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.

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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.

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

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

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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.

 

Near-Zero

The South Australian Labor government recently released its official response to the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission’s 12 recommendations. Among them:

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Number 8 has been the driving force for this blog since its very beginning, inspired by this article detailing the Australian Greens’ opportunistic prohibition of commercial nuclear energy in 1999. But even so, the government’s response is a very good start.

As noted on page 59 of the Royal Commission’s findings:

While nuclear generation is not currently viable, it is possible that this assessment may change. Its commercial viability as part of the NEM in South Australia under current market rules would be improved if… a national requirement for near-zero CO₂ emissions from the electricity sector made it impossible to rely on gas generation (open cycle gas turbine and combined cycle gas turbine) to balance intermittency from renewable sources.

South Australia has made great progress with clean wind energy. But even combined with photovoltaic solar, the crucial arithmetic clearly describes a lower limit far higher than near-zero:

Indeed, only Denmark has a higher annual share of wind energy than South Australia. Yet its electrical CO₂-equivalent intensity is 375 grams per kilowatt hour; the majority of its conventional capacity still burns coal.

During the Royal Commission process, Kevin Scarce visited Canada, which sources about 17% of its electicity from nuclear:

Canada is the best role model for Australia because of its long track record and the economic benefits of $6 billion in annual turnover and the 60,000 people its nuclear industry employs.

The vast majority of this prosperous industry is in Ontario, which has already achieved the near-zero emissions intensity noted above.

The current lack of state government apetite for directly pursuing federal amendments is understandable, but broader decarbonisation is likely to get only so far without it.

 

 

Running From Technology Down the Path Mistaken

When I reflect on the gradual yet probably immeasurable damage wrought by Amory Lovins and groups like Friends of the Earth, to whom he was an influential thought leader…

In an electrical world, your lifeline comes not from an understandable neighborhood technology run by people you know who are at your own social level, but rather from an alien, remote, and perhaps humiliatingly uncontrollable technology run by a faraway, bureaucratized, technical elite who have probably never heard of you.

… I tend to recall the wisdom of Pirsig in the opening chapter to his seminal book Zen and the Art of Motocycle Maintenance.

Other things fit in too. They talk once in a while in as few pained words as possible about “it” or “it all” as in the sentence, “There is just no escape from it.” And if I asked, “From what?” the answer might be “The whole thing,” or “The whole organized bit,” or even “The system.” Sylvia once said defensively, “Well, you know how to cope with it,” which puffed me up so much at the time I was embarrassed to ask what “it” was and so remained somewhat puzzled. I thought it was something more mysterious than technology.

But now I see that the “it” was mainly, if not entirely, technology. But, that doesn’t sound right either. The “it” is a kind of force that gives rise to technology, something undefined, but inhuman, mechanical, lifeless, a blind monster, a death force. Something hideous they are running from but know they can never escape. I’m putting it way too heavily here but in a less emphatic and less defined way this is what it is. Somewhere there are people who understand it and run it but those are technologists, and they speak an inhuman language when describing what they do. It’s all parts and relationships of unheard-of things that never make any sense no matter how often you hear about them. And their things, their monster keeps eating up land and polluting their air and lakes, and there is no way to strike back at it, and hardly any way to escape it.

That attitude is not hard to come to. You go through a heavy industrial area of a large city and there it all is, the technology. In front of it are high barbed-wire fences, locked gates, signs saying NO TRESPASSING, and beyond, through sooty air, you see ugly strange shapes of metal and brick whose purpose is unknown, and whose masters you will never see. What it’s for you don’t know, and why it’s there, there’s no one to tell, and so all you can feel is alienated, estranged, as though you didn’t belong there. Who owns and understands this doesn’t want you around. All this technology has somehow made you a stranger in your own land. Its very shape and appearance and mysteriousness say, “Get out.” You know there’s an explanation for all this somewhere and what it’s doing undoubtedly serves mankind in some indirect way but that isn’t what you see. What you see is the NO TRESPASSING, KEEP OUT signs and not anything serving people but little people, like ants, serving these strange, incomprehensible shapes. And you think, even if I were a part of this, even if I were not a stranger, I would be just another ant serving the shapes. So the final feeling is hostile, and I think that’s ultimately what’s involved with this otherwise unexplainable attitude of John and Sylvia. Anything to do with valves and shafts and wrenches is a part of that dehumanized world, and they would rather not think about it. They don’t want to get into it.

