Until You Read It

On a Tuesday in June, in Adelaide, coinciding with a major conference looking at the potential of nuclear energy, the Conservation Council of South Australia announced an ambitious 100% renewable energy plan for the state. It was intended to show that nuclear energy was not merely unnecessary, but unwelcome and indeed a burdensome and unequivocally nasty prospect in every conceivable way.

It comes at a time when educated scepticism of such exclusive energy visions is finding its mainstream voiceIf nuclear energy is only to be feared and not considered, it insists, you renewable-energy-only advocates are far from convincing us.


The first curious thing was the near dearth of actual renewable energy available on the chosen day (the third set of peaks in the above chart). Is it too bold to suppose that these nuclear opponents would have made quite a point of all the wind and solar had the day been a cloudless gale? The second was the pamphlet which accompanied the announcement. It made no bones about reinforcing a collection of misinformation regarding nuclear power. It was also set out in the promotional formatting of a major telco, and the inclusion of irrelevant residual technical details on “Ethernet reliability” and “application-awareness” made it clear how much proof-reading was involved. Thirdly, the background paper itself (left uncited in the pamphlet) could only be described as a missed opportunity. In a process for gathering and assessing serious, detailed knowledge and perspective (namely, a royal commission) the case for expanding South Australian renewable energy to 100% in place of any further consideration of the nuclear fuel cycle has received the most cursory of efforts. Considering the calibre of the other submissions I have seen so far, I see this as a shame. Furthermore, the intrinsic anti-nuclear slant of the report actually distracts from the plan’s overall ambition, rather than reinforcing it.

Throughout the report there are many statements and anecdotes but no justification based on actual results from robust research, for example CCSA says that a 100% renewable energy plan will:

  • create jobs – no figures presented
  • reduce greenhouse gas emissions – no figures modelled
  • reduce air pollution – no discussion other than the assertion

Also according to CCSA, compared to nuclear their proposal:

  • is equally reliable – no modelling is presented, it is just stated to be so
  • is much less dangerous – not mentioned in report at all, without quantification. See ENSAD or ExternE for detailed comparisons of risk
  • emits less life-cycle CO2 – no figures cited
  • offers wider range of environmental and health benefits – no quantification
  • will be implemented much more rapidly – no quantification or examples used other than nuclear delays in Finland, France and US (rapid builds in China, Korea and other countries are not included)

Just stating it and referring to forthcoming modelling or an anecdote is not enough to justify commitment to an entire energy policy. This would not be a sufficient report to justify to investors to pursue such a plan. If a similar proposal for nuclear power in South Australia noted the above categories with no accompanying justification, would the CCSA accept that report in full?

The current status of South Australian renewable energy has received detailed, impartial and peer-reviewed analysis. For anyone wanting to extrapolate its future potential, I recommend beginning there. In his blog article regarding CCSA’s contribution, Ben Heard invites further critique on their plan, and I feel the following document provides at least the level of energy-literacy necessary to oblige.

An Analysis of “100% Renewable Energy for South Australia”



Reykjanes Power Station

Geothermal energy is probably most often associated with Iceland, where around a quarter of electricity demand is met by using volcanic heat. This DOE video summarises the technology.

Globally, the technology is a tiny share of supply and generally sits in the “other” pie piece. As the video mentions, much work is being done to pursue the potential for geothermal as a low life cycle emissions energy source.


There has been no news on that ~500 megawatts for quite some time.

In Australia, several potential projects have been under development for some time, as described in the Australian Energy Resource Assessment 2014. The largest pilot plant in the South Australian outback supplies the community of Innamincka with 1 megawatt of power. The remoteness of this location underscores geothermal’s primary constraint. It can only realistically be considered in the immediate vicinity of appreciable underground heat resources, with transmission infrastructure necessary for delivery to load centres.

The Renewables Paradox


Looking at this image, you could be forgiven for assuming wind energy will be taking Costa Rica fossil fuel-free next decade. In reality, fully dispatchable hydro and geothermal energy, paired with subsistence-level energy use, is doing the job.

Geothermal is classified as renewable energy and is readily included as such in various regions’ energy mixes. So, in the example of Iceland, a combination of geothermal and hydroelectricity is 100% renewables. The same reasoning saw Costa Rica recently claim an impressive run of renewables-only electricity generation: about 12% from geothermal with the remainder almost all from hydro.

This seems to be in spite of the geological reality of geothermal – an average of 70% of the heat is due to subterranean radioactive decay of potassium-40, thorium-232 and both major uranium isotopes (235 and 238). 30% is left over energy from Earth’s formation.


Similarly normal radioactivity exists in the food we eat every day.

The other important detail is that enhanced geothermal systems technology involves the same method of accessing a desired volume of underground rock as hydraulic fracturing.

While the strawman argument is an undesirable rhetorical approach, it is probably very safe to say that many activists who uncritically reject the use of uranium in nuclear power plants and stand against unconventional fracked gas (regardless of what science might say) also largely support the use of renewable energy – including geothermal.


