Part 2: Hammerfall

The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn’t have a space program.

~ Larry Niven

In Part 1, I contrasted some of the recent responsible analysis regarding the limitations of exclusively renewables thinking in energy transitions with a Bloomberg article that declared nuclear energy must be excluded on the basis of cost.

The atrocious arithmetic on which the author relied to perpetuate the solar, not nuclear story from a cost perspective was a fundamental, quantifiable error… But I’d like to devote Part 2 to a more personal issue I have with the article: the erroneous references to Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s 1977 novel Lucifer’s Hammer.

To most people it’s probably a casually-noticed pulp novel on the shelf beside Julian May’s Saga of the Pliocene Exiles. Maybe they tried to read it once or twice. To hard SF fans, and Larry Niven fans (like me) in particular, it’s the yard stick by which such films as Armageddon and Deep Impact came up so short – a sprawling, character-driven and scientifically thorough story of the before, during and after of a comet impacting the Earth. I re-read it a year or so back, so the mention by the Bloomberg author was immediately jarring.

I devoured science-fiction novels like “Lucifer’s Hammer,” where a plucky nuclear entrepreneur restarts civilization after a comet almost wipes us out.


The plucky young entrepreneur raising enough money to build his own nuclear plant in “Lucifer’s Hammer” was pure fantasy…

Now, typical of Niven/Pournelle efforts of the time the novel has a plethora of characters, but the discoverer of the comet in the story, the titular hammer, is a wealthy man named Tim Hamner, owner of a successful soap company. His life of leisure is largely devoted to amateur astronomy; this includes operating a private observatory high in the Californian mountains.

This is as close as the novel gets to what the Bloomberg author has misremembered.

The nuclear plant that features heavily only towards the end of the book, after being introduced near the beginning, is the San Joaquin project. It was an actual 4 unit plant planned for California but halted by organised environmentalist pressure.

The story makes a point of its chief engineer, Barry Price, being a dedicated proponent and communicator as he sacrifices and works tirelessly to get the plant built and running. No entrepreneurship involved, but perhaps this was part of the Bloomberg author’s obvious confusion. Tim Hamner himself certainly appreciates nuclear energy, but at one point mistakes the cooling tower steam for polluting smoke, an illustration of a common error by the inattentive.

So, the comet gets closer and closer, then large pieces of it hit on both land and ocean, an epic event that spans several chapters and multiple points of view. The actual process of coastal inundation and abrupt nuclear winter are described in detail as our main characters all struggle to survive in various ways. Through fortunate geography and the presence and foresight of a respected senator, a rural community rapidly organises itself and its defenses against desperate refugees from below and encroaching snow from above, becoming known as the Stronghold. This is the remnant of civilisation which the surviving main characters aim for. Apart from Tim Hamner and his love interest, and the resourceful but flawed Harvey Randall and his friends, it’s the destination of the diabetic astrophysicist Dan Forrester from the Jet Propulsion Labs which tracked the comet.

It’s also the chosen safe haven of the astronauts and cosmonauts who were conducting research as the comet passed/hit. Niven and Pournelle’s narrative makes it abundantly clear that space exploration is their true cause – the nuclear plant is ultimately framed as just a potent resource with which the remnants of civilisation can rebuild such technological capacity far more swiftly.

To leave their readers in no doubt about how the authors regard the alternative in such desperate​ times, the antagonists are nothing less than a horde of cannibals led by an insane preacher, an army deserter and an anti-industry ex-politician. While lacking in all subtlety, it’s internally convincing given the death and rotting of all plant life after weeks of ceaseless rain, combined with the rapid depletion of all remaining accessible foodstuffs.

The moral message at the book’s core is hinted several times but only pronounced plainly after the Stronghold successfully defends itself against an all-out attack by the main force of desperate cannibals, using crude explosives and mustard gas chemically synthesised under the direction of Dan Forrester (in the time he otherwise would have used to isolate the insulin he needed to live): civilisation has the ethics it can afford. This observation affects more than the cannibal prisoners-of-war (keep them as slaves? Execute them and save what they’d eat of the Stronghold’s supplies?), because if civilisation can afford higher ethics, it can accept more refugees and help more of the desperate, it can embrace greater gender participation, and expect better for the generations that follow.

