. I also read that because Th is currently treated as waste in Monazite recovery the energy needed to recover it is a fraction of that of U. Is this so?

      I’m also aware of the emission of actinides and Th and U in fly ash from coal plants. Does this imply that there could be a commercial advantage in harvesting fly ash (bearing in mind that one wouldn’t normally want either the fly ash or the actinides in the environment on public policy grounds?) What are the current economics attached to seawater extraction of U?

      Re: the politics of nuclear power. Much as I’d like to think so, I find it hard to imagine that 50% support for nuclear power exists now in Australia –or even if it was that it would stay that way if there were an active proposal on the table by one of the parties. The moment someone says “you know I think {…} could be a feasible site for a plant” you have a protest movement. It would take extraordinary bipartisanship to push this through and it’s hard to see that happening and the plant passing EIS and other approvals and being built this side of 2025. AIUI there isn’t a nuclear plant program in the world that hasn’t missed its proposed timeline by about 100%. 7 years tends to equal 15. Which is sad. Sadder still is that the Greens – a party that is IMO the least objectionable group in parliament would be at the forefront of this effort.

      I also wonder about the mechanics of the coal-fired retirement program. It would be nice to think that no new such plants would be built and that at worst, as each plant went past 35 years it was scheduled for retirement and the capacity to replace it five years hence was begun. But this timeline would put a fairly heavy wet blanket over any replacement by nuclear, simply by making it very slow, surely? If you go seriously early, then isn’t significant sunk cost compensation going to be a factor? Don’t you therefore need technologies with short build times to do this replacement?

      I take your point that what Australia does in terms of nuclear is moot — though I’d like to think we could play a role in degrading weaponized Pu by harnessing it in nuclear reactors fuelled by Th. Objectively, Australia is probably the best place to deal with nuclear waste. I can’t understand why people don’t see that. Parochialism I suppose.

      In the meantime though I am bullish about the role technologies such as CSP, tidal, wave and wind plus apt storage can play in meeting typical load.

      Sidebar: I put your comment about H2 and steel making to some others in a couple of places. Some were skeptical. One claimed

      one of the issues with using H2 as the reductant is the sheer volume required, even a H2 generating reactor (and those aren’t exactly stable) would probably struggle. Then you’ve got the issues of H2 storage during plant shutdowns/etc (NASA has those tanks isolated for very good reasons).

      […]

      Another issue to consider is H2 embrittlement of the steels involved – can be quite a problem for the nuclear and aeronautical industries, ad the primary steels are quite often used by those industries.I won’t even go into the heavy-metal reactor issues – could be good, could be scary!

      I lack the expertise to evaluate this but I just thought I’d pass it on

      Last … I’m really keen on pumped storage, as you may have gathered. I looked at seaboard PS a while back but when I started doing the sums for concrete and then started looking at places that could support that weight in concrete and water it started to look a little iffy geologically and in cost terms. Mind you, at the time I was wanting to store 100 Gl of water with head pressures of 100 to 200 metres! I look forward to your posts on storage.

      Thanks again.

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    37. Stephen, regulatory ratcheting is not about the cost of the safety systems. It was about adding more and more safety sub-systems to a design that didn’t have them — this meant design modifications (which cost big $$ when done after construction has begun) and extended build and finance times before power was delivered (more big $$). Systems like the EPR, AP-1000 and ESBWR have these systems inherent in their design (with TMI-style meltdowns estimated by PRA to be 1 in 10 to 30 million reactor years). Hence, the era of RR is over — but it killed new nuclear power deployment stone dead in the US in the late 70s/80s.

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    38. Barry Brook – “Don’t fall into the trap of shilling for gas. It’s a high-carbon fossil fuel. The wind/natural gas ’synergy’ is a climate disaster.”

      I am not a shill for gas at all. If anything I am a shill for a storable flammable gas. At the moment we get this from natural sources however as is pointed out in P4TP plasma converters can make quantities of syngas which is storable and can be converted to methane if required. Also large quantities of hydrogen can be manufactured from renewable sources.

      I agree with Neil that natural gas is only a transition to renewable gas.

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    39. I looked at seaboard PS a while back but when I started doing the sums for concrete and then started looking at places that could support that weight in concrete and water it started to look a little iffy geologically and in cost terms. Mind you, at the time I was wanting to store 100 Gl of water with head pressures of 100 to 200 metres!

      Probably you were looking on the wrong side of the seaboard. You’ll like this. It is not geologically iffy. Just subtract water!

      (How fire can be domesticated)

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    40. I am not a shill for gas at all … I am a shill for a storable flammable gas … natural gas is only a transition

      Regardless of what you consider yourself to be, the phrase I have emphasized is, perhaps coincidentally, what they alway say. If you are a paid government worker, you are significantly funded from natgas revenue — another remarkable coincidence.

      (How fire can be domesticated)

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    41. G.R.L Cowan – “If you are a paid government worker, you are significantly funded from natgas revenue”

      Well I am a paid IT worker that is currently contracted in a Government department at least for the next 2 months or so – hope they renew my contract.

      For me gas is good because it is flexible and renewables need flexible and automatic co-generation. Renewable gas is much better and will be a reality soon if the car companies have anything to do with it. As storage becomes cheaper we can get away from flammable gases a bit more.

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    42. pumped storage – I think that Tasmania could provide at least 1 GW. For example Gordon Dam has two vacant slots for 150 MW units in the turbine room. A second underwater HVDC cable would be needed to increase electricity export to the mainland but there is no budget for this. My guess is that PS adds 2c or more per kwh.
      storable gas – I suggest CH4 rather than H2, either catalytically converted water gas or from Sabatier reactions. The carbon would be organic and recycled within the biosphere. The cheapest H2 is apparently from the sulphur-iodine process in high temperature reactors. Methane has no embrittlement problem, is less leaky, can substitute or blend with NG and can also reduce oxide ores.

      The SA connection is build the Gen III and desal first. Store some excess energy in hydro dams interstate. Then build a Gen IV hydrogen plant next door using spent fuel from the Gen III. Convert to methane and smelt iron ore, run trucks and other apps.

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    43. Gordon,
      I don’t think anyone is asking any country to curtail their aspirations for a better living standard, but this also includes having world markets, food and not having major cities 10 meters underwater. The world has to convince China that they have to stop building coal fired power stations and start retiring the worst. It’s a matter of renewable and nuclear taking up the expected growth in electricity.I suspect that what nuclear will be completed by 2015 is already dictated by 2004 plans. Solar, hydro and wind seem to be expanding faster than nuclear for the next few years, but after 2015 nuclear may well pick-up. They probably need to add 40GWe renewables and 40GWe nuclear every year after 2015 and convert some coal fired power to LNG. They could also cut back on aluminium refining other parts of the world could supply aluminium using less CO2 than China.

      There are many good reasons for China to stop building coal fired electricity, one is the availability and price of coal, another is air pollution. China used very little LNG but this could change once world supply catches up with demand.

      Like

    44. Here’s a bit of breaking news to help put things into perspective:

      ROBERT GOTTLIEBSEN
      Trading carbon for disaster
      7th August 2009

      It has no comparison in importance, but like the Washington Post writers on Watergate, every time I write on the Australian carbon crisis I feel this will be my last commentary on the subject. But every time I write, new information is put before me to encourage me to keep going.

      Such is the power of Business Spectator that yesterday most of the players, excluding the Canberra public service, met with me (and Alan Kohler and Steve Bartholomeusz) under the ‘Chatham House Rule’. What they told us had me reeling. Much of what I am about to write will be denied but have no doubt it is true. Having got through the GFC this is without doubt Australia’s biggest looming crisis and it will effect all citizens.

      Effectively large segments of global energy capital will either black ban Australia or demand much higher returns with enormous consequences to this nation, including consequences for new renewable energy projects.

      But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s go step by step through what is about to happen to our nation because of an inexperienced government and an incompetent opposition.

      — In most parts of the world, apart from Australia, it is believed that the form of carbon trading scheme being proposed by Australia will not promote investment in lower carbon energy alternatives. We are about to prove the rest of the world right.

      — When a nation or a company is doing something stupid there will be a trigger that explodes the wrong strategy. In this case it is the Latrobe Valley brown coal power stations. These stations have huge debt repayments and emit a lot of carbon so the Canberra plan was that they should go broke and be bought at token prices. The plan was that the market would do its job and the power companies that own the stations and the banks that funded them will suffer well-deserved losses because they knew the risks they were taking when they made the investments and loans. If only it were so simple.

      — There are a number of large global players who invested in the Latrobe Valley, and they have not had big returns. The accepted practice in the US and Europe is that while there are no big profits for investors in legacy coal power stations there are no big losses. The power station owning groups need to have strong balance sheets to invest in renewable, gas and other low carbon power generating alternatives. Australia is thumbing its nose at the giants and global bankers and wants the world to follow us. We are about to learn what happens when you play that game and get it wrong.

