Part 1: Clean Costs

It’s very good to see that in 2017, we’re making real progress. No, not so much in sufficiently rapid action on climate change, or large wedges of clean energy to meet demand in emerging nations’ economies, but in sober communication of the strengths and limitations of intermittent renewable energy sources.

Paul McDivitt explained recently that in so much coverage of the subject

most readers, and apparently many journalists, equate “renewables” with wind and solar

…sources which are still globally overshadowed by legacy and new hydropower. It’s only when average annual contributions from all of the energy sources which trade under the banner of renewables are stacked together that they may appear to edge out old reliable coal.

It’s understandable that environmental organizations and activists would want to build public enthusiasm for renewable energy. But making wind and solar seem like they’re doing better than they really are could come back to bite proponents — and the climate.

…Wind and solar have made real progress in recent years. Their costs are projected to continue to decrease, and more wind and solar farms and rooftop solar arrays will continue to pop up across the country and around the world. But if the goal is to limit warming to anywhere near the level world leaders agreed to in Paris in 2015, significant challenges remain — and pretending like everything is going great is not going to fix them.


Aggressive adoption of solar in Germany and Spain has resulted in logistic curves reaching similar proportional limits. Is this related to a reported fall in the European installation rate?


Figure from Hansen et al. 2017. Further perspective on logistic curves for energy in this article.

Will further cost declines make the difference? Freshly published research from a team led by Jan Hansen of the University of Bergen suggests this might be only a minor factor relating to the eventual penetration of solar and wind in electricity supplies around the world. Their modelling indicates a leveling off of the associated growth rate logistic curve in 2030 while still at a small share of global capacity. Among the causes of this saturation are the declining value of wind and solar generators as respective capacities grow beyond small shares of overall capacity as explored by Hirth, and the fact these technologies have

finite material life times which implies that there will be an increasing need to renew existing power production sites. This mechanism, however, has hardly been important so far due to the early stage, but will certainly increase with the aging of current installations in coming years.

The ramification of the authors’ conclusion has been echoed by Glen Peters and colleagues in a seperate paper which tracks the contemporary progress of energy-related climate action under the Paris Agreement.

Despite the extraordinary growth rates of wind and solar in recent years, greatly accelerated expansion is required in the next decades. Most scenarios have limited scope for large-scale hydropower expansion due to geophysical constraints. Further, most scenarios indicate strong growth in nuclear energy, but there is renewed uncertainty from the drop in public support since the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi accident. Scenarios indicate that renewables alone may not be sufficient to stay below 2◦C given physical constraints to large-scale deployment and the need to offset emissions in some sectors, such as agriculture.

So if the current response to the potential climate emergency is insufficient with optimistic growth in popular types of renewables while barriers exist to other forms of energy, like fossil fuels with CCS and modern nuclear, an urgent reassessment is clearly needed. What’s not at all needed is unrelenting reinforcement of pernicious objections such as was offered around the same time as the above commentary.

Many energy sources involve relatively small upfront costs. To increase solar power, just build more panels. Fracking also has lower fixed costs than traditional oil drilling. But nuclear’s fixed costs are enormous. A new nuclear plant in the U.S. costs about $9 billion to build — more than 1,000 times as much as a new fracking well, and more than 3,000 times as much as the world’s biggest solar plant.

The article attempts to be fair to nuclear energy on safety, but summarily rejects it as vastly more expensive than solar. That turns out not to be the case. The cost comparison is out by three orders of magnitude, and, as explained by the World Nuclear Association:

the piece doesn’t take into account the fact that this solar plant is only 392 MW and has been performing with a capacity factor of less than 20 per cent. They added that, assuming a 1000 MW reactor and 90 per cent capacity factor, it generates around 10 per cent of the electricity, for 24 per cent of the cost and would be 2.4 times more expensive than nuclear, taking the data used.

So, yes, many examples of conventional nuclear are bet-the-company investments, but making that into a triumph for solar requires exactly the sort of simplistic arithmetic we’ve been warned against. Fracking wells and coal are still cheaper and easier than emissions-free sources.

