24/7 Non-Intermittent Stream

In his April editorial Solving the Energy Trilemma, the president of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering states that small modular reactors may change the equation on nuclear energy economics and, “if that turned out to be the case, Australia would lag behind the rest of the world”, because Australia prohibits it outright.

He goes on to say,

Suppliers of variable renewable electricity generated from the sun and wind need to ensure 24-hour supply through the use of energy storage. While there has been a lot of noise in the media about whether renewables can achieve continuous supply, the answer is very clearly that they can. It will require storage but the massive investments going into batteries and other grid storage solutions… give us confidence that we shall be able to meet this need.

Courtesy of futurENERGY

So, it’s definitely time for a good old-fashioned comparison of climate-friendly energy sources. This has been made possible by anticipated sizes, costs and operating parameters reported in online media and the literature. More fundamentally, the energy sources are solar photovoltaic with seawater pumped hydro, and nuclear energy, both effectively dispatchable and therefore hypothetically directly comparable.

In August 2014 the combined Valhalla Cielos de Tarapacá and Espejo de Tarapacá project in Chile was announced. It will supply the Chilean grid by day with solar and by night from hydro, using seawater stored on a clifftop reservoir, pumped there with excess solar electricity.

PV capacity………………………………………………..600 MW
Annual generation………………………………………1,800 GWh
Average daily generation……………………………..4.93 GWh
Average capacity factor……………………………….34%
Land area…………………………………………………..1,570 hectares
Expected cost…………………………………………….$900 million USD

PHS power capacity……………………………………300 MW
Max. input energy………………………………………2.28 GWh
Max. output energy…………………………………….1.75 GWh
Round-trip efficiency………………………………….76%
Duration at 300 MW output………………………..5.8 hours
Ave. output supplying for approx. 16 hours……….109 MW
Land area…………………………………………………..374 hectares
Expected cost…………………………………………….$400 million USD

Combined average annual capacity factor
after max. daily charging and discharging*……….31%
Combined cost……………………………………………$1.3 billion USD
Combined land area…………………………………….1,945 hectares
Expected commissioning date………………………June 2020

*This capacity factor is estimated from the average daily PV output, taking into account the maximum energy first stored, then released from the reservoir, subject to the reported round-trip efficiency.

Crucially, this is billed as 24/7 supply in arguably the world’s most favourable location for this combination of technologies. It will be built at about 20.7 degrees south latitude. The Broken Hill solar farm is at 32 degrees south, and using a random full-day’s 5 minute output data as a proxy, a hypothetical “average day operation” of Valhala’s project can be reasonably pictured. This is also important as solar plus pumped hydro is being pursued for Australian electricity supply.

Pumped hydro is the most mature form of grid-scale storage, although it can be argued there is limited experience with seawater pumping. The unique, universally cited Yanbaru facility in Okinawa (substantially smaller than Valhalla’s project) was decomissioned after 17 years. However, storage capacity is not generation capacity. Where the former is added to support the latter, it effectively increases the cost of generation without adding any further capacity. What is fundamentally changed is the dispatchable value of the generation. This has already been stated as being directed toward “24/7 supply”, often thought of a baseload.

In November 2017 Canadian nuclear energy start-up company Terrestrial Energy concluded the first phase of the pre-licensing vendor design review after several succesful rounds of capital raising, with the potential for building a prototype at the Chalk River Labs site. In March 2018 the company signed an MOU with Idaho National Labs regarding building another reactor unit at that site. This is a molten salt reactor design, the IMSR®, which features liquid fuel and intrinsically passive operation based around gravity and convection.

The company’s key commercial claim is:

IMSR power plants are a low cost clean energy alternative to fossil fuel combustion and they can be deployed in the 2020s.

A recent article in Annals of Nuclear Energy, along with other presentations, provided some specifications.

IMSR capacity………………………………………………..291 MW
Annual generation………………………………………….2,343 GWh
Typical daily generation………………………………….6.98 GWh
Average capacity factor……………………………………92%
Land area………………………………………………………6.8 hectares
Expected cost…………………………………………………$1.08 billion USD

Expected commissioning date……………………………after 2026

The major precursor to this reactor design development effort was Oak Ridge’s MSRE in the 1960s. Terrestrial Energy is only one of dozens of companies planning such a design.

