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Apr 21, 2010

Time to bust some myths about renewable energy

While climate change deniers and their arguments and tactics have come under scrutiny, renewable energy deniers have so far escaped, writes Mark Diesendorf.


The myths and assumed wisdom around renewable energy and its capabilities have been refuted, time and time again, by renewable energy scientists and engineers, but despite this, incorrect and misleading assertions are repeated, as if repetition of a falsehood somehow makes it true.

And who are the people peddling these inaccuracies? They come mainly from the coal and nuclear industries, electricity generators, other big greenhouse polluters such as the aluminium industry, and the supporters of these industries. And with the exception of some nuclear power proponents, renewable energy deniers are generally also climate change deniers.

If they cannot refute a particular observation by rational argument, they try to cast doubt on the result by introducing irrelevant material. They look for molehills in renewable energy systems and blow them up to mountains. They are masters of the 10% truths: taking a few facts and then spinning them into stories that convey the opposite impression from the logical implications of those facts. They insinuate arguments rather than state them clearly and unambiguously. Then, when questioned incisively about their insinuations, they back off and shift ground.

To follow is an attempt to test some of the claims trotted out by renewable energy deniers while demonstrating their tactics:

Claim 1. Renewable energy cannot provide base-load (24-hour) power.

A detailed refutation, based on a large body of international research carried out over the past 30 years, is given in my article The Base-Load Fallacy.

Very briefly, both bioelectricity, based for example on the combustion of crop and plantation forest residues, concentrated solar thermal power with thermal storage, and geothermal power can be operated as base-load. Wind power from geographically distributed sites, with a little intermittent back-up from gas turbines, can also replace some base-load coal or nuclear. Energy efficiency and solar hot water can reduce the demand for base-load.

Claim 2: Renewable energy cannot provide sufficient power to run an industrial society.

A simple calculation shows that in Australia a square 30km by 30km, filled with solar collectors and installed on marginal land, could provide all of current electricity. Of course, in practice there would be a mix of different renewable electricity sources – wind, sun, biomass, etc – and part of the solar contribution would be installed on existing roofs rather than in the Outback. In the long term, Australia could export vast quantities of solar energy stored as hydrogen, methanol or ammonia.

Similarly, a tiny percentage of US land area could generated all its electricity. Although Europe doesn’t have sufficient land to provide all its projected energy demand from local renewable energy (see Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air), there is now a proposal, backed by major corporations, to feed solar and wind power from North Africa to Europe by underwater transmission lines.

Globally, there is ample renewable energy available for demands projected to 2050 (Sorensen & Meibom, International Journal of Global Energy Issues 13 (1/2/3) 2000, DOI: 10.1504/IJGEI.2000.000869; Jacobson & Delucchi, Scientific American 301 (5): 58–65, November 2009). However, like fossil fuels and uranium, renewable energy is not distributed equitably across the earth and so trade will be necessary, by transmission line, pipeline and ship.

Claim 3: Renewable energy will be too expensive to provide most of our energy.

Only demand reduction from energy efficiency, energy conservation and solar hot water can compete in price with conventional coal power, which is cheap and nasty. In the absence of a carbon price, all low-carbon supply-side alternatives are going to be substantially more expensive than dirty coal power. However, the present costs of wind and bioelectricity from residues are already less that those of new nuclear and the estimated future costs of coal with CCS. The prices of more expensive forms of renewable electricity, solar photovoltaics and concentrated solar thermal, are declining steadily as their markets expand, and are likely to become competitive with nuclear (whose capital cost has been escalating rapidly) by 2020.

It should also be borne in mind that renewable energy and energy efficiency are being implemented together and the economic savings from energy efficiency can pay for a large part of the additional costs of renewable energy, as shown by McKinsey & Co. In contrast, nuclear power and coal with CCS are being promoted on the basis that they will need no reductions in demand growth.

Claim 4: Denmark’s success in generating 20% of its electricity generation from wind power is actually a failure. Much Danish wind power is wasted, because it is not used in Denmark, although it is supported by “crippling subsidies”.

These and other fallacies have been published by a Danish “think tank” called CEPOS (Center for Politiske Studier), funded by fossil fuel interests. The fallacies have been disseminated by many renewable energy deniers, including advocates of the non-existent Integral Fast Reactor.

A detailed refutation has been published by group of 14 Danish energy experts writing on behalf of CEESA (Coherent Energy and Environmental System Analysis). These authors show that:

  • Only about 1% of Danish wind power is exported and so wind power does indeed provide about 20% of Danish electricity consumption. From a market perspective, it is generally electricity from power stations with the highest operating cost that is exported, rather than wind, which has the lowest operating cost.
  • No taxes are recycled to support established wind turbines.
  • The price of Danish residential electricity, excluding taxes and VAT, is only the 10th highest of the 27 EU countries. The high total price of Danish residential electricity is actually the result of high taxes and VAT which are not used to support existing wind power.
  • The price of Danish industrial electricity, excluding taxes and VAT, is actually the 7th lowest of the 27 EU countries.
  • On average Danish electricity consumers pay an additional 0.54 €c/kWh for feed-in tariffs for CO2-free electricity. On the other hand, with its very low operating costs, wind power reduces electricity prices in the Nord Pool market by 0.27 €c/kWh on average. Therefore, the net price impact of wind power is the (0.54 – 0.27) €c/kWh = 0.27 €c/kWh, which is negligible, considering that wind supplies 20% of Danish electricity.

A further exchange of arguments, available for download from the CEESA website, does not change the above refutation of the CEPOS report.  Since Danish wind power has been a great success, it is not surprising that it is a focus for renewable energy deniers.

The above four incorrect and misleading claims show how renewable energy deniers try to undermine the only zero-emission energy supply technologies that can make substantial reductions in CO2 emissions before 2025. Many of these technologies are either commercially available or semi-commercial now. They can be rolled out very quickly, because they are manufactured in small modules in factories.

Globally wind power has been growing at about 25% per year for the past 20 years; in China it has been growing at 100% per year for each of the past five years; in Denmark, the official energy plan will expand wind power from 20% to 50% of Danish electricity by 2025. Such high rates of growth are impossible for coal with CCS and nuclear power stations, which are gigantic construction projects.

*Dr Mark Diesendorf is Deputy Director of the Institute of Environmental Studies at University of New South Wales. He is author of ‘Greenhouse Solutions with Sustainable Energy’ and ‘Climate Action: A campaign manual for greenhouse solutions’.


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63 thoughts on “Time to bust some myths about renewable energy

  1. michael crook

    Thank you, from transition Towns, Sandgate, Queensland.

  2. Meski

    Myth busting, now with caveats and disclaimers. Man, if we could use such caveats and disclaimers for nuclear power, it’d be regarded as 100% safe!

  3. Mark Duffett

    …the present costs of wind and bioelectricity from residues are already less that those of new nuclear…

    Really? That’s not what it says here, where nuclear (including decommissioning costs etc.) is clearly indicated as cheaper than wind. Can Dr Diesendorf explain how the International Energy Agency is wrong, or have I misunderstood?

