With Limited Power Density Comes Unappreciated Responsibility

Federal Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg has called an urgent meeting of federal and state energy ministers aimed at stopping a repeat of this month’s power crisis in South Australia.

Mr Frydenberg said the meeting on August 19 would look at how higher shares of wind and solar energy and new technologies such as batteries can be integrated into the energy mix in a way that keeps energy markets stable and secure.

This is welcome news.

To my thinking you can’t do lower emissions future without thinking about affordable, accessible, reliable. And you can’t have affordable, accessible, reliable without being connected to what our international commitments are to reduce our carbon footprint.”

It is my hope that the meeting will critically examine how these issues mesh together – particularly when it comes to the hyperbole and reality around batteries.

We already have demonstrations, such as the 1.1 megawatt hour (MWh) Alkimos project in Perth which delivered around $6.1 million per MWh. Then we have the estimates of ESCRI-SA for 2 hours at 10 megawatts of similar lithium technology, costing $24.88 million (i.e. $1.244 million per MWh). If actually constructed, could a startling cost reduction of 80% really be expected? Maybe it could happen, but this is beyond any storage cost optimism to date and already hints at an erosion of the fringes of reality.


A bigger battery is essentially just more lithium cells, such as the ubiquitous 18650: for batteries, economies of scale are predominantly achieved at the factory.

Over recent times the cost of battery storage has been halving every 18 to 20 months.

from the ALP’s 50% renewable energy summary.

What I’m driving at is that the ministers need to steer clear of the obvious bullshit. The ALP’s policy page is a golden example. “18 to 20 months”? That’s Moore’s Law for transistor density being blatantly misapplied to electrochemical storage technologies – a sadly common transgression. Believing it anyway is only going to dig us in deeper.

A meaningful starting point would be the ESCRI-SA estimate of installation lifespan: 10 years. I’m certain that the National Electricity Market has never relied on such a short-lived piece of infrastructure before. Energy security and climate action demands multigenerational spans for new clean assets, not rollout rates quickly overlapped with replacement rates.

What staggers me is that policy is allowing renewables to connect to the grid without any real, material obligation on them to manage the intermittent and unstable power they dispatch,” said Mr Green, a former government and private sector adviser on energy [and a partner in Lyon Solar who are planning PV/battery projects].

“The real challenge for governments everywhere is ‘how do you manage these aspirational targets to reduce global [greenhouse gas] emissions and not destabilise the grid or have to spend a lot of money upgrading the grid to cope with the intermittent power?’

South Australia is suffering from the closure of coal-fired power stations that can provide baseload power as well as stability and voltage control, he said.

via Visual Capitalist, Battery Series_Part 2_05

How much battery storage? Even the most vocal proponents don’t specify, but hopefully some prudent estimates will emerge from this ministerial meeting. For now, let’s look at what was recently, desperately needed in the state, which was one week’s operation of the Pelican Point combined cycle plant. It supplied at roughly 160 MW in that time: 7 x 24 x 160 = 26,880 MWh. So the temporary service provided by less than 40% of a gas power station’s capacity is clearly beyond the reach of a storage installation. Even a day’s worth would take billions of dollars in batteries. And this – the prospect of the sort of sustained high prices which could eventually justify such investments – may be the most unappreciated risk South Australia now faces.


The Climate Friendly 100


I have made available this 100 megawatt capacity comparison primer. In it I attempt to provide official numbers and information for three deployable climate-friendly energy technologies, two of which have been adopted and are legal to construct in Australia.

Along with output profiles, costs, etc., some information on the corporations which construct, own and operate these electricity factories is included. Large industrial plants are businesses, notwithstanding much of the surrounding narrative, and businesses need to be profitable and productive. Solar and windfarms, along with nuclear plants, are supplied by some of the largest corporations in the world.

Why choose China’s high temperature gas-cooled reactor? After all, there are myriad small modular reactor designs. This one in particular is distinguished by being close to constructed and operational, with its revolutionary safety profile where loss of heat rejection leads directly to shut down. China intends to export the HTR in the near future.