Courtesy of Terrestrial Energy

The emergency shutdown capabilities are incorporated directly into the design of the IMSR vessel and building. By operating as a liquid at high temperature, shutdown intrinsically leads to cooling of fuel instead of overheating. By operating at close to atmospheric pressure, no driving force exists to expel any material from the power plant building. The homogenous nature of the fuel salt allows a six-fold higher efficiency utilisation of uranium than conventional reactors.

The estimated cost listed above is the literature overnight cost (ca. $0.83 billion) plus 30% financing on a five year project as described by the World Nuclear Association.

All else being equal, the Valhalla project will take just about 6 years to come online, while the 291 MW IMSR is more than 8 years from commercial readiness. In total, the former will require 286 times the land area of the latter, and as the IMSR is intended for factory production in the manner of commercial aircraft, with 4-year construction cycles, it has the potential for superior deployability.

To illustrate the land footprint aspect, the conventional Barakah nuclear power project in the UAE is sited on a coast moderately similar to the ocean-bounded Atacama desert. (The most dramatic difference is the absence of a 600 metre cliff – such geography isn’t necessarily common.) By 2020 it will feature four operational South Korean APR-1400 reactors.

Plant capacity……………………………………………………5,360 MW
Annual generation……………………………………………..42,260 GWh
Average capacity factor………………………………………90%
Land area………………………………………………………….8 hectares approx.
Final cost………………………………………………………….$6.1 billion USD per reactor

To “match” the output of one Barakah unit, Valhalla would hypothetically need to build 6.6 PV+PHS projects, requiring nearly 13 thousand hectares (over 1,600 times Barakah’s footprint) at a cost of $8.5 billion USD.

FURTHER COMPARISONS

Plant lifespan (years):
Photovoltaic Solar………………………………………2530
Seawater Pumped Hydro………………………………17
Molten Salt Nuclear……………………………………..60

We are yet to see what will happen at the end of “the industry standard life span” for solar, or how long hydro involving seawater should economically operate for. Terrestrial Energy has indicated a plant lifespan which involves regular 7 year replacement of reactor core units (doubling as secure used fuel storage). The original Molten Salt Reactor Experiment operated for more than 4 years at Oak Ridge National Labs until funding arrangements abruptly changed. Consequently, these figures are only included for interest’s sake.

There are several other parameters which would be valuable to compare, namely the discreet material weight-requirements per TWh, the energy returned on invested, the comprehensive life-cycle GHG emissions, and the levelised volumes of other life-cycle by-products. Values for all of these depend substantially on operating assumptions and the rigour of the associated research. Robust values for both renewable energy/storage systems and advanced nuclear are not readily or publicly available, but will become increasingly important if national policies regarding clean and climate-friendly energy are to be comprehensively, scientifically informed.

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The Bottom Line

Growth in renewables long-term depends upon growth in storage.

So says this interesting presentation from AGL. Its thesis reflects a prevalent assumption amoung many energy commentators: deployment of storage will “time-shift” or “fill in the gaps” around abundant intermittent renewable generation at a national scale, and consequently render sources such as “baseload gas” and alternative, fully reliable technologies unnecessary.

  • 2050 NEM demand: 200 terawatt hours
  • Rooftop solar: 15 gigawatts
  • Grid-scale renewables: 75 gigawatts
  • Implied battery capacity: 350 gigawatt hours

By apparently examining the required solar and wind capacity addition to meet annual National Electricity Network demand in 2050, an implied battery storage requirment of 350 gigawatt hours was estimated in the presentation. Including new renewable capacity the total the price tag is around $250 billion.

But 350 gigawatt hours probably aren’t enough.

In this seperate analysis focussing just on South Australia, the annual state demand for financial year 2016-2017 was rendered as a duration curve to clearly illustrate the range and duration of levels of demand.

The area beneath this residual demand curve is equal to the period’s demand which was left un-met by solar and wind generation, despite capacity increase.

By assuming considerably more solar and wind capacity, the duration curve is then filled in to simulate demand. All demand can only be met if both the short peak of about 3 gigawatts as well as every hour of remaining residual demand is served from stored power. The result is nearly 1,000 gigawatt hours of necessary storage.

This is just for South Australia, which represented less than 6% of annual demand on the NEM in 2016. Simple extrapolation suggests that AGL’s 350 gigawatt hours are insufficient by orders of magnitude.

But do they really know about “batteries”?