    Each of these refutations may stand up on their own, though I harbour serious doubts. But the real question is whether the answers to claims 1 and 2 are compatible with the answer to claim 3. None can be validly considered in isolation.

  4. Barry Brook

    For those who wish to educate themselves, systematically, on the realities (pro and con) of renewable energy, a good place to start is the Thinking Critically About Sustainable Energy series. If there are any errors in any of the 9 TCASE posts to date, I’d be happy to hear it:


    Further information, including systems analysis of different energy mixes and CO2 abatement, here (see especially the Peter Lang series of posts):


  5. Roger Clifton

    Storage problems might well be bypassed if off-cycle wind or solar could store excess energy by upgrading biomass, CH2O, to methanol, CH3OH. In that medium-scale scenario, agricultural land could be providing transport fuel for the bush and export to the city. Better for the greenhouse than burning biomass directly for its paltry calorific value.

    However, it would compete with the gas industry’s (CO2 emissive) gas-to-liquids processes. Beware that an apparently green process ends up getting “a little intermittent back-up from gas”, like other renewables.

    It’s a moral for any of us, lest we end up becoming the smile on the face of the tiger.

  6. Barry Brook

    I do wonder where Diesendorf gets his data from. I have read this “in Australia a square 30km by 30km, filled with solar collectors and installed on marginal land, could provide all of current electricity” before but just let it go as clearly impractical. But it is also wrong. Even Desertec said it was 50km x 50km and I thought they were being optimistic about future conversion efficiency. This is mastery of 0% truth.

    The wind cost he refers to does not include grid connection, transmission and firming (standing reserve requirements). He likes to say the firming requirements will be supplied “with a little intermittent back-up from gas turbines” By his own admission in his book, a little is 25% of the wind installed capacity. So 1,000 MW of wind needs 250 MW of gas back-up standing around in case it is needed. But the 1,000 MW of wind power could have been supplied by 300 MW of gas in the first place so we have invested in 1,000 MW of wind to save 50 MW of gas. Sure the gas will not be needed all the time so there will be GHG savings but at considerable cost. Of course the other response is if wind is truly cost competitive why do we need a RET scheme?

    “The prices of more expensive forms of renewable electricity, solar photovoltaics and concentrated solar thermal, are declining steadily as their markets expand, and are likely to become competitive with nuclear (whose capital cost has been escalating rapidly) by 2020.”

    Isn’t that phrase “are likely to become” one of those “misleading assertions [that] are repeated, as if repetition of a falsehood somehow makes it true”?

    The 20% wind energy for Denmark might be formally true, but the deeper question you should be asking is: Has this additional generating capacity actually displaced any baseload coal-fired power stations? I’ll leave you to work out the answer.

  7. John Bennetts

    Mark Disendorf and Barry Brook. Both know their stuff. Both have credentials. Barry’s web presence is well established and well worth monitoring. How about a cage match?

    Closer to reality, I become exasperated when the likes of MD, who really should know better, resorts to dodgy statistics and wishful thinking to support their arguments.

    First: Domestic Solar PV. If it is so cheap and economical, why are the feed-in tarrifs set at 50 or 60 cents (Germany, Australia…) in order for it to compete economically? This represents a huge misallocation of resources because the market spends most of its time at about 4 cents per kWh.

    Second: Nuclear cost, time to construct and safety are factually stated elsewhere. I need not re-state them here, except to say that nuclear as an option is incredibly competitive using existing technologies for mining, power generation and long term management of wastes. Fly Sydney-Brisbane sometime and have a look out the window as you pass over the Hunter Valley if you think that there are no longer term issues relating to coal. My valley has been comprehensively stuffed.

    Third: Solar Thermal. Much as I wish otherwise, I have been unable to find an example of ST power production which actually provides adequate thermal storage for night time running or morning peak loads. 6 hours seems to be about it, ie midnight. Allowing for a bit of thermal heating through of the system in the morning means that there is notjing for the grid till well kinto the morning… unless supported overnight by steam from other sources.

    Barry is absolutely right. If we are, by 2020, to wean ourselves substantially away from brown and black steaming coal, we will need to use every available technology, including nuclear ones, and to concentrate our efforts on achievement rather than dreams of future developments. By all means, use wind, solar thermal, solar PV, wave, geothermal and Gas Turbine. If the goal is to be reached, the hoodoo negativism re nuclear must be set aside.

  8. John Morgan

    Mark refers to those who have critically and quantitatively analysed our possible carbon free energy futures and come to the conclusion, without prejudice, that renewable power generation systems simply can not meet Australia or the world’s energy demands, as “renewable energy deniers”. This is a transparent ploy to associate thoughtful quantitative analysis with the cranks denying climate change. It is an underhanded and rather dishonest tactic, in my opinion, which I doubt will wash with many readers. Its name calling, when the issue demands quantitative analysis and integrity t what the data is saying.

    Far from being ‘myths’, the four problems Mark identifies are real problems, serious problems, with the engineering of a practical renewable generation system. The engineering shortcomings of renewable energy flows and the systems designed to harvest them are glossed over in the various plans proposed to get us to a renewable-only future. The gaps that are glossed over inevitably get plugged with fossil fuels, as in the example Barry Brook gives above.

    We simply cannot commit to a one time infrastructure investment of tens of billions of dollars over decades, only to discover that we’ve wound up with a power system that is still critically dependent on fossil fuels and is a savage greenhouse emitter. That is where renewable energy will take us.

    Fortunately we have a choice. The nuclear power plants China is now punching out by the dozens, quickly and cheaply, are safe, clean, carbon free power. We need them here, now. Or we could follow the Indian model, taking us to a virtually inexhaustible thorium fuel cycle. And Generation IV designs, such as the integral fast reactor or the liquid fluoride thorium reactor, will give more and better options in the future.

    Ideas in science and engineering often seem very unlikely at their genesis. They often need strong willed, determined advocates to see their development through the difficult early development phase. Mark has been this advocate for renewable power, and is to be applauded for his efforts.

    But there also comes a point where its clear the problems are real, they’re not going away, and that its time to let go. Renewable energy is at that point now, and this is becoming clear to people who have an investment in solving the climate (or peak oil problem), but no investment in the technology used to do so. The renewable dream officially died with the failure of Danish and German wind, Spanish solar, Ausra, and other large scale attempts that confirmed the validity of these critiques of renewable systems.

    Mark, its time to stop spoiling our real hopes for a carbon free future – nuclear power.

  9. John Bennetts

    John Morgan – thanks. Well put.

  10. Eponymous

    I still can’t believe that people who care about climate change can still, with a straight face suggest that ‘nuclear is the only way’.

    Central to the concept of caring about climate change is the consequence of Intergenerational Equity; not wanting to stuff things up so that those that come after us have a harder time of it.

    Nuclear power flat out fails on this count. The levellised costing numbers produced by the IEA that Mr Duffet quotes so religiously have a serious methodological flaw; they are based on Net Present Value calculations, and they ‘include decomissioning’.

