“Energy in Australia” book

Graham Palmer, a regular BNC community member, has published a new book. It is titled “Energy in Australia: Peak Oil, Solar Power, and Asia’s Economic Growth” and is published by Springer (in their “Springer Briefs in Energy” series). It’s a slim, taughtly written volume (91 pages) that can be read in 1 or 2 sittings. If you have a Kindle, you can purchase it on Amazon.com.au.

I enjoyed the book and got a lot out of it — a combination of useful facts/figures and practical, hard-nosed analysis. I won’t go on too much about the details of the content in this post, because I’ve asked John Morgan to do a full review of its contents for BNC, which he will write up shortly. So stay tuned.

But meanwhile, here is a short precis from the author (Graham), written for this website:

Since the cost of energy represents a relatively small proportion of GDP, the standard neoclassical economic theory of economic growth assumes that it is not a significant factor of production. Therefore improvements in the productivity of energy systems are assumed to make only a minor contribution to economic growth – global primary energy consumption is assumed to rise with global GDP subject to improvements in the energy intensity of production, and price and income elasticities. Indeed, the IEA, EIA and IMF energy forecasting models are computed from GDP growth forecasts – energy supply is assumed to be unconstrained (see Ayres and Voudouris 2013).

The alternative ecological economics perspective is that the increase in energy flows, since the industrial revolution, has been integral to economic development, and that the low cost of energy is a reflection of the ready availability of energy dense fossil fuels. Rather than GDP driving energy consumption, high-EROI energy has enabled GDP growth (see Ayres and Voudouris 2013, Sorrell 2010, Alcott 2012). The very high energy return on investment (EROI) from fossil fuels has enabled the development of the modern state, with advanced education, healthcare, welfare, and the richness and diversity of modern society.

Fig 4.5 (pg 37) from Palmer (2014), Energy in Australia (Springer books)

Fig 4.5 (pg 37) from Palmer (2014), Energy in Australia (Springer books)

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Can household solar photovoltaics provide a primary source of low-emission power?

Guest Post by Graham Palmer. Graham is an industrial engineer and energy commenter from Melbourne. For another BNC post featuring his work, see Does energy efficiency reduce emissions and peak demand?

Click the above image to download the PDF (full version is free – Open Access)

With declining system costs and assuming a short energy payback period, photovoltaics (PV) should, at face value, be able to make a meaningful contribution to reducing the emission intensity of Australia’s electricity system. But will it? Graham Palmer takes a critical look at this key question. The original peer-reviewed paper is:

Palmer, G. (2013) Household Solar Photovoltaics: Supplier of Marginal Abatement, or Primary Source of Low-Emission Power? Sustainability 5(4), 1406-1442; doi: 10.3390/su5041406

The energy return on investment (EROI) of solar PV has been the subject of many studies over decades, with some recent studies suggesting an energy payback of less than 2 years. However conventional PV-LCA’s usually focus on ingot/wafer/cell/module/BOS, with the LCA boundary ending at the inverter output.

Further, some researchers argue that upstream energy impacts that are beyond the standard PV-LCA boundaries can make up half of the energy impacts.

My paper builds on a recent study by Prieto and Hall titled “Spain’s Photovoltaic Revolution: The Energy Return on Investment”.

Hall is arguably the world’s leading expert on the concept of EROI and Prieto was a chief engineer for several major photovoltaic projects in Spain. Based on real-world experience in Spain’s large PV expansion before the GFC, they conclude that the EROI of PV is far lower than commonly assumed, and may be too low to support an energy and economic transition away from fossil fuels. Given Spain’s excellent solar insolation, this is a serious concern.

Taking a similar approach, I examine the role of high-penetration household PV within the Australian NEM, with a focus on Melbourne. I also include an analysis of intermittency, grid integration and the energy costs of storage. Once these downstream energy costs are included, and assuming that PV has an integral role in the electricity system, the EROI drops below the minimum threshold generally considered necessary to transition from fossil fuels.

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Does energy efficiency reduce emissions and peak demand?

Guest Post by Graham Palmer. Graham is an industrial engineer and energy commenter from Melbourne. For another BNC post featuring his work, see Coal dependence and the renewables paradox.

