Further critique of ‘100% renewable electricity in Australia’ – winter demand and other problems

Recently on BNC, I ran two guest posts on the economic and technical challenges of supplying an energy-intensive, developed-world market using 100% renewable sources (under a situation where large hydro and/or conventional geothermal can provide little or no contribution). The case study was the national electricity market of Australia, with an average demand of 25-30 GWe.

100% renewable electricity for Australia – the cost

and the response, from one of the authors of the original simulation study:

100% Renewable Electricity for Australia: Response to Lang

Below is a further commentary, by Ted Trainer of UNSW, which focuses particularly on the issues of supplying winter demand, the feasibility of the biomass option for the gas backup, and the “big gaps” problem (i.e., long-run gambler’s ruin). Ted asked me to post it here on BNC to solicit constructive feedback (and has promised me he will be responding to comments!).


Comments on

Simulations of scenarios with 100% renewable electricity in the Australian National Electricity Market”  Solar 12011, 49th AuSES Annual Conference,  30 Nov – 2 Dec., By Ben Elliston, Mark Diesendorf and Iain Macgill, UNSW.

Ted Trainer; 21.3.2012

The paper outlines a supply pattern whereby it is claimed that 100% of present Australian electricity demand could be provided by renewable energy.

The following notes indicate why I think that although technically this could be done, we could not afford the capital cost.  This is mainly because the analysis seems to significantly underestimate the amount of plant that would be required.

I think this is a valuable contribution to the discussion of the potential and limits of renewable energy.  It takes the kind of approach needed, focusing on the combination of renewable sources that might meet daily demand.  However it is not difficult to set out a scenario whereby this might be done technically; the problems are what quantity of redundant plant would be needed to deal with fluctuations in renewable energy sources, and what might the capital cost of this amount to?

Two of the plots given set out the contributions that might be combined to meet daily demand over about 8 days in 2010, in summer and winter.  It seems to me that when these contributions are added the total capacity needed is much more than the paper states.

Australia's recent history of energy use by source

The task is to supply 31 GW.  The plots given show that at one point in time wind is contributing a maximum of 13.5 GW, but at other times its contribution is close to zero, meaning that other sources are backing up for it.  The corresponding peak inputs from the other sources are, PV 9 GW, solar thermal 27, hydro 5 GW and gas from biomass 24 GW.  Thus the total amount of plant required would be 75.5 GW of peak capacity… to supply an average 31 GW.  (in his response to Peter Lang, Mark Diesendorf says their total requirement is 84.9 GW.) That’s the magnitude of the redundancy problem and this is the major limiting factor for renewables; the need for a lot of back up plant, which will sit idle much of the time.

In Trainer 2012 I derive the capital cost of plant capable of supplying 1 Watt from wind, PV and solar thermal, in winter at distance and net of transmission losses. When these are applied to the above GW supply tasks, the total capital cost is about  $609 billion.  This does not include the cost of the hydro and biomass sectors.  If the biomass 24 GW is costed at the $800/kW Mark claims, this would add another $19 billion.  My PV cost assumes tracking and Central Australian radiation, not fixed flat plate set up on rooftops, mostly located in much poorer sites.

Assuming 25 year plant lifetimes, the ratio of this $628 billion sum to GDP is 2%, which is about 4 times the early 2000s figure for world investment in all form of energy supply. (See appendix below for the basic assumptions and numbers.)

The derivation does not provide for surplus capacity to meet emergencies etc.  The Australian supply system has a capacity of 51 GW, which is about 1.75 times typical daily peak demand.

It is not clear what loss of energy in transmission has been assumed in the paper, if any.  When long distance HVDC plus local distribution are taken into account the loss is likely to be in excess of 15% of the energy generated.  The cost of the lines would add significantly to the overall capital cost. Hearps and McConnell (2011) indicate that Australian capital costs for ST plant are some 35% higher than those overseas.  The AEMO (2011) estimate of a HVDC line from South Australia is three times the international average stated by Harvey (2011.)  The cost reported in the press for the Queensland proposed Copperplate 1000 km HVDC transmission line is 5 times the average figure in the reviews of overseas projects.

The paper’s conclusions on the crucial winter problem are based on an 8 day plot for June 29 to July 6th  2010.  This is the kind of evidence we want, but it is far from the extent required.  The key questions re the limits of renewables are not to do with averages in demand or supply; they are to do with the coincidence of maximum demand and minimum supply.  What matters is how often there would be a period of several days in which there was little or no sun or wind across the whole collection region.  To cope with one such day the biomass plant required in this analysis would have to be more or less that capable of meeting total demand, i.e., about 25% greater than is assumed in the paper. (Hydro can’t be increased as it is already doing all it can in these plots.)