    NPV calculations are at direct odds with intergenerational eqity. The NPV methodology is based on the fact that money is worth more now than in the future and dinishes future costs compared to holding that money as an investment until then. Using the discount rate that the IEA uses a cost in 30 years of 1 billion dollars becomes just $63m. Make it 60 years and the future decomissioning cost of a nuclear power plant is $3million dollars. Does that sound reasonable to you?

    If cost is so important, I need nuclear advocates to answer 3 questions:
    1. What is the future cost of decomissioning? How can you be certain of this? How many plants have been decomissioned to date?
    2. What is the future cost of long term storage?
    1 and 2 are strongly linked as the radioactive waste from the desomissioning will need to be stored soewhere.
    3. Explain to me how nuclear power can lower greenhouse emissions in the next 10 years; next 20 years. Ziggy Switkowski, nuclear energy fan-boy to the stars doesn’t think 1 plant, thats 1 plant, could be built before 2030. Why is Ziggy wrong?

    Barry; I think it would be more honest if rather than saying ‘the awesome and totally objective Brave New Climate’ you said ‘my website’. Just a thought.

    Further, I’ve looked at your TCASE series and I find it a load of crap and have pointed out flaws in it previously. If you are serious about peer review, I will do a full analysis of all your numbers and state why I disagree with them. Only if you promise to publish my rebuttal on your website. Somewhere where people can see it.

  11. Rohan

    John Morgan – an otherwise excellent assessment of the present situation marred by some poorly established conclusions.

    How is it possible to make statements such as “That is where renewable energy will take us” and “The renewable dream officially died” on the back of a handful of high profile failures, which in any case are partial and not complete failures.

    What makes you so certain that the renewable energy scientists/proponents are incapable of overcoming these problems? Do you have a crystal ball?

  12. Eponymous

    John Morgan, re-read your post and swap renewable with nuclear and vice versa. Many people would make exactly the same statements.

    Also “The nuclear power plants China is now punching out by the dozens, quickly and cheaply, are safe, clean, carbon free power.”

    How do you know they’re safe? How long have they been running safely? Oh they’re still under construction? Hmm, didn’t sound like that from your post.

  13. Roger Clifton

    For my part, I struggle to be patient with people who claim to be concerned for the climate while pushing renewables as a replacement for hydrocarbons and nuclear.

    Which side are these guys on? Harken to Mark Diesendorf as he attacks coal and nuclear, the enemies of gas. Why doesn’t he attack coal and gas, the enemies of the climate?

    The answer is the fine print whenever renewables people speak. It is because all of their scenarios are dependent, as the author says above, on “a little intermittent back-up from gas turbines”. Little?

    Whereas the renewables guys would obstruct any movement away from gas, gas can comfortably ignore the renewables movement as nothing more than a source of loyal cadres. Come on guys, you are riding the tiger. Smile!

  14. Eponymous

    Roger, there are alternatives to gas back up, like energy storage. I have no idea why every article on renewables mentions gas back up.

    It is not necessary.

  15. Mark Duffett

    I’ve looked at your TCASE series and I find it a load of crap

    Oooooh, nasty! I dare you to come here and say that.

  16. Eponymous

    Copied and pasted Mark. Thanks for the heads up.

  17. John Morgan

    Eponymous, thanks, thats great. Thats sure to generate some interesting discussion and I look forward to seeing your analysis of the numbers. It would be great if Mark would also take part in that discussion.

  18. Barry Brook

    Eponymous, I’m not aware that you’ve commented here before – perhaps you did so under a different alias beforehand. You are most welcome to post comments/critics of my calculations and/or assumptions in the relevant TCASE posts.

    Intergenerational equity is already addressed in nuclear power by considering how tiny the waste stream is compared to other energy sources. This is already true with thermal reactors, and absurdly true with fast reactors and LFTRs. Decommissioning is a standard industrial process, albeit with some unique complexities, and there is plenty of experience in doing this, for many research reactors and a fair number of commercial power reactors.

    As to your point about how lower power will lower emissions within the next 10 or 20 years, it will worldwide, and won’t do much if anything for Australia. But what, pray tell, will?

  19. John Morgan

    Eponymous: “How do you know they’re safe?”

    Risk assessment on the AP-100 design provides a maximum frequency of core damage events of ~2.4e-7 per reactor per year, or about one such event per 4 million years. A core damage event is not to be confused with a Chernobyl style meltdown which isn’t possible in any design currently being built. Worst case might be something like Three Mile Island, where no one was hurt or became ill.

    In other words, roughly every 4 million years per reactor, no-one gets hurt.

    Stack that up against the risk of serious climate change where there is the potential to see billions dying. I don’t want to speculate about the megadeaths or timescales of that prospect, but its large, and soon.

  20. Eponymous

    A risk assessment proves that they’re safe?

  21. Eponymous

    Might shift this discussion over to RC? Crikey is a bit flakey for my access at the moment.

  22. Damo

    Wow, Nuclear energy sounds great. We can re-employ all those highly skilled, out of work, insulation installers to build it. May be with some help from the geniuses who worked on the Collins class submarines. I’m sure it wont leak any where as bad as the Burnley Tunnel.

    “Nuclear energy, She’ll be right, its the Aussie way”

    I’ll be moving to NZ.

  23. John Bennetts

    Eponymous, risk assessments are the essential guts of safety analysis. If you don’t understand this concept, I suggest that you do a little reading.

    In a nutshell, risk assessment is the process of identifying ALL of the hazards involved inn a system and then allocating risk scores to them, thus ensuring that nothing has been overlooked. In the real world, such assessments should be revised and reviewed as things proceed, as I am used to doing in projects which take years and many millions of dollars.

    This is an excellent tool which, used wisely, ensures that the lowest risk path to success is followed.

    It is simply foolish to ignore tools such as this, which assist in examination of the pro’s and con’s of competing technologies.

    Please set aside your preconceptions and review the risks associated with the various power generation options – you might be surprised at some of the outcomes. I know that I was, and have changed from anti-nuclear to pro-nuclear as a result… assuming that we all would like the next couple of generations to be able to see our current coastal cities and to be able to turn the lights on.

  24. Mark Duffett

    It would have to be New Zealand, Damo, being just about the only other OECD country with no current plans for nuclear energy. Unless you’re happy to take your chances with the third world.

  25. John Morgan

    Rohan: “What makes you so certain that the renewable energy scientists/proponents are incapable of overcoming these problems?”

    I think the question you need to consider is, what makes you certain that renewable energy proponents are capable of overcoming these problems?

    We need to guarantee a path to a carbon free future. There is not today a renewable generation system on any scale that matters that gives any hope that renewable power can achieve this. There is not today such a system on the drawing board anywhere. There is not today any indication that such a thing can be designed. All renewable systems on any scale that exist today are small penetrations into larger grids that can cover for the fluctuations and outages, and absorb the excess power swings.

    Are you prepared to risk a habitable biosphere on the chance that we will discover a solution that is not known today? I’m not. Especially when there is a well established alternative that is known, today, to work.

    You really need to get a clear handle on the relative risks. You appear to want to accept the very high risk (because of likely failure of renewables) of a very adverse outcome (runaway climate change) in order to avoid the very low risk (of some power plant incident) of a low impact outcome (such as Three Mile Island). Try to get past that.

