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.

 

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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 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.

 

 

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.

Comparing Like for Like

Since you’re reading this blog, you’ve almost certainly encountered this claim:

We don’t need nuclear because we can use renewables.

For renewable sources like geothermal and hydroelectric this may apply, since they can provide guaranteed generation around the clock. But the former has been abandoned in Australia and both can meet only a small portion of our future requirement for climate-friendly electricity.

But in truth the claim invariably refers to solar and wind, not all renewables. For a scalable technology like solar power to hypothetically meet such a demand profile, storage is implicitly included, or at least invoked upon inquiry. David Green of Lyon Solar described it well:

If we really want to address the penetration of large-scale renewables – and not just be able to satisfy the market you can connect large-scale batteries onto the grid – you need to be able to demonstrate that power generated from renewables can be dispatched with power from the batteries like base-load power, so it’s not creating problems.

However, the size of Lyon’s projects instead indicate a peak demand role in the power market. The megawatt hour (MWh) capacity of their batteries are too limited to supply constant overnight power (not to mention the unlikely economics of supplying at low overnight prices). So the question still remains, what would that look like, and how would it compare to the modern nuclear energy technology some believe it supercedes?

Simplified capital costs over time

In this thought experiment, we’ll use

By multiplying the number of 50 MW class solar plants to ensure that excess generation above this number equals overnight requirements, an idealised “solar+storage plant” can be modelled. Slightly more than 3 Broken Hill-sized plants would be needed but we’ll assume three for simplicity. Similarly, operational costs are excluded for both technologies.

Thus, we can compare assumed overnight capital costs for a NuScale plant, 60 year design life, and twelve solar+storage plants which would hypothetically match its nameplate capacity. As mentioned in the Finkel Review, the lifespan of lithium ion technology is 10 years so the cost of regular replacement has been factored in, in addition to renewal of the solar panels after 30 years (assumed to be half today’s cost).

When the capabilities of the two technologies are hypothetically levelised in this simplified way, it appears that the specific argument on cost is reversed.

Estimated required land area

The area of Broken Hill solar plant is 140 hectares. Thirty-six such plants will need about 5,000 hectares, only slightly smaller than the area of Sydney Harbour. However they don’t all need to be co-sited.

NuScale’s plant, which is now under formal design and licencing review by the US Nuclear Regulatory Agency, will cover a little over 36 hectares, including its maximum required emergency planning boundary. It can essentially be situated anywhere that would be suitable for an industrial facility, as water is not necessary for operational cooling. Notably, other options may well be available for the 2030 timeframe.

Material requirements levelised by generated energy

The US Department of Energy 2015 Quaternary Technology Review estimated various levelised material requirements for major electricity sources. Additionally, silver and uranium requirements can be authoritatively sourced. Charting these estimates illustrates the difference in amounts of materials needed by solar and nuclear, for the same amount of electricity produced.

This doesn’t include the materials like lithium, graphite and cobalt needed for the batteries, which aren’t a power source. It is assumed that materials needed for iPWR (intergrated pressurised water reactor) type SMRs are sufficiently similar to conventional PWRs.

This thought experiment attempts to match solar energy capability to that of nuclear. It hardly needs to be said that the reverse is a much less valuable exercise. Cyling a collection of SMRs daily between 0% and 100% output (with considerably less in poor weather) makes little sense in many ways, not least of which is the consequence of diminshed emissions abatement in a system still overwhelmingly supplied by coal and gas combustion. The whole benefit of including nuclear energy sources is they represent a drop-in replacement for dispatchable fossil fuel fired generators.

There are also commercial scale examples of battery storage paired with wind farms, such as the facility in Rokkasho, Japan. The particular battery chemistry used – sodium sulphur – was recently evaluated in California with sobering results.

We won’t compare the potential emissions savings since authoritative research puts solar and nuclear both at desirably low factors. However, the extra material intensity of batteries may contribute dramatically to lifecycle emissions, depending largely on their country of manufacture.

Solar plants and battery modules can be installed rapidly. In contrast, a certain first time regulatory cost and lead-time for that nuclear plant is unavoidable. Yet it isn’t necessary to overstate this hurdle. In its submission to the South Autralian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission, Engineers Australia observed that ANSTO’s OPAL research reactor is of similar size but greater complexity than an SMR unit, and concluded:

The OPAL development at Lucas Heights provides an excellent management example for an SMR nuclear power station in South Australia. Extensive international guidance is available from the IAEA to assist in establishing a nuclear power program…

Australia already has a competent and very well managed regulatory regime with staff with wide international experience. Many of the ARPANSA staff have extensive experience in operating nuclear power plants both civil and military. There is no fundamental reason why the ARPANS Act 1998 cannot be amended to include the regulation of nuclear power in Australia.

The results illustrated here should not be taken as any reason not to build solar, especially paired with storage so as to shift generation to meet high demand, like Lyon Solar’s projects. The importance of this was underscored in the Finkel Review.

However, excluding nuclear energy, with its specific supply profile that can’t realitically be emulated by a variable source like solar, is probably unjustifiable on grounds of cost, land use, material intensity or regulatory challenges. This isn’t intended to downplay the regulatory and public education headwinds the technology faces, but rather to emphasise how important it is – considering the results here-in – to face them now and seriously begin the process. As the Engineers Australia submission noted:

The utilisation of a mix of all low emissions electricity generation technologies will be essential to achieve long-term greenhouse gas emissions targets.

What can be more serious than achieving targets that are aggressive as possible with everything available?