What we need in all regions are analyses of several years of climate data to establish how often wind and sun availability are how low.  Even if periods of negligible wind and sun are quite infrequent, we would need sufficient plant to maintain supply through them.  In other words is quite misleading to base conclusions about required plant and capital costs on an 8 day climate record for a period that is far from the extremes that occur.    For instance the graphs show that all of the 8 days have very good solar radiation…what happens when there’s little for a week?

This is the “big gaps” problem.  There is extensive documentation of large and protracted gaps in wind availability in Europe. For instance Oswald et al. (2008) document several days in February 2006 when solar and wind sources contributed almost no energy from Ireland to Germany, and one of these days was the coldest for the year in the UK, probably meaning that annual demand peaked.

In an accompanying slide set ( Ben Elliston provides some significant evidence on this issue, and it is not clear why this does not seem to have been integrated into the paper.  As he says the slides document “Some very long low irradiance events.”  Some of these exceed 5 days of negligible radiation.  A 6 day event is noted for Roma in 2000.  A simulated solar thermal plant output for Cobar indicates no output for almost 4 consecutive days.  It is said that in the south of the continent these events are most frequent in winter, which is the time of highest demand.  Another slide states that it would not be economic to attempt solar thermal storage to cope with these periods.  This information seems to clearly and decisively contradict the paper’s essential claim, that demand can be met at all times.

Map of low direct normal irradiance periods in Australia. Longest events typically last 4 to 8 days across Australia. Click to see full slide presentation from Elliston et al.

It is not stated what generating efficiency is being assumed for the biomass-gas-electricity system.  According to Harvey, 2010, and the IPCC, 2010, it is likely to be .28 at best.  In his response to Peter Lang mark says efficiency is high, but this would seem to be a comment on gas generation, not on the whole forest to electricity system.  (Similarly his $800/kW claim used above would not seem to be for the whole system.)  The Grattan Report (Wood et al., 2012) on renewable notes the difficulties in biomass-electricity, for instance the need for large generating plants for efficiency, but these involve very long distance trucking of biomass.  This would involve energy and dollar costs not included in the $5000+/kW biomass-electricity capital cost which Peter Lang seems to be assuming (i.e., again it would mean that the overall biomass-gas system efficiency would be lower than the above efficiency-at-the-generator figure.).

The analysis assumes a very substantial use of biomass, and the implications of this need to be spelled out.  The plot suggests that daily biomass-electricity input would be about 25 GW by 15 hours, or approximately 40% of electricity supply.  This would take about as much biomass p.a. as would produce 300 PJ of ethanol, i.e., c. 50 million tonnes, so it would cut into the biomass available to provide the other c. 75-80% of total energy needed, including at present about 1300 PJ of liquid fuel for transport.

Biomass to electricity - the concept. But how much is really 'waste', and how much can a country like Australia produce?

If ABARE’s projections of population (a 48% population increase by 2030) and their anticipated energy growth rate are taken the total 2050 energy demand would be around twice the present amount.  At the same time the cost of materials and energy to build renewable plant is going to rise sharply from here on.  (See Clugston, 2012.) These considerations will tend to make my above cost conclusions much too low.

Note again that the paper is only concerned with the provision of the present amount of electricity used, and that makes up only 20%+ of total Australian energy use, and this sets the question, from what renewable sources the remaining 80% are to come from.  The analysis in this paper assumes use of considerable biomass, which would be most needed to meet the demand for transport fuel.  If it is assumed that this can be reduced by shifting most transport to electricity, then the plant required and the capital cost would increase accordingly.

Trainer 2012a sets out an easily followed derivation of a world renewable energy budget, assuming a target of twice present supply and future output and cost estimates common in the literature (e.g., Hearps and McConnell, 2010.)  It is concluded that the ratio of investment to GDP would have to be much more than 16 times the present figure.   In other words it would be quite unaffordable.  Note that that target, 1000 EJ/y primary energy, would only give the expected 2050 world population one-third of the present Australian per capita use. (Three strategies were explored; dealing with the gaps via hydrogen storage, electrifying as much as possible and relying mostly on wind, electrifying as much as possible and relying on solar thermal for storage.)

ANU 'big dish' technology

(In 2010 I published an early attempt to apply this approach to budget estimation, which arrived at a higher estimate of capital cost, but I now see that as being too high.   At that stage, before the availability of the NREL SAM package providing estimates of solar thermal output and cost, 2010, 2011, it seemed that Big Dishes with ammonia storage would be the best solar thermal strategy.  It now seems clear that central receivers are preferable, and there is much better evidence re probable future costs.)

It therefore seems to me that the paper falls far short of establishing its basic claim.  Trainer 2012b applies my approach to the Australian situation, again making all assumptions and derivations transparent.  Australia is more favourably endowed with renewable resources than most if not all other countries, especially re potential biomass.  However the conclusion I arrive at is that the ratio of energy investment to GDP would have to be much more than 9 times the rich world average, and thus would be unaffordable.  Note that this is assuming use of 35 million ha for biomass production, almost twice the cropland area, which is far more than Farine et al. (2011) are willing to assume.