There are several other vital considerations:

  • Batteries – and AGL is specific that this is battery storage – might have economical lifespans of 15 yearsLithium ion will dominate the market and expected cost declines are based on this chemistry, but improvements in performance will be only marginal. Therefore, whatever capacity is installed over the next two or more decades will require complete replacement before the specified 2050 target year. This, of course, goes for solar and wind installations too (25-30 year expected economic lifespans), necessitating that at least the full 90 gigawatts be built.
  • The quoted construction cost for battery storage corresponds to the expected $/kWh cost in 2025 under the Finkel Review modelling of lithium ion battery storage cost declines, implying a multi-year delay prior to large-scale build.
  • For rapid national decarbonisation of energy, or at least electricity, as a climate priority, battery storage-supported renewable energy is presented as the path to the low carbon future. The most recent analysis of lifecycle emissions of renewable/battery supply systems suggests intensities of 110 g for wind and 160 g for solar when supported by lithium ion technology mass produced by established suppliers like South Korea. Is this low enoughChina is expected to dominate battery supply chains and exports in the future.

from Baumann et. al, 2017, Energy Technology, 5(7), 1071-1083

  • It’s way beyond the scope of this article to “lobby” AGL to begin considering nuclear energy, but to put the cost equation in perspective:Hinkley Point C in the UK will be a twin-unit EPR nuclear plant, providing 3.26 gigawatts for an expected cost of £18 billion. It’s habitually used to signify how expensive nuclear energy is to build. Using this design at this price, it would cost $250 billion (Australian) to generate that 200 terawatt hours in 2050 with nuclear energy.The EPR has a single 1.6 gigawatt turbogenerator, and there is likely nowhere this would ever fit on the NEM (currently the largest generators are the 660 megawatt coal-fired units at Bayswater in NSW). At an anticipated $3 billion USD per 570 megawatt plant, NuScale‘s small modular reactor technology is a technically superior option now being mooted for Australia.Such SMRs would conceivably meet demand through 2050 for around $170 billion AUD.They also have a design lifetime of sixty years.

Even with Australia’s vast share of uranium reserves “100% nuclear” is a stretch and no authority is proposing it. The low carbon future will likely be a diverse mix. If you’re going to prognosticate out to mid-century, however, including an energy technology which can last till then is probably a great idea.

 

Off-piste

When my information changes, I change my mind. What do you do?

In an ideal world, evidence will lead conclusions. So when evidence is updated in, as a good example, a peer-reviewed article, the conclusions will consequently change.

But conclusions often lead the evidence instead. This was obvious in the case of the retraction of a paper asserting that European countries that support nuclear energy in their supply mixes achieve less for the global climate. Upon serious review, the weight of the authors’ evidence actually indicated a contrary, but apparently unwelcome conclusion. Of course, by this stage the paper had generated headlines.

Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.

The most recent major work of Mark Jacobson’s group at Stanford, offering a vision of entire nations perfectly well supplied in energy exclusively  from solar, wind and water based technologies, also came up short following careful, serious and painstaking review. In a dark turn completely outside the peer-review process, Jacobson now intends court action against the journal and the lead author of the critique.

 

A good summary has already been provided by Keith Pickering, and another by Alex Berezow.

Bulls do not win bull fights. People do. People do not win people fights. Lawyers do.

Here are many of the relevant resources for the context of this case, gathered in one place for convenience:

The 2015 paper proposing the “Low-cost solution to the grid reliability problem with 100% penetration of intermittent wind, water, and solar for all purposes”

A paper by Loftus and co-workers which included Jacobson’s work as one of the outliers among a number of studies with questionable levels of detail and feasibility

A somewhat prophetic piece in Foreign Affairs by Ted Nordhaus, Breakthrough Institute

A 2017 review of many “100% Renewable Energy” scenarios, including Jacobson’s work, using simple feasibility criteria

A related literature review from the Energy Innovation Reform Project

The “Clack et al.” formal literature critique of the Jacobson Group scenario

Jacobson’s response in the same journal, and as a blog at EcoWatch

Clack and co-authors’ dissection of Jacobson’s response

Context and commentary at Brookings.edu

Follow-up work by Jacobson, featuring the abrupt need for 4 billion kilowatts of output capacity from battery storage

There is a suggestions that:

It got into PNAS without peer review. (That journal has a publication mechanism that allows some non-peer-reviewed articles.)

Make of that what you will.

The debate and lawsuit in elegant context, by nuclear reactor physicist and engineering manager Nick Touran.

