Log, slash, truck and burn – welcome to renewable electricity nirvana

Guest Post by Geoff RussellGeoff is a mathematician and computer programmer and is a member of Animal Liberation SA. He has published a book on diet and science, CSIRO Perfidy.

Back in 2011, the federal Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency commissioned the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) to investigate two future scenarios in which the National Electricity Market was fuelled entirely by renewables … as defined by the Department. An essential component of AEMO’s 100 percent renewable solution involves the annual transport of 50 million tonnes of plant material from farms, native forests and plantations in what can only be described as a massive soil mineral mining operation. Log, slash, truck and burn. For details read on.

AEMO has just released draft findings and been met with typically enthusiastic headlines among renewable advocates: “100 percent renewable is feasible: AEMO” and “100% renewables for Australia – not so costly after all”. It took the Financial Review to point out that “not so costly” means doubling the wholesale price of electricity. The AEMO report was welcomed by the Australian Conservation Foundation “100 per cent clean energy on the way”.

Martin Nicholson on BraveNewClimate.com responded quickly saying it’s possible to meet the modelled electricity demand using nuclear power for less than half the lowest cost scenario of the AEMO report. This is $91 billion compared to the range estimate of $219 to $332 billion for 100 percent renewables with Nicholson using the same source of costing estimates as AEMO.

A nuclear solution would also avoid some of the uncosted gotchas, the extra “challenges” contained in the report: land acquisition of half a million hectares, boosting the distribution network, electric vehicle charging infrastructure, biomass logistics infrastructure, and DSP. What’s DSP? … demand side participation. A wonderful piece of euphemistic jargon whereby people either do without or get their electricity at some inconvenient time. E.g., Why cook dinner when you get home from work when you can cook it at lunch time when the solar PV is powering and just re-heat it later? All you need is the will and a new oven remotely controlled by your smart phone. I call it the demand side kitchen rules.

Let’s first sketch AEMO’s broad findings before looking at the most contentious issue.

Climate change isn’t just about electricity

Firstly, note that the study doesn’t deal with Western Australia or the Northern Territory. It’s strictly about areas in the NEM (National Electricity Market), the eastern Australian grid.

Second, the AEMO study is about electricity. Electricity is about 1/4 of our fossil fuel energy use, and about 230 of our 580 million tonnes of CO2eq (carbon dioxide equivalent) greenhouse gas emissions. The AEMO study dealt with switching to electric vehicles by assuming that all charging would be done at times of high solar PV output and would thus absorb it’s entire assumed rooftop PV output.

Continue reading

Advanced fission and fusion technologies for sustainable nuclear energy

Last week, the Australian Academy of Science held their annual meeting in Canberra, and the final day’s event was focused on energy technology. The symposium was called “Power to the people: the science behind the debate“. I was invited as one of the speakers, to discuss next-generation nuclear power technologies and their role in decarbonising our fossil-focused economy.

The description of my talk, as it appeared in the programme, is as follows:

Title: Advanced fission and fusion technologies for sustainable nuclear energy

Abstract: Next-generation nuclear energy – including advanced fission reactors, fusion-fission hybrids and pure hydrogen-fusion designs  – offers a means to produce vast quantities of zero-carbon and reliable electricity and process heat. For fission, new designs that are now ready for commercial demonstration can take advantage of the superior physical properties of plutonium in a fast neutron spectrum to convert essentially all of the mined uranium into useful fissile material and abundant electricity.

The Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) and similar ‘Generation IV designs’ can change in a fundamental way the outlook for global energy on the necessary massive scale. These resource extension properties multiply the amount of usable fuel by a factor of over a hundred, allowing demand to be met for many centuries with fuel already at hand, by a technology that is known today, and whose properties are largely established. Demonstrating a credible and acceptable way to safely recycle used nuclear fuel will also clear a socially acceptable pathway for nuclear fission to be a major low-carbon and sustainable energy source for this century.

For fusion, there are exciting medium- to long-term prospects, based on work now being done on the International Thermonuclear Reactor Experiment (ITER) and on hybrid fusion-fission designs that use molten-salt coolants and use thorium and hydrogen isotopes as fuel.

Replacement of fossil fuels is urgently needed to sustain global society whilst mitigating environmental impacts, and sustainable forms of nuclear energy offer a realistic and effective way of achieving this goal.

Bio: Barry Brook is a Professor and ARC Future Fellow at the University of Adelaide’s Environment Institute, where he holds the Sir Hubert Wilkins Chair of Climate Change. He has published three books, over 200 refereed scientific papers, and regularly writes popular articles for the media. His awards include the 2006 Australian Academy of Science Fenner Medal and the 2010 Community Science Educator of the Year. His research focuses on the causes and consequences of extinction, analysis of energy systems for carbon mitigation, and simulation models of the synergies of human impacts on the biosphere.

Here is the HD recording of my talk – recorded professionally by the Academy, which includes many close ups of my slides. The talk runs for 28 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of questions. I trust you will find it useful, and be sure to pass on the link so that others can watch it and be more informed – and entertained!

There were a wide range of talks presented, generally of high quality, and many of which were also recorded. The full video cast can be viewed here. Below is the programme:

Continue reading

100 Per Cent Renewables Study Needs a Makeover

Guest Post by Martin Nicholson. Martin studied mathematics, engineering and electrical sciences at Cambridge University in the UK and graduated with a Masters degree in 1974. He published a peer-reviewed book on low-carbon energy systems in 2012The Power Makers’ Challenge: and the need for Fission Energy


In late April 2013, the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) released its draft report titled 100 Per Cent Renewables Study – Draft Modelling Outcomes. The study was commissioned by the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency (DCCEE) to explore future scenarios for the National Electricity Market (NEM) fuelled entirely by renewable resources.

