On Monday 7 July 2014, the usually hard-hitting investigative current affairs program “Four Corners” (Australian Broadcasting Commission) showed “Power to the People“. Here was the tagline:
While the rest of the world moves to embrace renewable energy why is Australia drawing back? Four Corners documents the revolution in power generation taking place across the globe.
The lead journalist, Stephen Long, also published a detailed opinion piece on it the next day, which you can read here. Going by the reaction on Twitter (search for the #4corners tag), the reception from most of the environmental community was rapturous.
So, fantastic! Apparently it’s already all over for coal bar the shouting in most countries (e.g., 4Corners focused on various developments in the US), and unless Australia embraces this “Third Industrial Revolution” (via Jeremy Rifkin), it risks ‘going the way of the dodo’. But…
Who noticed the internal contradictions? Claims of massively falling costs that was already making Australian coal uneconomic — whilst at the same time lamenting the upcoming disaster to investment if the mandatory renewable energy target and other subsides were withdrawn or cut back. Eh?
Below, Geoff Russell lifts up the rose-tinted sunglasses for a moment, and takes a more critical look at Long’s claims…
Four Corners and its field of dreams
Geoff Russell, July 2014
How would you feel about an advertisement for a cold remedy with a tag line: “Our remarkable new treatment will see your cold gone in just 4 weeks!”?
That’s about the size of a recent article by Giles Parkinson for The Guardian called … “Solar has won …”. It could also be a suitable paraphrase for an also recent ABC 4-Corners documentary on renewable energy: Power to the People by Stephen Long and Karen Michelmore.
The defining claim in the Parkinson piece is a CSIRO report claiming that by 2040 more than half of electricty may be generated and stored by “prosumers”.
Is this supposed to be impressive?
I’d suggest that same claim, if realised, is good evidence of the ineffectiveness of distributed renewable energy as a climate change response. By comparison, France built an essentially carbon free nuclear electricity system in under 20 years. So while Australian electricity generates 850 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour, France is down around 70 grams per kilowatt hour and she’s been there since 1990. Germany’s renewable revolution has them planning on hitting the same target by about 2050.
As I said in the beginning, renewable energy is the cold remedy for people who want to feel better in a month … or two … while contributing a bucket load of money to their local chemist’s retirement fund.
On the other hand, Long and the 4-Corners crew seemed totally messmerised by fields of mirrors; or panels. They filmed them here, they filmed them there, it seems they’re springing up everwhere. I half expected an army of Kevin Costner clones to emerge from behind a heliostat holding a banner saying “Build it and they will come”. Well they’ve arrived and they’re travelling in a van with an ABC logo.
Four Corners has done some great investigations over the years, and it’s sad to see them functioning as mere propagandists for an environmentally destructive industry that is too little and too late to stop the destabilisation of the climate.
Normally you could expect 4-Corners to care about people paving paradise with parking lots … or mirrors. But nobody even asked the question. What exactly had Apple flattened to build their particular field of mirror dreams? Hopefully, being in North Carolina, the land might just have been corn, as in Costner’s film. And in North Carolina, corn is synonomous with factory farmed pig meat. So it might have been no big loss. But it might have been a forest with squirrels, ponds and beavers, racoons, wild orchids and wood peckers. Perhaps it was an orchard or a field of vegetables. Now, however, whatever was there has been replaced with concrete foundations supporting steel and panels and wires.
Is it just me? Doesn’t anybody else want energy that is green as well as clean?
Green energy production is all about minimising impact because in the real world, problems rarely admit of perfect solutions; at best we maximise the good stuff and minimise the bad. In this case, we want to minimise our environmental impact while keeping our carbon dioxide emissions below a certain threshold. It’s all about the numbers.
But 4Corners didn’t bother with analysis or numbers of any kind. They reduced a complex optimisation problem to a succession of images and slogans. There was no attempt at quantifying anything in any meaningful way.