  26. Eponymous

    John Bennets, I know what a risk assessment is and I’ve done many of them. All I’m saying is that they do not prove anything; they can’t. The future hasn’t happened yet. More accurately a risk assessment should be thought of as a null hypothesis; something to be disproven. So the analysis makes a prediction of the likely odds for some hazard to occur in the future. If that hazard occurs more frequently than the prediction, then the prediction is wrong.

    John Morgan, you are wrong about “There is not today a renewable generation system on any scale that matters that gives any hope that renewable power can achieve this.” Just plain wrong.

    Solar thermal (CST – concentrating ST) and geothermal energy in Australia have the potential to completely power the country. I make no dispute that the numbers involved in delivering this would be large, but to say the technology does not exist is completely false.

    It is not necessarily ‘the grid’ that absorbs the swings in delivery. Site based energy storage is simple for CST and will easily cover the daily peaks till 8 or 10pm. Also, there is 2.5GW of pumped hydro already attached to the grid.

    While the task for renewables is difficult, at least they’re not illegal. You can bark al you like about nuclear being the perfect solution, but the fact remains it will not make a meaningful contribution in Australia until at least 2030. The horse has bolted by then. Like it or not, we’ve got to install the renewables we’ve got and manage the risks as best we can.

  27. John Morgan

    Eponymous: “John Morgan, you are wrong about “There is not today a renewable generation system on any scale that matters that gives any hope that renewable power can achieve this.” Just plain wrong.”

    Name one.

  28. Eponymous

    And the many many GW of CST in Spain.

  29. Mark Duffett

    Geothermal? Gee, Eponymous, I dunno. As you know, though they are beavering away at the problem, I still harbour serious doubts about the longevity and heat exchange efficiency of artificial permeability networks at depths of 4 km plus. I really don’t want us to be putting too many eggs in the geothermal basket.

  30. Roger Clifton

    the fact remains [that nuclear] will not make a meaningful contribution in Australia until at least 2030. The horse has bolted by then.

    I must call you out on that “fact”, Eponymous. It is quite true that gas turbines can be factory manufactured and rolled into place, allowing their salesman and their puppets to proclaim that every other source of energy is too slow.

    In a marvellous feat of brainlessness, some of us accept that we must eliminate carbon by 2100, yet accept the gas salesman’s claim that only gas can do it in time. How do you guys fall for it? It is because the salesman includes the catchphrase for the believers: “only gas and renewables can do it in time”.

    If it wasn’t that so many Australians engage in such woolly thinking, we could be installing a fleet, with each nuclear power station from whoa to go in four years. However, Ziggie’s UMPNER report says that we would take 15 years to finish the first one, mainly because of the time legislators must spend selling the idea to a public which has been largely duped by comments such as yours.

    The climate disasters which we have already paid for and have yet to be delivered are worse than any imaginary disasters painted by the nuclear alarmists. We should have been putting in the alternatives years ago, and should desperately be hastening to do so right now. Instead, we amuse the denialists with our dithering.

  31. Eponymous

    Agreed Mark, it is risky and technically difficult, but it definitely ‘could’ deliver us tonnes of energy. The heat exchange longevity is pretty dark art and will strongly depend on actual measurements, rather than the predictions currently being bandied about. This can only be done with experience.

    But, CST also has the potential.

    On that, way back up the page Barry raised concerns about the 30x30km claim. I agree Barry, sounds wrong to me too. Might be a typo? Keith Lovegrove often mentions 130 x 130km, and after punching some numbers my self, that seems within the ball park.

  32. Eponymous

    Roger, I strongly agree with the thrust of your statement; that in some cases we’ve been sold a lie on time lines. But, advocate or not, you must admit the barriers to nuclear implementation in Australia are absurd.

    The only way to get them in faster would be a dramatic change in either Government or governance. And surely you’re not advocating a dictatorship for the sake of getting nuclear up faster?

    BTW, I don’t accept the gas salesman’s line. I’ve got personal ideas about how to best leverage our gas supplies, but if I told you I’d have to kill you, Top Gun style.

  33. John Morgan

    Eponymous, “Geothermal” is not an answer to the question. Thats facile.

    An answer to the question I asked would be along the lines of, “this particular geothermal installation is powering this particular demand centre, and here are the reasons why it can be scaled up to something approaching the scale of a state or the nation”.

    As Mark says, geothermal is still an idea, with many reservations about the engineering viability and there is not an existing installation that gives confidence that it can work, at scale, into the indefinite future.

  34. Eponymous

    If we’re playing semantics John, your request was for a technology “that gives any hope that renewable power can achieve this”. Hope is clearly a subjective measure, but I have been given hope that geothermal has the capacity to deliver bucketloads of renewable energy.

    It is not ‘an idea’ either. While the exact nature of Australian geothermal installations is still to be determined, there is hot water coming out of the ground; Geodynamics blew the top off a well. Hot water is a good start; the rest is just energy capture, via any number of thoroughly established techniques, such as the Rankine cycle.

    And does the couple of kW geothermal installation at Innaminka count? 😉

    Answering then for CST. There are many MW of solar thermal operating in the Nevada desert, one of the plants, 30 odd MW has been operating since the 80s. Spain have installed a few GW of solar in the last few years also. This gives me hope. Engineering challenges remain.

  35. Meski

    And geothermal isn’t renewable, by definition.

  36. Eponymous

    “And geothermal isn’t renewable, by definition.”

    Not sure I agree with that. For starters, there aren’t many clear definitions of ‘what is renewable energy’; I know this because I’ve been trying to write one and it’s surprisingly slippery.

    The question with geothermal is difficult. The local heat may be exhausted, say at one pair of holes, but the geothermal resource in general will be replenished over time through radiogenics. Does this mean geothermal in general is not renewable or just locally not renewable?

    I’m also not sure if this matters.

  37. Roger Clifton

    Re-: definition of “renewables”.

    Considering that the meaning of a word lies in its useage, a little bit of history might help.

    I believe the word arose from hydroelectricity marketing, where consumers were reassured that the energy supply came from the annual rainfall, which was endlessly renewed. I was taught that in the 1950s.

    After 1973, the public became alarmed that the fuels of oil, coal, and uranium were going to run out by 1980 or so. The belief was exacerbated by the Club of Rome Report, which quoted mining companies’ published reserves as though they were the entirety of the world’s resources. Public interest turned to everything that wouldn’t run out, and raised the profile of hydroelectricity, solar and wind.

    Institutes such as the Solar Energy Research Institute of WA sprang up, but their funding faded away when the public, or at least the funding bodies, realised that coal, oil and uranium were not going to run out any time soon. The twist of words is still used as a scare tactic today, but industry isn’t fooled.

    More recently, there is a Govt definition attached to the MRET legislation, which is remarkably generous, but basically says that renewables is anything that doesn’t commit fossil carbon. It has a long list of examples, but does not include nuclear. It doesn’t exclude it either.

