Not 100% renewable, but 0% carbon

5 04 2017

635906686103388841-366754148_perfection1Anyone familiar with this blog and our work on energy issues will not be surprised by my sincere support of nuclear power as the only realistic solution to climate change in the electricity (and possibly transport and industrial heat) arena. I’ve laid my cards on the table in the peer-reviewed literature (e.g., see here, here, here, here, here & here) and the standard media, and I’ve even joined the board of a new environmental NGO that supports nuclear.

And there is hope, despite the ever-increasing human population, rising consumerism, dwindling resources, and the ubiquity of ideologically driven and ethically compromised politicians. I am hopeful for several reasons, including rising safety and reliability standards of modern nuclear technology, the continued momentum of building new fission reactors in many countries, and even the beginnings of real conversations about nuclear power (or at least, the first steps toward this) in countries where nuclear energy is currently banned (e.g., Australia). I’m also heartened by the fact that nearly every conservation scientists with whom I speak is generally supportive, or at least non-resistant, to the idea of nuclear power as part of the climate change solution. An open letter by our colleagues attests to this. In fact, every day that passes brings new evidence that we cannot ignore this solution any longer.

Even despite the evidence in support of implementing a strong nuclear component into climate change-mitigation strategies, one of the most frequent arguments for not doing so is that society can achieve all of its energy needs and simultaneously combat climate change by constructing 100% renewable-energy pathways. While it is an easy mantra to repeat because it feels right intrinsically to nearly everyone with an environmental conscience, as a scientist I also had to ask if such a monumental task is even technically feasible.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m a huge fan of renewable energy and its development, purchase, and installation, but only if (and that’s a whopping, great if) it displaces electricity generation from fossil fuels. Therein lies the rub — while this can be achieved up to a certain point (a point that is entirely dependent on a region’s specific set of environmental, geographic, political, demographic, and economic conditions), it tends to fall apart when renewable penetrations become high. The main reason for this is the dispatchability limitations and storage requirements of renewables-generated electricity.

An energy source that is dispatchable is able to be called-up or withdrawn at any time in response to demand changes, which means that it has to be able to provide electricity at a moment’s notice in response to variable demand. While battery technology is improving and making this easier, better batteries alone are not the solution, especially from an environmental viewpoint.

But the plot thickens when one examines the entire breadth of feasibility1 requirements for renewable energy, which is exactly what we’ve just done in a new, comprehensive review of 100% renewable studies from around the world.

Led by my soon-to-be-completed PhD student, Benjamin Heard, we have just published the first empirical assessment of the feasibility of existing 100% renewable-energy plans from around the world. As we had originally suspected, the news is not good for the faithful of a 100% renewable future.

Conservation biologists will probably not wish me to go over every single detail of this rather technical review, but I will summarise the main criteria that we used to judge the studies. We required studies to demonstrate four essential criteria to be considered feasible: (1) capable of tracking realistic projections of demand, (2) electricity must be supplied to match demand at a fine temporal scale, (3) transmission must be able to deliver the electricity generated, (4) ancillary services (e.g., frequency control) must be maintained.

In short, not one of the 24 studies we examined met all criteria, and most failed the basic feasibility test so badly that even being generous didn’t improve their purported reality. More specifically from a conservation perspective, it turns out that most of the studies also relied on an insane amount of hydro and/or biomass sources to meet even their unrealistic projections. We know collectively as a conservation community that both of these sources are disastrous for species conservation, mainly in terms of habitat destruction (see et alia key studies on hydro, and biomass). In short, even if these studies hadn’t failed to meet the main feasibility criteria, we as conservation biologists should be highly dubious regardless based on the reliance of these destructive practices.

The result is a stark wake-up call to the sustainability community about how we can achieve sensible climate-change mitigation policies fast enough to combat our almost out-of-control climate disruption. It’s also another reason that I continue to solidify my support for next-generation nuclear technology as part of the mix. While I want to see renewables implemented, we cannot rely on them alone.

Instead of the ‘100% renewables‘ mantra, we should instead be chanting ‘0% carbon‘.

1We differentiate feasibility and viabilityfeasible means ‘possible within the constraints of the physical universe’, so a demonstration of feasibility requires that evidence is presented that a proposed system will work with current or near-current technology at a specified reliability. On the other hand, viable means that the system is not only feasible, but realistic within the socio-economic constraints of society. Unless something is first established as feasible, there is no point in assessing its viability.

CJA Bradshaw


Actions

Information

15 responses

7 04 2017
Ben Heard, Founder and Executive Director, Bright New World

@Moz Downunder I share your frustrations. Unfortunately they apply universally. Nuclear is not uniquely difficult to do or scale. Any energy transition of the scale required is large, long term and hard work.