Now, the original Bloomberg article has since been half-corrected, but the fact that the glaring error, on which its economical argument actually relies, is copied over into reprints elsewhere illustrates better than anything the clitical need for much more responsible commentary. Commentary which could perhaps mention that the first concentrating solar plant was constructed in Italy a mere decade after the Shippingport pressurised water reactor began supplying power – making the technologies practically contemporaries. Or that Ivanpah, the chosen solar example, requires daily natural gas combusion pre-heating which emited nearly 70 thousands metric tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2015, and without any storage capacity it fundamentally can’t match the supply profile of a nuclear plant.

On storage, it predictably hopes for sufficiently low future prices so that batteries can fill the gaps left by night and bad weather. But even the leading large battery projects being installed in California today are not intended to back-up for intermittent renewable energy, but rather to store at low demand and feed the grid at peak demand. This is as far from replacing “baseload” power stations – like nuclear plants – as you can get. And it’s still to be seen if this will work at any appreciable scale. So far, the economics aren’t promising.

Enthusiasm for solar, wind, and batteries, free from nuance, will run up against technical constraints that some advocates won’t comprehend – and may well misidentify – unless they work swiftly to get comfortable with the expanding body of relevant analysis. The technologies will undoubtedly improve, and so, as the Bloomberg author acknowledges, will nuclear, and as NASA’s Piers Sellers wrote before his passing,

Ultimately, though, it will be up to the engineers and industrialists of the world to save us. They must come up with the new technologies and the means of implementing them. The technical and organizational challenges of solving the problems of clean energy generation, storage and distribution are enormous, and they must be solved within a few decades with minimum disruption to the global economy. This will likely entail a major switch to nuclear, solar and other renewable power, with an electrification of our transport system to the maximum extent possible. These engineers and industrialists are fully up to the job, given the right incentives and investments.

Discarding a proven yet apparently undesired option over a three decimal point maths error doesn’t help in this daunting effort.


How Much Longer?

We have a greater share of renewable energy every year.

Do you, though?

In 2016, German electricity was 6.9% solar and 14.3% wind.



That’s all of the good news. The rest is bad. German solar generated 3% less than in 2015 and build-out has effectively flat-lined. Wind generated 1.5% less, and the cost of the necessary new transmission capacity has increased to €15 billion. Deeper analysis can be found here.


Meanwhile, emissions have risen…

…with more coal still burned in 2016 than in 2009, 2010 or 2011.


Around 2,800 MW of new lignite-fired power capacity came online in 2012, which benefit from adundant supplies of brown coal in Germany.

But that was three years ago, right? Surely things have improved, right? Wrong.

Germany has inadvertantly demonstrated that there are limits with favoured modern energy sources at industrialised nation-scale, despite overwhelming public and government support. At relatively high but still limited penetration, the addition rate of intermittent renewable capacity dramatically slows and variations in weather can be seen to impact generation share on an annual (not just daily to seasonal) timescale.  Some critics might call this a failure, but it’s actually a supremely valuable lesson for the rest of the world.

And to answer the question at the top: yes, renewable energy share was marginally higher. Whereever you see that claim reported, you will know it was thanks to increased biomass and hydropower output.

I fully reiterate what I wrote a year ago. Germany, where stale anti-nuclear propaganda is taught in schools, needs to start trying to face the idea of restarting its reactors. And the sooner, the better.


A coal barge named Privilege steams up the Rhine


All data is from as of 31 December 2016, which may well be subsequently revised or changed, without considering the effects of imports/exports.

Cooking the Comparisons

South Australia’s recent Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission examined many aspects of the complete fuel cycle, from mining to used fuel management and much in between. Considerable research was contracted to consulting firms. The task of comparing the economic viability of electricity generation in a mix of nuclear, gas and renewables was undertaken by DGA Consulting Carisway.

Sanmen AP1000 units in ChinaTwo nuclear options were included: a single AP1000 with a stated capacity of 1125 megawatts, and a six unit SMR plant rated at 285 MW (comprised of NuScale power modules of 47.5 MW each).