 

 

Traction

With the number of grass-roots pro-nuclear energy voices these days reaching critical mass, the volume of evidence-based nuclear-inclusive analysis rapidly expanding, and the specific cause of this blog – the removal of Australia’s unjustifiable nuclear energy prohibition – being taken up by organisations like The Minerals Council Uranium Forum, I’ll be focusing a lot less on updates and analysis. So I’d like to leave, for now, with a collection of authoritative and indispensible resources to help continue the spread of awareness around the issue of climate-friendly nuclear energy, the residual myths clinging to it and the stubborn opposition it unfortunately still faces.

Science Update: Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Paul Willis is Associate Professor of palaeontology at Flinders University

The report and wide-ranging resources of the South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission

Nuclear medicine comes from nuclear reactors
Dr Geoff Currie is Associate Professor in medical radiation science at Charles Sturt University and Clinical Professor of molecular imaging at Macquarie University

China-U.S. cooperation to advance nuclear power: mass-manufacturing and coordinated approvals are key
Cao, Cohen, Hansen, Lester, Peterson and Xu, 2016, and their response to anti-nuclear critics.

Did you really come from Fukushima?
Ryugo Hayano is Professor of physics at Tokyo University

Fear is a killer: Nuclear expert reveals radiation’s real danger
Experience in Nagasaki, Chernobyl and Fukushima has taught Shunichi Yamashita that anxiety and disruption can hurt people far worse than radiation itself
Shunichi Yamashita is vice-president of Nagasaki University and radiation health management adviser for Fukushima Prefecture

 

Culture of safety can make or break nuclear power plants
The safe shutdown of Onagawa Nuclear Power Plant, with the 2014 Nuclear Technology journal article here

The fantasy of quick and easy renewable energy
The Brookings Institution is a highly-regarded, non-partisan US research group

Related critical analysis in the literature of various “100% renewable energy” propositions can be examined in this article: Burden of proof: A comprehensive review of the feasibility of 100% renewable-electricity systems

An effective response to climate change demands rapid replacement of fossil carbon energy sources. This must occur concurrently with an ongoing rise in total global energy consumption. While many modelled scenarios have been published claiming to show that a 100% renewable electricity system is achievable, there is no empirical or historical evidence that demonstrates that such systems are in fact feasible.

Ben Heard is an Australian environmentalist, PhD candidate at the University of Adelaide and founder of Bright New World

How renewable energy advocates are hurting the climate cause
Paul McDivitt is a science and environmental writer with a master’s degree in journalism and mass communication from the University of Colorado Boulder

Baseload capacity – which nuclear energy opponents variously denounce as mythical, irrelevant or unnecessary – operates in modern national supply systems such as these to affordably and consistently ensure low-emissions electricity. Be wary of what truly motivates anyone who would discard this proven model of supply. Sources: Electricity Map, France, Belgium, Sweden, Ontario.

Excerpts from Climate Gamble
by a talented pair of independent Finnish environmentalists. Insisting both on serious climate action and excluding nuclear energy is, fundamentally, a gamble with the global climate.


Michael Shellenberger is an American environmentalist and author, and founder of Environmental Progress

 

Shining Sun, Blowing Wind

…when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow.

You’ve surely read such a phrase in any number of articles about supplying climate-friendly electricity to households and economies. Me, I roll my eyes every time I see it, no matter who the author is, but that’s mainly because it has to already be numbingly obvious that sometimes it’s cloudy or nighttime or calm.

Yet you wouldn’t know it from headlines like

This and articles like it invariably rely on significant dispatchable hydro but you wouldn’t know it from the choice of image.

or hot takes like

More than 150,000 [rooftop PV] systems installed in the last year alone would produce enough energy for 226,000 homes.

Why not? Because of last night on the mainland, for example:

Care of Tomorrow.

That’s an average of 91% fossil fuels supplying the evening’s electricity, with most of the remainder from existing hydro. The perseverance of solar and wind development in Australia is absolutely commendable, but even with all current projects completed this picture from last night would barely change.

Renewable energy advocates (and I count myself as one) were cautioned at the beginning of the year to be mindful of the reality of energy supply systems. When the triumphalism shown by advocacy groups like GetUp eventually fails to translate into rapidly diminished fossil fuel consumption at those times when the sun’s not shining and the wind’s not blowing, the resulting cynicism might make the “Tony Abbott years” not seem so bad by comparison.

GetUp heralds Australia’s progress with renewable energy as “the end of the era of big polluting energy companies dominating the market” but the growing awareness of waste and pollution also generated directly by the big overseas manufacturers of their favoured alternative energy sources must be addressed, not ignored just because it’s not happening here.

I’ll conclude with official data on annual shares from Australia’s technology mix.