I would welcome critical feedback on my world and Australian analyses.   (


Appendix: Basic assumptions and derivation for the above capital conclusions. 

Note the capital cost estimates are for future cost, not present, and generally assume 50% reductions from present for PV and solar thermal and 20% for wind. (…following Hearps and McConnell, 2010.)

Wind: Future cost of capacity to supply 1 Watt in winter, assuming capacity factor of .38, 4% embodied energy cost, 10% loss in long distance transmission plus local distribution…$4.62.

PV: Future cost of capacity to supply 1 Watt in winter, assuming 10% embodied energy cost, 15% loss in long distance transmission plus local distribution…$12.81.

Solar Thermal: Future cost of capacity to supply 1 Watt in winter, assuming 10% embodied energy cost, 15% loss in long distance transmission plus local distribution…$16.

Thus capital costs for the EDM scheme:

Wind, 13.5 GW x $4.61/W = $62.4 billion

PV, 9 GW x $12.81/W = $115.3 billion

Solar Thermal, 27 GW x $16/W = $432 billion

Biomass, 24 GW x $.8/W* = $19 billion

Total = $628 billion

*This is a common figure for a large and therefore maximally efficient generating plant and probably does not include reduction due to embodied energy cost of the plant, or due to the long transport distance large plant would require.  It is also likely that the biomass-gas-electricity generation efficiency assumed in this figure is much higher than the maximum .28 Harvey reports. (2011).


AEMO (2011), South Australian Interconnector Feasibility Study:

Clugston, C., (2012). “Ever increasing non-renewable natural resource scarcity”,  Email circular. 19th Jan. 2012. (See also Clugston, C., (2010), Increasing Global Nonrenewable Natural Resource Scarcity—An Analysis, The Oil Drum,  Apr. 6.)

Farine, D. et al., 2011. “An assessment of biomass for bioelectricty and biofuel and for greenhouse gas emission reduction in Australia”, Bioenergy, doii:  10.111/j.1757-1707.2011.o1115/x

Harvey, L.D., 2010. Caron Free Energy Supply, London, Earthscan.

Hearps, P. and D. McConnell, (2011), Renewable Energy Technology Cost Review, University of Melbourne.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Working Group 111, Mitigation of Climate Change, Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Mitigation. June, 2011.

NREL, (2010, 2011), System Advisor Model, (SAM),

Oswald, J.K., M. Raine, H.J. Ashraf-Ball, (2008), “Will British weather provide reliable electricity?”, Energy Policy, 36,  3202 – 3215.

Trainer, T., (2010), “Can renewables etc. solve the greenhouse problem? The negative case”, Energy Policy, 38, 8, August, 4107 – 4114.

Trainer, T., (2012a), “Can the world run on renewable energy? A revised negative case.”

Trainer, T., (2012b), “Can Australia run on renewable energy? The negative case.”

Wood, A, T. Ellis, D. Mulloworth, and H. Morrow, (2012), No Easy Choices: Which Way to Australia’s Energy Future.  Technical Analyses. Grattan Institute


By Barry Brook

Barry Brook is an ARC Laureate Fellow and Chair of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Tasmania. He researches global change, ecology and energy.

44 replies on “Further critique of ‘100% renewable electricity in Australia’ – winter demand and other problems”

The NREL has a solar performance calculator, the first version also has Australian locations that you can chose:

If you look at the seasonal (monthly) variation throughout Australia, it appears quite substantial, even for northern Australia.

Darwin, about 1/3 difference between summer high and winter low. (ie winter low output month is 2/3 that of summer peak output).
Melbourne, about 2/3 difference between summer high and winter low (ie winter low output month is only 1/3 that of summer peak output month).

That is a lot of variation, surprising I think (for a country with the tropic of Capricorn running right through it).

The seasonal variation can be reduced a bit by going for a higher panel tilt than optimal, but that reduces considerably the total yearly output…

Another strange result: adding trackers doesn’t help reducing seasonal variation – in fact it increases it!


I should make an important addition. The above figures I used assume that you have no issues within one month of solar. Now if you had a couple of weeks of energy storage, that would probably be true. But it turns out that energy storage on this scale is a giant stumble block. In fact more like a reinforced concrete wall that will crash into when trying to power countries with wind and solar:

Conclusion, we can’t build the battery (and even if we could it would be cost prohibitive). Looks like that natural gas lock in is looming again.


Dr Trainer – This study is acknowledged by it’s authors to be a very preliminary what-if type of study. The wind included is all distributed E-W in South Australia and Victoria with no N-S distribution. Additionally, obviously to simplify the modelling, several large CSP centers were scaled up to GW size which exaggerates the variations. This would unlikely to be realised in practice as CSP plants are perfecty efficient at small scales so it makes little sense to concentrate them when Australia has such good solar resources.

