Energy in Australia in 2030

I’m about to hit the road once again, this time to take the great American road trip for 13 hours, from Sacremento to Idaho Falls, with Tom Blees, leaving bright and early tomorrow morning. Today I had a fantastic visit to UC Berkeley and the lab of Prof Per Peterson, and will have lots more to say about this, and my upcoming Argonne National Lab visit, in some ‘diary’ entries once I get back to Australia.

For now, I’d like to present an essay I wrote for COSMOS magazine for their issue ‘Seven Visions of the Future‘ (No. 33). To get your copy of the 2030 special issue, and to read the other great articles in this future gazing exercise, order it from here:

WHAT WILL THE WORLD BE LIKE IN 2030? Leading thinkers – including Jeffrey Sachs, Sir David King and Alan Trounson – forecast the next 20 years of medicine, energy, transport, cities, food, and communications. From driverless cars to regenerative organs, the world of the next 20 years may look very different from today.

My sincere thanks to COSMOS editor Wilson da Silva for allowing me to reproduce this article on BNC.

————————————————————-

ENERGY: A REAL TURN ON

The time has come for society to face up to the true cost of our energy consumption, says Barry Brook. By 2030, nuclear may be leading the march.

In a modern society like Australia in 2010, we take energy for granted. Whether it be flicking on the light switch and television in your house at night, cranking up the air conditioner to take the edge off a hot day, or turning on the cooking hotplates, your invisible energy slave is always there. More pervasively, it is working behind the scenes to deliver you food, clothing, and manufactured goods. It allows you to travel rapidly from place to place, by car, rail or plane. It is no exaggeration to say that cheap and readily available energy constitutes the most fundamental basis of our economy.

Yet, in many respects, we are living in a transitory dream world. The reason is simple. The way we are generating our energy is unsustainable – both environmentally and economically. Fossil fuels – coal, oil and natural gas – provided the concentrated sources of energy we required to build our great industrial and information enterprises. But this was a Faustian bargain, and the devil’s due. With the looming threats of dangerous climate change, oil shortages as demand exceeds supply, and rapidly growing demand for an increased quality of life from the developing world (that 80% of humanity – more than 5 billion people – who live on less than $10 a day), a new energy revolution must begin. By the year 2030, it will need to be in full swing, or there’ll be serious consequences.

The next 20 years marks a defining moment in world history. I don’t say this flippantly. Global society must make the choice to set itself on the path to a secure and non-polluting energy future, or it will stumbles and regress. Either way, by 2030, we’ll very likely know whether we’ve collectively been able to chart the right course. Now is certainly the time to make the difference.

Worldwide, a variety of important energy choices will be made during this next decade. In Asia, especially the rapidly industrialising mega-economies of China and India, a huge amount of coal-based electricity infrastructure is being built. This must be phased out. Aside from global warming, it causes chronic regional air and water pollution that consigns millions to an early death each year. Developing countries can see that an ongoing dependence on coal, gas and oil is not in their long-term interest, and are vigorously pursuing alternative options such as nuclear and hydro power. Thanks to clean energy credits from the developed world, they are also deploying wind and solar. In the medium- to long-term, it difficult to know which technologies will come to dominate in these new economies, but cost and scalability will be amongst the most important determinants.

What of Australia? I want to focus in this essay on ‘stationary energy’, which is predominantly delivered in the form of electricity, this being a particularly convenient and flexible ‘energy carrier’. Clearly, the energy replacement problem is broader, but even for transportation and agriculture, it is likely that we will eventually have to ‘electrify’ most of their operations in a world beyond oil, even if it involves using electrical power plants to generate synthetic fuels such as ammonia and methanol.

Today, in 2010, the majority of Australia’s electricity is generated by burning black (55%) and brown (22%) coal, with smaller contributions from natural gas (14%), hydro dams (7%) and wind (1%). Our installed capacity adds up to about 50 gigawatts of power and this stationary energy production results in the release of 200 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year.

Under the ‘business as usual’ scenario outlined by the Garnaut Climate Change Review, demand for electricity is expected to rise by a further 60% by 2030. In a recent statement by the federal resources and energy minister in March 2010, it was projected that Australia will need to invest a whopping $100 billion over the next decade in electricity generation and transmission infrastructure – just to keep pace with escalating demand and to replace old, worn out power plants that are due for retirement. This is policy area that has stagnated for too long, and the situation has now become urgent, if we wish to avoid rolling blackouts and much higher energy prices due to unmet demand.

