On broken promises and basic manners

Andrew Sooby writes: Re. “Crikey says: ‘no broken promises’ bites Tony on the arse” (yesterday). If you were to tell me that I’m politically naive, so be it. But I would still not be happy with your somewhat blase attitude to political promise-breaking and hypocrisy. I do not like promise breaking, or hypocrisy, especially from politicians. Who does? Why do they continue to make promises they cannot possibly be sure of keeping even a short time after making them? If they didn’t make ridiculous promises, then there would be no “good reasons” for breaking them. And while I’m about it, I could well have missed a Crikey censure on Abbott’s slobbish ill-manners turning his back on opposition speakers in question time. But in case you haven’t censured him, is that, too, just a “core part of political debate” that we’re supposed to brush off with a shrug?

Bishop is right about nuclear power

Dr Mark Duffett writes: Re. “Nuclear: the power source for innumerates and socialists” (yesterday). Commentators such as Bernard Keane have predictably and quickly raced to knock down any suggestion that Australia might need to broaden its decarbonisation portfolio beyond the current wind and solar orthodoxy. This orthodoxy necessarily requires the concept of baseload demand to be somehow defined out of existence or otherwise negated. But rumours of the death of baseload have been greatly exaggerated. Looking at their fine print invariably reveals truly massive reliance on technologies that are either highly problematic for a whole bunch of reasons (biomass), unproven at scale (concentrating solar thermal, geothermal) or cheating (gas), all of which look very much like baseload-type power sources, says Decarbonise SA.

“One of the inescapable conclusions from the global literature is that the studies serve to reinforce, not undermine, the relevance of baseload … What the ‘baseload myth’ demonstrates is one of the great flaws in our electricity discussions: the belief that demonstrating we could run on renewables-only is equivalent to establishing that we should.”

The key quantity is not cost per kW, but cost per kWh. One little letter, very big difference. The Lazard report cited by Keane states prominently “does not take into account reliability-related considerations (e.g., transmission and back-up generation costs associated with certain Alternative Energy generation technologies)”.  The much-ballyhooed drop in photovoltaic panel costs takes no account of implied battery or other storage costs, which turns out to be critical.  Lazard also assume a lifetime of only 40 years for nuclear reactors; the American Physical Society recently called for their licence periods be double that. This would have a big impact on the levelised cost of energy numbers.

Missing from the Keane analysis is any examination of just what paths will take us to the decarbonisation required, if nuclear is excluded. Even taking the worst case picked (Flamanville), the cost of replacing Australian fossil electricity generation with nuclear comes in at comfortably less than the most optimistic 100%-renewables scenario.

The first production figures for by far the largest example of primary ‘base-load solar’ technology (concentrating solar thermal) are in, and the news is not good. The 392 MW Ivanpah plant is only producing about a quarter of what it was expected to, and other than something about ‘weather’, they don’t really know why:

The technology is manifestly not ready, which means it will never come close to matching France’s nuclear-powered near-total electricity decarbonisation rate (little more than 20 years) in a similar time frame starting now.

This is undoubtedly one of the reasons why engineers from major Ivanpah investor Google tasked with making renewable energy competitive with coal recently announced “Trying to combat climate change exclusively with today’s renewable energy technologies simply won’t work; we need a fundamentally different approach”.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey