Thinking Critically about Sustainable Energy (TCASE) – the seminar series

In the Thinking Critically About Sustainable Energy (TCASE) series — currently up to 10 parts on the BNC blog — I consider the challenges we face in scaling up renewable or nuclear energy technologies to replace fossil fuels. The blog serialisation of TCASE will continue on BNC, but the format is now also moving into a new communication medium — interactive seminars. In collaboration with the Royal Institution of Australia (RiAus), I have been planning — and will act as host and moderator — for the ‘TCASE Live’ series, launching next week on Wed 7th July 2010. The event is sponsored by the Environment Institute’s Centre for Energy Technology (of which I’m a member), and the Institute for Mineral and Energy Resources.

To book your (free) seat at the first event, click here. Do it soon, to avoid disappointment (the venue can only hold about 130 people). Each session will be held at the Science Exchange in Adelaide (Google Map link), and will also be broadcast soon after each event on the internet (tune into my Twitter feed to keep updated with the podcasts, vodcasts and slides).

Here is the context statement and sequence of events for the 6-part series, run monthly through to the end of 2010:

Thinking Critically for Sustainable Energy: the seminar series

The ability to harness natural resources and transform them into sources of useable energy has been essential in the development of modern society. As a result the supply and consumption of energy has now become central to the economies of developed nations and is vital in sustaining agriculture, construction, transportation and communications.

Since industrialisation, fossil fuels have represented a readily available and inexpensive source of energy. But as more countries become industrialised and the competition for these finite resources begins to increase exponentially, we are now facing the real threat that supply of these fuels may not be able to keep up with demand. Additionally the mining and burning of these fuels has been shown to have many adverse environmental effects. In particular the threat of anthropogenic climatic change due to the combustion of these fuels is now a major global concern.

While it seems obvious that we need to find a solution to these immediate problems, there are many questions that still need to be answered. Is there a single workable solution that will solve the looming energy crisis? Can we really replace fossil fuels with resources such as solar, wind, geothermal or nuclear power? And if we can, what sort of time frames should we be looking at?

As the urgency for us to find new sources of sustainable energy increases, all of us must start searching for answers from a variety of perspectives. In this series of 6 public forums hosted by Professor Barry Brook, we ask the experts to examine a range of alternate energy sources, and discuss the potential of each these technologies to deliver a sustainable energy solution.

Part 1: Fossil Fuel Future (6 — 7:30 pm, Wed 7 July 2010)

Part 2: Established Renewables (11 Aug 2010)

Part 3: Future Renewables (1 Sept 2010)

Part 4: Nuclear Energy (6 Oct 2010)

Part 5: Energy Storage and Demand Side Management (3 Nov 2010)

Part 6: Energy Futures (8 Dec 2010)

(all dates are tentative, except for Part 1 which is confirmed)

Part 1, next Wednesday, has all speakers confirmed. Here are the details:

Fossil fuels have a high energy density and provide an excellent source of energy when burned. However during the combustion process a number of pollutants are released such as nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, volatile organic compounds, heavy metals and carbon dioxide. Can we continue to burn fossil fuels and hope to cut the emissions of these environmentally damaging by-products? How far advanced are carbon capture technologies and are they a viable means of reducing carbon emissions in the face of climate change? Join Professor Barry Brook as he invites his expert panel to discuss our fossil fuel future. Professor Bassam Dally will discuss the potential for the next generation combustion systems that burn fossil fuels in cleaner and more efficient ways how they can be integrated into our existing systems. Likewise, Professor John Kaldi, will explain the various options available for the geosequestration of CO2 and how these carbon capture and storages mechanisms will work within our existing infrastructure. This event is one of six public forums aimed at providing a comprehensive examination of sustainable energy technologies and critical evaluation of their potential for reducing carbon emissions. Come along, hear what the experts think and ask your own questions about our fossil fuel future.

Part 2 will cover wind, hydro and solar PV. Part 3 will look at solar thermal, geothermal and wave energy. Part 4 will consider both Gen III and Gen IV nuclear energy. Part 5 will evaluate thermal, chemical and potential energy storage, as well as smart grids and biofuels. Part 6, the wrap, will look at various ‘visions’ for energy systems in 2050 and beyond, and what must be done to arrive at the short- medium- and long-term energy goals in a world beyond emissions-intensive fossil fuels.