As I and the authors pointed out to Peter Lang is it unwise to draw too many conclusions from a preliminary study, especially costs. I too would like to see a larger data set with more diverse renewable assets and then see what the down times are and what we need to do to cover them. The authors have promised more studies in the future.

What exactly is your point here. I understand from your writings that you advocate a Simpler Way. Are you trying to make the point that it will be impossible to get to 100% renewables?


CSP plants are perfecty efficient at small scales

Stephen, unfortunately steam turbines must be big to be efficient. Has to do with things such as casing edge and blade tip losses, don’t ask. They also must be big to be cheap – steam turbines have a big scaling factor. This is one of the critiques of the Spanish program, that capped CSP plant size at only 50 MWe. 100-300 MWe is a much better size. The most efficient supercritical plants, that power towers might use, don’t come in sizes under 300 MWe, so you need to design one yourself (which is expensive and difficult).

Annoyingly, adding thermal energy storage reduces the turbine size for a given output, which is not what you want, considering the above, despite CSP enthusiasts claiming it as an advantage, it makes the steam turbine more expensive per Watt and less efficient. So again you want a large plant, an even larger one in fact, so that you can have a cheap efficient turbine.


Are you trying to make the point that it will be impossible to get to 100% renewables?

It appears impossible, looking at the storage requirements and overbuild requirements to deal with the longer term variations. We need to at least have some indication that we can do close to 100% renewables with reasonable storage requirements and overbuild, before we commit fully to renewable energy. Otherwise it is just a big fossil fuel lock-in risk.


I suggest using as long time series for both sun and wind as are available for each proposed site and ideally at 5 minute intervals. Fit to each such time series a single-sided stable probability distribution to obtain the parameters for the site. From these parameters there are algorithms and indeed analytical approximations to estimate the probability of low probability events, e.g.,

Click to access chap1.pdf

(with the full books forthcoming in print fairly soon).

Given a reliability goal for an electric grid one now has estimators which can be used to assess whether any particular combination of generators can meet the goal [which is of course probabilistic in nature].

An example for Melbourne rainfall is found in

WATER RESOURCES RESEARCH, VOL. 36, NO. 11, PP. 3293-3300, 2000

Modeling of rainfall time series and extremes using bounded random cascades and levy-stable distributions
Merab Menabde & Murugesu Sivapalan
Centre for Water Research, Department of Environmental Engineering, University of Western Australia, Nedlands, Australia

In return for the necessity of computation when using these stable density functions, one obtains conservative estimates of low probability events since the one sided distributions are all heavy tailed.

The only use of these for power engineering I once located was for prices on the Nordic grid, not directly for capacity planing.


That’s a compelling read – I think it’s a must-read for anyone advocating a shift to renewables in Australia. As Cyril R stated above, we need some confidence that renewables can actually do the job fully before we commit to a 100% renewables plan.

On the other hand – renewables appear to have significant potential to reduce fossil fuel use, even if not completely eliminate it.

The question, given the size of the investments required, is whether it’s the best way to spend the money, given you have to spend more money providing backup of some sort (and if the numbers above for biomass requirements are correct, then that’s just not viable as a backup for the occasional low-wind, low-sun periods).

I guess I can see the arguments from both sides.
Every MWh of renewable generation is a MWh that doesn’t have to be generated from fossil fuels. And renewables are generally acceptable to the Australian population, modular, and able to be rolled out right now.
But at the same time, for the money spent on renewable generation, you could build nuclear that provides *more* non-fossil MWh of generation, and *doesn’t* require 90%+ backup capacity for those rare low-wind/low-sun periods.

BTW, I’ve seen a number of comments around the traps claiming that nuclear plants must be built on rivers / coastlines, due to high cooling water requirements (and claiming that nuclear is unsuitable for Australia due to high water requirements in a generally dry country). I know Kogan Ck & Milmerran coal-fired power stations use air cooling, does anyone know of any reasons a nuclear plant couldn’t use dry air cooling? (apart from the loss in nett output due to fan power requirements)


Bern, there is no reason why nuclear plants can’t use air (dry) cooling, except that there is an efficiency reduction so it is almost never done. There is a good explanatory section on it here. The EBR-II reactor — the prototype of the IFR — used dry cooling at its desert site outside of Arco, Idaho.


I read the (preliminary in nature) study for Minnesota linked in my previous comment. The plan is basically wind balanced by CAES with a bit of solar PV through in along with some (vary good thoughts about) demand management. But it won’t meet reliability requirements for reasons well known to regular BNC readers for which which I illustrate by personal observations below.

I have lived here in far eastern Washington state for over 41 years. In that time there have been two statewide air quality alerts that I recall. Both were synopic (at least meso) scale stagnent highs; no wind to speak of. The last was last autumn when to event persisted for about 4 weeks. Now I suppose the same occurs in Minnesota; it certainly does south of there in Texas.

