On the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission

NFCRCBack in February 2015, I posted on BNC about the announcement of a Royal Commission into the Nuclear Fuel Cycle (henceforth NFCRC) in the uranium-mining state of South Australia (SA).

This was followed up by a post on The Conversation by Ben Heard and me, entitled “Royal commission into nuclear will open a world of possibilities“. In that article, we speculated on what the NFCRC might conclude. I was later appointed as a member of the Expert Advisory Committee.

After more than a year of compiling evidence, analysing facts and opinion, and testing ideas, the NFCRC handed down its 320 page final report, in May 2016. You can read it here. (Yes, it’s worth reading in full…but at least look at the summary!)

In caricature (at least by my abstracting), the NFCRC report says:

  1. Mining, milling and further processing of radioactive ores — activities that already occur in SA — will continue to be pursued and developed, but not expand greatly. There is limited scope here for substantially increased economic activity.
  2. Development of uranium enrichment capability and advanced manufacture of fuel elements (including international fuel leasing) in SA would require quite specific techno-economic circumstances to be worthwhile, and raises proliferation issues. It is not likely to happen in isolation of other developments.
  3. IFR vs LFTRElectricity generation from nuclear fuels would probably not, in the present circumstances, be economically competitive in SA. Advanced reactor designs such as the IFR or LFTR should not be built (first) in SA, but a watching brief ought to be kept on small modular light-water reactors.
  4. Hosting of an international nuclear used fuel repository in SA ought to be considered seriously. Very seriously. Although it  would face many logistical and policy obstacles, and would inevitably involve a long-term strategy, the ultimate and ongoing socio-economic benefits it could deliver to SA are stunning (hundreds of billions of $ income).

My interpretation…

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The capacity factor of wind

Guest Post by John Morgan. John is Chief Scientist at a Sydney startup developing smart grid and grid scale energy storage technologies.  You can follow John on twitter at @JohnDPMorgan.

A lot of ink is spilled on wind intermittency, and not necessarily based in data.  So I have extracted and analyzed a high resolution dataset of a year’s worth of Australian wind power for a number of interesting properties.  I previously wrote about the capacity factor as a limit to the share of electricity that wind and solar can acquire, so I also ask how wind capacity factor changes with time, place and season.  In particular, how does it change during sunlight hours and what does it mean for the capacity factor limit on renewable energy penetration?

Australian wind fleet data

The Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) publishes data on all generators connected to the National Electricity Market (NEM) grid, which covers the eastern states including Tasmania, but excludes Western Australia and the Northern Territory.  The data includes power generation every five minutes for every generator for the last year, their capacities as registered with the grid operator, and more.  It is not very accessible, being in the form of thousands of SCADA data files, many of which contain errors.  But with a bit of work the data can be extracted.  Here, for instance, is the output of all grid-connected wind farms at five minute resolution over one year:

Wind capacity factor

Here is the top level summary of the Australian wind farm fleet over the last year:

The nameplate capacity is the total capacity of all wind farms – 3753 MW.  But the whole fleet only manages 3238 MW at peak.The whole is less than the sum of its parts – half a gigawatt less in this case. Why is this?

The fleet is comprised of wind farms distributed over a large area of eastern Australia.  To achieve maximum theoretical power the wind would have to be blowing at the optimum speed for each wind farm, at all wind farms, simultaneously.  This is a statistical improbability and quite possibly a hydrodynamic impossibility, as it would require a high velocity correlated flow field over very large distances.

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SA Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission – update

Today the Expert Advisory Committee of the South Australian Royal Commission into the Nuclear Fuel Cycle was announced. The members include Dr Tim Stone (University College London, KPMG), Prof Ian Lowe (my co-author Why vs Why: Nuclear Power), Dr Leanna Read (Chief Scientist of SA), Mr John Carlson (formerly of ASNO), and me (Barry Brook). I look forward to engaging in a productive, evidence-based process with my colleagues.

The first Issues Papers has also been released today Exploration, Extraction and Milling. Further papers will be released in the coming weeks, and then there will be 90 days open for submissions. The RC will report to the SA Government within just over a year: by May 2016.

Tunnel Vision at the Climate Council

GR_April2015_CCCGuest Post by Geoff Russell. Geoff recently released the popular book “Greenjacked! The derailing of environmental action on climate change“.

The Climate Council has a new report out. The Global Renewable Energy Boom: How Australia is missing out (GREB) is authored by Andrew Stock, Tim Flannery and Petra Stock. The lead author is listed on the Climate Council website as a “Non Executive Director of several ASX listed and unlisted companies in the energy sector, ranging from traditional energy suppliers to emerging energy technology companies.” He’s also a chemical engineer.

Page 6 of the report begins by claiming “Globally, renewable energy’s contribution to global capacity and generation has climbed steadily upwards (Table 1)”.