      — The first step is that a number of the Latrobe Valley companies will halt long term maintenance. TRUenergy has already announced this, but at least one or two other Latrobe stations follow. The power stations say who in their right mind would spend cash when they have no idea whether the generators will be viable in the short and long term because the level of carbon charges and carbon policy is not known. Last summer every Latrobe Valley station went without a break down – the first time that has happened. This summer the odds are that they will break down. The companies are gradually abandoning long term contracts and going for the spot market which means that when there is a power station failure they will go into an Australian wide bidding process for power sending prices through the roof. However, there is a limited amount that can be sent to Victoria so Victorians will have the main burden of the price hikes and blackouts.

      — The banks will have the power to take control of at least one Latrobe Valley power station within six to nine months. They will be trying to extract as much money from the station as possible so will also cease long term maintenance and go for spot prices. If Australian and Victoria think the blackouts next summer are going to be bad wait for the following year when the full impact hits the nation.

      — Victorian Premier John Brumby’s staff know exactly what is going to happen to their state and realise that although this is a Canberra induced crisis they will cop the blame. Brumby’s people have gone to Canberra and been met with a wall of Godwin Greches. They might not fake emails, but they have no interest what so ever in the truth about what is going to happen. Fortunately there are some signs that not all the Canberra public servants are trained in the Godwin Grech mould and one or two are showing interest in discovering the facts.

      So how do we get out of this? Step one is to vote down the crazy carbon trading legislation and forget the massive grants needed to offset the cost of carbon permits.

      There will be no double dissolution because by the time one is due the disaster will be apparent. We have to devise a plan that phases out brown coal without sending the stations broke. We will need to foster low carbon gas-fired stations in the Latrobe Valley plus a lot more renewable projects. What we will need is a carbon-certain environment.

      I don’t think the answer can be found in Canberra. If we go to China, the US, India or Europe we will find answers.

      But if all else fails, and to ensure that you’re fully abreast of the situation, read my commentaries.

      Here are a few to start with:

      Power at any price, December 18, 2008; A monumental failing, July 14; Infrastructure on the edge of a cliff, July 15; New energy cant wait, July 15; Charging into the abyss, July 21; Kennedy’s power play, July 23; Our carbon trading blunder, July 30; A precarious balance, August 5; The carbon tax chorus, August 6; and also have a look at Alan Kohler’s Carbon tax by proxy, August 6.

      http://www.businessspectator.com.au/bs.nsf/Article/Trading-carbon-for-disaster-pd20090807-UNS4L?OpenDocument&src=kgb
      Free Registration needed

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    45. The Chinese are doing what they can to *not* expand coal production. The last year has actually seen a drop in demand and apparently the provincial gov’ts are going to use this as good time to close some of the dirtier plants. Despite all the claims for load expansion, I doubt this demand is going to expand 80GWs a year…for a long time.

      AGW aside, they have huge logistical problems getting coal from the north to the south where they need it. The snow storms last winter blacked out 10s of millions of people because rail lines were clogged.

      Their goal is to increase hydro and nuclear for baseload and lots of renewables too, albeit I believe their expansion here is mostly for expertise…the want to enter the wind and solar PV market big time. Most of their renewables (this means *not* hydro) is stranded, and not grid integrated.

      David

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    46. Neil,

      Would it be possible for you to elaborate on your post #16? You state the Oildrum article is misleading and contains factual errors. For those of us less au fait with the subject, these errors of fact are not necessarily obvious. The article appeared to be stating that a major transition to second or third generation nuclear would not be sustainable due to limitations of uranium resources, a point made also by David MacKay in his book on Sustainable Energy. It may be true that the article understated uranium reserves (I don’t know but I suspect that it may have done so to a degree) but I didn’t think that there was any doubt that peak uranium would manifest itself within a century or two at current rates of use. A tenfold increase of use would thus mean that the peak would imminent.

      The article didn’t really deal with 4th generation nuclear except to state that it was 20-30 years from roll out. This is in line with official statements but I gather that, in the case of IFRs, matters could be expedited, given appropriate political will. MacKay states that fast reactors will produce 60 times more net energy than than current reactors per unit of uranium. However, commentators here suggest that the extra energy might be greater than 100 times. In addition, large stockpiles of what would otherwise be nuclear waste become available for use.

      My existing opinion, which is quite likely to be wrong, is that we need as much 4th generation power as we can get as quickly as we can get it but that it won’t happen until or unless our politicians start thinking the same way. The first and most obvious stumbling block is the lack of a commercial demonstration unit. However, it will have to be constructed without too many glitches because the antis will be waiting to pounce, as evidenced by their glee over the difficulties Finland is having with its new advanced French reactor.