EGS is the predominant method currently being pursued.

Furthermore, many activists increasingly bolster the rejection of nuclear energy primarily on grounds of cost. But despite the most recent official Australian levelised cost estimates clearly showing that geothermal is one of the most expensive technologies, it is spared this vocal criticism and exclusion. Indeed, as recently summarised, this is a form of special pleading which has little if anything to do with their true (and even less justifiable) objections.

Just to ensure this list is exhaustive, is it not reasonable to also expect loudly-voiced concerns of groundwater contamination? And considering the many decades of protest surrounding a deep geological repository for radiological waste, activists are dramatically restrained about high pressure fluid being pumped through deep rock heated by radioactive decay.

AERA 2014 states a particularly low average thermal conversion efficiency of 12% as extracted heat is used to drive a turbogenerator. This indicates a substantial loss of thermal energy to the environment. These two considerations are often included in criticisms of conventional nuclear energy, where more like 35% of fission heat is transformed to electricity and the rest lost as steam or into an adjacent river, lake or sea. To be clear, the efficiency of steam-driven turbogenerators is the result of much incredible engineering, and heat rejected to the environment is a relatively trivial concern.

At least we’re all happy that it’s low emissions, right? Well, some motivated commentators seek to exclude nuclear energy on that basis, citing an estimate of the equivalent of no less than 60 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour generated (gCO2eq/kWh). By this reasoning, geothermal is also out when the US National Renewable Energy Labs estimates a figure of up to 80 gCO2eq/kWh.

By applying basic logic, we should be seeing organised and vocal opposition to geothermal energy. But, of course, we don’t. This isn’t even considering the indefensible perspective of advocates of a radical shift to distributed energy generation – large, distant geothermal renewable energy installations would logically have little or no place in that world.

Myself, I’m excited to see geothermal, as a dispatchable and clean form of energy, flourish and contribute, where practicable, to the challenge of displacing the dominance of coal and gas. In the long run, without misinformed, hypocritical activism ceaselessly opposing it and prohibitively burdensome regulations more than absorbing any economies of scale it can achieve, it may eventually have a good chance.



The Millwrights

In the early nineteenth century my home state had been freshly colonised by the British. Despite the establishment of agriculture the land owners and pioneers were reliant on essentials like flour bought from New South Wales. One pioneer, John Dunn, brought with him the knowledge of milling.

John Dunn’s Steam Mill.

His first mill, a wind-powered affair was rapidly superseded when the Watts beam engine was brought out to Australia. The steam-powered mill he built in what would become the town of Mount Barker was able to produce flour around the clock. It would have used wood, a fuel in plentiful supply. Similar engines helped modernise the fledgling mining sector. More steam mills were built by Dunn, who’s business grew to employ hundreds and benefit the entire state as reliance on the eastern states diminished.

I now live in this town, and I look out my window and see none of the environmental devastation this historical economic growth may imply to some people. There’s the odd old quarry and plenty of cleared cropland; there’s also sizeable wetlands and bushland corridors.

I do see solar panels on roofs, though. Church roofs, especially – coated with them like doped silicon frosting. Electranet and the grid operator, AEMO, last year assessed the implications of continued expansion of solar and wind capacity in South Australia.

The impression that it is technically feasible for South Australia’s grid to be fully renewable is undoubtedly appealing for many people. (If this is concurrent with effective decarbonisation – a much less emphasised detail – then it certainly appeals to me.) But to seriously consider it will force them to wrap their heads around what is meant by “system security”.

Anyone who has operated a household appliance should have noticed there’s a silver sticker with numbers on it. Among them will be stated the input frequency of alternating current (AC) – 50 Hertz in Australia. It turns out that that is crucial – the people whose job it is to balance demand and supply on the power grid need to keep this frequency constant or it means, at worst, damaged generators and blackouts. So where does this frequency come from?

From the generators themselves, the physically spinning turbines which rotate (effectively) fifty times per second.

This is why AEMO stresses that SA’s Northern, Torrens Island or Pelican Point fossil-fired stations would need to be retained for “ancillary services”. Solar generates direct current (DC) that is transformed to AC by the inverter – but this relies on the established grid frequency. For their part, wind turbines are rotating masses generating current which must also be electronically matched to 50 Hertz. (You won’t see a wind turbine spinning that fast!)

Relatedly, the inertia of these stationary, dispatchable spinning masses is vital for stabilising every addition and subtraction of load and source on the grid and the attendant pressure on the frequency.

So in the best case scenario, we have a fossil fueled plant combusting away just to provide grid frequency and inertia, even on bright sunny days and windy nights. Or South Australia decommissions its coal and gas generators (which decarbonisation somewhat implies) and relies entirely on the rest of the NEM, through the Heywood AC interconnector, for these ancillary services so that we can safely use, well, everything we already have.

