Speeding Up the Roadmap

*only these, but absolutely loads of them

Energy Networks Australia and the CSIRO have released the final version of their roadmap for transforming Australia’s energy supply, to the usual fanfare that these things receive. If you’re not keeping close track, yes it’s different to the efforts from ClimateWorks and from GetUp, amoung various others. Why do there need to be so many anyway?

Anyway, the headline chart illustrates the phase out of coal, then gas, with build up of solar and wind to simply supply all of the terawatt hours we’ll need in 2050 (a terrawatt hour, TWh, is a billion kilowatt hours). Well it certainly looks simple, and at the very least we can seperate out the wedges of renewable energy and take a closer, more critical look.

Analysed the old fashion way: pixels to TWhs.

Large solar PV

In other words, solar farms like the 102 megawatt (MW) Nyngan plant in NSW, which apparently generates about 230 million kWh per year. Judging by the shape of the dark blue wedge, enough of these need to be built by around 2035 to supply 45.6 billion kWh in that year. So that’s roughly 198 farms of that size. We already have Nyngan and a couple of other large solar farms which add up to at least the same output, so make it 196 solar farms in 18 years, or just about 11 per year. Starting now. Then, towards the end of the 2040s, we’ll need to roll our sleeves up again and start replacing these farms as they reach the ends of their expected service lives.

Wind onshore

Again, at around the 2035 mark the light blue share of wind energy is set to begin expanding fast. How fast? To about 183.3 billion kWh through 2050, supplied by the equivalent of 172 windfarms the size of the 420 MW MacArthur wind farm in Victoria (Australia’s largest) at the national annual capacity factor for wind. With 15 years left to build them, we’ll need the equivalent of eleven and a half per year. This is well over 10 times faster than wind has been built in the last decade. Perhaps we can count some of Australia’s existing windfarms at the start of this period, but the fact is most of them will be reaching or passing the end of their rated lifespans in 2035.

Rooftop PV

By the Australian Photovoltaic Institute‘s upper estimate, there was a total national installed rooftop solar capacity of 5,968.341 MW in March this year. Ignoring the need for replacement by 2050 (let’s face it, nobody’s thinking about that anyway) and at the normal 15% annual capacity factor for Aussie rooftops, this is set to grow to 90,650 megawatts (to account for an annual 119.1 billion kWh supply) within 33 years, representing a monthly addition rate of close to 415.5 MW (it’s presently a bit over 60 MW/month) which would look like this:

The arrow indicates today, when we need to start adding rooftop solar capacity almost three and a half times faster than we have in the last year. And not stop for 33 years. Data: APVI

The APVI also keeps track of the current proportion of Australian dwellings with rooftop solar by state. Simply scaling up these figures to roughly 100% for each state (i.e. tripling Queensland and South Australia, up to 10x for Tasmania and so on) yields 25,857 MW. That’s allAustralian rooftops with solar. Obviously we either need more houses or much bigger rooftop systems (probably both), however the CSIRO/ENA’s document is specific about assuming no further subsidies to incentivise addition, so all else being equal it’s not obvious why an individual household would install any more than the kW capacity that covers its own needs.

Two issues are left entirely unaddressed by the headline chart:

  1. A kWh of solar or wind doesn’t serve the same sort of demand as a “conventional” kWh, say from a gas power plant. The hundreds of billions of renewable kWhs appear to more than cover for coal and gas in 2050 at an annual timescale, but week-to-week, day-to-day supply is a different matter. Something more is obviously required when the weather won’t oblige.
  2. Storage of energy is the obvious solution on paper, and CSIRO/ENA foresee a plausible national capacity of 87 million kWh of batteries in 2050. Consider this figure against the 52,000 kWh installed in 2016, and the limited lifespan of these devices (even hoping for 15 years, this would require 5,800,000 kWh worth of battery capacity installed annually till 2050). This is precisely the approach critiqued in the recent review of 100% renewable energy scenarios by Heard and co-workers:

A common assumption is that advances in storage technologies will resolve issues of reliability both at sub-hourly timescales and in situations of low availability of renewable resources that can occur seasonally.

Battery storage is undeniably wrapped in buoyant optimism these days, even though recent large scale operational experience in California points to serious limitations. Additionally, the issue of lifecycle (generally only 10 years for lithium ion) emissions is almost universely neglected in “net zero carbon” scenarios which rely on battery storage. And ultimately, as recently stated by no less than Lazard:

Even though alternative energy is increasingly cost-competitive and storage technology holds great promise, alternative energy systems alone will not be capable of meeting the baseload generation needs of a developed economy for the foreseeable future. Therefore, the optimal solution for many regions of the world is to use complementary traditional and alternative energy resources in a diversified generation fleet.