If this is so, they are not alone. There is no question that they have been following their natural feelings in this and not trying to imitate anyone. But many others are also following their natural feelings and not trying to imitate anyone and the natural feelings of very many people are similar on this matter; so that when you look at them collectively, as journalists do, you get the illusion of a mass movement, an antitechnological mass movement, an entire political antitechnological left emerging, looming up from apparently nowhere, saying, “Stop the technology. Have it somewhere else. Don’t have it here.” It is still restrained by a thin web of logic that points out that without the factories there are no jobs or standard of living. But there are human forces stronger than logic. There always have been, and if they become strong enough in their hatred of technology that web can break.

Cliches and stereotypes such as “beatnik” or “hippie” have been invented for the antitechnologists, the antisystem people, and will continue to be. But one does not convert individuals into mass people with the simple coining of a mass term. John and Sylvia are not mass people and neither are most of the others going their way. It is against being a mass person that they seem to be revolting. And they feel that technology has got a lot to do with the forces that are trying to turn them into mass people and they don’t like it. So far it’s still mostly a passive resistance, flights into the rural areas when they are possible and things like that, but it doesn’t always have to be this passive.

I disagree with them about cycle maintenance, but not because I am out of sympathy with their feelings about technology. I just think that their flight from and hatred of technology is self-defeating. The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission

(or the fissioning core of a nuclear reactor)

as he does at the top of a mountain or in the petals of a flower. To think otherwise is to demean the Buddha… which is to demean oneself.

disastrousWe are facing intertwined climate and energy access challenges to which self-styled visionaries of the 1970s paid no mind, despite the warnings of technologists like Alvin Weinberg.

I wonder how well ideas inspired by a UK coal industry representative – as Mr Lovins’ are – would fly with environmentalists if they were introduced today? Our present challenges are simply on a different scale to technology-averse local movements and unquestioning devotion to a misapprehension of efficiency. The thin web of logic which connects solar panels to the gigantic foreign factories they come from mustn’t break.

Mr Lovins had it backwards then and he has yet to make amends.

We know what we’ll do with it. We’re going to save the day.

 

It’s Not Just About the Jury

These guiding principles feature at the report's beginning. They should be kept firmly in mind when assessing it, and especially when reading the minority report.

These guiding principles feature at the report’s beginning. They should be kept firmly in mind when assessing it.

The Citizen’s Jury tasked with examining a specific aspect of the opportunity identified earlier this year by the South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission presented its report to the state premier on Sunday evening.

The majority of the jury rejected any further investigation of the opportunity, which featured initial estimates of $257 billion in revenue over a 120 project life. Ben Heard at Decarbonise SA promptly provided a summary and, importantly, the minority report from the 30% of jurors who supported further investigation.

In the time since, more disturbing pieces of information have surfaced in addition to what Ben and I described last week. The words of a not insubstantial proportion of the Citizen’s Jury should be reflected on responsibly by anyone who may want to present the report as something conclusive. This is in addition to a greater surrounding context relating to which organisations were able to participate.

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Remember, this was a process to deliberate over a proposal which features interim storage of nuclear waste. As an independent scientific organisation and the operator of Lucas Heights, ANSTO has by far the most experience to share regarding this interim storage process. But consultation was directly blocked by anti-nuclear stakeholders.

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ANSTO’s waste is in there. This should surely be relevant to the question.

The witness selection process allowed Jurors to decide who they wished to hear from. Selection bias has resulted in a bias in the witnesses presented.

This isn’t a complaint by a critical commentator or proponent; it is part of the report itself, requesting a sharp focus on the systemic deficiencies of this process that has produced a result which is the quintessential definition of questionable.

The report is valuable – as a learning experience for the limitations of the Citizen’s Jury process, and a gauge of the highest priorities held by anti-nuclear stakeholders: indigenous consultation and distrust of government. But as a basis for policy, without critical analysis? No. As a reason to halt all investigation of this opportunity, taking the zealous efforts of very concerned stakeholders as the will of the people? It was made to fall short, and we can do so much better.