    When professional organisations were invited to comment on the Garnaut reviews, Deloittes included nuclear among the “renewables”, apparently using the meaning anything that doesn’t release fossil carbon. To people concerned primarily about the climate crisis, this would be a legitimate usage of the term.

    To an enthusiast of any technology which purports to reduce carbon emissions, the term “renewables” must include their own technology, such as gas, and must exclude competitors. Apologists for gas, such as Mark Diesendorf, exclude nuclear. Many Australian environmentalists, would want hydroelectricity excluded from the term too.

    In the sense that authority for meaning is the usage of general public, whose main concern is damage to the commons, the most frequent meaning is likely to become any energy source which does not emit fossil carbon.

  38. Eponymous

    Very interesting! Cheers Roger.

    Lots of organisations now don’t count Large Hydro as renewable. I’ve seen the cut off of 25MW or so. 2 concerns, which are linked. The first is that flooding an enormous valley to make electricity is kind of at odds with the goals of renewables. 2nd, flooding this valley leads to enormous tracts of vegetation being anaerobically digested and releasing tonnes of methane. Again, seriously damages the sustainable credentials of a given project.

    I suspect Mark might be with me on this as well; I’m very interested in the tectonic loading/hydrostatic equilibrium of large hydro projects. There’s been some decent earthquakes in China recently; they have also made a 600km long lake recently. Difficult to determine causation, but it is interesting.

  39. John Morgan

    Eponymous – Spanish solar power, ok.

    Spain appears to be on its way to 3 GW of solar power. Thats 3 GW capacity. But the capacity factor is only about 20%. So the actual power delivered is only on average about half a GW.

    Most of this 3 GW is solar photovoltaic, and includes no storage backup. What powers Spain at night time, or on cloudy days? I’ll give you three guesses.

    Worse, Spain paid US$26.4 billion dollars for 2.5 GW of this capacity. Apply the capacity factor, and Spain is purchasing solar electricity for about US$50b per 1 GW. Thats US$50b for a GW of power that won’t be delivered at night time and won’t be delivered on a cloudy day. I shudder to think of the cost if any sort of realistic backup was included. Of course, the backup here is baseload fossil fuel, that cost of the order $1b/GW, and which is sitting burning in spinning reserve even when the sun is shining.

    For reference, the Australian electricity market wants about 25 GW. For further reference, the cost of AP-1000 nuclear plants in china is about $2b/GW now, with cost targets of $1b/GW later in the decade. Thats for continuously reliable power, at capacity factors in excess of 90%, not sunny day only power at 20% capacity.

    The solar power in Spain that does include backup are solar thermal plants. The biggest of these is Andasol 1 rated at 50 MW peak, but 20 MW average. It cost about AUD$500m, or about $25b/GW.

    But its only got 7.5 hours storage. The problem with this is not just that you can’t get continuous 24 hr power. The problem is that, as a generation system, you are going to need to cover a string of cloudy days. Does it ever rain for a week in Spain? I’ll bet it does. But lets say you just want to cover the eventuality of three days. 72 hrs. Thats about ten times the storage requirement of this plant. The plant already cost $25b/GW with just 7.5 hours storage. What do you think the cost would look like with 72 hrs storage, plus the additional generation capacity to energize that storage? How many hundreds of billions of dollars per GW?

    Sure, adding storage is “just” an engineering problem. But you have to consider the cost in any estimate of the feasibility. And the cost of covering renewables with a realistically sufficient quantity of storage is ruinous. It is a technology path that there is no prospect of the world adopting, in toto, to eliminate fossil fuels from our generation system. The lesson of Spanish solar is that this will not happen.

    So I stand by my statement that there is not today a renewable generation system that gives any hope that we can transition to a 100% renewable power system. I repeat, the renewable dream officially died with the failure of Spanish solar, inter alia. And it has failed in a systemic way, that is not likely to be addressed by new technological advances.

    But again, we are fortunate that there is a relatively cheap (~$2b/GW in China, for instance) alternative power source with very high capacity factors that doesn’t require storage, and is proven in service that we can just buy now, should we decide to pull our fingers out.

  40. John Morgan

    I should qualify my last “we can just buy now” comment. I do acknowledge the extended political, regulatory and planning time that would be required before breaking ground on Australia’s first nuclear plant. What I mean is that that the technology is available now, and we could be signing purchase contracts now, for building existing standardized designs in a turnkey manner.

  41. John Bennetts

    OK, we have all been dragged around the block several times on a theme or three.

    1. “Renewable” has become a meaningless term to some, so I suggest that “Carbon free” be adopted instead. Rule out natural gas and gas turbines in general, even as support for transient carbon free sources, such as wind, solar PV, Solar Thermal, waves and tides.

    2. Solar Thermal has been trialled in Spain and the results are now known to be 20+ times more expensive than some other options, and unable to deliver at all after 6 or 8 hours without clear, bright sunlight. Even light cloud rules them out, whereas solar PV might have a residual capacity.

    3. Hot rocks has stymied corporations worth hundreds of millions of dollars and has failed to bring even one full scale trial plant, let alone commercial and costed, plant to the market. I see no short term solution to our carbon woes here, however the distant future may be better.

    4. Wave and tide are also far too expensive and untrialled on full commercial scales. Again, I have hope that these will do some good eventually, but at this stage simply cannot be trusted to deliver.

    5. This leaves, in my mind, only nuclear. This is where risk analyses are essential, if the illogical emotional nay-sayers are to be brought to heel. The risk of continuing harm to the planet’s atmosphere and weather systems, cancer risk (coal is worse?), the risk of uncontrolled cost blowouts, the risk of engineering failure, the risk of blackouts and unavailability to meet demand, the risk of extreme poverty, the risk of extraordinarily high transport costs once air travel loses access to liquid fuels at an affordable price.

    The greatest risks are of famine, war and social upheaval if/when weather and energy systems break down.

    And yet, there are folk who would avoid contemplating nuclear, because the lifetime contribution of spent fuel per western person is less than half a litre of radioactive material which could be dropped into a subduction zone in the ocean or stored in geologically stable formations as glass.

    If you haven’t yet decided to work towards a nuclear solution, including to address the strange legal hurdle which is in place in Australia regarding nuclear options, you are living on unsubstantiated, unsustainable hope.

    If only the world’s and Australia’s Green Parties would support this reasoning – that would be a great leap forward.

    So, thanks to those who have open minds and a clear perspective of the problems and the available solutions.

    To those who disagree with the nuclear options, I ask that they at least stick to their knitting and get out of the way of those who are keen to address the global energy problem by using the only demonstrated viable tools available. Their efforts would be well spent progressing those other technologies which are now only available for peaking loads or part time, yet may sometime assist to reduce dependence on baseload generation. I wish that you were right. I know that you are not likely to be right in the forseeable future.

  42. John Morgan

    Eponymous: “Also, there is 2.5GW of pumped hydro already attached to the grid.”

    That is currently in service, being used to balance demand fluctuations by providing peaking power. Its not available to act as levelling for a putative nation scale rollout of intermittent renewables, which would require much greater power generation capacity than that 2.5 GW.