This post summarises the findings of a paper just published in the peer-reviewed journal Sustainability by Graham Palmer, entitled “Does energy efficiency reduce emissions and peak demand? A case study of 50 years of space heating in Melbourne“.

Energy efficiency is a key component of climate change policy, and is promoted as a low cost means to reduce greenhouse emissions and reduce peak demand. Energy efficiency is also a key component of the “soft energy path”, originally articulated by Amory Lovins in 1976 in his famous article in Foreign Affairs as a solution to energy supply concerns and declining resources, then later adopted as a solution to climate change.

Such is the power and intuitive appeal of the idea of energy efficiency that it has been almost universally adopted as a key plank of the “sustainability project” by environmental NGOs, green parties, and large sections of Government. Yet Jevon’s Paradox, or the energy efficiency rebound effect, suggests that some, or all, of the gains of energy efficiency are “taken back” in the long-run, and has been passionately debated since the 1980s.

The most common explanation for the failure to reduce energy is that we haven’t tried enough; therefore the solution should be increased regulation and greater stringency, along with greater support for efficiency programs. But a historical examination shows that an improvement in efficiency of Melbourne’s space heating has in fact been sustained and significant, yet energy demand continues to grow. An examination of the specific case of Melbourne’s space heating over a 50-year time-scale provides an opportunity to reconcile the contradiction between the short-run gains from efficiency at a household level, with the irrefutable increase in aggregate energy consumption over the long run. Melbourne’s winter heating is an important case study because the heating load is possibly the single largest peak energy load on any energy source in Australia – the demand on the gas network is regularly 10,000 to 15,000 MW (gas) – so any de-carbonisation plan needs to effectively deal with it.

The paper has two main findings.

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100% renewable electricity for Australia – the cost

Download the printable 33-page PDF (includes two appendices, on scenario assumptions and transmission cost estimates) HERE.

For an Excel workbook that includes all calculations (and can be used for sensitivity analysis), click HERE.

By Peter Lang. Peter is a retired geologist and engineer with 40 years experience on a wide range of energy projects throughout the world, including managing energy R&D and providing policy advice for government and opposition. His experience includes: hydro, geothermal, nuclear, coal, oil, and gas plants and a wide range of energy end use management projects.


Here I review the paper “Simulations of Scenarios with 100% Renewable Electricity in the Australian National Electricity Market” by Elliston et al. (2011a) (henceforth EDM-2011).  That paper does not analyse costs, so I have also made a crude estimate of the cost of the scenario simulated and three variants of it.

For the EDM-2011 baseline simulation, and using costs derived for the Federal Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism (DRET, 2011b), the costs are estimated to be: $568 billion capital cost, $336/MWh cost of electricity and $290/tonne CO2 abatement cost.

That is, the wholesale cost of electricity for the simulated system would be seven times more than now, with an abatement cost that is 13 times the starting price of the Australian carbon tax and 30 times the European carbon price.  (This cost of electricity does not include costs for the existing electricity network).

Although it ignores costings, the EDM-2011 study is a useful contribution.  It demonstrates that, even with highly optimistic assumptions, renewable energy cannot realistically provide 100% ofAustralia’s electricity generation.  Their scenario does not have sufficient capacity to meet peak winter demand, has no capacity reserve and is dependent on a technology – ‘gas turbines running on biofuels’ – that exist only at small scale and at high cost.

Map of Australia's transmission lines. There are no transmissions lines to any of the proposed CSP sites, and the best solar areas are far removed from the existing transmissions infrastructure.Source: Grattan Institute, Figure 10.1 (attributed to DRET (2010), Grattan Institute)


I have reviewed and critiqued the paper “Simulations of Scenarios with 100% Renewable Electricity in the Australian National Electricity Market” by Elliston et al. (2011a) (henceforth EDM-2011).

This paper comments on the key assumptions in the EDM-2011 study.  It then goes beyond that work to estimate the cost for the baseline scenario and three variants of it and compares these four scenarios on the basis of CO2 emissions intensity, capital cost, cost of electricity and CO2 abatement cost.

