The Lightbulb Moment

goodwp.com-17064xHere’s something I might not have made clear yet: I wanted Germany to succeed. I sincerely did. Despite the poor rationale for mandating an accelerated nuclear energy phaseout, and my maturing grasp of energy policy matters, I maintained hope that each year would somehow see dramatically falling emissions as more wind and solar capacity was added.

Because this would demonstrate that popular “new” energy technologies can potentially deliver as promised so long as “we have the political will“. This would simplify the climate change challenge. There is immense support for wind and solar. I’d lament the early closure of nuclear plants, but emissions would be falling.

Except they’re not, really. It’s just not as simple as swapping between clean energy options.

CULBboVUkAE4lU3

As it turns out, that’s never really been the priority anyway:

german-energiewende

But despite infrequent yet celebratory headlines, wind and solar are still small fractions of Germany’s annual generation. If more is added, surely we’ll see *some* emissions reductions?

PV

German solar has clearly reached the crest of its growth logistic curve.

wind

Wind’s contribution up to 2014 is vaguely linear. It’s easy to assume expansion could continue for years to come… but will it? No less a personage than the president of the German Wind Energy Association is worried. 2015 featured a relatively dramatic increase in higher capacity offshore wind production. Integrating offshore wind is not straightforward, and targets for offshore wind have been cut by a third.

PVwindCAP

And more wind will not overcome its inherent limitation, quantified as its roughly 7% capacity credit, an intrinsically low threshold above which dispatchable “backup” capacity cannot be withdrawn.

combustion

The share of generation combustion has remained constant, especially if biomass is included, which it probably should be. After all, if projected reforestation can be invoked to neutralise the greenhouse gas emissions of biomass, why not extend such methodology to, say, natural gas (which doesn’t require any logging to start with)?

So with stalled growth in solar and potentially limited future wind addition, what will be “replacing” Germany’s remaining nuclear capacity, let alone the far, far more polluting and deadly coal? More importantly for the world, will Germany be open to changing its approach if the so-far glacial rate of decarbonisation of the 4th largest economy can’t somehow be promptly accelerated?

Because they have all they need with which to do so. With enough capital and good management – let alone the sorts of policies which reward other technologies for not being fossil fueled – the closed but still-operable reactors could be recommissioned. That’s a total of 9611 megawatts. Let’s guess this could be done with focused German efficiency in two years. At the annual capacity factor derived from 2014 performance (87%) this would provide an additional 73.25 terawatt hours (TWh) in 2018, and with urgent climate action firmly in mind it would entirely displace more than half the current lignite combustion and its associated carbon dioxide emissions intensity of 1,153,000 tons per TWh.

2018sanity

Approximate projected 2018 German mix, sans Energiewende

That’s well over 84 million tons annually, by just switching back on the existing reactors.

That’s halfway to the 2020 target, without needing to build a single new power station or transmission link.

There would be costs. The reactors may need to operate more flexibly. To their owners, this would undoubtedly be preferable to being arbitrarily forced to shut them. Several may have less than a decade of licenceable life remaining. In the meantime, Germany should enter the global race towards debuting the next generation of designs, the sort which mitigate the accidents that have fueled such dread. There’s even an elegantly simple homegrown molten salt reactor which has been awaiting its chance.

Sure, I’m just one blogger opposing the vast weight of German opinion. I admit I could be way off or entirely wrong. And it seems ultimately impossible, considering the effective revocation of nuclear energy’s social licence in 2011 beneath overwhelming political activism. Yet the environmental consequences of the Fukushima Daiichi accident bear no resemblance to the apocalypse invoked and perpetuated by anti-nuclear organisations. Despite a triple meltdown less than five years ago, the majority of land has been resettled to some extent; fish and food are edible; even high school students are providing independent data on how little contamination exists. The meticulous process of restarting Japanese reactors continues. Who granted the European nuclear rejectors their assumed social licence to maintain a false narrative of baseless fear?