It is not economic to build any combination of CAES, pumped hydro and standby coal burners which are only going to be used at highly infrequent intervals for such extreme events, or even shorter periods with wind. The (highly preliminary) study failed to consider such events as there were none during the study year of 2007 CE.


Hope the pix display ok. As you can see I am the guy who does the experiments. This solar concentrator I build is used as an oven. But even here in Brisbane (lat 27) it is simply impossible to plan ahead and have friends over for solar cooking sessions. We have not got enough solar insolation . I would never gamble on the sun or wind to provide me with enough energy. It is simply not going to happen.
The link is broken. It is listed as not available. Please try again.


Ted, I’m confused about the biomass for electricity. Farine estimates 20 TWh/yr from 2.287 mHa (table 4 in Farine). Where are you getting your 35 mHa from?


Hey, Barry;
Here’s a wee blast from the other end of the periodic table.
If their project succeeds (and this year may establish scientific break-even), within <<1 decade there will be inexpensive licensed designs available to all manufacturers, world-wide, for little (5+MW) generators. Cost per Watt around 5-7¢. Output <½¢/kwh. Zero waste or radiation, tiny footprint, dispatchable, distributed.

Renewables, perhaps including fission plants, will be immediate economic roadkill. It won't even be worthwhile to maintain existing plant, much less build new.


If their project succeeds (and this year may establish scientific break-even), within <<1 decade there will be inexpensive licensed designs available to all manufacturers, world-wide, for little (5+MW) generators. Cost per Watt around 5-7¢. Output <½¢/kwh. Zero waste, radiation, tiny footprint, dispatchable, distributed.

Bullshit numbers, bullshit physics. In the world of energy transitions, you have to stick to what you know works. Failure to comply with that adage gets you fossil, fossil, fossil. Proven over and over, after decades of nonsense physics deus ex machinas, and decades of twisting marginal energy sources such as wind and solar to do things they cannot.

The uninformed always think generating electricity is easy and the next big thing is always around the corner. Google tried, they failed. No surprise. Generating electricity is heavy industry, hard engineering, big investments, tough competition. There’s no magic technology that Bill and Joe develop in their garage to save the world. It costs billions of dollars and decades of time to develop new energy sources, and much more to bring them to a big market position. There are no free lunches.


David Benson –

The press release for the Minnesota report arranges words to create the impression that report incorporates an economic analysis that presents an economically viable alternative, when the report itself indicates the authors don’t know, and can’t say what it really costs.

Here is what they say inside of the document:

“We did not attempt to model an intelligent electricity grid in which large numbers of distributed generation sources and storage types, and smart appliances are managed as an integral part of a larger grid operation, due to the difficulties in estimating the costs and shape of such a system. Neither the data nor the system integration modeling capabilities are publicly available today at a level of detail needed for a reliable technical analysis, much less a cost analysis.”

I other words: it seems like they simply don’t know what it costs.

Yet, this does not stop them from indicating it will cost “about” the same as the current system, provided people just use a lot less electricity. Using a lot less electricity depends on a much-changed (“intelligent”) electrical grid that they do not analyze for cost. This non-existent grid of unknown cost will, per the study, make possible the long-awaited, much predicted, but (somehow) never materializing renewable energy paradise, by facilitating, among other things, centralized dispatch of demand. Absent any identified cost for the distribution grid (or the induced transmission, which is necessary to link up disparate wind energy sites, and which itself, despite its considerable cost, produces no energy, and which is singularly unpopular with people who have to host transmission infrastructure on their property), the “economic” claim seems to be based on the apparent presumption that the necessary grid improvements cost nothing.

However, I can’t tell for sure, as I have stopped attempting to review Makhijani’s reports in detail. Having found a lot of material that I would call “opaque” and “cherry picked” within his writing I have analyzed in detail, I have given up the effort.

Mr. Makhijani’s mission is, I believe, is to oppose nuclear energy as an analyst. To prevent cogent critiques, his work is not regularly made transparent. To minimize attention to his errors, he does he respond to cogent critique. Here is Kurt Sorenson’s thoughtful response to Makhijani’s piece on Thorium:

Mr. Makhijani did not reply, to my knowledge.

Perhaps Dr. Makhijani could be invited to make his spreadsheets available and to thoroughly disclose assumptions so that the analytical minds that frequent Brave New Climate could conduct a thorough review. After all, there is always the chance that the general perspective of most commenters here is missing something. I, for one, have been wrong before. I used to oppose nuclear energy.

I believe Makhijani’s role, and the purpose of this study, is to support one of the primary current anti-nuclear “story lines” of the institutionalized environmentalists in the U.S., which is to the effect that “nuclear is a distraction” from what “really needs to be done.”

