The Sweden Metric

Last weekend, Australia’s federal opposition Labor Party confirmed that its target of 50% renewable energy for national electricity supply in 2030 would be sought through an Emissions Intensity Scheme, instead of a legislated RET essentially like the one currently in place.

An EIS, at the very least, has the potential to focus efforts on the core issue: the greenhouse gas intensity of Australia’s energy. (For electricity, this is usually expressed as grams of CO₂-equivalent per kilowatt hour.) At face value, it doesn’t favour one climate-friendly technology over any other. It could be a refreshingly realistic climate policy platform from a major party – and certainly far more hopeful than its previous committment:

The Climate Change Authority has found that for Australia to achieve its bipartisan agreement to limit global warming by less than 2°C, renewable energy will need to comprise at least half of Australia’s electricity generation by 2030.

ClimateWorks Australia has modelled multiple energy scenarios for Australia staying within its carbon budget which is derived from staying within the 2°C target. In each of the modelled scenarios, a minimum of 50 per cent renewable power by 2030 is anticipated. These scenarios maintain the current structure of the Australian economy, economic growth at current levels and only use technology available today.

Through a combination of hydroelectricity and nuclear reactors, Sweden rapidly achieved an average annual emissions intensity of 23 gCO₂e/kWh decades ago (Australia’s was 920 in latest reporting). This has in no way been detrimental to Sweden, which patiently manages the non-carbon by-products in secure engineered facilities. One recent paper has suggested that a switch away from nuclear energy will raise the nation’s emissions intensity.

There’s opposition to nuclear energy in Sweden, just as there is in Australia. Researchers from neighbouring Finland have analysed the gamble being made by these opponents by putting exclusion of nuclear before its proven track record. Oft-repeated objections were understandable once, in pre-internet times, but considering how they’re made by many of today’s most vociferous advocates for climate action, they ring increasingly hollow and ill-informed.

In the meantime, modern “100% renewable energy” literature presents itself as a tempting veneer for national energy policy, with in-built popularity but a dearth of feasibility. As observed in a recent review of this literature:

Policy makers are therefore handicapped regarding the credibility of this literature — there is no empirical basis to understand the evidence behind propositions of 100%-renewable electricity (or energy) for global-, regional- or national-scale scenarios. Consequently, there is a risk that policy formation for climate-change mitigation will be based more on considerations of publicity and popular opinion than on evidence of effectiveness, impacts, or feasibility.

A mid-2030 timeframe for an Australian coal energy exit is realistic for a modern nuclear rollout informed by a historical rollout rate. But it must begin today with a technology-neutral committment to solid policy and the bravery to look objectors dead in the eye as nuclear technology is given its place on the table.



Part 2: Hammerfall

The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn’t have a space program.

~ Larry Niven

In Part 1, I contrasted some of the recent responsible analysis regarding the limitations of exclusively renewables thinking in energy transitions with a Bloomberg article that declared nuclear energy must be excluded on the basis of cost.

The atrocious arithmetic on which the author relied to perpetuate the solar, not nuclear story from a cost perspective was a fundamental, quantifiable error… But I’d like to devote Part 2 to a more personal issue I have with the article: the erroneous references to Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s 1977 novel Lucifer’s Hammer.

To most people it’s probably a casually-noticed pulp novel on the shelf beside Julian May’s Saga of the Pliocene Exiles. Maybe they tried to read it once or twice. To hard SF fans, and Larry Niven fans (like me) in particular, it’s the yard stick by which such films as Armageddon and Deep Impact came up so short – a sprawling, character-driven and scientifically thorough story of the before, during and after of a comet impacting the Earth. I re-read it a year or so back, so the mention by the Bloomberg author was immediately jarring.

I devoured science-fiction novels like “Lucifer’s Hammer,” where a plucky nuclear entrepreneur restarts civilization after a comet almost wipes us out.


The plucky young entrepreneur raising enough money to build his own nuclear plant in “Lucifer’s Hammer” was pure fantasy…

Now, typical of Niven/Pournelle efforts of the time the novel has a plethora of characters, but the discoverer of the comet in the story, the titular hammer, is a wealthy man named Tim Hamner, owner of a successful soap company. His life of leisure is largely devoted to amateur astronomy; this includes operating a private observatory high in the Californian mountains.

This is as close as the novel gets to what the Bloomberg author has misremembered.

The nuclear plant that features heavily only towards the end of the book, after being introduced near the beginning, is the San Joaquin project. It was an actual 4 unit plant planned for California but halted by organised environmentalist pressure.

The story makes a point of its chief engineer, Barry Price, being a dedicated proponent and communicator as he sacrifices and works tirelessly to get the plant built and running. No entrepreneurship involved, but perhaps this was part of the Bloomberg author’s obvious confusion. Tim Hamner himself certainly appreciates nuclear energy, but at one point mistakes the cooling tower steam for polluting smoke, an illustration of a common error by the inattentive.

So, the comet gets closer and closer, then large pieces of it hit on both land and ocean, an epic event that spans several chapters and multiple points of view. The actual process of coastal inundation and abrupt nuclear winter are described in detail as our main characters all struggle to survive in various ways. Through fortunate geography and the presence and foresight of a respected senator, a rural community rapidly organises itself and its defenses against desperate refugees from below and encroaching snow from above, becoming known as the Stronghold. This is the remnant of civilisation which the surviving main characters aim for. Apart from Tim Hamner and his love interest, and the resourceful but flawed Harvey Randall and his friends, it’s the destination of the diabetic astrophysicist Dan Forrester from the Jet Propulsion Labs which tracked the comet.

It’s also the chosen safe haven of the astronauts and cosmonauts who were conducting research as the comet passed/hit. Niven and Pournelle’s narrative makes it abundantly clear that space exploration is their true cause – the nuclear plant is ultimately framed as just a potent resource with which the remnants of civilisation can rebuild such technological capacity far more swiftly.

To leave their readers in no doubt about how the authors regard the alternative in such desperate​ times, the antagonists are nothing less than a horde of cannibals led by an insane preacher, an army deserter and an anti-industry ex-politician. While lacking in all subtlety, it’s internally convincing given the death and rotting of all plant life after weeks of ceaseless rain, combined with the rapid depletion of all remaining accessible foodstuffs.

The moral message at the book’s core is hinted several times but only pronounced plainly after the Stronghold successfully defends itself against an all-out attack by the main force of desperate cannibals, using crude explosives and mustard gas chemically synthesised under the direction of Dan Forrester (in the time he otherwise would have used to isolate the insulin he needed to live): civilisation has the ethics it can afford. This observation affects more than the cannibal prisoners-of-war (keep them as slaves? Execute them and save what they’d eat of the Stronghold’s supplies?), because if civilisation can afford higher ethics, it can accept more refugees and help more of the desperate, it can embrace greater gender participation, and expect better for the generations that follow.

So. We’ll live. Through this winter, and the next one, and the one after that… As peasants! We had a ceremony here today. An award, to the kid who caught the most rats this week. And we can look forward to that for the rest of our lives. To our kids growing up as rat catchers and swineherds. Honorable work. Needed work. Nobody puts it down. But… don’t we want to hope for something better? …And we’re going to keep slaves. Not because we want to. Because we need them. And we used to control the lightning!

~ Colonel Rick Delanty, Astronaut

This comes down to a final choice to make do with what the Stronghold has: relative safety, sufficient manpower, a good chance for many to survive the imminent winter… versus a last-ditch effort to defend the fragile power plant and its century-worth of abundant electricity from the remnant cannibals, who naturally see it as the epitome of unnatural, techno-industrial human hubris. Indeed, even the cannibal leaders share a scene where one briefly suggests sparing it – but not quite recognising that it would be the very means of delivering them from their desperate situation of dietary tyranny, if only their fervent ideological mindset could be shifted toward rationality.

Niven and Pournelle were futurists. Their forthright pro-technology, pro-industry, pro-nuclear narrative won’t be appreciated by everyone. Their characters spend a lot of time drinking, and many of the displayed attitudes are certainly of a past era. But they strived for technical accuracy: the San Joaquin nuclear plant was built by a major Californian utility – as a direct alternative to coal – not some rich idealist. When an author wants to offer a serious contribution, accuracy goes a long way.



Fixing a Power Crisis with a Battery

Mira Loma battery facility, California

Last week the energy products VP of Tesla (supported by CEO Elon Musk) proposed the installation of 100 to 300 megawatt hours (MWh) centralised battery capacity in South Australia, consisting of banks of PowerWall 2 lithium batteries.

Based on figures from SolarQuotes, this represents a rough maximum of 37 to 111 megawatts (MW) of output for about 2 hours and 40 minutes. The amount of MWhs and MWs are very different quantities, routinely confused in commentary and the news; some articles have reported “100 MW”, and GetUp has appropriated the excitement in support of its questionable 100% national renewable energy ambitions:

Elon Musk has pledged to help fix South Australia’s power crisis by installing a 100 megawatt battery system in 100 days, or it’s free!

Exactly how it will fix a state’s power crisis hasn’t been quantified. The example cited in California, the recent Mira Loma facility (20 MW, 80 MWh):

will charge using electricity from the grid during off-peak hours, when demand is low, and then deliver electricity during peak hours to help maintain the reliability and lower SCE’s dependence on natural gas peaker plants.

Expert analysis of the broader Californian battery experience can be read about here.

While the excitement around the news was gripping social media on Friday, South Australian electricity demand looked like this:

The blue line is AEMO 30-minute demand data; the green line annotations simplify the day’s demand into an unseen bottom rectangle of baseload (1,200 MW for 24 hours: 28,800 MWh) and a peaky 7,200 MWh triangle corresponding to the normal daily demand fluctuation. Rooftop PV “behind the meter” consumption is added from APVI data, and is the estimated contribution from about 700 MW of total distributed capacity. The $/MWh price roughly follows this demand curve.

The advantages of battery storage are that it can be installed rapidly (regulations permitting) and can be switched on and off pretty much instantly. Based on the capabilities of a 100 MWh installation in South Australia, and the stated operation of the Californian example, no more than 37 MW could be suddenly supplied over the 2 hour 40 minutes of evening peak, as represented by the red line.

Does this look like it’s fixing a power crisis?

If this proceeds, the manner in which it will help keep state power prices from rising, or even begin to lower them, and how it will relieve the ever-growing reliance on South Australia’s interconnection with Victoria, must be primary considerations. As detailed in the SolarQuotes article, the 30% degradation in battery capacity from only 10 years of use and the limited operational lifespan thereafter needs to be highlighted: no other electricity grid infrastructure is expected to last such a short time. And perhaps most glaringly for many proponents, the potential environmental and social impacts from lithium production in other countries would never be tolerated here. If we’re were instead to pursue an Australian Made battery storage solution to our national power sector’s challenges, many vocal battery supporters need to work out why they prefer one massive foreign-owned hole gouged out of the earth to any other.

Greenbushes open cut lithium mine, Western Australia


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.


Part 2


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.