    Also, how long can you have that 2.5 GW for? 1.5 GW of pumped hydro comes from the Tumut 3 station in the Snowy. T3 can generate 1.5 GW for six hours. It takes 21 hours to pump it back up again. Call it six hours storage a day, being generous. Assume for the sake of argument that all of that 2.5 GW can run for 6 hours.

    As in the Spanish example, this is not enough. For a renewable only power infrastructure, your storage needs to be sized to the longest continuous power outage you can expect. That would be a string of cloudy days, or a string of windless days, or whatever. Say you wanted to cover just 24 hours of 25 GW national demand. That would take 30 times as much pumped hydro as we currently have. How much is this going to cost? And, as above, 24 hours is not enough.

    Where are we going to build all these dams? Do we even have the topographical sites for such a vast system? Are you prepared to suffer that sort of environmental degradation for the sake of avoiding nuclear power? I’m not.

  43. John Morgan

    The term “renewable” is not really useful. The qualities we want in our power generation system are that it should be:

    1) Carbon free
    2) Sustainable
    3) Capable
    4) Otherwise low in environmental impact

    We don’t really have a single term that describes this collection of qualities. The technologies thought of as renewable fail on 1, 3 and 4 (wind and solar have very high environmental impacts). Hydro fails on 4. Coal and gas fail on 1, 2 and 4. Only nuclear ticks all the boxes.

    John Bennet – thanks. Well put.

  44. Barry Brook

    I prefer the term “inexhaustible” rather than “renewable”, when talking about the resource and reserves of a given energy type. Under this definition, nuclear fits nicely, alongside of solar, wind etc., since there is so much available uranium and thorium and accessible reserves are constantly replenished by erosion (about 30, 000 t per year is eroded in the oceans from riverbeds, for instance).

    However, from a systems perspective, the 4 criteria John Morgan describes above are better.

  45. EngineeringReality

    You can’t compare Spain’s experience with solar thermal with Australia’s. They are a small country surrounded by ocean and experiencing lots of bad weather being blown in from the Atlantic.

    Australia is a massive, dry desert and our prospects for solar thermal energy are orders of magnitude better.

    In the interior of Australia we have bugger all clouds – and with a mixture of wind and solar thermal we wouldn’t need to need any other generation capability.

    In Australia we excel at exploiting our natural resources – and that could easily, cheaply and efficiently include harnessing as much energy as we need from the sun.

    What we don’t do well here is quality and attention to detail. We, as a general rule are shoddy, haphazard and lazy.

    Nuclear is a nice sounding idea if you knew how to get rid of waste that remains deadly for longer than we have existed as a species and if we could undertake something of the magnitude and seriousness of a nuclear energy program with the kind of ruthless efficiency of the Germans or Japanese.

    Don’t kid yourself that Australia & Australians are capable of being trusted with nuclear energy.

  46. EngineeringReality

    Also people keep forgetting we need to take a good hard look at ourselves as a society about the energy we use.

    All the arguements here are based on “Oh we need to supply 9,000 MWh each day constantly” without considering that a large part of the energy we use is just waste.

    Look at large shopping centres and lobbies of large buildings. All glass and steel greenhouses as massive amounts of solar radiation pour through the roof heating up the air – neccessitating massive air conditioning units to remove that heat. Then walk past the normally open doors and you can feel the chilled air spilling out into the outside.

    Lights burning constantly in empty rooms.

    Hundreds of cars sit stationary across our cities as their engines burn petrol – because cars haven’t been designed for city commuting in mind.

    A bit of a change to society’s habits and suddenly there would be a lot less energy needed.

    Our scientists and engineers can innovate and invent ways to do almost anything – we just need our leaders to decide the correct way for our society to head.

    Thats whats lacking here.

  47. John Morgan

    “Engineeringreality”: “You can’t compare Spain’s experience with solar thermal with Australia’s.”

    Actually, you can. The differences you list in our weather situation, granting for a moment that they are correct, are all accounted for in the capacity factor.

    The Spanish solar capacity factor is, roughly, 20%, which I used in my thumbnail estimations above. What value do you think I should use to reflect Australian solar capacity? 25%? 30%? Lets be completely outrageous and say 30%.

    Does that change the basic argument? Does it affect the cost I calculated to any degree that matters? Does it affect the storage requirements to any degree that matters?


  48. EngineeringReality

    The sun heats the earth’s surface – constantly.

    We as a species have the current technology to use this heat to generate electricity.

    We can even store the heat to produce electricity when the sun doesn’t shine.

    What don’t you understand about that?

    But somehow you say that we can’t actually produce energy that way. Producing energy from the sun is somehow out of our current grasp? Its too difficult for us to use the sun’s heat?

    However you are saying we need to devote our energies to using a deadly and unstable nuclear reaction. A process that is highly dangerous to life at every step of the process. Mining, refining, generation, transport, storage.

    We don’t have the ability to use the sun’s heat to warm metal and working fluid but we do have the ability to crack atoms and deal with all the nasty radioactive waste products that stay deadly to life for thousands of years?

    If we get our calculations wrong with solar we have to build a few more collectors or storage to compensate.

    If we get nuclear wrong – anywhere – we poison the landscape and the genes of life for years and years to come.

    Gee, hard choice.

  49. John Morgan

    “Engineeringreality”: “Nuclear is a nice sounding idea if you knew how to get rid of waste that remains deadly for longer than we have existed as a species”

    I’m going to quote from a recent comment at Brave New Climate on this point:

    ““Nuclear waste” is a misnomer for an extremely valuable material made up of three components: a) partially used fuel that will be recycled in breeder reactors to generate more fuel in the very process of generating electricity; b) fission products worth billions of dollars, that will be recovered; and c) a small amount of material that has no further use. That material (about 2 pounds, produced from each persons’s lifetime’s worth of electricity), is in the form of a refractory ceramic, clad is stainless zirconium alloy, or other material that is fused into a hard glass. We know from tests with millennia-old glass objects, that even primative glasses are impervious to efforts to leach anything out of them. It is hard to see how this material could ever cause any harm to people or the environment. So, in real world terms, just what is this “nuclear waste problem” that we keep hearing needs to be solved?”

  50. John Morgan

    “What don’t you understand about that?”

    What I don’t understand that is how we can use that heat to generate electricity on the scale and with the quality demanded by our civilization that doesn’t leave a large gap that will be filled by burning fossil fuels. Nor does anyone else.

    “But somehow you say that we can’t actually produce energy that way. Producing energy from the sun is somehow out of our current grasp? Its too difficult for us to use the sun’s heat?”

    Not at all. Of course we can do that. We just can’t do it in a way that will allow us to retire any coal or gas power plants.

    “If we get our calculations wrong with solar we have to build a few more collectors or storage to compensate.”

    These calculations are fairly straightforward, and they indicate building sufficient collectors or storage is, for practical purpose, beyond our capability, and certainly beyond the political will to implement.

    “If we get nuclear wrong – anywhere – we poison the landscape and the genes of life for years and years to come.”