Meaningful in this context implies quantification and the comparison of alternatives. Consider the much featured Crescent Dunes project at Tonepah in Nevada. We got art-house cinematic images of the dilapidated Tonepah township followed by the glittering mirrors and the unquantified claims about the plant “providing power to Las Vegas” … hell, I could supply “power to Las Vegas” with a bicycle driven generator; without numbers to quantify how much energy, then such drivel is simply sloppy journalism. Just as sloppy was the false claim about it being the first solar thermal plant with salt storage in the world and the poor description of how the plant actually operates. But that sloppiness paled beside the omission of any kind of numbers to characterise the plant output in any meaningful way. Talking about “providing power to Las Vegas” may be true but was quite misleading; the plant’s output is tiny and it certainly doesn’t appear to have enough molten salt storage to provide the kind of 24×7 operation which Las Vegas if famous for.
Andasol 1 in Spain is a solar thermal power station with salt storage that’s been running since late 2008. It has a nameplace capacity of 50 MW, about half of the 110 MW of Crescent Dunes. Andasol 1 uses 28,000 tonnes of salt to provide 7.5 hours of power. This means that when its salt batteries are fully charged, they can provide 50 MW for 7.5 hours. Crescent Dunes has 31,000 tonnes so can presumably provide 110 MW for about 4 hours. If this was all the power to Las Vegas, then the tables would be in darkness by about 9pm in winter. As an aside, the salt mentioned in this story isn’t just normal salt, it’s a mix of sodium and potassium nitrate that is made in a chemical factory and trucked to the site. Potassium nitrate is common stuff, but sodium nitrate isn’t. The global production of sodium nitrate in 2004 was 63,000 tonnes, so Crescent Dunes will use a rather large chunk of that. It can be produced by leaching nitrate containing ores with ordinary salt (NaCl) or by more complex chemical methods. Any scaling up of this kind of salt storage would require a massive investment in chemical factories and associated infrastructure. A minor detail.
Let’s consider the contribution of Crescent Dunes to Nevada’s power supply.
The per person annual energy use in the US is 81 megawatt hours (7 tonnes oil equivalent). I’m using an electrical energy unit here but only about 1/6th of this energy is actually used as electricity; 13 megawatt hours. Let’s assume people in Nevada are representative of the rest of the US. They are. Note, this 13 megawatt hours isn’t what people see on their electricity bill, but includes the energy used to make goods and provide services. It doesn’t include the energy used in China and elsewhere to make goods imported into the US. No matter. But, even together with the other 68 megawatt hours, this isn’t the complete greenhouse emissions problem; it’s just the energy component. Crescent Dunes should produce about half a million megawatt hours of electricity per year, so, to clean up all energy production in Nevada, you’d first have to build about 70 Crescent Dunes to clean up the electricity and then another 350 to deal with the rest of the problem.
How long will this take?
Currently Nevada has two utility scale solar thermal plants. The other has been running since 2008 and is somewhat smaller than Crescent Dunes.
You can find the Environmental Impact Statement for Crescent Dunes on the Bureau of Land Management website dated November 2010. The approval took two years from the November 2008 application date.
Therein lies the achilles heel of utility scale solar electricity. The environmental impact per unit of energy is large, and the output of each operating unit is small. It might be clean but it’s very slow and it certainly isn’t green. And the number and size of sites that need to be located, considered, chosen, planned and approved makes the process glacially slow per unit of energy delivered. Each EIS typically involves a team of scientists and engineers evaluating a host of parameters from wildlife through to soil types and road traffic freight capacity. Utility scale solar doesn’t just alienate vast tracts of land, it used huge volumes of steel, concrete and the rest. Between 10 and 100 times more stuff than a nuclear plant, depending on which stuff you are interested in.
The sad part about the 4-Corners piece is that people may not realise that technical and political issues are very different and that what constitutes investigative journalism in the latter … namely lots of interviews where people spill the beans, doesn’t cut it in the former. Investigative journalism in the former requires a little numeracy and a willingness to read more than just the glossy brochures of people trying to sell their solar toys to gullible but well meaning consumers.