Renewistan or Carbonopia: where would you rather live?

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Critics of the concept of a world run on renewables argue the technology is not up to the task. But what is the alternative?

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Published last November, Andrew Charlton’s Quarterly Essay Man-Made World: Choosing between progress and the planet made some fundamentally important points: that solutions to climate change must allow for economic development in poorer countries; that a large part of the solution is available from improved technology; and that “our goal should be to create a world with abundant, clean and cheap energy for all.” However there are other data and other analyses leading to other conclusions.

The feasibility of a 100 per cent renewable energy future has been demonstrated by the Zero Carbon Australia Stationary Energy Plan, an award-winning analysis published by Beyond Zero Emissions, with The University of Melbourne Energy Research Institute in 2010. The Plan confirms that currently available renewable technologies are sufficient to meet the climate challenge. No peer reviewed analysis has challenged the feasibility of the Plan. Neither the Stationary Energy Plan, data nor analyses were referred to by Charlton.

Undoubtedly, the aggregate figures required to meet our energy challenge are very large. For example, Charlton points out that to meet one third of Australia’s electricity requirements from solar photovoltaics would require the commissioning a solar PV plant the size of the Moree Solar farm (150MW) every week from 2015-2020. Germany has already done it. Over 7500MW of PV was installed in 2011, following 7400MW in 2010 – equivalent to 50 Moree Solar plants, one every week allowing for a couple of holidays. An Australian feed-in tariff similar to the German tariff from 2012 would reduce the target to 4150MW of PV each year to 2020. Germany has done much better, installing 4150MW of PV in the three months from October to December 2011.

The solar PV cost reductions associated with the growth of the industry has been one of the great success stories of renewable energy. Solar PV electricity costs are projected to reach retail grid parity in many countries, including Australia, within the next two to three years

And the numbers cited by Charlton on creating a world powered by renewable energy — borrowed from Australian-American inventor Saul Griffith — should not be used out of context.

We must recognise the formidable industrial capacity developed countries have available. As Griffith notes: the speed of solar panel creation is comparable to the output of the current global mobile phone industry, and the amount of mirror surface required for solar thermal is comparable to the surface area in the 110 billion cans of soft drink that Americans drink every year! Most interestingly, 12 wind turbines per hour is about 100,000 turbines per year – minute compared with the 77 million vehicles manufactured worldwide in 2010 . China plans 1000GW of wind by 2050, which is half the global capacity which Griffith specifies. His conclusion on whether we have enough industrial capability is: “Awesome. We can do it.”

The 11.5TW of power over one year indicated by Griffith (not 13TW as claimed by Charlton) is equivalent to just under 110,000TWh of electricity (Griffith already accounted for the variable output of solar and wind), six times the world’s current electricity consumption. Charlton’s Renewistan would supply more electricity per person than Australia’s current level, to 8 billion people!

If Renewistan is a challenge – and it is – what about “Carbonopia”? What will it mean to increase global energy supply by the same amount using coal, gas and a bit of nuclear? Let’s get the smaller player — nuclear — out of the way first. Charlton envisages three nuclear plants a week for the next 25 years. Unlike wind turbines, there is no evidence to suggest this can be done. French group Areva has been unable to build even one new 3rd generation nuclear plant in Finland in 10 years .

Now let us consider the requirements to create a Carbonopia instead of Renewistan. To meet a future demand growth of an additional 11TW of electricity, we will build 5TW of coal-fired power plants, 5TW of gas-fired power plants. For the sake of this comparison we’ll allow for someone building just another 1TW of nuclear — good luck to them.

With generous assumptions on conversion efficiencies – 40 per cent for coal (supercritical or better) and 50 per cent for gas power plants (these would be state-of-the-art combined cycle gas turbines), we would need 394 exajoules (1018 joules) per year of coal and 315 exajoules per year of fossil gas to power them. This represents 3.5 times 2009 global thermal coal consumption and 2.7 times global fossil gas consumption .

This would require four new 1000MW coal power stations and four new 1000MW gas CCGT power stations to be commissioned every week for the next 25 years. A fossil power station of this size will take up several hundred hectares, 2-6 turbines each with their own associated piping networks, pressure control systems, boilers, coal-pulverising equipment for the coal plants, pollution control systems and smokestacks, all housed within several buildings the size of a large factory. They typically take 3-6 years from planning approval to final construction and require hundreds of workers to build them. Australia hasn’t commenced construction on a coal-fired power plant in over 8 years.

But that tells less than half the story. To feed these fossil-fuel machines, vastly larger amounts of land would be ripped up for mining and gas extraction activities.. If billionaire Clive Palmer presses ahead with his plans for his ‘China First’ coal mine, to produce 40 million tonnes per year, it will be Queensland’s largest. The world would need to open more than one of these coal mines per month for the next 25 years to feed such a megafleet of power stations.