    We’re already doing that. A 1 GW coal plant burns about 11 000 ton of coal a day, which contains about 40 kilo of radioactive uranium and thorium, which goes directly into the environment.

  51. EngineeringReality

    Typical weaselly marketing words – pretending to make something into something its not by using some words to try to disguise something’s reality.

    Nuclear waste is an “extremely valuable material” only if someone needs to use it and it isn’t dangerous.

    Nuclear waste is, initially, a red hot mixture of highly radioactive slag and alloys full of Uranium, Ceasium, Plutonium, Radium, Strontium, Iodine, Thorium etc etc. The isotopes that get produced are random and unable to be controlled by us humans. Yes we can stick a carbon stick down the “nuclear furnace” to change how many neutrons are smashing around in the fuel rods creating this deadly mixture of radioisotopes but don’t think for a minute that humans, in our arrogance, can control or influence the nuclear reaction in any meaningful way. Yes we can start and hopefully stop it – but not much else.

    Only a small fraction of the waste is only useful to you if you 1) own a nuclear reactor or 2) want to kill people with radioactivity.

    Reprocessing it is highly dangerous where you have to mechanically disturb and machine this radioactive spent fuel rod – creating more dust, residue and contaminating more machinery – since it all has to be done robotically behind 6 foot thick glass or at the bottom of a expensive pool of water.

    And of course all of this handling of deadly nuclear material happens at the limits of our ability. The nuclear fuel cycle involves us utilising materials at very high temperatures and pressures and in very corrosive atmospheres. Also high levels of robotic and isolated control and movement of materials all add up to so many ways and system weaknesses for things to go wrong.

    Any sane society would only go near nuclear power if there were no other alternatives. If the nuclear fission reaction was the only way we as a society could generate electricity then the immense risks to be taken could be justified – but with our ability to produce power from the sun and wind and oceans then there is no need to flirt with deadly nuclear fission.

    No proper risk assessment would ever come up with nuclear fission being safer or more acceptable than solar and wind.

  52. John Bennetts

    EngineeringReality has clearly selected a stage name which consists of two words about which he either knows nought or about which he chooses to to be blind. Sorry about the ad-hominem attack, but there is really nowhere else to turn when the target is so far removed from reality and so out of touch with engineering principles.

    Talk about a closed mind!

    And the last graceless contribution, regarding risk assessment, caps it off. It is a good premise, when undertaking RA’s, to park your bias and preconceptions outside the door. They tend to stand in the way of the truth.

    I relatively recently changed my mind regarding the need to at least consider nuclear options as based on their merits and demerits. I believe that this is fair and reasonable.

    ER – your position is neither fair nor reasonable.

  53. John Morgan

    “Engineeringreality” (John Bennetts note the quotes), I don’t follow your first paragraph, but I’m sorry if you are confused by words.

    “Nuclear waste is an “extremely valuable material” only if someone needs to use it and it isn’t dangerous.”

    Of course, many people do need to use it, which accounts for its value. Lots of people have nuclear reactors, such as France, for whom this material is so valuable as to warrant the development of a very expensive reprocessing infrastructure. And many valuable materials are dangerous.

    Reprocessing is indeed highly dangerous and at the same time done safely. This is not a contradiction, its a ubiquity in our lives. Filing your car with petrol, appendectomies, making plastic, woodworking, are all dangerous things that are done safely. As are the industrial processes associated with the nuclear fuel cycle.

    “The nuclear fuel cycle involves us utilising materials at very high temperatures and pressures and in very corrosive atmospheres.”

    So does making margarine. What of it?

    “No proper risk assessment would ever come up with nuclear fission being safer or more acceptable than solar and wind.”

    Actually, any risk assessment that includes climate change comes down very strongly for nuclear and against wind and solar. Just read the comments in this thread.

    “Any sane society would only go near nuclear power if there were no other alternatives.”


  54. EngineeringReality

    @John Morgan

    “Filing your car with petrol, appendectomies, making plastic, woodworking, are all dangerous things”
    How is this comforting in terms of the nuclear industry? How does this help your case for deadly nuclear energy?

    Yes you have listed examples of other dangerous things – but they are dangerous to a different extent. You don’t have to place your car in a radiation proof vault and use robotic arms to refuel while you try to undo the petrol cap through 6 feet of glass. There are numerous petrol spills, numerous plastic factories have caught alight spewing toxic smoke & chemicals into the local area, woodwork of various types is impregnated with arsenic compounds (power poles and children’s playground equipment). People die during surgery. This shows that 1) humans make mistakes and safeguards don’t always work and 2) luckily all these types of incidents aren’t as toxic as radioactive contaminants would be. A petrol spill can be soaked up and the hydrocarbons evaporate and are broken down.

    Iodine & Cesium isotopes can’t be washed away or cleaned up – they sit in the soil or in the environment and radiate for a halflife of 30 years. Anything that eats or absorbs these radioactive atoms will be constantly irradiated from within.

    “So does making margarine. What of it?”
    Well my point is fairly obvious here – if the vessel the margarine is contained in ruptures you don’t have to stop living in the vicinity of the area for decades. We wouldn’t have heard of a town in the Ukraine (Chernobyl) if it was the location of a margarine factory that cracked open a pipe. The workers they sent in to repair the site wouldn’t have all died from margarine exposure…

    Besides margarine doesn’t emit radiation and weaken the strength of its container (not that I am saying margarine is healthy for you – but thats another argument) – so you can’t compare a pressure vessel for making margarine or any type of inert or harmless foodstuff.

    If you knew anything about material science you would know that they don’t have any real answers for materials to make up the pressure vessel of a nuclear reactor. The strongest steels and alloys that are great for withstanding the pressure and heat become brittle from the radiation. And the materials that can withstand the radiation aren’t very good at withstanding the heat and pressure. Thats why no real “Generation IV” reactor has moved anywhere from the drawing board.

    “Any sane society would only go near nuclear power if there were no other alternatives.

    Bingo” Well you’re completely wrong – because nuclear energy isn’t the only alternative. To suggest that nuclear energy is the only alternative and there are no others is the same as telling people now that the earth is flat. That the universe revolves around the earth. Completely wrong. Either that or you’re employed as the PR consultant by a uranium miner.

  55. John Bennetts


    Tell us again – what are the workable, adequate alternatives to nuclear. It’s not only your sanity which is at question here, but that of those who avoid the elephant in the room when it comes to energy policy.

    And please don’t mention those which have been demonstrated in the posts above to be inadequate. Repetition of mistruths does not make them any more reasonable.

    There simply is no alternative. Bingo!, as the man said.

  56. John Morgan

    “Enngineeringreality”, the broad lesson here is that dangerous materials can be safely handled and dangerous processes safely performed if the risks are understood and you engineer around them. The safety record of nuclear power is clear testimony to this.

    “Anything that eats or absorbs these radioactive atoms will be constantly irradiated from within.”

    Then I recommend you do not eat them.

    “If you knew anything about material science you would know that they don’t have any real answers for materials to make up the pressure vessel of a nuclear reactor. ”

    Hundreds of reactors in service says otherwise.

