Rule of Thumb

All I could invite you to do, Ben, is look at the study we had commissioned called Energy 2029, or the work that Beyond Zero Emissions did, or the Energy REvolution work that Greenpeace did a decade ago, or even the Australian government energy market operator’s own study. We can do 100% renewable energy just as we need to update our views on nuclear power as technology changes and I absolutely agree with that statement.

So suggested Senator Scott Ludlam at 24:12 in a 2013 Triple J radio feature on Pandora’s Promise (which he hadn’t seen).

My friend Ben Heard apparently took this advice so seriously, he’s doing a PhD on it. He presented his results so far at Paris:


The culmination of this work will be no less than the most rigorous and detailed assessment of the feasibility of virtually all majority renewable, nuclear-preclusive energy proposals to date.

While we wait for that, allow me to provide the rule of thumb I use, at least for the Australian context. Here is the Nyngan photovoltaic solar farm in NSW:

Corporate developer AGL is rightfully proud of this 102 megawatt (MW) nameplate plant, and provides some official stats:

  • 230,000 megawatt hours (MWh) annual output (>25% capacity factor)
  • 1.5 year construction
  • 250 hectares
  • $289.4 million price tag (52.6% directly supported by state and federal grants)

Using solar in Australia is sensible. Located at Nyngan, at such large scale, it will provide superior capacity factor and maximise its emissions displacement potential. Plus it’s impressive and popular.

So, when a glossy majority renewable energy study is announced, such as this one Ben will be including from ClimateWorks, we can glance critically at its proposed share of utility solar. With roughly 185,000,000 annual MWh by around 2042, this is the equivalent of 804 Nyngan solar farms. Given the known build time, AGL and other large energy companies would need to have an average of 32 of these commissioned or under construction every year by mid-2041.


The red box denotes approximate share and build expansion period.

Is this plausible, or merely possible? This question runs head-on into the 81,000 Truckers problem. Would the whole lot need to be half-financed by government? Some commentators are adept at steering the focus away from climate change to other concerns like cost or weapons proliferation when the topic is ultra-low emissions nuclear energy – what would the reaction be if even a single one of the roughly equivalent 20 nuclear reactors was 52.6% supported by our taxes? And where the heck has wind energy gone by 2050? Because it would seem unwise not to maximise wind if climate change is really the focus.

Go ahead and test this rule of thumb against each colourful, triumphantly-brandished graph which pops up, and wonder when construction might start on all these solar farms. Don’t forget to consider the number of decades being presented, which, strangely enough, is invariably never sufficient to regulate, licence and construct any nuclear capacity. Figure that out.

And if you ever bump into the Senator, ask him if he ever got around to watching that film. See if he’s updating his views as studiously as he expects Ben to.


One thought on “Rule of Thumb

  1. So when you are about to put in say 8.5% cost of capital into the LCOE calculator change it to 4% since the gubmint pays more than half. Since commercial PV is ‘large’ they also get the LGC subsidy currently about $73 per Mwh or 7.3c per kwh.

    This means AGL has to do a steep late afternoon ramp up (the ‘duck’s neck’) to meet early evening peak demand. The subsidies must be generous enough to cover this. Also daytime power top-up when a cloud bank passes over.

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