TCASE 15: Comparison of four ‘clean energy’ projects

How can we compare the cost, performance and value-for-money of alternative large-scale clean energy projects? Actually, it’s pretty tough to try and avoid apples-and-oranges comparisons. Still, some adjustments can be made, such as for capacity factor, to partially levelise comparisons.

Below is a simplified comparison of four recent real-world projects. All can be considered first-of-a-kind installations, except for the wind farm.

1. A large proposed wind farm in South Australia (600 MWe peak)

The wind project will use 180 of the 3.4 MWe Suzlon turbines and “generate enough electricity to power 225,000 homes“. It includes a biomass plant that could produce up to 120 MWe of backup power to cover low-wind periods, and might offset up to 2.5 million tonnes of CO2 per year. At average 8m/s winds the capacity factor is estimated to be about 35%. A 60 km undersea high voltage direct current cable will connect it with Adelaide. Cost is $1.3 billion for the generating infrastructure and $0.2 billion for the cable.

2. A large Generation III+ nuclear power plant in Finland (1600 MWe peak)

The in(famous) Olkiluoto 3 NP unit, a European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) being built by the French (AREVA). The project has seen significant delays (first electricity now expected in 2014), and a cost blowout from the original € 3.7 billion to a new figure of € 6.4 billion. Despite this, the Fins have ordered two more EPR units. Assume it runs at the average Finnish capacity factor of 86%. 

3. A large solar PV plant under construction in New South Wales (150 MWe peak)

To be built in Moree, this will cover 3.4 km squared with 645,000 multi-crystalline PV panels, and is forecast to output 404 GWh per year (enough for 45,000 households). Part of the “Solar Flagships” programme, the cost is $A 923 million. Estimated to abate 364,000 tonnes of CO2 per year (based on NSW emission factor 0f 0.9 tCO2/MWh). Estimated capacity factor is 30.7% (based on peak power and GWh forecasts) — this seems high compared to typical PV performance.
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TCASE 14: Assessment of electricity generation costs

In the previous TCASE post, I considered how various low-carbon energy technologies meet the following criteria: commercial readiness, scalability, dispatchability, fuel constraints, load access, storage requirements, capacity factor and emissions intensity. Here I consider the next issue: cost of deployment, based on expert consensus.

Emission intensity for fit-for-service baseload electricity generating technologies. Error bars represent 90% confidence intervals for the mean (bar height). NOTE: PF Coal = Pulverised fuel black coal, CCGT = Combined cycle gas turbine, IGCC = Integrated gasification combined cycle, CCS = carbon capture and storage, FOAK = first of a kind, CC = combined cycle.

The primary data again come from the work I had published in 2011 in the peer-reviewed journal Energy (with colleagues Martin Nicholson [lead author] and Tom Biegler). Cost was analysed on the basis of 15 comprehensive levelised cost of electricity studies published over the past decade. The data are as follows (see also figure above), with references given in the footnote:

(LCOE = levelised cost of electricity (in 2009 US$/MWh) — see footnotes for a more detailed explanation.)

Enthusiastic supporters of various renewable energy technologies have long made claims that all or most of the world’s electricity needs could be met with renewable energy. Our analysis point to the costs involved and hence to the reliance on future major advances on that front in order to be competitive with other, low-emission, alternatives. In our view such reliance is highly speculative and risky as part of any plan to secure future energy.

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TCASE 13: Assessment of suitability of technologies for carbon dioxide mitigation

The problem of replacing our dependence on fossil fuels is complex. In Thinking Critically About Sustainable Energy (TCASE) #12, a checklist was provided to allow assessment of energy transition plans. The sort of questions listed in TCASE 12 are critical for evaluating the feasibility of future scenarios, like the ones from the recent IPCC report on renewable energy.

However, we also need to assess the capabilities of individual technologies to mitigate CO2 emissions, effectively (and economically). The following is a list of criteria that can be used to determine the relative viability of various alternative technologies. This comes from the work I had published recently in the peer-reviewed journal Energy (with colleagues Martin Nicholson and Tom Biegler):

Proven: Has the technology been used at commercial scale?

Scalable: Can the technology be built in sufficient quantity to replace significant proportions of existing fossil-fuel generators?

Dispatchable: Can the output be allocated by the system operator to meet the anticipated load?