Still, the pressing need for major investment in electricity supply in the period 2010 to 2030 can also be grasped as the perfect opportunity to launch a revolutionary change in the way we go about generating our power. As I see it, there are four possible energy ‘storylines’ that could be written for Australia over the next two decades:

1. Coal-for-coal, whereby we simply replace our old coal-fired power stations with newer, slightly more efficient models, which then continue to pump out carbon dioxide for another 40 to 60 years.

2. Gas-for-coal substitution, using combined cycle gas turbines to replace baseload (24 × 7) coal, with some minor contributions from renewable energy such as wind and solar.

3. A large renewable energy expansion, with open cycle gas turbines used to provide backup.

4. Nuclear power rollout for baseload, with support from renewables and peaking power gas.

It’s clear that these alternatives are not equally likely. From an economic perspective, as a coal-rich nation which exports hundreds of millions of tonnes of the stuff each year, it would be tempting to take the ‘easy’ short-term course of action and simply build more coal-fired power stations. But this is totally unacceptable in terms of climate change impacts, and further, will become an increasingly uneconomic proposition if a national or global carbon price comes into force at some point in the future. To a lesser degree, the same is true of option 2 – as natural gas prices rise internationally due to burgeoning demand (especially when gas is used to replace oil), energy prices will escalate. Also, in terms of carbon dioxide, a complete coal-to-gas swap out will reduce our stationary energy emissions by less than half, which is way short of the mark required to mitigate global warming.

These problems with the coal and gas storylines would be reduced if it can be demonstrated that carbon dioxide from fossil fuels can be captured, compressed and buried underground in a commercial plant at a competitive price. But right now, that’s pure speculation – no industrial-scale facility is operating anywhere in the world, and almost certainly won’t be within the next 20 years.

The feasibility of option 3, a large push towards renewable energy, is difficult to assess. The current government target has Australia aiming to derive 20% of its electricity from wind, solar, wave and geothermal (hot rock) energy by 2020, driven by legal mandates and large financial subsidies. These policy interventions will inevitably drive up energy prices – at least in the short term – until and unless these alternative energy sources can compete economically with the price of fossil fuels.

Beyond this modest market penetration, there are huge uncertainties. No country anywhere in the world has non-hydro renewables contributing more than a consistent 20% of supply (whereas, by comparison, France derives 80% of its electricity from nuclear energy). Denmark has the highest, per capita, based largely on wind power. Yet even the Danes still rely on domestic coal and imported nuclear and hydro to meet their reliable baseload power needs, and they have the highest power prices in Europe. If Australia is to push significantly beyond the 20% barrier for renewables, to 40 or 60% by 2030 and still further by 2050, we would truly be charting a new, world-leading frontier – one underpinned by stunning advancements in large-scale energy storage, significant overall cost reductions, and some serious ‘smart grid’ technologies to better balance supply and demand and improve the efficiency with which we manage energy use. Anything is possible, but whether renewables can win out in the cost-benefit equation remains a big, unanswered question.

The final alternative is for Australia to become energy copy cats, duplicating the deployment of those technologies that have proven to be economic internationally. This is the most likely way we would move into nuclear power. Although atomic energy has stagnated for the last few decades, this is changing rapidly, with more than 50 new large reactors now under construction worldwide in 2010, and many hundreds more in the late stages of planning and approval. If this next-generation ‘renaissance’ of nuclear power turns out to be as cost-effective as the Asian tiger nations are banking on it being, then it could also turn out to be the clean energy game changer for Australia. But expect plenty of socio-political clashes and economic wrangling before the dust settles!

Only time will tell – both with respect to the final costs of new nuclear, and the ultimate economic viability and scalability of non-hydro renewables with energy storage. Even if the nuclear option is eventually pursued in Australia, I don’t expect a serious decision to be made before about 2016 (that is, two more Federal election cycles). Yet, under such a time-frame, it is conceivable that we could have a dozen reactors operating here by 2030, with many more in the construction pipeline.

