Nuclear lobby concedes rooftop solar will have to make way for reactors

The nuclear lobby in Australia has conceded one aspect of the nuclear power plan that the federal Coalition does not like talking about – that the rooftop solar embraced by households and businesses will have to make way for the Opposition’s planned reactors.

This is not actually a surprise to anyone associated with the energy industry, because it is quite clear that there is no room for an “always on” generator of any type – be it coal, gas or nuclear – in a grid dominated by variable wind and solar.

In Australia, this is particularly the case because of the continent’s magnificent solar resources, and the huge uptake of rooftop PV by consumers, which already stands at more than 20 gigawatts (GW) and is forecast to quadruple to more than 80 GW in coming decades.

In South Australia, rooftop solar has already met all local demand on occasions. The market operator predicts that this will occur in Western Australia within a few years, and in other bigger states on the eastern seaboard within a decade.

How do you jam nuclear reactors into this energy mix? Renew Economy has asked this question on several occasions – here and here in particular – and it now seems the nuclear lobby has finally fessed up to the solution: Switch off rooftop solar.

“I think what will happen is that nuclear will just tend to push out solar,” Robert Barr, a member of the lobby group Nuclear for Climate told the ABC in a story that addresses the issue.

Barr admitted that nuclear power plants have some flexibility, but not a lot. They could ramp down to around 60 per cent of their capacity, he says. But the reality is that the their economics – already hugely expensive – blow out even further if not running all the time. Solar panels would have to make way, he said.

“There’ll be an incentive for customers to back off,” he said. “And I think it wouldn’t be that difficult to build control systems to stop export of power at the domestic level. It’d be difficult for all the existing ones but for new ones, it just might require a little bit of smarts in them to achieve that particular end — it can be managed.”

Almost everyone involved in the Australian grid – be they developers, generators, network operators, investors, advisors or regulators – recognises that the system design is moving on from “base-load” and always on power to variable renewables and dispatchable power (mostly storage).

But this new reality this does not support the fossil fuel industry’s view of the world, not their economic and business models, and while the Coalition has made its position against large scale wind and solar clear, it hasn’t talked about the impact on rooftop solar, apart from saying it supports it in principle.

But how?

Some insight into what is shaping the Coalition’s thinking comes from testimony to parliamentary committee in 2021 by James Fleay, a former oil and gas executive and founder of the advocacy group Down Under Nuclear Energy (Dune), who serves as an advisor to Coalition energy spokesman Ted O’Brien.

Fleay told the parliamentary committee looking into future energy choices that “baseload” architecture had served Australia well for a century and should not be changed. “We have to make a decision about grid architecture,” he said. 

“We cannot adapt our energy usage to accommodate the rising and setting of the sun or seasonal weather uncertainties without enormous human and economic costs,” Fleay said, before adding later: “I think that is possible and true only at the margins, but not in bulk.”

Basically Fleay admitted that it is a choice between models – baseload or renewable, and in various interviews has said Australia’s isolated grid as a reason not to go the wind and solar route because of the inability to export.

But that same isolation has an equal, or arguably greater impact on nuclear because of its dependence on high production rates, known as capacity factors. The French nuclear generators wouldn’t survive without the connection to other European grids and the ability to export to other countries.

To be sure, the Australian market operator is pushing hard to be able to “orchestrate” rooftop solar and other consumer energy resources as a way of managing the grid. But the extent it would need to do so with multiple gigawatts of “always on” nuclear would dramatically increase.

The energy industry knows this. The two – nuclear and rooftop solar – simply can’t go out on the same date. The Coalition, or at least its advisors, also appear to know this. But when will it be honest about this situation with the general public and the households and businesses with solar on their rooftops.

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