    “And the materials that can withstand the radiation aren’t very good at withstanding the heat and pressure. Thats why no real “Generation IV” reactor has moved anywhere from the drawing board.”

    The Generation IV designs of greatest interest (to me), the Integral Fast Reactor and the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor, don’t have pressure vessels. The reactors are not under pressure. Thats why, aside from their prototypes that saw long service, theres a good chance we’ll see the IFR reactor design built in Russia soon.

    “Well you’re completely wrong – because nuclear energy isn’t the only alternative. ”

    Eponymous said as much above then failed to produce an alternative. So my question on the alternatives to you is (and please read all the comments in this thread before answering):

    Name one.

  57. John Morgan

    I should also mention the Canadian CANDU reactor design as a reactor that doesn’t require a pressure vessel. It has a long service history and has been developed through several generations and could be bought today. This would be a great reactor to consider starting Australia’s nuclear fleet with.

    Its a well developed design, does not have the constraint of a large pressure vessel, can be refueled without shutting down, and can burn a wide range of fuels, including natural (unenriched) uranium, thorium, plutonium and higher actinides from reprocessing.

    The AP1000 (and variants), and the CANDU are great choices, available now, that would allow us to seriously start displacing coal and gas. We need to get on with it.

  58. Eponymous

    Okay then, you’ve convinced me, nuclear may have a part to play. But only in the 2050 scenario. What do you propose we do between now and then? IPCC science tells us we should look to limit emissions sooner rather than later, and in any case Australia has comitted 20% renewables by 2020.

    Supporting nuclear just seems a bit delusional for me. It’s utterly unpalatable to most of the Australian population and requires a change of Federal law. I think the only thing that will change that is a public and obvious failure in renewables, in the next 10 years. If geothermal and solar can prove themselves in that time, nuclear won’t get a look in; the investments will have been made and lessons learnt. But, if they screw it up I think a change in the public perception is far more likely.

  59. John Morgan

    Eponymous, thank you for staying with the discussion and especially for displaying an open mind.

    The timing question is, obviously, very important. Let me start though by setting aside absolute timing for a moment, and just ask, between nuclear and renewables, which would reduce our emissions faster? My contention is that renewable power will not allow us to significantly reduce our emissions at all, for reasons touched on in the comments above. The main reason is that fossil fuels will be needed to cover bother instantaneous fluctuations in generation, and the gap in our ability to engineer longer term storage systems. The carbon intensity of these systems, particular as they stand in spinning reserve, or or work in low efficiency regimes covering fluctuations, means that a renewable power system inevitably is a high emissions system, not much better than a modern and efficient natural gas system. Denmark, with its high wind penetration, has about the highest per capita carbon emissions in Europe.

    On the other hand, a nuclear power plant can displace fossil fuels on a GW for GW basis.

    I also sketched some costs above, for Spanish solar. The renewables systems a vastly more expensive per solid GW than nuclear. Suppose as a society we can afford to invest, say, $1b per year to change over our power generation. If we spend that buying nuclear plants, we will reduce emissions at a much faster rate than investing in renewables. Not only that, nuclear power can take us all the way to a completely clean generation system. Renewables have been tanking out at quite low penetrations since the grids just can’t handle the fluctuations.

    So without considering how fast you could deploy, we are certainly able to say that we can develop clean energy using nuclear much faster than using renewables. Once we get started, that is. Lets park that for a moment and look at build rates.

    For reference, China’s got four AP1000s under construction right now, with another 30 odd planned, and who knows how many after that. Time from first concrete to fuel loading is planned as 50 months, then 6 months for grid connect. By the time Australia gets around to looking at it, costs and build process would be very settled, so we could possibly roll out faster than that. This is not much slower than building a modern supercritical black coal plant.

    So the problem is getting started. The real problems are the ones you point to. It may not be as unpalatable as you imagine – Nielsen in October reported 48% of Australians believe we should consider nuclear, up from 38% in 2002. Possum had a couple of pieces on nuclear polls late last year that I’m sure you could find, that show growing support, particularly in the younger demographics. As the seriousness of climate change and the proximity of peak oil start to dawn on people, I think that there is a new willingness to consider the nuclear option. So I think that the current situation can change.

    The reasons for the general public’s opposition to nuclear is basically, not to mince words, ignorance. The scare story narratives around waste, proliferation and safety do not hold up to examination, but you need to be able to communicate at the level of the physics and the technology to explain why. Its difficult to do this in our sound bite world with a public that may never have taken a physics or chemistry course. But it must be done, and its why I’ve spent thousands of words in this thread trying to do so. Its existentially important.

    And I think the high profile failures have already happened – Danish wind, Spanish solar, the German solar feed in tariff, the failure of any renewable power schemes to shut down fossil fuel plants, or prevent new ones from being built at the same rate they always have been. These are failures – not failures to produce electricity, but failures to stop the burning of fossil fuels.

    The problem is, will we recognize these failures as such? If we see the windmills turning and we can turn our lights on, thats all good, right? But the electricity is coming from the coke ovens. Again, thats why I’m spending some time in this thread to spell it out. We need to see the true situation, soon. That won’t happen for as long as we keep expecting some advance in renewable technology to fix the problems, or believe that the growth in GW of wind generation capacity means we’re displacing fossil fuel plants.

    We need to rapidly start the public discussion to deal with these problems. We need to change the law to permit nuclear power. We need to establish an effective regulatory framework that both ensures safety without creating an unnecessary regulatory burden. We need to provide investors with reasonable confidence their investments in nuclear power will not be politically interfered with down the track, probably by providing the sort of loan guarantees Obama has just done. We need to remove the unecessary impediments to nuclear power in this country.

    This will take time, but its still faster than going renewable. Will be fast enough? I don’t know, but we’d better hope so, because we don’t actually have an alternative.

  60. John Morgan

    Oh, short answer to your question off the top of my head, four years to simultaneously create a regulatory framework, educate the public and build the political case, do site selection and negotiate contracts for four or more units. Then five years construction. We could have significant generation by 2020 or soon after, and more rolling in after that. France took thirty years to go 80% nuclear, decades ago. Theres no reason to imagine we can’t do it faster. Imagine – carbon free in 2040.

  61. John Bennetts

    @John Morgan, 2.33pm:

    Agreed, point by point, 100%.

    My heart aches because we are not attacking this problem as if it was a war – heart and soul, mobilising on a national and international scale.

    OK, get on with renewables, by whatever name, but please, Australia and Gaia, please get off the carbon cycle asap. Use every tool. Every one, but do not rule options such as nuclear out on the basis of popularity polls.

    If ever the world needed wisely to use risk assessments, options studies and innovative engineering, the time is now. So, I speak as an engineer with decades of experience in base load power in Australia (that means black or brown, OK?). I also speak as a father and grandfather, with a genuine fear for the future which the next generations will inherit.

    Even if you have doubts about nuclear or wave power or bottled-fart power or whatever, please devote at least part of your energy to ensuring that the illogical greenhouse denialists are opposed by facts and science.

    On this note I leave this discussion.


  62. John Morgan

    John B, likewise, agreed in all respects. I hope your counsel prevails.

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