Australia’s electricity generation system in 2020 will not be all that different to today. One decade is too short a period to make major changes to critical infrastructure. We will probably have more gas-fired power stations, and may also have retired a few coal plants without replacement. We’ll also have more renewable energy installed – mostly wind – but also some desert-based solar. By 2030, however, things could be shaping up quite differently. My bet is that nuclear power, on economic and logistical grounds, will be the technology most on-track to replace coal.

But then again, as atomic physicist Niels Bohr once observed: “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future”.

Barry Brook is Sir Hubert Wilkins Professor of Climate Change at the University of Adelaide’s Environment Institute

Add to FacebookAdd to NewsvineAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Furl

Advertisements

28 Comments

  1. Anything is NOT possible.

    And if we are still doing things,especially in the energy field, in 2020 like we a doing them now I will be off to Burke on Shank’s Pony if that particular form of locomotion is still available to me.

    Like

  2. The implausibility of 20% renewables in just 10 years is highlighted by the above figures of 7% for hydro which is hard to increase and the current 1% for wind. By 2020 we will still have the 7% hydro but we’ll want an unlikely 13% wind/solar/geothermal. Our gas generation fraction is well under the 30-40% of the US and UK. However the evidence suggests we are heading for a much bigger gas fraction. Midsized (400-700MW) gas fired plants seem to go online every 6 months or so, a recent sequence being Tallawarra NSW, Tamar Tas, Darling Downs Qld and next Mortlake Vic. Most I think are air cooled.

    Clearly the turbine engine in the photo is not meant to go in a plane. Surprisingly the US 2016 Levelized Costs table liked in the sidebar shows combined cycle gas as cheap as new nuclear. I guess that assumes no carbon taxes and plentiful gas supply. However that ignores probable panics over global warming and oil replacement. My guess for the next 10 years is no nuclear, token wind and solar but a lot more gas. Not sure if any new coal plant will be built. Higher power bills but little dent in the 200 Mt CO2 from stationary sources.

    Like

  3. Well,John,I have long ago given up trying to think what the future will be like.There are just too many unknown unknowns,to quote a certain notorious person.Call them Black Swans if you like although I think that is a libel on our beautiful birds by Taleb.Maybe we should refer to White Swans in Australia.

    As for new coal plants,on present indications there will be more of them built,especially in QLD & NSW.These are 2 of the most corrupt and incompetent Labor governments although NSW will probably have a change of government next year but probably not a change of policy re coal.

    Ooops,sorry,there I go,making predictions.

    Like

  4. Isn’t the NSW Premier’s spouse involved in battery swap electric cars? The thought is there just that coal is so easy and cheap. Clearly Qld has no intention of easing up on coal even if the Barrier Reef gets broiled. Despite the talk Vic will never give up $6 a tonne pollute-for-free brown coal of which Tas is increasingly demanding more via the underwater cable. Incidentally I suspect that Tas has just had the warmest and driest July since records began.

    Like

  5. Excellent article. The evidence is very strong that nuclear is the only realistic path, but there is no need to scare people that a malthusian crash awaits unless nuclear is used as rapidly as possible. A more cautious tone, inclusive to other energy sources, could be much more persuasive.

    Like

  6. Most to be feared is option #3. There could be a huge investment in renewables backed up by gas turbines. It could take 20 years to build enough capacity only to discover that the approach is hopelessly uneconomic. Basically it amounts to another attempt at what is already failing in Spain, Germany, Denmark and the UK. Repeating the same behaviour while expecting a different result is one definition of madness.

    It would be bad enough to expend huge sums on option #3 but the time wasted exploring a dead end is likely to be even worse as it will postpone the start of a workable solution. I call it “looking for energy in all the wrong places”; maybe someone could set that to music.

    Like

  7. gallopingcamel
    Most to be feared is option #3. There could be a huge investment in renewables backed up by gas turbines. It could take 20 years to build enough capacity only to discover that the approach is hopelessly uneconomic
    Surely option 1 is the most to be feared. Really!
    will we build renewables for 19 years and then suddenly discover the approach is uneconomic in the 20th year. Why would option 3 prevent starting on nuclear after 1, 5, 10 or 15 years??