The format will follow the ‘Socratic’ style methods I describe in my post “The gentle art of interrogation“. To explain: the evening will begin with me, as host, providing a short overview of the topic. Next, the first guest speaker will deliver a 10 minute synopsis of their area of expertise and comments on the topic. I, as ‘devil’s advocate‘, will then spend about 10 min ‘interrogating’ them, in order to probe their assumptions and evidence (using a series of short, sequential questions). The other guests can potentially join in at this point, if they have particular, targeted critiques to raise. A similar format will then follow for speakers two (and three, where applicable). The whole ‘panel’ will then briefly discuss the set of issues that has been raised, after which the floor will be opened to the audience for questions, for the remainder of the session.

I look forward to those based in Adelaide joining me on this little adventure. And to my interstate and international readers, I hope you can still get something out of this via the vodcasts.

In the meantime, if you have any comments on the proposed content of the 6-part series, or on the methods being used to develop understanding and critique these issues, I’d be delighted to hear it.

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23 Comments

  1. Hi Barry,
    With video camera’s and iMovie cheaper and easier to use than ever, would some greenie student want to take on the challenge of producing a DVD of this? (Especially if there are graphs and graphics). Compile a few of these talks together and someone here could handle selling cheapish DVD’s (mainly to cover costs).

    Otherwise, at least this could be another podcast! Excellent.

    (On other matters: we’ll get to editing the “Nuclear waste worth $30 trillion” poster soon Barry, but the good wife was up till 1am with deadlines yesterday…)

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  2. I’m hoping we will get good quality audio recording. More than anything crap audio ruins the value of these things.

    In terms of fossil fuels one issue that I think needs to be strongly stated is the essential nature of this resource in trasitioning to any alternative. Without industry we won’t be building any type of utopia. There are some stupid remarks sometimes implying that our continued use of fossil fuels is evil. Whatever future we choose, short of collapsing civilisation, fossil fuels are an essential part of the equation for many decades to come. Talk of banning fossil fuels is utterly reckless. Expensive energy will not make the mitigation of AGW or the transition to alternate energy systems any easier. Incentives matter but so do inputs.

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  3. TerjeP,

    Without industry we won’t be building any type of utopia. There are some stupid remarks sometimes implying that our continued use of fossil fuels is evil. Whatever future we choose, short of collapsing civilisation, fossil fuels are an essential part of the equation for many decades to come. Talk of banning fossil fuels is utterly reckless. Expensive energy will not make the mitigation of AGW or the transition to alternate energy systems any easier.

    I strongly agree with this.

    I am wondering how this can be communicated to those who seem to see business, investors, and economic rationalists as inherently evil.

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  4. There are some stupid remarks sometimes implying that our continued use of fossil fuels is evil. Whatever future we choose, short of collapsing civilisation, fossil fuels are an essential part of the equation for many decades to come. Talk of banning fossil fuels is utterly reckless.

    Calling them evil is indeed specious. Banning them is also sub-optimal. Forcing their accelerated phase out through a combination of regulatory and market measures (plus the toll out of new technology) is perfectly sound.

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  5. Peter and TerjeP

    I don’t see business, investors, and economic rationalists as inherently evil, but I do believe our continued use of fossil fuels is stupid. Banning them obviously isn’t feasible, dissinsentives make good sense though.

    I’d prefer to look at fossil fuels as an essential part of the equation for years to come, not several decades. Obviously I’m coming at this from the perspective that fossil fuel driven climate change is a serious problem.

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  6. Dead right Fran. The planet needs to phase out over the next 2 or 3 decades, the fossil fuels, especially coal and replace them with a lot more nuclear. We will have to accept that the renewables and these other still to be commerciallized technologies will help a bit but they’ll never do the job of reducing the emissions to appropriate levels by 2050, if ever. And they will sadly, divert subsidies etc from nuclear research. I made that point in a letter to the Australian [printed] a few weeks ago after Swan had presented his budget.Had nuclear not been stalled over the past 30 years by the irresponsible actions of the anti brigade, it would , by now give the world at least 30-40% of its electricity, CO2 would not be a problem and we certainly wouldn’t even be thinking about let alone planning for an ETS. I think I posted that point on an earlier blog. But, it’s worth repeating.