There’s also a poetry in potentially including such technology in Australia’s future energy mix, since our own reactor research in the 50s and 60s was focused on a gas-cooled pebble bed design.


In prohibiting all nuclear power, Australia’s current regulations forbid even this inherently benign reactor. It’s time for Australia to embrace the future of nuclear and get real on decarbonisation.

Now, I See Them Everywhere

This week has witnessed some good news for Fukushima.

An industrial site in the process of decommissioning.

An industrial site in the process of decommissioning.

High tech scans have revealed that at least one meltdown never left the confinement of its reactor pressure vessel, as Leslie Corrice explains here (archived here):

Finding the re-solidified mass in the bottom head of unit #2 literally dashes the “nobody knows” speculations to ashes. We can be assured that we know where the unit #2 fuel core ended up, at the very least. Further, the unit #2 discovery suggests that unit #3’s corium is also cooled and pooled inside its RPV bottom head.

Lamentably, this grateful revelation has passed by practically unreported.

Similarly, the news that the surrounding ocean is mostly free from radioactive contamination only five years post-accident should be fuel for widespread relief. It received coverage, but not without slanted editorial perpetuation of evacuation concerns, along with a skewed focus on the largest remaining concentrations of isotopes.

How “highly contaminated” is the harbour seafloor nearest to the damaged plant? The study identified the overwhelmingly indicative isotope, cesium-137, as a proportion of kilograms of fish and square metres of sea floor. Levels were astronomical in 2011. But, as correctly reported by the headlines, they’re miniscule now.


What is the risk now? Is there a safe number of these becquerels (Bq)? Could you actually eat enough Fukushima fish to get cancer?

A comprehensive follow-up in 2012 by Nelson Valverde of the 1987 Goiânia incident in Brazil provides some indication, because it specifically involved this isotope. While four of the most highly exposed people succumbed to acute radiation syndrome after handling pure radioactive cesium chloride out of a scrapped medical device, 50 others who suffered a whole body burden of 185,000 becquerels or higher showed no radiation-related illness decades later (a few died in the meantime of unrelated conditions). This absolute level is indicated on the above figure by the small arrow – around an order of magnitude larger than the highest amounts most recently measured in bottom-feeding fish closest to Fukushima Daiichi.

So no, nobody is at risk of eating enough fish from there to get sick. Cesium-137 isn’t one of those substances which accumulates in specific parts of the body. With a biological half-life of 110 days, it’s excreted rapidly. We also know that human cesium contamination isn’t a problem in the region. The trauma and harm has an altogether different cause.

I never saw the actual results of misinformation until I moved to Fukushima. Now, I see them everywhere.

Fukushima still suffers, just not from radiation, as Claire Leppold of the University of Edinbugh sadly observed while completing her masters in a Fukushima hospital.

Residents are uncertain of their future, the news media continues to sensationalise… and the anti-nuclear campaign looks like it will never, ever relent. The Fukushima accident was, after all, exactly what they had been waiting for.


From the Conference for a Nuclear Free 90s, attended by Greenpeace amoung others

But there’s been no poisoned ocean or uninhabitable wasteland or cancer epidemics. The legacy of everyone who, even now, persists in this mythology will be in the form of the true disaster: the real health and environmental costs of the firm fossil fueled energy required in the absence of nuclear. And constantly asserting that wind and solar should be built to replace it all – as groups such as Greenpeace do (by any means necessary) – effectively prolongs the harm.

If nuclear power was an enemy of renewables, the ‘pro-nuclear’ plans would have less wind, solar and biomass. However, in the pre-Fukushima plans, renewables in… Japan would grow 2.7 times between 2010 and 2030. This is especially remarkable in Japan, with its planned spectacular nuclear growth. In the post-Fukushima plans and scenarios they grow even more: by 3.1-3.3 times, which does not, however, compensate for the dramatic cut in nuclear power. What does then?