As nuclear has become more compelling, gained environmentalist adherents, and failed to die despite energetic, lurid and frequently wildly dishonest exploitation of Fukushima, the institutionalized environmental organizations and their key supporters have to buck up the troops, keep them believing, and give them something that sounds good to say against nuclear energy. This is how they do it.


Eventually fusion — the old-fashioned kind — will be here, but there’s an urgent call for preventing the worst effects of climate change. So do we need:
– A explicit price on carbon. One way or the other, there are costs involved.
– Wind, solar, tidal, hydro, algae, etc.
– New nuclear now and sustainable GenIV as soon as possible.
– CCS because we know damn well they’re not going to stop burning the black stuff.
– Demand reduction in places like the US where per capita energy consumption is obscene.
– Some kind of geoengineering to actively pull CO2 out of the atmosphere. Starting with grassland sequestration, reforestation, etc.
– All of the above and everyone on board.


Frank Jablonski — Thank you for your comment. Actually installing a so-called intelligent grid will be quite inexpensive in comparison to the cost of generation. So that paragraph of the Minnesota paper is rather ignorable. More serious is the vast overestimate of the cost of new NPPs and failing to realize that wind turbine design and manufacture is now mature with prices starting to increase with the cost of materials.

The only two good things in the paper were providing useful planning figures for the LCOE of CCGTs and CAES. But as I stated in my earlier comment the plan is fundamentally flawed by failing to consider reliability despite long periods of very low wind.


Cyril R., on 23 March 2012 at 7:01 AM said:

If their project succeeds (and this year may establish scientific break-even), within <<1 decade there will be inexpensive licensed designs available to all manufacturers, world-wide, for little (5+MW) generators. Cost per Watt around 5-7¢. Output <½¢/kwh. Zero waste, radiation, tiny footprint, dispatchable, distributed.

Bullshit numbers, bullshit physics. In the world of energy transitions, you have to stick to what you know works. Failure to comply with that adage gets you fossil, fossil, fossil. Proven over and over, after decades of nonsense physics deus ex machinas, and decades of twisting marginal energy sources such as wind and solar to do things they cannot.

Not sure how my post ended up in this thread; I was reading when I posted it.

Cyril obviously hasn’t read, much less understood, the site I linked. The physics is quite conventional, with a single advance in the area of high-intensity nano-magnetic fields.
Reposting in the correct thread.


Aren’t breeder reactors the inevitable future source of base load? All you have to decide is: do you want the fast/liquid metal/uranium one or the thermal/molten salt/thorium one – as far as I’m concerned, it’s no contest. Molten Salt Breeder Reactors will dramatically mitigate our worst nightmares:

Also, to any out-and-out supporter of wind turbines – they damage atmospheric chemistry and destroy eco-systems 54 X more than breeder reactors:


This looks to be an important post identifying issues that need to be taken into consideration for informed planning.

Could anyone estimate a comparative cost to move to 100 % nuclear power assuming 25 year plant lifetimes and the same figures for electricity consumption used in this post? This would put the cost of $628 billion into context.

A second question is, could Boron be used to solve the energy storage issue for renewable energy, as proposed by Tom Blees for storing nuclear energy?


heritagevision — A NPP lasts for at least 60 years. Figure under $6 billion per gigawatt (GW) for all-in first time costs [which includes trnsmission and other components with very long lifetimes]. I doubt Australia needs the resulting 104 GW nameplate capacity.

I missed what boron is supposed to do in energy storage. Can you provide a link?


Robert Lawrence — I see. Yes, all sources of electricity provide the same flow of electrons so can equally well reduce boron oxide to the elemental form. The elemental boron then constitues a store of energy obtainable from a boron burner. I don’t know of any but I’m sure such can be designed.


The sooner safe liquid fuelled nuclear reactors are developed, the sooner we will have safe cheap clean energy. I agree with Colin regarding the fast breeder reactor solution and in particular the thermal/molten salt/thorium fuelled variety. Why not put more effort into understanding and developing this technology that Alvin Weinberg discovered.
It seems the Czech Republic have seen the light and are developing a proto type unit in Prague for an estimated cost of $300million. The UK government also intend to examine this nuclear option. With several European countries looking to decommission their solid fuelled uranium reactors, there will be a future need for low cost safe nuclear power.
Here in Australia, it is time our nuclear community to become actively involved
As per BNC policy could you please supply links/refs to support your comments e.g. on the Czech Republic – this helps commenters to further evaluate your input. Thankyou.


This was reported in the Canberra times.

“An Australian and Czech Republic consortium last month unveiled plans for the development of a thorium-fuelled molten salt reactor, to be based in Prague, from next year.
Consortium spokesman Phil Joyce says preparatory work on the functioning prototype will be finalised early next year, with development to cost about $300 million.

refer link
Thankyou Dallas.