Comments on the EDM-2011 study

The objective of the desktop study by EDM-2011 was to investigate whether renewable energy generation alone could meet the year 2010 electricity demand of the National Electricity Market (NEM).  Costs were not considered.  The study used computer simulation to match estimated energy generation by various renewable sources to the known hourly average demand in 2010.  This simulation, referred to here as the “baseline simulation” proposed a system comprising:

  • 15.6 GW (nameplate generation capacity) of parabolic trough concentrating solar thermal (CST) plants with 15 hours thermal storage, located at six remote sites far from the major demand centres;
  • 23.2 GW of wind farms at the existingNEMwind farm locations – scaled up in capacity from 1.5 GW existing in 2010;
  • 14.6 GW of roof-top solar photovoltaic (PV) inBrisbane,Sydney,Canberra,MelbourneandAdelaide;
  • 7.1 GW of existing hydro and pumped hydro;
  • 24 GW of gas turbines running on biofuels;
  • A transmission system where “power can flow unconstrained from any generation site to any demand site” – this theoretical construct is termed a “copperplate” transmission system.

The accompanying slide presentation by Elliston et al. (2011b), particularly slides 5 to 12, provides a succinct summary of the objective, scope for their simulation study, the exclusions from the scope, the assumptions and the results.

The results of the baseline simulation show that there are six hours during the year 2010 when demand is not met, with a maximum power supply shortfall of 1.33 GW.  It should be noted that the supply shortfall would be significantly greater with higher time resolutions, e.g. 5 minute data rather than the 1 hour increments used, but this limitation is not addressed by EDM-2011.

The EDM-2011 approach is more realistic than Beyond Zero Emissions (2010)Zero Carbon Australia – Stationary Energy Plan” (critiqued by Nicholson and Lang (2010), Diesendorf (2010), Trainer (2010) and others), especially because EDM-2011’s approach, as they say, “is limited to the electricity sector in a recent year, providing a more straight forward basis for exploring this question of matching variable renewable energy sources to demand.”  As the authors say, “this approach minimises the number of working assumptions”.

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Coal dependence and the renewables paradox

In a recent issue of Dissent magazine, a regular commenter here on Brave New Climate, industrial engineer Graham Palmer, engaged in a debate with Mark Diesendorf on energy futures. Unfortunately, this exchange of prose is not available online, although Graham did send me a scanned version (because of potential copyright issues, I won’t post it here). The promo from Dissent was as follows:

Mark Diesendorf says that nuclear energy is a very dangerous, complicated and expensive way of boiling water which is not a sensible alternative to renewable energy in the production of base-load electricity.

Graham Palmer argues that because base-load electricity cannot be stored and wind and solar power are dependent on the wind and sun, renewable energy must be backed up by fossil or nuclear base-load capacity.

Fortunately, Graham also delivered a condensed version of his side of the debate to a national radio audience this weekend, via Robyn William’s ABC show Ockham’s Razor. With Graham’s permission, I’ve reproduced the transcript of his essay below (with a few hyperlinks and relevant pictures added), because I think it provides a useful context for discussion on the BNC blog. I trust you’ll find it interesting.

Coal dependence and the renewables paradox

(by Graham Palmer)
Listen to audio MP3 reading by Graham, here (6.5 MB, 14 min)

Just about everyone agrees that the most pressing challenge in averting climate change is reducing our dependence on coal. Like most environmentalists, I used to pretty much go along with the idea that a combination of wind and solar, combined with serious energy efficiency policies, could probably go a long way towards achieving that aim in the long term. But after two decades of intense international efforts, we seem to be running fast but actually getting nowhere. And growth in coal continues unabated. Even countries like Denmark and Germany, that have invested heavily in renewables over decades, despite managing modest relative reductions in emissions, have not found a way to displace their base-load coal with wind and solar. Indeed, despite around 100,000 wind turbines globally, and enormous investment in solar, there is not a single example anywhere in which a coal plant has been retired as a direct result of the installation of wind or solar. So what’s going on? To answer this, requires stepping back to 1865, and re-examining Stanley Jevons economics classic, The Coal Question.

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