Atomic Show #234 – Update from South Australia
Ben Heard of Think Climate Consulting and DecarboniseSA.com joined me for a discussion about the nuclear fuel cycle in Australia. In early February, the South Australian government announced the formation of a royal commission to investigate the state’s future role in the nuclear fuel cycle.
As Ben explained, royal commissions are fairly rare and only formed for the most important questions. They are held in high regard and staffed with credible, unbiased members. They often spend a year or more reviewing evidence covering all aspects of the issue or question they have been formed to review. They have the power to gather evidence and take testimony. They are generally trusted to provide a factual basis for in depth discussions.
Ben also described his efforts as a PhD candidate to build functional models that quantify the potential penetration of weather dependent power sources whose output cannot be fully controlled by human beings or automated control systems. We talked at length about his view of the potential benefits of fully developing sources like industrial wind and rooftop PV and the clear need to be more specific about what is included within the “renewable” energy brand.
We spoke about the unrealistic notion that it is possible to devise a power grid that approaches 100% renewable energy; part of his thesis work will be developing models that realistically show what the limitations really are. Neither one of us believe that the number is 50% or greater, but we are not sure how much above 20% it might be. That answer will vary with geography and local weather conditions.
We discussed the habitat and land use impacts of large scale development of power sources like hydroelectric dams, wind turbines and solar panels. We mentioned the recent paper by Barry Brook and Cory Bradshaw that investigated the effects of energy system development on ecology and biodiversity conservation.
Ben will be visiting the US soon; he is scheduled to visit New Mexico and Idaho. He is looking forward to meeting up with some of the people who often read Atomic Insights.
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Rod, I just started listening to this episode but am immediately curious to see/hear the “renewable branding” ACORE mention. What you describes relates almost perfectly to a theme I’d like to pursue, so I’d like to see how useable that moment is.
I got a kick out of that part of the episode. I also got a kick out of the moment a few days ago when Meridith Angwin pointed out that burning garbage also has membership in the set called “renewable” in Vermont.
Clearly “renewable” is an arbitrary set of “energy” sources whose relation doesn’t necessarily extend beyond the arbitrary set itself. Thanks to Vonnegut, we have a name for just such an arbitrary set. “Renewable” is the classic example of a granfaloon more poignant than anything seen before, even that which was set forth by the great Author himself. That “renewable” is taken as a serious set interrelation more so than even Vonnegut’s classic examples, makes the tragic comedy ever so rich. I love it.
Good to hear! Finally some true awakening in Australia!
I hope Ben mentions what might seem the obvious but must be stressed in relating nuclear to the public and that is that Fukushima dispelled the greens’s/anti’s gloom and doom megadeath forecast of any meltdowns 3x beyond “lucky chance”, as if TMI wasn’t enough. I think it’s VITAL that _comparative industrial accident/norm operation public-health/environ-effects_ of all energy sources be put up front FIRST in any public forum or discussion about nuclear energy. Not gibe about reactor types or nuclear plant construction or plant economics or nuts and bolts but nuke’s health/safety RECORD since Stagg Field. Nip the FUD gorilla in the bud to discredit antis off the bat! I say this because of all the press and media I’ve gathered from nuclear town meetings and media interviews this ace card is VERY seldom whipped out from the back pocket of nuclear advocates!
James – in my humble opinion, “Onagawa” is more than foil enough for any Fukushima-centric anti-nuclear argument. Why did this plant survive entirely intact despite being closer to the quake? Why was it a warm, dry refuge for hundreds of local people? Normal people never heard about it four years ago… they can see that in this time Japan is just getting on with things, replanting rice, rebuilding towns… So how can Fukushima be as bad as these particular environmentalists say it was? Then you tell them about Onagawa.
If someone asks what complex technological innovation allowed the plant to survive intact, you can tell them they built it on a hill so it wouldn’t be flooded.
I don’t believe there’s a precise hard limit. I think that there’s a stage around 30% where it starts to become more and more expensive, requiring more and more work around to solve the problems, and the cost of those works around gets less and less affordable.
But I think that if you really, really insist you probably can get to 40% and even a bit above.