    Like

  8. @ Neil Howes:

    Option 3 is more dangerous, as it would no doubt be used ro disguise the extent to which FF dependence has remained, and will be used as an excuse to not pursue nuclear power, the only workable solution.

    Like

  9. Finrod,
    This is an irrational fear, as we will certainly have some form of carbon tax or ETS which will make FF use continue to be very transparent.
    Another irrational fear is that nuclear should be opposed because it will discourage investment in renewables. We can see from countries such as China that a rapid build out of nuclear has not prevented a very rapid investment in renewable energy or prevented renewables from continuing to provide X10 more energy than nuclear.

    Like

  10. We can see from countries such as China that a rapid build out of nuclear has not prevented a very rapid investment in renewable energy or prevented renewables from continuing to provide X10 more energy than nuclear.

    We can also see that in spite of being repeatedly instructed concerning the fundamental difference between hydroelectric power and technosolar power, you insist on continuing to conflate the two.

    Like

  11. We can see from countries such as China that a rapid build out of nuclear has not prevented a very rapid investment in renewable energy or prevented renewables from continuing to provide X10 more energy than nuclear.

    Also, the new nuclear build hasn’t hit the grid yet. Lets see how those proportions stack up after the new build is done.

    Like

  12. “renewables from continuing to provide X10 more energy than nuclear” ….???

    18% of total electricity generation worldwide comes from renewables, of which 90% is hydro. 14% comes from nuclear. That’s means renewables provide 30% more energy than nuclear, not 1000% as Neil just claimed. Unless Neil was talking about ALL energy demand, which is utterly irrelevant to the argument of stationary energy supply.

    According to Wikipedia, China has a currently installed capacity of ~190 GW of hydro, ~25 GW of wind, <0.2 GW of solar. They also have ~60 GW of nuclear being constructed as we speak – on top of the existing ~9 GW – with an additional 132 reactors planned after that.

    The clear winner in China though is…coal! Which they had an installed capacity of 484 GW way back in 2006. Now that's the main worry, not whether nuclear or renewables are growing faster. There's a level playing field for non-fossil-fuel energy projects in China at the moment, the next decade of results there will be very telling.

    Like

  13. Correct on China Tom Keen. It’s a bit rough suggesting to China that they review their coal power build but I fear that if we don’t, the rest of us, regardless of what clean technology we promote, won’t make much difference in the world emissions reduction scheme. We should urge them to increase their current build of 24 reactors to at least 100 in the next few years. And the rest of the developed world, including Australia should build heaps of reactors as quickly as possible. You know, IF, the west had ignored the likes of Nader, Caldicott, Toynbee and the other irrational anti nukes 30 years ago, we’d probably have world nuclear energy at 30-35% of the total and there wouldn’t be any greenhouse problem.

    Like

  14. When you start talking about the shape of “things to come” 20 or more years in the future, government policies have a major part to play.

    While Australians may think they have lousy government they may be better off than most of us. Every year, the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal publish an “Index of Economic Freedom” that ranks most of the countries in the world.

    The highest status is “Free” and only 7 countries out of 179 achieved that status. Here is the list:

    1. Hong Kong
    2. Singapore
    3. Australia
    4. New Zealand
    5. Ireland
    6. Switzerland
    7. Canada

    The USA is ranked #8 “Mostly Free” and at #11, the UK failed to make the top ten for the first time since rankings began.

    It may be that economic leadership is yours for the taking and energy policy might be a good place to start..

    Like

  15. Sorry it is getting late, and having had a few scotches……..
    When you are on the AREVA page please click on “installation of the pressure vessel”.I at any rate find it an impressive feat of engineering.(having been a welder in a previous job)
    PS: Have just returned from a holiday in France, it is a great buzz knowing that travelling by TGV or Metro does not generate CO2, no matter how much electricity it chews up.

    Like

  16. Tom Keen,
    According to Wikipedia, China has a currently installed capacity of ~190 GW of hydro, ~25 GW of wind, <0.2 GW of solar. They also have ~60 GW of nuclear being constructed as we speak – on top of the existing ~9 GW – with an additional 132 reactors planned after that.
    I was specifically referring to China, 190GW hydro at 33% capacity = 63GW av, 25GW wind at 30% capacity=8GWav very considerable solar hot water( not sure amount) but just hydro and wind accounts for 71GW versus present 9GW of nuclear(90% capacity)=8GW;
    OK not X10 as much as nuclear, X9 as much as nuclear(unless you include solar hot water).
    The issue is China is building both nuclear and renewables AS FAST AS POSSIBLE. They are not arguing about which is better. Also note that France is building wind power.