All GenIV reactor concepts are being pursued, not just the liquid fuelled variety. Which is how it should be. These technologies are at various stages of development– some are further along and will happen sooner than the more advanced ones. There’s not going to be just a single type and size of fission reactor in the future that will suit all purposes. We’ll have a variety.


I’m firmly in the LFTR camp but I PRAY for the success of both IFR and LFTR deployment. A healthy implementation of both design paradigms is a good thing, not a bad thing. They actually can serve slightly different “markets’.

Back to the discussion…

David Walters


Aluminium (as long-range electricity-sourced transport fuel) would be kinder on the environment. It is in sustainable supply from a fully developed technology. Although in principle recyclable, the oxide would add to the soil rather than poison it. The same cannot be said of lead, lithium or boron.


Roger Clifton

I am surprised you think Aluminium would be kinder to the environment. Bauxite mining involves permanent destruction of large areas and resources are limited, whereas I understand that Boron can be recovered from sea water.

Do you have a basis for saying that using boron as a fuel would result in pollution by boron oxide?


What I particularly like about the LFTR design is that the use of liquid fuel allows the fission products to be easily removed. The fission gases Xenon etc bubble out and the solid fission products precipitate out of the liquid fuel. The other clever feature is the liquid fluoride chemistry that transports the UF4 from the blanket salt into the reactor fission vessel. These processes make the LFTR design unique. The problems of long term corrosion are being address while the development of a close cycle Bayton gas turbine may require some clever engineering design.


Sorry, I only come to this desk irregularly so have not been able to contribute until today. There doesn’t seem to be much I can add, but I don’t think it is satisfactory for Elliston, Diesendorf and MacGill to say their analysis is only preliminary and they will get to costing later. As I said in my critique it is not at all difficult to put forward a plan to provide 100% renewable supply, but you can only do it by including a vast amount of redundant plant to back up when there is no sun or wind over your continent for a week…so the cost issue is the crucial one and a plan is of little value unless it deals with this issue.

For some years now I have been developing a simple approach to estimating system capital cost and the latest version applied to a world renewable energy system is at

The conclusion is that the cost would be at least 15 times the present ratio of energy in vestment to GDP…i.e., unaffordable. The analysis didn’t/couldn’t take in several factors that would multiply the cost figure…and the energy supply target aimed at would only supply all the world’s people with about one-third of the present Australian per capita consumption. In other words a thorough analysis, if all the required figures were available, would result in an extremely high and unaffordable capital investment cost.

I think the assumptions in CANW are acceptable as they are drawn from the mainstream renewable literature on estimates of long term future plant costs, and I think the simple arithmetic is OK…please let me know where I am wrong.

Re the point by gjrussell that Farine assumes 2.8 million ha for biomass in Australia, and I assume 35 million ha. I have about five estimates of Australian biomass potential land availability; they are not very satisfactory I think but they loosely indicate an average yield of c. 190 million tonnes. Barney Foran’s analysis of potential methanol production assumes up to 58 million ha. I respect his analyses but I can’t get from him grounds for taking this figure. Yes Farine at al. give a far lower figure than all of the above, and I contacted them on all this, but they would not commit on the huge difference or on the plausibility of the others. In other words in my analysis of Australian biomass and general renewable potential I have made what seems to me to be a very big assumption in favour of the renewable case…an assumption which I think is not plausible. (Diesendorf seems to take Barney’s figure, more or less.) Because of this big assumption my conclusion re the ratio for investment to GDP for Australis is about 2/3 that for the world case (again not including some major factors), i.e., still quite unaffordable.

(In 2010 Energy Policy published a version of my approach which I now see as arriving at a much too high ratio of investment to GDP, maybe double the figure arrived at in CANW. This is because at that time we only had poor data on solar probable future solar thermal costs. CANW and CANA are based on the 2010 and 2011 NREL Solar Advisor Model data and some other recent cost estimates. But we still do not seem to have any publicly available data on actual solar thermal performance, for central receivers (troughs are no good in winter; not clear why EDM assume them). The renewables field is littered with boosters so I will not be confident about any of this until we get good solid information on actual central receiver performance in the field. If you know where some is please let me know.



Thanks Ted. Since making my earlier comment, I’ve now got the full Farine paper.The Farine et al paper is really good … not taking sides, just laying out the possibilities in a pretty clear way … but no costing.
For people without the paper, the 2.8mHa figure is from a rotating coppicing hardwood system which would take about 20 years to ramp up and good for about 20 TWh/yr. The paper convinced me that the level of bioelectric backup which EDM postulate are technically feasible (via multiple methods) but the devil will be in the costing, cultural and biodiversity details.