Like

7 04 2017
Geoff Russell

Corey … your article talks about “100% renewable-energy” but the paper is about electricity. Going from 100% renewable electricity to 100% renewable energy is much, much harder. It’s a critical difference and the mistake of assuming we can do energy with renewables because we might be able to do electricity with renewables is common. We have to look at all the climate forcings, not just one. Lastly, dealing with energy won’t deal with the other hippo in the room … land use change and livestock methane.

Like

7 04 2017
CJAB

Yes, I should have specified ‘electricity’ only. Full energy will be much, much harder (impossible?)

Like

7 04 2017
Ben Heard, Founder and Executive Director, Bright New World

As the studies we review have considerable cross-over with electricity only or all-energy, the paper does include some relevant discussion of those matters.

But yes, the criteria relate specifically to electricity systems.

Like

7 04 2017
Geoff Russell

Science often works by divide and conquer, but in this case we also need to keep all the elements in mind. The Chinese work on high temperature reactors is a great example, these don’t just produce electricity, but can also be configured for process heat and hydrogen production … a veritable Swiss army knife. Compare this with PV … useless for anything except electricity.

Like

6 04 2017
chris339

I’ve reluctantly come to the same conclusion. But given the long time it takes to get a nuclear plant from planning to producing energy (I’ve heard on the order of 20 years), is it too late to really advocate for nuclear?

Like

6 04 2017
Moz of Yarramulla

“on the order of 20 years” is about right. The best guess I’ve seen is from John Quiggin, because sadly the nuclear advocates haven’t managed to produce a plan even at the high level of “5 years to select a site”. He suggested 2030-2040 would be optimistic in 2015 (15-25 years):

Here is a timeline which would be consistent with such a startup date. It may be observed that every stage in the process employs highly optimistic assumptions.

May 2016: Royal Commission reports favourably on nuclear power
2017: SA government adopts pro-nuclear policy
2017-2020: Australia wide debate leads to majority support for nuclear power, and election of a Commonwealth Parliament willing to support nuclear power
2021-2023: Develop and legislate framework for nuclear power, create and staff nuclear regulatory agency, develop regulations covering safety, site selection, accident evacuation policy, waste disposal etc
2024-2030 License designs including safety standards etc. Receive proposals for construction
2026-2030 (in parallel) Select sites for up to 10 reactors, hold public hearings, issue and review environmental impact statements. Overcome local opposition and develop sites
2030-2040 Construct plants, undertake testing, connect to grid.

Sadly for nukes that SA commission end up saying:

b. it would not be viable
i. on a range of predicted wholesale electricity prices incorporating a range of possible carbon prices
ii. for both large and potentially new small plant designs
iii. under current and potentially substantially expanded interconnection capacity to Victoria and NSW
iv. on a range of predictions of demand in 2030, including with significant uptake of electric vehicles

c. nuclear would be marginal in the event of a lower cost of capital that was typical for the financing of public projects and under strong climate action policies.

Like

6 04 2017
Ben Heard, Founder and Executive Director, Bright New World

Hi Chris,

That issue is readily and frequently oversimplified.

The short answer is that in terms of adding new electrical capacity when normalised by population, nuclear power programs have been the fastest, not slowest, power programs, and those historically demonstrated rates are commensurate with a response to climate change. For more information on that see Brook and Qvist 2015 http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0124074

The longer answer is more like this:
1. There is a lead time if the nation is new to nuclear to be prepared to add a nuclear sector. That may be longer or shorter depending how the nation works on it, but in that time there is nothing precluding the delivery of other solutions (renewable energy, efficiency programs etc)
2. How many reactors are then built? 1? or 5? Whether it is 1 or 5, it can take approximately the same amount of time, so the “time it takes to build nuclear” varies by a factor of 5!. The UAE is building and commissioning over 5000 MWe of nuclear at the same time. They started in 2009 and the first unit is getting ready to come on line this year, with the rest to follow soon thereafter.
3. Small-scale solutions may deploy more quickly in increment but their output my be considered. The South Australian wind sector moved break-neck (relatively) and delivered about 1500 MW over the 13 years from 2003. Is that fast? Depends how you considered it: at 30% capacity factor, that output is likely to be about 1/3 that of a smaller nuclear plant that might have been built in the same time. Difference is the wind was commissioned incrementally.
4. A new build nuclear plant has a rated life of 60 years and could well last for 80 or 100. This is pretty different from the ratings for wind and solar PV
5. Nuclear still can, should, must do better and factory made SMR seems the path to doing even better

In summary, that it takes a while is an argument for getting started. While delivering, we keep addressing other solutions.