If this turns out to be the best way to cut Australia’s carbon intensity, so be it. But if Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria want to “follow SA’s lead” and substitute fossil combustion for renewables – while avoiding relying on climatically sensitive hydro generation for grid stability – I can envision a few problems.

In the meantime, not for bread but high quality energy – grid stability and electricity to run our refrigerators, power our hospitals and charge our future electric vehicle fleet when renewables are not generating – will we once again be reliant on the eastern states?


Without steam, it can be a long day at the millstone.

Whenever we use energy
it is to free ourselves from some natural condition: to be warm in winter and cool in summer, to stay up after dark, to eat out of season, to escape hard labor, to leave the local patch of terroir where we sprouted and see the world. These are all acts of liberation, and they require abundant power and technical ingenuity.

Maybe John Dunn could not fully appreciate what he wrought for his new home state, but we can. Will we end up limiting our liberation by limiting our energy options?


Stale Narratives Need Not Apply

We’ve already had the nuclear debate: why do it again?

The Olympic Dam copper mine in South Australia. By a factor of nearly 50, weightwise.

Since you ask – because we haven’t, actually. This is called begging the question.

Thousands of tonnes of spent fuel rods and radioactive waste are held near nuclear power stations and weapons facilities around the world, with no agreement on long-term storage.

Yet if we dare listen to experienced operators of nuclear power plants, concern over “waste” is completely overblown. It is stored securely, and nobody’s ever been hurt by it.


All the waste from 110 000 000 000 kWh worth of electricity.

As for proliferation, it has been an important issue managed through international cooperation for decades, so it’s well past time for us to discuss it with considerably more sophistication, such as here-in.

The opinion piece continues:

South Australia leads the mainland states in its harnessing of solar and wind energy. Together they supplied more than one-third of the state’s electricity for the whole of last year and all of the state’s power for one working day in September.

Noting the muggy stillness of the evening of February 10th, I happened to check the state-by-state NEM output:

Queensland and New South Wales were burning their dispatchable black coal;


Victoria was doing its baseload proxy with dispatchable brown coal;

And perhaps just as the above sentences were being typed, South Australia’s wind capacity was largely failing to meet the nightly peak in demand, which had to be filled by gas combustion.



And depleted but dispatchable Tasmanian hydro.

Victorian and Tasmanian wind output certainly wasn’t negligible, which indicates a beneficial geographical diversity in the resource. But the fact remains, even if SA wind were greatly expanded as proposed, negligible supply will fail to meet demand on afternoons like February 10th, 2015. It still wouldn’t save hydro capacity, and it would still necessitate the combustion of fossil fuels.

Does it make me “anti-renewables” if I highlight a period of negligible supply in response to this article? Alex Trembath’s piece on technology tribalism examines this question with diligent reference to the climate change challenge:

Tribalism is the biggest problem with clean energy debates today. Support for one technology is often automatically interpreted as opposition to another, and attempts to grapple with any technology’s challenges are dismissed as trolling. Getting past this unproductive tribalism will require civil and honest engagements on the promises and perils of different technological pathways.

The difference is that I focus on what SA wind power positively achieves to mitigate emissions, rather than being some end in itself. I honestly hope for more windy September days – but hope isn’t a plan. The Conversation article carefully avoids any mention of climate change. Are nuclear opponents now downplaying the messages of climate experts, just as they always have for nuclear science experts? This similar party-line opinion piece seems to paint climate change as an excuse used by nuclear advocates. I stress opinion, and I can’t put it clearer than from this 2012 article (with over thirty thousand shares, for what its worth):

The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” – and by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful. And this attitude feeds, I suggest, into the false equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse.

The government’s own focus on carbon reduction should be applauded and we can expect the demonstrated and quite necessary abatement potential of nuclear energy to be a prominent consideration in the Royal Commission – at least for those who actually welcome the process.

No, the debate deserves to be elevated beyond entrenched opposition and rhetorical questions. For further reading, I cannot more highly recommend Luke Weston’s brutal follow up here. There will be a lot of genuine questions for the feet-draggers.


James Hansen, BA, MS, PhD

I admit to not knowing about James Hansen until I encountered him amoung many other experts over at DecarboniseSA, and subsequently learned of his fundamental contributions to the study of our changing climate. He recently released a draft opinion essay dealing with the required global approach to nuclear power in the context of urgent internalisation of overall carbon emmissions: Renewable Energy, Nuclear Power, and Galileo.

“…my suggestion to other scientists, when they are queried, is to point the public toward valid scientific information, such as the “radiation 101” page written by Bob Hargraves. “Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air” by David MacKay lets the public understand calculations as in the footnote above [see essay], thus helping the public to choose between renewables and nuclear power in any given situation – there is a role for both.”

The essay is clear and accessable and ideal for anyone who is still unsure what to think about climate change, nuclear power, or both. It may challenge what you thought you know; by all means investigate further. But be fair to yourself and stay up at the high academic standard from which professional scientists like Professor Hansen profer their knowledge.