For example, Spain and Portugal have been able to reach a higher percentage by implementing a central control point that allows the network operator REE to limit the output of any wind farm in real time, see http://www.windpowermonthly.com/article/1168420/central-monitoring-success-helps-spain
– “In 2002, REE said that wind penetration beyond 12% was impossible at any time without destabilising the electricity system”
– “Using a broadband internet connection,this enables REE to have real-time monitoring of individual wind farms and emergency override control”
– “Spain has around 36GW of fast-response capability to balance these deviations”
Of course if you can export most of the generated energy to your neighbors, the limits become very different.
The returns of renewables begin decreasing immediately; they have fallen by roughly half at the 30% point and by well over half by 35%.
Of course, you could always have an all-renewable grid. It wouldn’t be particularly difficult to use frequency as a signal to have an all-DSM load set, so things would just shut off if there wasn’t enough power. Of course, this would mean that there would be times when almost everything would be shut off, including your lights and refrigerator. If you don’t immediately ask “what’s the point of having a grid if it’s that useless”, you are a Green.
By the way, about that system used in spain the keyword is CECRE, for Control Centre of Renewable Energies, see http://www.ree.es/en/press-office/infographs-and-maps/control-centre-of-renewable-energies-%28cecre%29
But what’s the point in putting as large a percentage of “renewables” on the grid as feasible? You end up paying at least double for the capital costs of electricity generation, so that there’s some capacity available for the times when the “renewables” aren’t available.
Other than as a political payoff to the folks who are farming subsidies and sticking it to the consumers through mandates, it makes no sense at all to put any effort into enabling more “renewables” to be on the grid.
Or has someone refuted the, at least five, studies that show that wind and solar do not reduce CO2 emissions because the inefficiencies of providing fossil backup produce as much CO2 as one would have produced if the same electricity was just produced with more effiicient but less flexible fossil sources.
I speak in the show about:
a) Opinions and positions needing to vary as evidence arises
b) Making decisions based on principles of net benefit and national interest
The above needs to apply to all potential energy sources, and in the case of renewables issues vary dramatically depending on the extent of penetration.
I get it. Keep an open mind. Reconsider conclusions as circumstances change.
I have yet to see a situation in which “renewables” provide any meaningful benefit when installed on a grid which is expected to deliver reliable electricity. Do they lower prices? No, not in the real world. Do they reduce CO2 emissions? No, apparently not. Do they improve grid reliability? The exact opposite of. Do they have some kind of secondary benefit to other valuable sources of generation? No, again, just the opposite. When mandated, they drive reliable generators off of the grid by displacing their generation just enough of the time to make them uneconomical, yet we cannot do without those reliable generators, because wind and solar are inherently unreliable.
Can they be used to meet peak demand? Not in any economically beneficial way, because, again, they can’t be relied upon when needed, so the capital costs of a complete second peaking system must always be spent.
The only benefit seems to be to satisfy people who still have some kind of emotional attachment to the concept of wind and solar electricity generation. And that may be a real political advantage, but it’s likely to be disastrous one, given how quickly CO2 seems to be rising and how limited the resources we have with which to buy a solution.
An evidence-based appraisal of the South Australian situation for your consideration
I read the article, and you raise some good points, but I will require more convincing. Wind and solar are inherently unreliable. Their generation profiles are not smooth and not predictable. We can tolerate some penetration, as you write, because we have enough flexible, reliable, on-demand generation already pre-existing.
As you move toward fully decarbonized generation, where would the flexible on-demand generation come from to compensate for the inherent bounciness of wind and solar? I saw some mention of gas generation. Was that meant to balance wind variability? How will it deal with one week long lulls?
Additionally, I wonder if you have considered the secondary effects. I do not believe that wind is cheap in any sense of the word, when one considers the effect it actually has on the grid.
Wind makes previously existing flexible on-demand generators uneconomical to continue to operate, because it replaces their generation some percentage of the time. Yet, simultaneously, we cannot dispense with those flexible on-demand generators and realize the savings because wind is not on-demand. So wind shifts the costs of its unreliability onto other generators and that cost is never, as far as I can tell, actually accounted to the cost of wind.