CWczkfSU4AAPAJW

CWvFOl8XAAAnqT6Please, Germany. Activism continues to celebrate the promise of “100% renewable energy” at-some-point-in-the-future, but it no longer holds you up as the shining example. In the 15 years the Energiewende has taken to show us how unlikely success will ever be, Ontario in Canada has completely exited coal by – you guessed it – restarting nuclear reactors! With rock bottom emissions intensity, Ontario is now the modern model of regional decarbonisation for everyone who doesn’t hate nuclear energy.

Please. You don’t have to love nuclear energy, Germany. Just try to love a habitable climate, better health and unscarred land more.

garzweiler

Civilian nuclear energy has never caused anything like this.

Update: It turns out that 2015 sadly saw a 0.9% rise in German energy emissions.

Rule of Thumb

All I could invite you to do, Ben, is look at the study we had commissioned called Energy 2029, or the work that Beyond Zero Emissions did, or the Energy REvolution work that Greenpeace did a decade ago, or even the Australian government energy market operator’s own study. We can do 100% renewable energy just as we need to update our views on nuclear power as technology changes and I absolutely agree with that statement.

So suggested Senator Scott Ludlam at 24:12 in a 2013 Triple J radio feature on Pandora’s Promise (which he hadn’t seen).

My friend Ben Heard apparently took this advice so seriously, he’s doing a PhD on it. He presented his results so far at Paris:

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

The culmination of this work will be no less than the most rigorous and detailed assessment of the feasibility of virtually all majority renewable, nuclear-preclusive energy proposals to date.

While we wait for that, allow me to provide the rule of thumb I use, at least for the Australian context. Here is the Nyngan photovoltaic solar farm in NSW:

Corporate developer AGL is rightfully proud of this 102 megawatt (MW) nameplate plant, and provides some official stats:

  • 230,000 megawatt hours (MWh) annual output (>25% capacity factor)
  • 1.5 year construction
  • 250 hectares
  • $289.4 million price tag (52.6% directly supported by state and federal grants)

Using solar in Australia is sensible. Located at Nyngan, at such large scale, it will provide superior capacity factor and maximise its emissions displacement potential. Plus it’s impressive and popular.

So, when a glossy majority renewable energy study is announced, such as this one Ben will be including from ClimateWorks, we can glance critically at its proposed share of utility solar. With roughly 185,000,000 annual MWh by around 2042, this is the equivalent of 804 Nyngan solar farms. Given the known build time, AGL and other large energy companies would need to have an average of 32 of these commissioned or under construction every year by mid-2041.

ddpp-au-nyngan

The red box denotes approximate share and build expansion period.

Is this plausible, or merely possible? This question runs head-on into the 81,000 Truckers problem. Would the whole lot need to be half-financed by government? Some commentators are adept at steering the focus away from climate change to other concerns like cost or weapons proliferation when the topic is ultra-low emissions nuclear energy – what would the reaction be if even a single one of the roughly equivalent 20 nuclear reactors was 52.6% supported by our taxes? And where the heck has wind energy gone by 2050? Because it would seem unwise not to maximise wind if climate change is really the focus.

Go ahead and test this rule of thumb against each colourful, triumphantly-brandished graph which pops up, and wonder when construction might start on all these solar farms. Don’t forget to consider the number of decades being presented, which, strangely enough, is invariably never sufficient to regulate, licence and construct any nuclear capacity. Figure that out.

And if you ever bump into the Senator, ask him if he ever got around to watching that film. See if he’s updating his views as studiously as he expects Ben to.

Everyone knows now.

Just briefly, since it’s really hot here in SA right now…

20151206demand

Baseload and air conditioning demand currently being met by coal (21%), gas (56%), wind (8%) and solar (15%).

Greenpeace knows only one song: nuclear waste is disastrously risky.

Its discordant verses rely entirely on allusions and exaggerations to let their malinformed adherents invent the worst case scenarios in their own minds. If there were a single case of routine shipment and storage of processed nuclear waste from civilian reactors harming anyone anywhere, wouldn’t it be their title and chorus?

Coming as no surprise to everyone else:

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

As if an atonal final chord was needed, on the same day that we see this record low turnout to protest everything nuclear, witness the latest natural gas explosion at the Anadarko plant in Texas. Fortunately no one was killed this time, but whatever, it’s not nuclear, right?