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  7. Poster finished.

    http://eclipsenow.wordpress.com/nuclear-posters/

    1. Print out BNC poster
    2. cut tabs
    3. put up at a university or public library or even your local shops
    4. see if we can generate another positive feedback loop over the next few months

    Barry’s radio interviews have seeded the idea, this can back it up in the marketplace, and maybe 1 in 100 (or less) might actually take a tab and come here to read, but at least we’re seeding the idea that nuclear waste is now a RESOURCE in the 100 that see the poster but don’t take the tabs for further reading!

    Let’s get some university activists plastering these up everywhere.

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  8. I don’t see business, investors, and economic rationalists as inherently evil, but I do believe our continued use of fossil fuels is stupid.

    Tom – Perhaps we should stop all the coal fired power plants in the country for a month and then return to this conversation again. I suspect that you would then wish to highly qualify your statement and you might have a quite different view of what is stupid. However we should not have to endure such catastrophic hardship in order to stop ill considered and flippant remarks about our use of fossil fuels.

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  9. TerjeP, if you read my post properly, you’ll see I never hinted at “switching off”. I simply stated that indefinitely burning fossil fuels is stupid, because of the enhanced greenhouse effect they contribute to. It’s not as if the alternatives aren’t cost effective. The quicker we transition, the better.

    And given the fact that there has been several decades of research on climate forcings, I’d hardly call negative remarks about continued use of fossil fuels “ill considered and flippant”.

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  10. TerjeP,
    I also read Tom as using the word ‘continued’ as continuing on into the long term future. This is simply obvious from the following paragraph in the same post.

    I’d prefer to look at fossil fuels as an essential part of the equation for years to come, not several decades. Obviously I’m coming at this from the perspective that fossil fuel driven climate change is a serious problem.

    There’s no need to pick pointless fights all the time is there? We’re all here to get on with promoting clean power and fight some of the doomer scenarios some have foreseen with peak oil, aren’t we? So let’s not quibble endlessly over words and get on with the job.

    If you were all for having a political party just so that people would see the “Nuclear Power for Australia” party on the next ballot, why not print out the poster my lovely wife designed and stick that up at the Beecroft shops, that little bulletin board down near the bakery and toy shops?

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  11. I thought my initial point was fair enough but apparently it needed to be refuted and somehow I’m now cast as the one being prickly.

    Does anybody seriously believe the world should or even could abandon fossil fuels in less than a decade? Seriously.

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  12. Terje asked:

    Does anybody seriously believe the world should or even could abandon fossil fuels in less than a decade? Seriously

    You conflate two radically different questions. The world cannot abandon fossil fuels within a decade without an unacceptably high cost in human misery — and thus one which not even authroitarian states would contemplate. Therefore we should not attempt it. We would rightly be cast as irrational.

    Of course, if we could do it at acceptable cost, then we should, but that is moot.

    In practice, we are very probably looking at a timeline of at least 25 years, looking at the matter rather optimistically. On the other hand within that time, we could very probably cut reliance on FF by about 75%, which would be a huge step forward.

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  13. Fran – that seems to me like a fair answer. Perhaps we could pick at the detail but at least you’re in the right ball park. As you say 25 years is at the optimistic end of the scale.

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  14. My quick calculation suggests that assume no increase in electricity demand we would need to commission 2 nuclear power plants of average size ever week for 25 years to remove fossil fuels from the equation. Of course if demand grows due to population growth, economic growth or a shift to electric cars then either we build nuclear power plants much faster or we keep fossil fuel power stations online for longer.

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  15. Eclipse – I love the poster. It is confronting and provocative and cuts to the key insight that converted me to nuclear.

    I live not far from Beecroft but not in Beecroft. I’ll put up some posters in my area when I get a chance.

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  16. Thanks Terje,
    I’m not promising any miracles, but it should help some thinkers start to question their prejudices.

    It took me a while to come around, and as a peaknik I was pretty much desperate for information on reliable cheap power. Who knows? Maybe we’ll start to influence some greens… as the posters cycle through the series I’m imagining.

    Anyway, if anyone whines at any of you for putting up posters, “Free speech in action” is usually my reply. ;-)

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  17. I hope the event will be recorded for those of us who don’t live in Australia.

    P.S. Get a good audio/video engineer to record the event. I’ve seen some recordings by amateurs where you can’t hear the speakers or see the presentations.

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  18. Pingback: Does wind power reduce carbon emissions? Counter-Response « BraveNewClimate

  19. Pingback: TCASE Video – Interactive discussions about the future of nuclear power « BraveNewClimate

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