Like

7 04 2017
Geoff Russell

Consider the United Arab Emirates. They started on nuclear in 2009 and their first reactor will come on line this year. It will generate as much electricity each year as 47 Nyngan solar farms. In 2018, the second will come on line, that’s another 47 Nyngans. In 2019 another, and the last in 2020. Nuclear is incredibly fast to roll out (as measured by terawatt hours per year per person). Our biggest problems are our luddite green and Green movements. You shouldn’t be reluctant about the conclusion, although that’s the first stage … I was reluctant when I first changed! But once your mind is open you will soon realise that nuclear is far cleaner and greener than any other energy source and the fear is rooted in long obsolete science. Radiation from Fukushima for example, won’t make anybody sick and wouldn’t have even without the evacuation. The evacuation killed people to protect them from nothing of any consequence at all. Radiation certainly can be dangerous, but the dose and the dose rates matter. Just like sunshine … except sunshine is far more dangerous than the kinds of radiation doses that the Fukushima meltdowns delivered.

Check out “Nuclear is for Life” by Wade Allison, or “GreenJacked: the derailing of environmental action on climate change” by … me! Both on Amazon.

Like

5 04 2017
Moz Downunder

Do you have any links discussing dispatchable nuclear power plants? I thought it was strictly baseload, with response times somewhat worse than coal?

for example: https://www.researchgate.net/post/Why_is_nuclear_power_neither_a_dispatchable_nor_a_non-dispatchable_energy_source

Also, does your review of feasibility cover eg Quiggin’s critique of the timescales? He suggests that as a 100 year solution nuclear might be viable for Australia, but a useful quantity before 2050 is extremely unlikely – we might get a GW or so, but 10GW would exaggerate the risks and create new ones because we’d have to build all the plants at the same time.

> most failed the basic feasibility test so badly that even being generous didn’t improve their purported reality

Can you suggest a nuclear plan that meets those requirements? Ideally with costs and timescales… otherwise you’re just naysaying “we shouldn’t do this, but I have no better ideas”.

Nuclear is notorious for being a future technology – “one day we will have safe, affordable nuclear fission plants”. Although from a conservation point of view the danger might actually be a benefit – the wilding around Chernobyl is apparently quite dramatic.

Like

6 04 2017
Ben Heard, Founder and Executive Director, Bright New World

1. Nuclear is dispatchable… it can be dispatched nearly 8760 hours per year at full rating. I think load-following is the issue you are getting at? In which case yes, see here https://www.oecd-nea.org/ndd/reports/2011/load-following-npp.pdf

2. No, as discussed in the paper, no studies were critiqued for time to deliver, which we deemed a matter of viability, not feasibility.

3. See Brook and Qvist 2015 http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0124074 and current new build delivery in UAE as two examples. See blended renewable/nuclear mix in Ontario as third example http://live.gridwatch.ca/home-page.html . You question is the right one and IMO this is what the literature should be doing: using all solutions to propose something that is both feasible and viable.

Like

7 04 2017
Moz Downunder

Thanks for the links. I think the terminology change is a symptom of different political arguments – dispatchable is contrasted with intermittent renewables, whereas nuclear has traditionally sold itself as more responsive than coal so they talk about load following.

No question that we can run a mixed-input grid :)

The practical question is how long it would take Australia to build a nuclear plant, rather than how long a feudal petrostate is taking. I suspect you would not enjoy their approach to interference from the peasantry any more than I would, because as a white foreigner we’d at best be part of the help. In Australia we’d have to deal with everyone from FOE to the doctor’s wives that turfed Howard out just to get a site approved. Given the dynamic and innovative leadership we’re seeing at the moment I think the search for even one plant site would struggle to go faster than the search for a high level waste dump site. {eyeroll}

Like

5 04 2017
Peter Wood

Just like feasible renewable energy options, realistic options for negative CO2 emissions technology on large scale are not feasible yet too. Even though, the world has an impending emissions problem. Nothing seems to work (forests, artificial sequestration) yet beyond a mega-tonnes at a local level and we need Giga Tonnes absorbed on a planet level.. So it just seems to me that Governments and industry are just not serious about feasible negative emission technology to reduce C02 on a planetary level.

Like

7 04 2017
Ben Heard, Founder and Executive Director, Bright New World

I’m straying well beyond my knowledge here…I would have thought with substantial land re-organisation in agriculture, probably centred around a dramatic change in the role of meat in global diets, the scale of afforestation would have a meaningful sequestration impact. But as I say, I have never run these numbers

Beyond that one of the best sequestration options I know of may actually be a base fuel: methanol, made with cleanly produced hydrogen and carbon sequestered from gas stations. The challenge is then just holding the methanol and not burning it!

But yes… I am yet to have come across a compelling plan for net-draw down of atmospheric CO2 beyond afforestation.

Like

7 04 2017
Peter Wood

Same here. I checked out the options last year.

Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s