Hi Ted,

“There doesn’t seem to be much I can add, but I don’t think it is satisfactory for Elliston, Diesendorf and MacGill to say their analysis is only preliminary and they will get to costing later”

I think there are many ways that the amount of backup power can be reduced. Concentrating the solar power and only taking wind from one wind regime maximises the amount of backup power required so this study is in effect the maximum amount of backup that would be required. Distributing the wind and CSP will bring it down I
am sure and this should be the focus of the next study. Get the backup down low and optimise the system. When it is optimised with the right balance of wind/sun/backup then cost it.


Heaven help us if the autocratic Office of the Renewable Energy Regulator gets even stronger powers. You can pick up the vibe from their press releases

Several early press releases say the market clearly loves renewable energy then the more recent releases describe how they have the industry under their thumb. More specifically how mixed energy retailers have to buy certificates under pain of a $65 per Mwh penalty described elsewhere in the website.

My fear is that if 20% by 2020 seems to be slipping away the penalties will become even more draconian. Strangely renewables enthusiasts who claim the high moral ground seem to be untroubled by this.


With the relevant data in hand, including cost estimates, it is prefectly possible to write a computer program to design a grid with generation so that
(1) the reliability goal is met (hard constraint)
(2) the cost is satisfactory, i.e., less that some acheivable preset figure and as much less as computer time permits. (soft constraint)
The result will not have optimally low cost as the problem is too hard to achieve that.

In any case, so-called technical feasibility and quite good cost can be acvheived at the same time. I predict the result will demonstrate, using sensible cost figures, that the majority of the electricity generated will be NPPs with only a small fraction from so-called renewables. This for of course the reliable, on demand, low carbon sources only scenario.



And much impressed by the depth of the discussion. People are thinking and digging out data.


There is an element of reductionism I find irritating in the basis for discussion. “if we cannot achieve 100% on renewables, we risk locking in fossil fuels” is an instance.

Had the manhattan project insisted any one of thermal diffusion, gaseous diffusion and calutron delivered 100% of the solution, they wouldn’t have got to their endpoint. It took insights that combining the methods allowed higher efficiency yields in the calutrons by boosting the inputs.

In like sense, that we are using fossil fuel baseload during a transitional deployment of renewables appears to me NOT to lock them in, nor to obviate continued justification of nuclear baseload power. A reductionist “100% is impossible” is going to be misunderstood and misused. It does not inform the nuclear now option because nuclear now is not going to achieve 100% baseload or even the french 70%+ baseload any time soon. Most of my remaining lifetime will be spent during what is being laughed off as ‘transitional’ time which is 20+ years, and thats optimistic. (dont get me started on the public funding crisis which obsesses about 2 and 3 year returns on investment…)

Yes, its a great reductionist model. Yes, its fun to argue over 100%. But it cannot drive public policy in a context where 100% is immediately unachievable, where a document on the costs of a 10% or 20% or 30% in the context of current baseload can, and does usefully inform both short- and long- term public policy.

I am much more interested in the non-100% story in co-location of energy generation close to, or at the current investment in plant. Given the costs of steam turbines and the scaling functions, surely we need to understand the cost:benefit equations? Given CCS capital investment I am keenly interested in the benefits of the capital investment in CCS having been directed at co-generation instead.

(obviously, I am not adequately informed for the debate, a given I fully acknowledge)


George Michaelson: at the present time it hasn’t been shown that it’s at all possible to get 100% of our electricity from renewable energy, until it has been shown that we can to say that we aren’t just locking in more fossil fuel usage (OTOH we know that nuclear could do 100% if we needed it to).

As for the Manhattan project, they’d have done just fine had they only used gaseous diffusion but they tried everything they could because they didn’t know what could work, here we do know that nuclear can do the job if we let it so we have no need to try everything (not that there shouldn’t be some R&D funding).


you miss the point. they had a time-critical goal, 3 candidate methods on the table, and would not have succeeded in weaponizing by 1945 if they had gone with gaseous diffusion alone (rhodes)

we have a time critical goal. we have several candidate methods on the table. 100% is patently not achievable inside the time we probably want to undertake shifts in powergen.

nowhere is anything ‘locking in’ more fossil fuel usage. It might ramp up, but demonstrably would have a rate of uptake different, had a mix of technologies not been deployed. The shape of those curves are interesting and do not alter the trajectory of a move to deploy nuclear, which has a timeline all of its own.


One thing I always miss in renewables is ocean currents. They represent a bigger resource than rivers used for hydro-electricity, a small factor of which can be harvested. Yet they can be used by a number of standard sized units placed in moving water like the windmills but with a more concentrated water power in stead of air flow. They will be immersed in water and less annoying to human sight and hearing. The power available is also less varying.


But back then they didn’t know which methods would work and which wouldn’t so they had to try everything, that doesn’t describe our present situation where we do know at least one method which will work.

We have enough knowledge to know that we can do it using only nuclear power without any need for renewable energy (all we’d need is the political will, once we had that we could produce regulations which would allow it to happen in a couple of decades, nuclear has already shown the ability to support the build rates required).


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