Here’s line 4 from Table 1 except that I’ve added a column in red for 1973 using data from the IEA:

The percentage isn’t so clearly “climbing steadily upwards” now is it?

This table is one of a number carefully chosen or designed to enhance the images of wind and solar power and to misleadingly exaggerate their ability to prevent further destabilisation of the climate.

Misusing words

Page 8 follows with a claim in a large red font: “Global wind and solar capacity is growing exponentially”. This is accompanied by a graph which I’ve repeated here; but with a few annotations … in black. I’ll discuss them later.

Who think the graph supports the claim? It doesn’t. Exponential growth, by definition is growth with a regular doubling time, not regular increments … big difference! Growing exponentially is pretty easy for something trivially small, but it soon becomes hard and the graph shows clearly that both wind and solar are now only growing linearly; after about 2010 for solar PV and 2008 for wind.

The lead author is an engineer, so why call something exponential growth when it isn’t?

As the wind and solar contributions to an electricity grid grow, engineers expect stability problems to which there are currently no answers. AEMO’s 2013 report into 100% renewable electricty in Australia recommended underpinning wind and solar with either a biomass or geothermal baseload system to reduce the volatility; the sudden swings in supply. Germany obviously understands this and is now just burning half her forestry output annually. That’s about 30 million tonnes. This provides more electricity than either wind or solar.

Germany certainly had exponential growth in both wind and solar for some years, but that’s long gone. It took just one year to double the PV output for 2005; but the output from 2011 still hadn’t been doubled by the end of 2014. This slow down is despite solar providing just 6 percent of electricity. The wind power growth slowdown is even more advanced; it took eight years to double the 2004 wind output. Closer to home, South Australia has a higher renewable penetration than Germany, but no biomass baseload component, hence the stability risks which I suspect are behind the back-flip by long time nuclear opponent Jay Weatherill with the establishment of a Royal Commission into (almost) all things nuclear.

Understanding renewable growth

But am I being too cynical? The wind and solar growth lines above still look impressively steep. How can that be when Table 1, in contrast, shows a negligible percentage growth between 1973 and the present?

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Reducing emissions: Goldberg machines are not meant to be planning advice

Guest Post by Alex CoramAlex is Professor (Emeritus) at the University of Western Australia and a visiting professor at Robert Gordon University and the University of Massachusetts.  He mostly works on problems in mathematical political-economy.

Rube Goldberg machines are devices for achieving some straightforward objective in a manner that requires great expenditure of effort and resources and is so fanciful and complicated that there is little chance of succeeding.  Their appeal results from the fact that they are the consequence of ignoring simpler ways of achieving the same result.  They also demonstrate the mathematical point that an unconstrained solution is better than a constrained solution.  They are about the last thing we should think about when faced with a serious problem.

Right now we are faced with such a problem.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that to reduce the possibility we will push the climate to a new trajectory anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases need to be cut by between 50 and 80 percent on current figures by about 2050.  They need to go to zero sometime after that. If this is not achieved temperature increases may vary from manageable to possibly over 4 degrees centigrade.  In the latter case the result would be large scale species extinction and possible economic collapse.  This is about as bad as it gets, short of maybe an asteroid strike or something similar.

No solution to these problems is simple, of course.  However, some are beginning to look a bit like Rube’s machines.  To see the point consider the following stripped down view of the options.

Plan A.  Follow Clausewitz’s dictum ‘in war moderation is madness’ and throw everything we have at it.  This means solar, wind, bio-fuels, nuclear the lot. Since hydro is difficult to expand I leave it to one side for this discussion.

Plan B.  Exclude nuclear and just use solar, wind and bio-fuels.

As soon as we try for plan B we complicate things by excluding the main potential source of low emissions expandable base load energy.

Suppose we try to get all the energy we need using solar voltaic. First we need land.  There are a lot of maps on the internet that give the total land required as reassuringly small dots that add up to about the size of Texas.  A better way to do it is to scale up solar installations like the Topaz plant in California.  From this we need about 200~km^2 for each average size 1 GWe power station we replace.  Imagine, for example, that the population of India uses about half current US energy per person.  In this case it would be necessary to cover between 10-20 percent of India’s land mass with panels.

To get an idea of the nature of the second problem just draw a horizontal line that represents a few days and draw average energy requirements as a line that goes up and down a bit.  Now draw some humps of about six hours wide once every twenty four hours.

What is apparent is that the gaps are bigger than the energy filled in bits.  And some of the energy is wasted because it is at the wrong time.  Depending what you want to assume about back up, there are periods where we may have to fill in by100 percent.

So let’s add wind to the diagram. Just draw a line that spikes up and down between the maximum and zero in a random fashion.

Is wind totally random?  As far as getting it to correlate with gaps in the sun, near enough. There is no reason why the wind should coincide with our sunshine humps.  Sometimes it adds to surplus when we don’t want it.  Sometimes it adds nothing when we do want it.

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