AEMO provided scenarios for a 100 per cent renewable electricity supply at 2030 and 2050 along with the generation plant and the major transmission networks required to support each scenario. The study included estimated capital cost requirements for each scenario and an indicative estimate of the impact on customer energy prices.

AEMO found that a 100 per cent renewable system is likely to require much higher capacity reserves than a conventional power system. They estimated that the generation nameplate capacity could need to be over twice the maximum customer demand.

Assuming the reason for commissioning the report was to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from electricity generation, it is disappointing that the DCCEE didn’t also request that nuclear power be included along with the renewable resources.

According to AEMO, to convert the NEM to a 100 per cent renewable system will cost at least $219 to $332 billion. This is excluding significant costs for the land (which could be as much as 5,000 sq kms) and augmentation of the distribution network. This is starting to sound worse than the recent high-speed train proposal from Melbourne to Brisbane.

Example of supply and demand in a winter week (scenario 2 in 2050)

According to the Australian Energy Regulator, the current NEM has an installed capacity of 46 GW made up of 26 GW of coal plants, 9 GW of gas, 8 GW of hydro and just over 2 GW of wind.

The following analysis is partly based on a paper I will present at a conference in July this year.

Continue reading

Energy Policy – substance wins over style

There’s a gradual, but a rising tide of rational, enviro-progressive scientists out there who are committed to solving some of the world’s biggest problems. Many of these problems involve touchy subjects, including ways to reduce poverty while improving or maintaining high standards of living elsewhere, the means for ‘sustainable’ electricity generation, and how to limit the human population’s over-consumption and over-production.

Inevitably, however, many well-intentioned, but grossly misinformed environmentalists (‘enviro-conservatives’?) object to technical solutions based on emotional or ideological grounds alone. As self-professed enviro-progressives (but also scientists who base decisions on evidence, logic and balancing trade-offs as part of our everyday work), we hope to reduce this backlash by providing the data and analyses needed to make the best and most coherent decisions about our future.


Reference paper:

Hong, S., Bradshaw, C.J.A. & Brook, B.W. (2013) Evaluating options for the future energy mix of Japan after the Fukushima nuclear crisis. Energy Policy, doi: 10.1016/j.enpol.2013.01.002

On 14 September 2012, Japan’s government announced a nuclear-free policy to phase out its nuclear power generation by 2040. Of course, electricity demand would have to be supplied by both renewable energy and fossil fuels to respond the public unwillingness for nuclear power.

But is this most environmentally sound, safest and economically rational aim? In a new paper we’ve just had published in the peer-reviewed journal Energy Policy, we set out to test Japan’s intentions the best way we know – using empirical data and robust scenario modelling.

Before the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Japan produced 25% of its total electricity consumption from nuclear power, 63% from fossil fuels (mostly coal and liquefied natural gas), and 10% from renewables (including hydro). Originally, the Japanese government had planned to increase nuclear power up to 45% of supply, and include new renewables builds, to combine to make major cuts in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and meet or exceed their Kyoto targets. However, the original plan could reduce emissions by the energy sector from 1122 Mt CO2e in 2010 to < 720 Mt CO2e by 2030 (< 70% of 1990 emission levels).

After the accident, the National Policy Unit in Japan hinted that the original plan was likely to be scrapped in favour of a new scenario, whereby the nuclear target was to be reduced to somewhere between 0–35% and the renewables target increased to 20–30%. These new plans, obviously, will not be able to meet the original emission reduction targets (Cyranoski, 2012; Normile, 2012). Our paper examines the implications of these different energy mixes.

Why do many people think ‘an anti-nuclear policy’ is environmentally friendly or sustainable?

Continue reading

Energy White Paper is hazy on future vision for nuclear

The Energy White Paper 2012 (EWP2012), released by the Australian Government last week, seeks to map out a strategic policy framework for future energy supply. One of the major goals of EWP2012 is to provide a “clear vision” of how Australia should set about the long-term task of decarbonising our stationary electricity, liquid fuels and industrial sectors. So how well does it succeed?

As an overview of the current status quo on domestic supply, distribution and exports of energy, it is a fine document. However, as a forward-looking, agenda-setting stimulus paper, it has weaknesses. The focus is strongly on how natural gas and unconventional fossil fuel markets might develop in the coming decades under various uncertainties, and the impact of these on national economic growth and trade. In terms of its projections of the expansion of currently poorly developed “alternative” (non-fossil) electricity – the biggest issue to address – let’s consider the medium-demand scenario (Fig. 6.1, pg 88):

This shows a gradual phase out of traditional coal (to be replaced by carbon-capture and storage [CCS] variants after about 2035) and a ramp-up of combined cycle gas (both CCS and non-CCS). Up to half of electricity is coming from wind, solar thermal, solar PV and engineered geothermal by 2050. The estimated cost is “more than $200 billion in new generation investment”.

These projected finances are based on the levelised cost of electricity estimates provided in the recent AETA report, but do not adequately consider “value” of the electricity, as I explained here. Putting that to one side, the basic technology options, with current and projected 2030 prices, are shown in Fig. 6.2:

Nuclear power – generated by both large (“monolithic”) and small (“modular”) reactors – are an obvious low-cost, low-carbon (and baseload) standout here in Fig. 6.2. Yet nuclear power is invisible in the Fig. 6.1 projections.

Why? This is explained in Box 6.3 on pg 98 of EWP2012. The argument made is that there is no “social consensus” on the technology (is there one for coal-seam gas?), nor an economic case (but that is relative to its direct competitor, black and brown coal, with no carbon price).

Continue reading