As you know, in Germany, their “solution” to this issue is to build wood burning generators, and sadly, also here in Austin, TX, where we’ve seen a 20% increase in electricity prices, during a period of historically low natural gas prices, because the head of our electricity utility continues to commit us to unworkable “renewable” projects. This real-world experience is one reason I find it difficult to believe any “study” that claims that wind energy actually has a net result of being affordable when actually put on a reliable grid.
I think we can agree that in places with lots of hyrdo available to balance wind, wind can be low cost, but those locations are very limited in a global sense.
I appreciate your great work and well reasoned articles. However, and I may be wrong, but I suspect you’re having trouble letting go of an emotional attachment to renewables which just isn’t justified by the engineering realities.
Of course, I may be having trouble accepting renewables, because I have been so irritated by the advocates (other than you) in the past. You make some references to these problems with the wind advocates in your article.
On the subject of renewables in Australia, the following article recently ran in the Sydney Morning Herald:
It seems a bunch of cheaply made solar panels from China are being installed on Aussie rooftops. The panels are failing much earlier than expected.
What makes you think similar panels have not found their way to the US, Germany and other markets that provide generous subsidies that do not change even if the panels installed are made cheaply and have a high failure rate?
@Rod- As a matter of fact, the NY TImes ran a similar article a few years ago, referencing panels installed in California and elsewhere.
Interesting pattern in the article:
quote1: there’s a problem
quote2: there’s a problem
quote3: there’s a problem
quote form Clean Energy Council: There’s no problem. Problem? What problem?
Every chance this is true. Australia took advantage of the recent glut. Time will tell.
You mentioned your dissertation topic “Pathways for Optimal Electricity Generation in SA”, with potential for wider explorations of overall societal energy optimization. Possibly(?) involving “some fairly challenging modeling work”.
This weekend I tripped over a recent report out of the US Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory: Pathways to Deep Decarbonization in the United States, US 2050 Report, aka US Deep Decarbonization Pathways or USDDP. As such things go its a rather modest 100 page pdf; the report was submitted to the United Nations Climate Summit last September, and is available online (along with its Australian companion) at UN’s Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project. In summary:
In a society-wide study, the report investigates three substantially different technology pathways, and in this respect marks a refreshing departure from the usual approach these parts of restricting new generation strictly to renewables, comparing the results with business-as-usual fossil demonstration, and concluding the result “affordable” more-or-less by definition. USDDP investigates the different ramifications of “High Renewables”, “HIgh Nuclear”, “High CCS”, and “Mixed” energy portfolios. The same overall decarbonization target was met by all, and pretty much the same energy efficiency gain of 33% over baseline reference. Standard of living and lifestyle were to be kept at current levels; electricity use was roughly doubled to meet rising population and transitions from fossil fuels.
“High Renewable” consisted of 62.4% wind and 15.5% solar; its 9.6% nuclear essentially maintained present US capacity. “High Nuclear” was 34% wind, 11% solar, and 40% nuclear, roughly quadrupling US nuclear capacity over 35 years. Neither High Renewable nor High Nuclear required CCS, and both generated about 6.6% of gas energy in the form of electrolysed hydrogen, a safe level for distribution and storage in our present natural gas network. “High Renewables” generated an additional 26% of gas energy from synthetic natural gas (SNG) generated during periods of overgeneration of intermittents. Such gas-system energy storage complemented pumped hydro for load balancing in both cases.
Economic Energy Intensity (an inverse of efficiency) decreased from our present (2014) 4.17 MJ/$ down to 1.37 MJ/$ for High Renewables and a comparable 1.32 MJ/$ for High Nuclear. Final Average Electricity rates are also comparable: $160MWh for the baseline Reference, $175/MW for High Nuclear, and $200/MWh for High Renewable, reflecting the higher capital cost of high-penetration intermittent generation: an incremental $70 billion/yr for High Renewables over reference, vs $50 billion/yr for High Nuclear $20 billion for the 40% new and upgraded nuclear plant, $30 billion for the 45% renewables.
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