To be entirely fair to the authors, the document contains some useful assumptions about future energy usage in Australia. It’s certainly worth a flick through. And they do try to account for the required build rate, however it isn’t quite as clear as starting a major new solar farm or wind farm virtually every month for the next three decades, and beyond, like I’ve elucidated here.

Is the future of 2050 sufficiently far from foreseeable? How close do we get before we critically and honestly examine our progress, or lack thereof, and potentially reconsider other energy resources we initially chose to exclude? And how ambitious is 2050 anyway – when including all low carbon resources now may well significantly speed things up, if history is any guide?


The Survey Says

I want to preface this article by reiterating that unambiguous call from no less than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for the dramatic and inclusive expansion of all zero- and low-carbon energy technologies

which was released in April 2014. This’ll be important later.

This chart visualises the results of surveys conducted in Australia on attitudes to nuclear energy as a tool for climate action, before and after the Fukushima nuclear accident.

The open access paper contains valuable context and discussion. It’s worth a read, even though its framing is arguably simplistic: renewable energy is once again the alternative to nuclear energy, and the actual term “renewables” is never expanded. Renewables: solar, wind, geothermal… are biomass and hydroelectric included in this context? The wording of the survey question, revealed in the supplementary data, includes only solar and wind, a tendency that has lately been described as a “subtle form of miscommunication” which will arguably do little to help the climate cause.

However, I see three main questions raised by this research, going forward. First is to do with the fact that it was published several months before the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report was released. Working Group 3 identified nuclear energy, alongside renewables (all of them) and fossil fuels with CCS as essential energy sources requiring marked expansion. What would be the result of a survey of support for nuclear energy, in the context of climate change, which included a primer on the IPCC’s view regarding its necessity?

Second, we have since had no less than a royal commission into the nuclear fuel cycle in South Australia. While limited in some aspects mainly by time, the royal commission welcomed and heard from the full spectrum of stakeholders, from peak professional engineering bodies to groups and individuals who make no secret of distrusting and rejecting all authoritative knowledge to do with nuclear science. This included the persistent objection regarding the full lifecycle carbon emissions of nuclear power plants, which were concluded to be as low as that of wind by the royal commission.

I recommend reading the royal commission’s full conclusions. What would survey results look like after considering them? The closest we can get is the self-selected 2016 “Your state, your say” Sunday Mail poll.

Again, self-selected, so of arguable value. But I would argue that ardent, social media-connected nuclear opponents are overly represented here (if anyone is) thanks to the sorts of efforts made by their thought-leaders in South Australia at the time. (Readers of my blog know I was a vocal supporter of the inqury process, living in that state at the time, but I didn’t see this poll shared in any pro-nuclear discussions or even hear about it till it was finished). However, that is only my opinion.

Recent polling shows high support for the South Australian government’s current bold plans for state energy security. This wasn’t framed with a nuclear alternative, nor were the climate-related issues of reliance on natural gas, or the lifecycle emissions of batteries addressed, which isn’t a criticism but more to highlight how returning the issue back to aggressive decarbonisation to save a habitable climate quickly makes it far more complicated than a popularity contest.

Lastly, much more time has now passed since the Fukushima accident, and insistent, dire predictions of doom are now largely the domain of conspiracy theorists. You can read about the harm of the over-reaction here, how nobody will die from radiation here, and how the Japanese prefecture is recovering here.

In all the consultation by the royal commission, nobody suggested somehow procuring antique 1960’s boiling water reactors to install in South Australia (let alone Soviet-era RBMKs, the design at Chernobyl). Yet, safety worries about nuclear technology invariably boiled down to pointing at such old designs, when it’s the modern, modular designs that have obviated the old risks which realistically need to be considered in Australia’s future decarbonised energy mix. Just like consideration and redesign after airline accidents make travelling by plane even safer today, modern nuclear has improved dramatically. What would survey results look like if this simple bit of obvious-when-you-think-about-it context was included?

I’d like to see the answers to these questions, but I’d like to see better education and collaboration on clean energy more, and even more importantly an inclusive, historically-guided and innovation-focused response to the need to expand energy production while also decarbonising its fuel sources. I hope there are a lot of yes votes for that.


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