Fuel supply: Is the energy source reliable and plentiful, even when, as with some kinds of renewable energy, it varies with time?

Load access: Can the generator be installed close to a load centre?

Storage: Does the technology require electricity storage in order to deliver a high capacity factor?

Emission intensity: Is the emission intensity high, moderate or low (as defined in the table below)?

Capacity factor: Is the capacity factor high, moderate or low (as defined below)?

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TCASE Video – Interactive discussions about the future of nuclear power

Thinking Critically About Sustainable Energy (TCASE) is a series of posts I’ve built up over the last year on BNC (and continue to add to). This has also branched off into a live seminar series (described in detail in this post), hosted by the Royal Institution of Australia (RiAus), and has proven to be very popular (a packed house each session). So far, we’ve covered new technologies in fossil fuels (including carbon capture and storage), established renewables (e.g. wind, solar), frontier renewables (e.g. engineered geothermal, marine), and, last week, nuclear. In the next session we will cover ‘demand side management and energy storage’ (event #5 on 3 Nov, with guests Craig Oakeshott from AEMO and Glenn Platt from CSIRO), and to cap off the series, energy futures: alternative 2050 visions (event #6 on 8 Dec, with guests Ziggy Switkowski from ANSTO and Peter Seligman from Uni Melbourne). Book your seats for the last two events!

That was just a reminder, however. The main purpose of this post was to highlight the content of TCASE Seminar #4: Interactive discussions about the future of nuclear power, held last Wednesday 8 Oct 2010 at the RiAus. The moderator for this session was Prof Gus Nathan, Director of the Centre for Energy Technology (CET). There were two speakers, Dr Kim Talus from University College London’s School of Energy and Resources, and me (Barry Brook, from University of Adelaide and also a member of the CET). I have to say, I think it was the most enjoyable and worthwhile public event I’ve been engaged with over the last few years. All three speakers/panelists really clicked, the questions and answers (conducted in the style of the gentle art of interrogation) flowed naturally, and the audience was also genuinely engaged.

Now I know people tend to be reluctant to watch videos etc. online, rather than in attendance, but I’d really urge you to take the time and watch this event. It’s something I’m very proud of (and I don’t say this lightly). Moreover, I think it — between my cover talk and the subsequent Q&A sessions — covers most of the major bases of my thinking on nuclear energy as a sustainable energy source and a key solution in the effort to mitigate our current fossil fuel dependence.

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TCASE 12: A checklist for renewable energy plans

Guest post by John D. Morgan. John runs R&D programmes at a Sydney startup company. He has a PhD in physical chemistry, and research experience in chemical engineering in the US and at CSIRO. He is a regular commenter on BNC.

A 10-page printable PDF version of this post can be downloaded here.


Beyond Zero Emissions recently launched their Zero Carbon Australia 2020 Stationary Energy Plan (read the BNC community critique here).  It joins a growing list of renewable energy plans – Desertec, Greenpeace’s Energy [R]evolution, World Wildlife Fund Australia’s Clean Energy Future, Peter Seligman’s Australian Sustainable Energy, and others around the world.

The need to cut ourselves loose from our carbon based economy is urgent, and proponents of these plans are to be applauded.  But, can they work?  Many posts and comments at Brave New Climate have focussed on the hurdles facing large scale renewable power.  Here I have tried to distill these points into a checklist to bear in mind when considering these plans.  The list is followed by some brief exposition of each item. Some of these items refer to some Australian specifics, but similar questions will arise in other countries.

These items are not a set of pass/fail criteria, rather, they are prompts to ask “Did the plan address this point, and how?” The list is not exhaustive – many other questions could be raised, and hopefully will be in the comments.  I have not really considered nuclear power in this list because I am not aware of similar comprehensive attempts to plan carbon free nuclear economies (perhaps there should be) – there would be questions, but unlike renewable energy, we have existence proofs that it can be done.

So, how does the plan check out?

0. The checklist

□     What is the emissions reduction target?

□     What is the budget for the plan?

□     How is the plan to be financed?

□     What is the cost of power if the plan is implemented?

□     What is the CO2 avoidance cost ($/tCO2 avoided)

□     Can the plan scale to 100% emissions reduction?

□     What is the timeframe of the plan?

□     What current and future demand is assumed?

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