Fifty-eight per cent of Australia’s coal reserves are in black coal basins that cover a third of the Queensland state, much of it on existing agricultural land. Carbonopia would require strip mining a coal resource the size of Queensland’s to exhaustion once every 1.7 years. Can mankind seriously contemplate such despoliation of the globe?

What about gas?

Australia currently has 16.3 million tonnes per annum (Mtpa) of LNG export capacity on the North-west shelf of Western Australia, consisting of five gigantic processing ‘trains’ built over 20 years with an investment of $27 billion .

Methane is now extracted from coal seams that were previously considered too deep or small to be for viable mining. Plans are underway by several companies to build terminals in Queensland similar to LNG plants to export our coal seam gas. One of these, the Gladstone LNG (GLNG) project Stage 1, will have two trains with a combined capacity of 7.8Mtpa. It is expected to be operational by 2015, and the network of coal seam gas fields feeding it will cover up to 24,000 square kilometres, consisting of 2650 wells, 2000km of gas and water gathering pipelines, 6800km of access roads, 150 nodal compressor stations and a dedicated 435km transmission pipeline from inland Queensland to Gladstone. Carbonopia’s growing demand for gas would require one of these GLNG projects – LNG trains, gas fields and all – every fortnight for the next 25 years.

When you look at Carbonopia in these terms, the sheer gutting of the earth it requires is appalling. And that’s not even considering health effects or catastrophic climate change.

The only viable scenario is, of course, renewables. The Zero Carbon Australia Stationary Energy Plan has already shown how Australia could be powered by 100 per cent renewable energy in ten years. Forty per cent of Australia’s future electricity demand could be met by 6,400 state-of-the-art 7.5MW wind turbines (Enercon E-126 or similar). Over 10 years, that’s an average of only 640 per year – equivalent to a tiny fraction of 200,000 new vehicles. manufactured by Australia’s heavily subsidised car manufacturing industry last year. Baseload power can be supplied from solar thermal plants with molten salt storage, such as those already operational in Spain.

The scale of the task is well within our capability. Getting the job done in 10 years would require the equivalent of 8 per cent of our construction workforce, 7 per cent of our concrete production, 1.3 per cent of the steel smelted from our iron ore production, and two new glass factories for mirrors.

To conclude on a more concrete recommendation and to address the question of deployment versus research and development, let us return to the solar photovoltaics example. A key factor is cost per unit of output. The astonishing cost reductions in solar PV have occurred not so much because of research as because of the huge industry scale-up over the last five to 10 years. This occurred because of deployment incentives in leading markets such as California, Spain, Japan, Italy and of course the largest, Germany.

There are plenty of policies that have led to limited, stop-start deployment of renewables, with Australian policy-making a prime example of how not to grow an industry. But since its inception, the (EEG) Renewable Energy Sources Act has led to the sustained and successful growth in German PV installations, which created the commercial incentive for companies to provide the cheapest systems they could. The feed-in tariff payment is reviewed on a half-yearly basis and adjusted downwards based on recent cost reductions and the quantity of PV installed over the previous period, in a careful and transparent manner which provides a stable market for the industry to grow, while minimising costs to the German consumers.

The value of the German FiT or any deployment policy should not just be viewed as the cost of achieving deployment now, but the effect of creating an industry capable of providing abundant, clean and cheap energy for all, at a much lower cost than fossil fuels in the near future.

Matthew Wright is executive director of Beyond Zero Emissions and 2010-11 Young Environmentalist of the Year

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  1. Matt Robinson 8 years ago

    I remain hopeful but very skeptical about all ‘renewable’ energy, and I think you dismiss nuclear too quickly. Yes, we’ve seen Germany do a lot with solar, but there are images of solar farms covered in weeds and stories of very low yield circulating even now.
    Germany has had to fall back on fossil fuels and recently had to (reportedly) restart some nuclear plants to meet demand.
    Something I think is generally overlooked is the fact that IF (a big if) the new nuclear technologies of LFTR (Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor), MSR (Molten Salt Reactor) or IFR (Integral Fast Reactor) become commercialized, all renewable power systems may become obsolete.
    While these nuclear technologies are some way away, I contend that 24/7 renewable power, even in Australia, is further away. There is simply too much complexity and too little distribution technology available to do it.
    So I wouldn’t dissmiss nuclear just yet…

    • Matthew Wright 8 years ago

      Renewable Energy already provide baseload in Spain, and will soon do the same in the USA. Solar Thermal plants with molten salt storage are commercially available now from vendors such as Solar Reserve/UTC and Torresol Energy/SENER.