Nuclear, coal, and renewables (*excluding hydro) in electricity production in Japan

The answer is: coal. In the pre-Fukushima scenarios, coal-based electricity declines 2.6-2.7 times, but in the post-Fukushima plans and scenarios, it only goes down 7-10%.


Energy Plan Lite

The future energy scenarios from Stanford’s Mark Z. Jacobson don’t get much air in Australia. Maybe it’s because similar “plans” seem to be released here every other month, but whatever the reason this article is intended to show why it’s no great loss.

Jacobson markets his scenarios as “WWS” – Wind, Water and Sun. This work has recently been publicised as a collection of 100% renewable energy summaries called the Solutions Project. The scenario for Finland has been criticised here, and for Canada here.

Here is the summary for Australia.


Australia’s a bright sunny country. It makes sense to seriously consider how much national demand can be met by solar energy. But is a total of 53.7% serious? And 53.7% of exactly how much demand?

The Solutions Project summary gives us optimistic job numbers and cash-back offers but no clue about the total amoint of energy we are to consume in 2050, apart from it being 48% lower than “business-as-usual”. We actually have to find Mark Jacobson’s official spreadsheets to see that this is 796 terawatt hours per year.

(It is my opinion that campaigners like Jacobson exploit the fact that normal people don’t know or really care what a terawatt hour is or why it is convenient for considering energy scenarios. But conversely, how to effectively explain it? Defining it as a billion kilowatt hours is little help since nobody can imagine a billion of anything. And then there’s the conversion to petajoules. We’re not all wonks, nor should we be.)


Fortunately, when numbers like Jacobson’s are considerably different to official data, the problem speaks for itself. And they are: the Office of the Chief Economist projects mid-century Australian electricity demand at 332 TWh. However, Jacobson’s big ticket item is the increased efficiency of doing away with transforming heat into electricity (which typically loses 2/3 of the energy) like in conventional power plants, because solar panels, wind farms and hydro, etc, make electricity more directly. Accounting for this, official Australian projections are 8,541 PJ (or 2,372 TWh for comparison) in 2049-50. Jacobson’s 796 TWh is clearly much less than half of this, which gives us our first indication that even his starting assumption is way off.

Maybe less is even better? Let’s look at the immediate implications. 796 TWh still over triple the annual electricity demand of 2014-15 (255 TWh). That means a lot of power generating plant needs to be built. How much? To illustrate with just the proposed share of utility solar (32.9%, which equals roughly 262 TWh) and Australia’s biggest solar farm in Nyngan which generates 0.23 TWh annually, the rule of thumb demands 1,137 Nyngan-sized solar farms in service for 2050. Apart from the challenges of, e.g. siting and transporting all the necessary material to construct 35 of these every year starting now, such solar farms have an expected lifetime of 30 years. By year 34 we’d be well into also replacing every farm from the first decade.

If Jacobson’s energy efficient scenario was actually based on Australia’s real, official, publicly available estimates, it would mean a new Nyngan solar farm being started every week. Two, when they start wearing out.

There’s a point where arguing for the political will to achieve this is eclipsed by comprehension of reality. We’re way past it here. But, fortunately, there is already a clean energy technology which has been historically built at such a rate.

Australia only consumes a third of the energy we produce, and our exports – mostly coal – make up the rest. Jacobson’s scenarios universally seek to rapidly replace nuclear energy despite the unambiguously low carbon intensity across its entire lifecycle, and this would include the uranium we export. But we’ll not significantly export our sunlight (if at all), or store wind energy and send it overseas. Those petajoules are big, and every 200 tonnes of uranium concentrate Australia sends away is roughly thirty nuclear reactors fueled for a year, emissions-free. We should send more, not less.

If Jacobson’s, or other exclusive renewable energy scenarios actually held climate action as the priority, mightn’t they find room for this? If Australia wants to get serious on climate, shouldn’t we look at using this ourselves?