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?