      In Germany if there is a solar facility covered in weeds then the owner is doing their money. German solar systems are only given their incentive by paying them for power they export to the grid. No production no pay. The same goes for properly constructed Feed-in-Tariff schemes operating in over 80 countries worldwide.

      We know Germany is producing significant solar power because they’ve gone from less than 1% in 2007 to 4% of their energy supply from solar this year.

      Germany has not turned any of their 8 mothballed reactors back on. Please provide a reference??

      Germany has infact been exporting power to and “propping” up Nuclear dependent France over the last 3 weeks during a cold snap.

      Reuters:Germany powers France in cold despite nuclear u-turn

      Those nuclear technologies have been promised for the last 20 years. I’m not sure which is the bigger joke, commercial deployment of IFR, LTFR or Fusion? I suppose the other technologies have been tested (with limited success) at very small scale.

      • Matt Robinson 8 years ago

        My referenced report is here:

        Re your German solar figures (4% this year): are you quoting installed capacity or actual generated power?

        What’s your source on USA ‘soon to have baseload levels of renewables’?

        Nuclear power has a major unjustified PR problem – even you’re calling it a ‘joke’. Yet it persists and continues to develop. Based on my travels and discussions with some of the people developing the LFTR particularly, I can tell you there is real passion here – and they do have a design that promises a revolution in reactor technology.

        It matters little that it has taken 20 years so far. The only reason for that is the anti-nuclear movement. These designs were ready for the next phases of commercial testing more than 40 years ago.

        And IF they succeed – against all the odds and the anti-nuclear movement – People will look upon ugly fields of abandonded windmills and solar panels and wonder what all the fuss was about.

        It really is immaterial whom is propping up whom at the moment. It also doesn’t matter whether Germany restarted nuclear reactors or fossil fueled generators. Either way, they demonstrate the continued failure of renewables to meet the challenge of modern energy provision.

        My humble opinion.

        • Matthew Wright 8 years ago

          Solar capacity in Germany is over 25,000MW

          Solar PV is delivering 4% annually of total volume of German electricity consumption.

          Renewables overall are providing more than 20% of German electricity supplies. As pointed out by Dylan, you must have read an incorrect report as Germany has not turned on any of their 8 older mothballed reactors.

          Torresol Energy’s Gemasolar is a Baseload solar thermal plant utilizing Molten Salt storage in Spain. There rival is Pratt and Whitney’s technology which is sold by Solar Reserve. Solar Reserve are building a 110MWe dispatchable plant in Nevada. They also have two on the go about to break ground in Arizona and Rice California.

          The technology is not ready to go, the Japanese lost 13Billion on researching 4th Gen nuclear including a 200MW boondoggle of a failure a failure that has lead to higher taxes and hurt the community.

          • Matt Robinson 8 years ago

            Hi Matt.

            Yes it seems the report may have been incorrect, but as I noted it’s just as bad that they started fossil fueled reserve plants.

            I think it’s wonderful that Germany are doing what they are doing. It means the rest of us can watch and see. Basically they are the guinea pigs for the rest of the world. We’ll see whether they succeed. I’ll consider them to have succeeded when they last two full years without fossil or nuclear contributing anything to their energy mix.

            You’re right about 4th gen not being ready to go, but it’s just a case of spending the money – as it is with any new industrial scale technology. There are some very high-profile solar failures as well – far exceeding the Japanese amount you quoted.

            I wouldn’t go quoting the cost of R&D as failure, Matt. R&D is necessary in every field and failures are inevitable. Nuclear R&D has the added influence of anti-nuclear sentiment artificially inflating timescales and monetary cost – but even with this added cost, R&D continues. You would do well to ask why? Because it’s worth it.

            So I go back to my original point. Don’t dismiss nuclear power quote so flippantly. It may just jump up and bite you…

          • Matt Robinson 8 years ago

            Sorry Matt.

            I retract the amount I quoted on solar failures. It doesn’t far exceed the figure quoted – but it is significant. Solyndra is an example at $1.5Billion.

            The failure bill across all renewables is in the $Billions, but I agree that nuclear is more.

            Sorry to mislead.

      • Matt Robinson 8 years ago

        Hi Matt.

        I also note that the Solar plant in Spain is described as ‘not quite baseload’:

        Secondly it’s rated capacity is only 20MW (what is that – 4 windmills?), but some power is used running the plant, making it’s available energy closer to 17MW.

        Question: This solar plant has been in operation for 7 months. Do you have any data on actual power developed, peak power etc? I’d be very interested to know.

    • Dylan 8 years ago

      The reporting on Germany this week is wrong in two fundamental ways.

      The power plants started in Germany were coal, not nuclear. And they were restarted to take advantage of power hungry France needing to buy more electricity, not because of domestic demands.

  2. Ron Horgan 8 years ago

    This comprehensive analysis should be published as widely as possible.
    Renewistan is the future.

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