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    47. Neil,

      I just submitted a few questions relating to your comments on the oildrum article. Unfortunately, my piece popped up two comments before yours so you may miss it. Any chance you could scroll up to find it? Thanks,

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    48. The factor of 100 comes from Hannum, Marsh and Stanford’s 2005 SciAm article, which states a once through light water reactor fuel cycle recovers “less than 1%” of of the energy in uranium ore, while fuel recycling through a fast reactor can recover “more than 99%” of that energy. The ratio of those figures gives the factor of 100 I mentioned. MacKay’s figure might be based enriched uranium fuel, or include losses in PUREX processing, or make different assumptions of how the reactor is run than Hannum et al used.

      But however you slice it, there’s about two orders of magnitude more energy out from an IFR type fuel cycle. And if you want to see how the pieces fit in the big picture, its the order of magnitude calculations that are important.

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    49. For those of us less au fait with the subject, these errors of fact are not necessarily obvious. The article appeared to be stating that a major transition to second or third generation nuclear would not be sustainable due to limitations of uranium resources, a point made also by David MacKay in his book on Sustainable Energy. It may be true that the article understated uranium reserves (I don’t know but I suspect that it may have done so to a degree) but I didn’t think that there was any doubt that peak uranium would manifest itself within a century or two at current rates of use.

      Did the article acknowledge that uranium reserves have been increasing?

      If they’re aware of the gas revenue in their pay and in the budgets of the things they care about, they find uranium’s abundance an affront, for reasons that should soon become clear. So they typically use a reserve estimate from a few years back as if it were the final word.

      The price was briefly up to $360,000 per tonne U. Millions were then spent on prospecting, and when a million is spent on prospecting uranium, it typically turns up a whole lot; a thousand tonnes per megabuck, if I recall. That’s like finding 100 million barrels of oil for that megabuck.

      Did it suggest any earthly source of uranium might have EROEI difficulties? That’s not plausible even for ordinary crustal rocks. Ordinary reactors like today’s can pulverize about five tonnes of ordinary rock using the uranium from one tonne.

      This is easy to appreciate if you count other fuel prices in the same unit, the uranium-tonne-equivalent. The real thing was up to $360,000 ($138/lb U3O8; multiply by 2600 to get the tonne U price) but has since declined to about $120,000. Coal at $2/mmBTU is at $1.1 million per uranium-tonne-equivalent, natural gas is $2.2 million in the USA, petroleum $7.3 million. Gas costs more elsewhere, I believe.

      You need to read MacKay more closely if you think he’s prophesying uranium will run out. He mentions marine uranium extraction, and includes a picture. Although this process cannot compete with today’s U mines on land, it is very competitive with land-based petroleum or natural gas mining.

      “… I didn’t think that there was any doubt that peak uranium would manifest itself within a century or two ” — this shows there are two schools of thought. The physics-based school ‘A’ understands but does not respect school ‘B’, which disrespects, cannot understand, and pretends to be unaware of school ‘A’.

      School ‘A’ believes uranium use on Earth cannot peak. It can only level off near an asymptote. This is because virtually every gram in the continental crust will yield net energy if extracted, and if, generations hence, use rates reach 100 million tonnes per year, with reactors like today’s, their heat production will no longer be an insignificantly small fraction of the total heating of the Earth. It will be up to 1 percent, and governments are likely to set a legal limit somewhere in that range. This will not be a difficult yoke for humanity to bear, because 1 percent of the thermal power of sunlight absorption on Earth is a quadrillion watts, and using a few percent of that to make rocket fuel will allow huge tonnages to be shipped onto and off the Earth; projects requiring more coolness than is available on Earth will be sited elsewhere.

      (How fire can be domesticated)

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    50. You forget that natural uranium is not 100% u235. You therefore have to enrich the stuff to use it in a light water reactor. Whereas thorium is 100% thorium 232 from the mine. With a neutron source you breed U233 which is about the same power concentration as U235.

      Thorium used in a Liquid Thorium Reactor(LFTR)skips the enrichment steps. In addition the fission products are processed online line keeping fission product inventories low. So, in time the fuel is completely burned up. There is no need to reprocess the spent fuel. The resultant waste only has a 1/2 life of about 3-5 hundred years.

      Solid thorium fuel is another subject.

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    51. A warning for bloggers — links like the one in the original (first) post here will break, sometime after the end of this year if not before. I hope someone’s crafting a routine to find them and replace them with real, long URLs.

      The Channel Wire
      August 10, 2009
      Tr.im Goes Under, But What Of Tr.im Links?
      As Tr.im goes, so too go its links? That’s the question now that Tr.im, the popular URL shortening service, is going belly-up thanks to a lack of funding. …

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    52. Pingback: IFR FaD 4 – a lifetime of energy in the palm of your hand « BraveNewClimate

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