Wood, A, T. Ellis, D. Mulloworth, and H. Morrow (2012) No Easy Choices: Which Way to Australia’s Energy Future. Technology Analysis. Grattan Institute, Melbourne.
This report is a valuable addition to the literature on the prospects for renewable energy in Australia, providing some recent data on key output and cost factors. It is especially to be commended for expressing a considerable degree of caution about this possibility, and pointing to the difficulties and problems that would have to be overcome. Almost all literature on renewable energy reinforces the faith that it can fuel energy intensive societies, and enable smooth transition to a carbon free economy. Over some years I have groped to a more confident statement of a case contradicting this position. (Trainer, 2012.)
The following brief comments indicate the strength of this case, and argues that the Grattan Report fails to recognise the reasons why it is very unlikely that the world can run on renewable energy.
The Report’s cost and output assumptions for the various renewable energy technologies seem to be inline with those in other recent documents. The explanation of the limits and difficulties associated with geothermal, carbon capture and sequestration, nuclear and biomass are especially valuable. Their estimate of biomass potential is a remarkably low c 500 PJ of primary energy, about 8% of the present Australian total, and their discussion of the logistical problems in getting large quantities of this low density material to generators is sobering.
I think that the major problem in the Report is that there is no analysis of the quantity of plant and the resulting capital cost of a total renewable energy supply system. Two years ago I published an attempt to do this, (Trainer, 2010a), and have now considerably improved the application of the approach based on more recent and more confident data. Trainer 2012 explores the amount and cost of plant needed to meet a 2050 world renewable energy demand assumed to be 1000 EJ of primary energy, about twice the present amount, in winter and net of long distance transmission energy losses and the embodied energy cost of the plant.
The conclusion arrived at is that the ratio of energy investment needed to GDP would be much less than derived in Trainer 2010a, but still unaffordable. It would be around 15 times as great as it is now – even though a number of significant factors difficult to quantify were not included in the analysis. These would multiply the ratio several times. (The output and capital cost assumptions used were more or less in line with those in the Grattan Report.) Combining more optimistic assumptions (including solar thermal plant costing one-quarter of today’s cost) would only reduce the total capital cost by 40%.
A draft paper applying the same approach to the Australian situation concludes that the investment to GDP ratio would be more than 10 times the rich world average, again not including several major factors.. Australia has much better renewable energy resources than most countries, especially regarding biomass (I assume 35 million ha, around 20 times the Grattan assumption, I do not say that this is a plausible area.)
The crucial issue, on which the Grattan Report does not comment and which makes a very big difference to the viability question, is to do with the effects of variability and intermittency on plant required and thus on capital costs. More accurately the question is, how much plant would be needed to maintain supply when demand peaks and when wind and solar energy are minimally available. Most renewable energy analyses discuss only in terms of average or annual demand, output, DNI, capacity factors, wind strength etc., and this is highly misleading.
Especially important is the question, how often is there a total or almost total absence of both wind and solar energy in the collection region, and for how many days do such gap events last. It does not seem that anyone has analysed Australian climate date to provide an answer to this question, let alone a thorough and convincing answer. However it is well established that Europe can experience several days of continuously negligible wind and sun. For instance Oswald et al. (2008) document several days in February 2006 when both sources contributed almost no energy, and one of these days was the coldest for the year in the UK, probably meaning that demand peaked.
Such gap events could only be dealt with satisfactorily via renewable energy if the capacity to store vast quantities of electricity was available, and it is not and is not foreseen. Mackay shows that even in the rainy UK pumped storage potential capacity would fall far short. Trainer 2012 details the impossibly high cost of tackling the storage problem via hydrogen. Nor can solar thermal heat storage do the job, because the required quantities would be much too large.
Note that the target taken in my approach, 1000EJ for the 2050 world, would provide all the world’s people with only about one third of the present Australian per capita consumption, so if the expectation is that renewable could fuel rich world affluence for all, the target taken in my analyses would have to be multiplied by 3 for this factor, and by another number to take into account any increase in Australian per capita energy use in the next 38 years.
Note also that the derivation takes the generally accepted projection IEA and others make/assume of a future 50% fall in PV and solar thermal plant capital costs, and 20% for wind, and this is very likely to be quite wrong. Materials and energy prices look like they will increase rapidly from here on. Clugston, 2012, reports a 13.5% p.a. rise in energy prices since 1999, and for minerals a 14.3% p.a. rise from then to 2008. For two years since the GFC the rate has actually risen to 20.1% p.a. (…all in inflation adjusted terms).
This is not an argument against transition to full reliance on renewable energy sources. It is only an argument against the possibility of sustaining high energy societies on them. Trainer 2010b and 2011 detail the case that the limits to growth predicament cannot be solved by technical reforms to or within consumer-capitalist society and that there must be radical social transition to some kind of “Simpler Way”. This vision includes developing mostly small and highly self-sufficient local economies, abandoning the growth economy, severely controlling market forces, shifting from representative to participatory democracy, and accepting frugal and cooperative lifestyles. Chapter 4 of Trainer 2010b presents numerical support for the claim that footprint and energy costs in the realm of 10% of those in present rich countries could be achieved, based on renewable energy sources.
Although at this point in time the prospects for making such a transition would seem to be highly unlikely, the need to consider it will probably become more evident as greenhouse and energy problems intensify. It is not likely to be considered if the present dominant assumption that high energy societies can run on renewable energy remains relatively unchallenged.
Clugston, (2010), Increasing Global Nonrenewable Natural Resource Scarcity—An Analysis, The Oil Drum, Apr. 6.
Oswald, J.K., M. Raine, H.J. Ashraf-Ball (2008) Will British weather provide reliable electricity? Energy Policy, 36, 3202 – 3215.
Trainer, T. (2010a) Can renewables etc. solve the greenhouse problem? The negative case. Energy Policy, 38, 4107 – 4114.
Trainer, T. (2010b) Transition: Getting To A Sustainable and Just World. Sydney, Envirobook.
Trainer, T. (2012) Can the world run on renewable energy? A revised negative case.