So. We’ll live. Through this winter, and the next one, and the one after that… As peasants! We had a ceremony here today. An award, to the kid who caught the most rats this week. And we can look forward to that for the rest of our lives. To our kids growing up as rat catchers and swineherds. Honorable work. Needed work. Nobody puts it down. But… don’t we want to hope for something better? …And we’re going to keep slaves. Not because we want to. Because we need them. And we used to control the lightning!

~ Colonel Rick Delanty, Astronaut

This comes down to a final choice to make do with what the Stronghold has: relative safety, sufficient manpower, a good chance for many to survive the imminent winter… versus a last-ditch effort to defend the fragile power plant and its century-worth of abundant electricity from the remnant cannibals, who naturally see it as the epitome of unnatural, techno-industrial human hubris. Indeed, even the cannibal leaders share a scene where one briefly suggests sparing it – but not quite recognising that it would be the very means of delivering them from their desperate situation of dietary tyranny, if only their fervent ideological mindset could be shifted toward rationality.

Niven and Pournelle were futurists. Their forthright pro-technology, pro-industry, pro-nuclear narrative won’t be appreciated by everyone. Their characters spend a lot of time drinking, and many of the displayed attitudes are certainly of a past era. But they strived for technical accuracy: the San Joaquin nuclear plant was built by a major Californian utility – as a direct alternative to coal – not some rich idealist. When an author wants to offer a serious contribution, accuracy goes a long way.




Fixing a Power Crisis with a Battery

Mira Loma battery facility, California

Last week the energy products VP of Tesla (supported by CEO Elon Musk) proposed the installation of 100 to 300 megawatt hours (MWh) centralised battery capacity in South Australia, consisting of banks of PowerWall 2 lithium batteries.

Based on figures from SolarQuotes, this represents a rough maximum of 37 to 111 megawatts (MW) of output for about 2 hours and 40 minutes. The amount of MWhs and MWs are very different quantities, routinely confused in commentary and the news; some articles have reported “100 MW”, and GetUp has appropriated the excitement in support of its questionable 100% national renewable energy ambitions:

Elon Musk has pledged to help fix South Australia’s power crisis by installing a 100 megawatt battery system in 100 days, or it’s free!

Exactly how it will fix a state’s power crisis hasn’t been quantified. The example cited in California, the recent Mira Loma facility (20 MW, 80 MWh):

will charge using electricity from the grid during off-peak hours, when demand is low, and then deliver electricity during peak hours to help maintain the reliability and lower SCE’s dependence on natural gas peaker plants.

Expert analysis of the broader Californian battery experience can be read about here.

While the excitement around the news was gripping social media on Friday, South Australian electricity demand looked like this:

The blue line is AEMO 30-minute demand data; the green line annotations simplify the day’s demand into an unseen bottom rectangle of baseload (1,200 MW for 24 hours: 28,800 MWh) and a peaky 7,200 MWh triangle corresponding to the normal daily demand fluctuation. Rooftop PV “behind the meter” consumption is added from APVI data, and is the estimated contribution from about 700 MW of total distributed capacity. The $/MWh price roughly follows this demand curve.

The advantages of battery storage are that it can be installed rapidly (regulations permitting) and can be switched on and off pretty much instantly. Based on the capabilities of a 100 MWh installation in South Australia, and the stated operation of the Californian example, no more than 37 MW could be suddenly supplied over the 2 hour 40 minutes of evening peak, as represented by the red line.

Does this look like it’s fixing a power crisis?

If this proceeds, the manner in which it will help keep state power prices from rising, or even begin to lower them, and how it will relieve the ever-growing reliance on South Australia’s interconnection with Victoria, must be primary considerations. As detailed in the SolarQuotes article, the 30% degradation in battery capacity from only 10 years of use and the limited operational lifespan thereafter needs to be highlighted: no other electricity grid infrastructure is expected to last such a short time. And perhaps most glaringly for many proponents, the potential environmental and social impacts from lithium production in other countries would never be tolerated here. If we’re were instead to pursue an Australian Made battery storage solution to our national power sector’s challenges, many vocal battery supporters need to work out why they prefer one massive foreign-owned hole gouged out of the earth to any other.

Greenbushes open cut lithium mine, Western Australia