How to design your own clean energy future

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CSIRO releases online modelling that allows people to design their own low carbon future.

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Do you want to design your own energy market for Australia? Keen to know what a low emissions network might look like. What sort of grid are we looking at if solar is cheap and solar thermal with storage reduces its costs?

Punters, experts, and even those with vested interests of their own are invited to find out with a new online modeling tool released today by the CSIRO called “eFuture”.

It is the latest in a series of online tools released by the CSIRO, which is looking for new ways of communicating the science. Apparently, the online tracker of great white sharks and other sea-life, and the modeling on climate scenarios are also popular.

The eFuture tool is released at the same time as the government Energy White Paper, and is designed to allow the public to decide what they would choose, and  understand some of the consequences, if they were in Energy Minister Martin Ferguson’s shoes. The modeling tool has existed for some time – and has helped inform the government – but this is the first time it is being made public.

It is relying on costs supplied by the Australian Energy Technology Assessment completed this year by the Bureau of Resource and Energy Economics. It offers around 20 technologies, and gives varying predictions based on high, medium and low scenarios on the key inputs – high, medium and low energy scenarios for energy demand, technology cost, fuel price, the type of back-up for renewables, and, somewhat controversially, a yes/no option for nuclear. The results are displayed in technology mix, the emissions abatement curve, and the wholesale and retail energy prices out to 2030 and 2050.

“Australia will undergo a huge transformation in the energy sector over the next 35 years where a greater number and more diverse mix of electricity sources are likely to be powering our homes, businesses and industry,” says Dr Alex Wonhas, the head of CSIRO’s Energy Transformed Flagship. “eFuture help us to understand just some of possible pathways before us and what it could mean for technology development, the economy and the environment.”

Paul Graham, the manager of carbon futures research at CSIRO, said there are some interesting results from the various scenarios. A high fuel price, for instance, displaces a lot of gas technology, and a high cost pushes carbon capture and storage right out of the energy mix – such are the sensitivities of the scenarios. By 2050, brown coal is a thing of the past.

RenewEconomy had a bit of a play on the “beta” model and found the outcomes interesting. One point to note is that whatever outcome is chosen, there is not a lot of difference in terms of electricity prices – that is because most technologies will find themselves around the $100-$150/MWh mark by the end of the decade. Supporters of solar thermal technologies won’t like it, because they are grouped in only as a “solar/gas” hybrid, even with storage. Curiously, wind energy capacity by 2050 is less than half of its post renewable energy target capacity in most scenarios. And neither will Tony Abbott, because the carbon price is built in and can’t be turned off. He better get used to the idea.

One limitation with the model is that you can vary only one technology above and below the default medium scenario at any one time, so it is only really a rough guide. And the Achilles Heal of such models is that CSIRO is forced to rely on third party, “official” estimates for technology and fuel costs. BREE, advised by ACIL Tasman and Worley Parson, got this just about right for many technologies – recognizing the declining costs of renewables, solar PV and wind in particular, and the rising costs of fossil fuels.

Unfortunately, on nuclear, BREE’s estimates were in fantasy land, estimating that nuclear plants could be built now for as little as $55-$60/MWh in the low cost scenario – about one quarter of the price quoted to the UK government by the world’s leading nuclear developers.

Most people in the industry, including nuclear developers, think such estimates are risible, and even the “high range” of $100/MWh would only be attainable if plants received cheap government finance (a la China), were ordered in bulk and accepted lower level of safety measures.

But Joe Public would not know this. He would press on the “yes” button for nuclear, and find that in this scenario nuclear makes up one half of Australia’s energy mix by 2050 and the cost estimates for electricity in 2050 are nearly those of other technology mix.  It’s a shame, because such models are designed to inform – but with this particular technology cost option, the effect is to mislead.

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3 Comments
  1. Mart 7 years ago

    Doesn’t seem to include transport and the possible emission-reduction impact of electric vehicles.

    Doesn’t seem to include power-to-gas (hydrogen and methane produced with wind and solar and stored in the natural gas grid).

    Doesn’t seem to include the possibility of household-level distributed storage. No sense in calculating grid-connected costs if a significant proportion of households would take the opportunity of effectively going off-grid.

    And, as Giles mentioned, the model seems to be based on unrealistic cost assumptions regarding nuclear.

    The track record of predicting the development of renewables is not impressive. I think we can have a big laugh or a sad shake of the head when we look back at this model a few years from now.

  2. Simon 7 years ago

    Yes, while the website references the BREE paper, it does not link each input back to the relevant underlying data and the relevant analyst’s reasoning – which makes the calculator somewhat opaque at best.

    My first reaction was that this was more of a propaganda tool than a realistic modelling tool.

  3. David 7 years ago

    Modelling: Garbage in, garbage out.

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