    Like

  17. Neil,

    “The issue is China is building both nuclear and renewables AS FAST AS POSSIBLE. They are not arguing about which is better.”

    I’m glad we agree on this :)

    So we have established that (according to the capacity factors you gave) that ~88% of China’s renewable energy is hydro (leaving aside the fact that as of this time last year, only 72% of their wind capacity was connected to the grid – http://www.energytribune.com/articles.cfm?aid=2139)

    The next 5 years will see virtually all of China’s nuclear constructions connected to the grid. This will make the nuclear/renewables share of the grid roughly equal. With 100+ reactors planned after this, and a slow down in hydro resources, I think it’s looking likely that nuclear will play the main roll in their energy future.

    Might I also add, while hydro provides good, reliable energy, the ecological impacts of building massive dams for hydro are by far worse than any other source of energy (fossil fueled climate change aside). As far as I know, hydro is the only electricity source that has directly led to species extinction, e.g. the Three Gorges project helped drive the Baiji (Yangtze River dolphin) to extinction. It also displaced 1.4 million people. Give me the Olympic Dam expansion over that any day.

    Like

  18. Tom Keen,
    The next 5 years will see virtually all of China’s nuclear constructions connected to the grid. This will make the nuclear/renewables share of the grid roughly equal.

    China has 9GW operating and 22GW under construction, assuming all of these will be completed by 2015, will be generating about 28GWav(90% capacity). Existing hydro and wind is generating 71GW av, but would expect another 30GW of wind capacity in next 5 years( I think 100GW is planned for 2020), and another 30GW hydro, so excluding solar hot water will have about 90GW av from non-solar renewables, and 28GW nuclear, significant but not even close to 50% of low carbon power.
    Now when the 60GW of PLANNED nuclear is completed (2020) nuclear will probably account for one third of low carbon electricity, IF NO SOLAR OR WIND additions occur from 2015 to 2020.
    leaving aside the fact that as of this time last year, only 72% of their wind capacity was connected to the grid –
    Considering that 50% of the capacity was built in the last year its not surprising that 28% was not connected, but it would be surprising if it was still not connected a year later.

    The Three Georges project was built for flood control and hydro power, probably saved >1.4million people being drowned in last months floods. Its not Olympic Dam expansion OR Three Georges dam its both or even more coal-fired power.

    Like

  19. That was a great article, very interesting and well written, one thing that did catch my eye though is the following;

    “The feasibility of option 3, a large push towards renewable energy, is difficult to assess. The current government target has Australia aiming to derive 20% of its electricity from wind, solar, wave and geothermal (hot rock) energy by 2020, driven by legal mandates and large financial subsidies. These policy interventions will inevitably drive up energy prices – at least in the short term – until and unless these alternative energy sources can compete economically with the price of fossil fuels.”

    Solar and Wind, for example, are free sources of energy while the excess fed back in to the grid is purchased at a Government set rate which means;

    a) those using renewable energy get their power for free or at the very least reduce their energy bill.
    b) those not using renewable energy will in effect be purchasing power from those around them at current rates.

    In a perfect world, more people installing renewable energy solutions in their homes would bring down the cost of electricity as there are no fossil fuels to burn…

    Like

  20. Pingback: Ramping up renewables

  21. Pingback: Ramping up renewables « The Standard

  22. I fully agree with Barry Brook about the urgent need, that Australians (The Greens and Socialists) will shed their phobia for nuclear and follow countries like France instead of allowing us to lag behind and become a 3rd World Country. After the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the America-hating activists claimed, that both the cities would be uninhabitable for up to a thousand years. However, after just 26 years, the Americans with the help of Japanese labour, managed to clean up, rebuild and re-populate those 2 cities, with the result, that those are now ultra-modern, beautiful and thriving cities, visited each year by tens of millions of people. No more marching, but like the similar America-hating marchers under the Red banner in the 1960’s and 1970’s, no expressions of: “sorry, I was mistaken”, when it became obvious, that the communist ideology had (sofar) caused the death of approx. 100 million people since 1914.