Various analyses were carried out to pit these nuclear options against gas and wind and solar, and the report’s details reveal the fundamental conceit utilised to shape the results: to ensure high value of wind and solar to the simulated scenarios, storage was assumed in unspecified but plentiful quantities which would smooth the output of these sources to whatever extent was required. Specifically, this was distributed batteries for rooftop solar (page 33), and grid storage paired exclusively with wind (page 34), justified only by the assertion that storage technology is advancing and will soon be economically feasible, alongside a reference to a newspaper article superficially covering laboratory work on graphene-based supercapacitors. The fact that one of the report’s authors is the chairman of a company connected to this graphene research – and an “international expert” in electricity grids based on high proportions of renewable energy and storage – is a minor detail compared to the absence of any accounting for the cost of this storage capacity.

Battery storage connected to rooftop solar has enjoyed spectacular coverage in Australia. As of the end of 2016, the closest thing to a guesstimate of current capacity is from page 34 of Solar & Storage Magazine – 31,000 installations, markedly lower than celebrated predictions of 100,000 from Morgan Stanley. But how much is this? If each installation is typified by the Tesla Powerwall, with a rated output of 2 kW and capacity of 6.4 kWh, then present distributed battery capacity in Australia might be about 62 MW and 200 MWh. It would take almost 5,000 times as much as this to fulfil the storage requirements in WattClarity’s 62 hour thought experiment.

In addition, the DGA report invokes an unspecified amount of vehicle-to-grid electric vehicle battery discharge to meet demand. This is now largely moot considering how complex and economically unviable it is understood to be.

oki07Recent thorough experience in california with proven battery storage technology at a larger scale – 2 MW, 14 MWh from sodium sulfur batteries – failed to demonstrate financial viability and anything close to the performance of the scheduled energy sources it is habitually touted to replace. Whatever the authors imagine to be coupled with wind in their models is even less proven. There are alternatives to battery storage of course, and seawater pumped hydro is often suggested, however the preeminent example – the distinctively octagonal Yanbaru plant on Okinawa – was this year decommissioned as uneconomical.

These criticisms are not intended to detract from the capabilities of battery storage technologies and their future roles. Storage should simply be respected instead of over-promised.

And why not allow nuclear output to charge these batteries in any of the modelling? The parallel analysis from Parsons Brinckerhoff also made reference to storage, and on page 19 observed:

…it should be realised that storage cost vs. benefit may well be more favourable for storage in a nuclear generation based systems than a renewable based system…

Without investigating the specific characteristics of South Australia, it is probable that the demand variability is more predictable than the supply variability. Since a nuclear-based system requires storage only to address demand variability, it is likely that the storage requirements to supplement a nuclear-based system and minimise the utilisation of fossil fuel-based assets is less than in a system that is highly renewable dependent.

The fundamental problems with the DGA report’s assumptions render it of limited usefulness, yet its ultimate shortcoming lies not in what it tried to achieve, but rather in what it intentionally didn’t. The modelled net present value of building and operating nuclear power stations was established as negative – unprofitable – when various market discount rates were assumed and applied to their costs. This isn’t surprising – reactors are up-front capital heavy, accruing expensive interest on associated loans, which nobody denies. When a lower social discount rate was applied (under direction from the royal commision) these projects abruptly flipped to profitable in all models (page 88). This lower rate is typical of government loan guarantees, public-private partnerships and straight-out public ownerships, which the authors surmise may be relevant if nuclear plants “were believed” to represent benefits for climate change action and the like which markets may not properly value.

There is no belief required here: it is simple scientific knowledge that nuclear energy is climate friendly. This fact has even been specifically supported in energy sector legislation in New York and Illinois this year. Unfortunately, the authors did not pursue the ramifications of finance-supported profitable nuclear capacity in their models and were content to let their chosen conclusions stand.

Yet, clearly this result should be the basis for further careful analysis of the economics of large modern reactors and small modular reactors in Australia, assuming that the recognition of societal benefits start promptly with the amendment of unjustified federal and state prohibitions. The current top-level review of Australia’s electricity sector can’t be excused from acknowledging the potential of using our uranium, not just exporting it, and where ultra-low emissions energy sources are to receive government support, this can be extended to nuclear with precisely the same justification. Indeed, on-going collaborative research by US National Lab experts in energy supply integration is revealing the benefits of supporting renewable and nuclear energy on the same grid.