    Since those hare-brained iodologists had to pursue something to make them “feel good”, the emerging enviromental activist groups, like Greenpeace, the Audubon Society, W.W.F., the Sierra club and other “Green” groups, their zealous pursuit of trying to ban everything that was “non-organic or unnatural” has cost the world enormous pan and suffering. From the ban on D.D.T. in 1972 to their push for “sustainable/green energy”, without properly researching the repercussions and their infantile belief in AGW, it has become clear, that their agenda is the same as communism or the Muslim Sharia laws: total control of our lives.

    I do not believe, what Barry Brook believes in and that is: using windpower for our electricity. There are many more scientists, who do not believe in AGW and are against the use of windpower, because of the enormous cost, not only in money, but also in suffering to humans and wild-life and nature. We, the age-pensioners, people with low incomes and small businesses, are all bearing the brunt of ever-increasing power-costs and all that because of the inefficiency of wind- (and solar-) power, which are propped up by huge tax-payers’ grants and tax-benefits. Even with all those extra benefits, it is obvious, that the power-industry, does not make enough money from that new technology and therefore has to increase our power-bills.

    AGW is not a proven fact, as the recently deceased Professor Stephen Schneider has shown. Until 1978 he was an avowed believer of a coming Ice-age and then turned 180% and became a fanatic doomsayer for AGW! http://aweo.org/problemwithwind.html http://algorelied.com/?p=2839 http://www.lifesitenews.com/ldn/2005/aug/05081601.html

    Like

  23. Nos Lapre,

    I agree with much of what you say. This paragraph sums it up best for me:

    Since those hare-brained ideologists had to pursue something to make them “feel good”, the emerging environmental activist groups, like Greenpeace, the Audubon Society, W.W.F., the Sierra club and other “Green” groups, their zealous pursuit of trying to ban everything that was “non-organic or unnatural” has cost the world enormous pain and suffering. From the ban on D.D.T. in 1972 to their push for “sustainable/green energy”, without properly researching the repercussions [ …], it has become clear, that their agenda is the same as communism or the Muslim Sharia laws: total control of our lives.

    I do believe we need to cut GHG emissions and a whole lot more to improve the way we use our capital – i.e. use our atmosphere, water and land for extracting resources and dumping our waste. But importantly, I believe we should be rational about the decisions we make. That is the real difference between the “hare-brained ideologists” and those, like me, who want a rational approach to decision making. To make my position clear, if we are to be blocked from cutting GHG emissions at least cost, then I would prefer we wait until we can make rational decisions. I do not want us to impose any more bad policies. The “hare-brained ideologists”, Greens and Labor are blocking us from reducing GHG emissions at least cost – they ban nuclear power, and even if they did move a little on this issue I doubt they would advocate for low cost nuclear. So until these groups change their position on low-cost nuclear, I foresee no advantage (environmental or economic), and great damage to our economy, by imposing carbon tax or ETS.

    We, the age-pensioners, people with low incomes and small businesses, are all bearing the brunt of ever-increasing power-costs and all that because of the inefficiency of wind- (and solar-) power, which are propped up by huge tax-payers’ grants and tax-benefits.

    I agree. But it is much worse than this. Raising the cost of electricity reduces our international competitiveness. This means, over time, our standard of living falls behind other nations. Australia has been doing just this for a very long time and as a result we are not as well off as we certainly could and should be given our enormous natural advantages. Again, to be clear, when we impose economically irrational polices it causes our wealth to be eroded. That means less infrastructure, more congestion in cities, less investment in health, education, environment than we could otherwise afford. It means people have less income relative to prices, and governments have less revenue to spend on all the things society wants.

    I’ve argued previously and remain convinced that we should not be advocating for carbon tax or ETS until we have persuaded our government to remove all the impediments to cheap clean electricity. We certainly can have our aims of a cleaner, healthier environment, and low cost electricity. It is being prevented by the ideological beliefs of the “hare-brained ideologists”.

    Like

  24. Pingback: Decarbonise SA – regional action for greenhouse gas mitigation « BraveNewClimate

  25. Pingback: Decarbonise SA – regional action for greenhouse gas mitigation « Climate change

Comments are closed.