With the urgency that serious climate action and electricity sector reform deserves, evidence-led inclusive analysis should begin as soon as possible to enable Australia to imagine, transition to and enjoy a clean, modern energy supply.


Note 1: This critique is also not intended to detract from the commendable work of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission, which can be examined here.
Note 2: Quotes and table reproductions from the DGA Consulting Carrisway report itself have been avoided due to the disclaimer at the foot of page 2.

Better Than Fire

blue-glow-1We used fire to release energy from the Sun stored in the wood from trees.
Then we discovered better things to burn.
Energy-packed ancient sunlight buried underground.
Burning that has set us free.
But fire has surely taken us as far as it can.

~ Professor Brian Cox

Since pre-history humans have relied on fire for energy, and for almost as long that fire has been fueled with biomass. Biomass is counted as renewable energy, and despite rarely featuring on magazine covers it is growing rapidly. It takes various modern forms and not all are positive.

Seventy-four years ago scientists achieved the production of heat from an entirely different source which doesn’t need to burn anything. While more complex, energy-dense and rarer than fire, continued study revealed it to be just as natural. Putting this newest energy source to work as a direct replacement for combustion has now saved millions of lives and billions of tons of greenhouse gasses.

Awareness of these and other net benefits is spreading as the communication effort improves. A perfect example is this forthcoming documentary.

Please consider making a contribution to the documentary’s Kickstarter to support post-production efforts.


As Long as We’re Being Ambitious

By the end of this year construction is expected to start on Queensland’s first major windfarm, the 180 MW Mount Emerald project. As can be seen from these recent NEM-Watch screengrabs, there is ample room for this affordable, potent fuel-saving and climate-friendly generating capacity.


From a total Queensland coal and gas fleet capacity of 10,730 megawatts.

A couple of further observations:

The reported pricetag for Mount Emerald is $380 million. Comparing this to Stage One of the Snowtown project (100 MW), completed in 2008, which came in at $220 million, by levelising output (380 ÷ 1.8 = $210 million) reveals a quizzical lack of the plunging costs that are so often trumpeted for certain renewable energy technologies.

screen-shot-2016-10-12-at-1-42-09-pmMore broadly, this windfarm is potentially the first step towards a mooted state 50% renewable energy target. The target was recently examined for the Queensland government by an expert panel, its general approach and modelled affordability presented in a report. As one commentator has noted:

The contortions the Victorian and Queensland governments are going through at present to assert that the cost of their big renewables policies will be very little and that there is no cause for community alarm merely serve to demonstrate (to me at least) that this is eventually one of the bigger over-riding issues of the market transition.

The same article also observed that the bulk of proposed new capacity, like Mount Emerald, is in northern Queensland while most of the state’s load is nestled far away in the south east.

The 3rd and 4th of October were interesting days for NEM electricity due to the dramatic difference in rooftop solar output. By isolating Queensland half-hourly demand, the state’s estimated solar performance can be seen along with export to New South Wales through the QNI (1078 MW) and Terranora (210 MW) interconnectors.


Using NSW wind performance data from those days as a proxy, the impact of currently planned windfarmsand solar farms can be simulated.


Finally, if the expert panel’s expectations were fulfilled, the simulation of these two ordinary days looks like this.


A discussion of existing generator flexibility is beyond this article’s scope, but the implied ramp rates on the second day should be of interest to operators and expert panels alike.

Where is nuclear energy in all this? The only mention came from the Queensland Resources Council.

The recommendation that QRC would make is that the target should also encompass low and zero emission technologies to present a low emission rather than just simply a renewable target. While the current Queensland Government is highly unlikely to be attracted to any discussion of nuclear energy, it is a virtually emission-free base-load generation technology.

Unattractive, quite possibly. But a reassessment of nuclear energy is not beyond a state Labor government. Commitment to an emissions target over an exclusive renewable energy target – for energy, not just electricity – and a challenging timeframe out to 2030 and beyond, without the inordinate influence of preconceptions unevolved since the 1970s, would align Queensland’s efforts more tightly with historically successful decarbonisation. If eventual decarbonisation of energy supplies is the goal, and arithmetic is to be substantially involved, there’s very little other option.