It might be tempting to think that the energy wars are being fought only on the political front, between left and right in parliament and on the front pages of mainstream media, and in the market-place between technologies old and new, dirty and clean.
But over the last few years a furious battle has also been raging in academia between those who say we can and should shift towards a 100 per cent renewable energy grid, and those who say we can’t possibly, that we should stop renewables in their tracks and choose nuclear (or “clean” coal) instead.
The battle between the academic “can’s” and “can’t do’s” over the issue of renewables has become increasingly bitter in recent years, and the coal industry has been watching on in quiet admiration, particularly as the false arguments often dominate the public domain.
The coal industry is satisfied because coal and nuclear share a common lack of flexibility, an attachment to increasingly redundant concepts such as “baseload” and a centralised grid, and until carbon is priced the coal industry reckons it can beat nuclear on cost, and so protect its turf.
But even though much of this academic battle has been fought out behind closed doors, and in academic papers and specialist journals, much of the mischief making has also crept into the mainstream.
It is often the basis of the conservative attachment to the concept of “baseload” as de-facto proof of “reliability” – even when it isn’t – and their complete rejection of “intermittent” sources of supply of wind and solar.
The concept of a “flexible” and “dispatchable” grid is beyond them – either because incumbent business models would be ruined or because of an ideology, based around the refusal to believe that the Greens could not possibly have been right.
The latest salvo has been fired by two UNSW academics, Mark Diesendorf and Ben Elliston – the authors of a series of landmark studies since 2012 on how Australia could shift to 100 per cent renewables, and do so cost effectively.
That theme is no longer considered to be outlandish by most in the energy sector. The network lobby and the CSIRO painted their own scenario for 100 per cent renewables in Australia in 2016, and utilities like Transgrid say it is feasible and affordable. Even AEMO said it could be done.
Their latest paper – “The feasibility of 100% renewable electricity systems: A response to critics”, published in Science Direct – seeks to expose and dismiss the “myths” it says are used by scholarly journals, popular articles, media, websites, blogs and statements by politicians to attack wind and solar.
“The rapid growth of renewable energy (RE) is disrupting and transforming the global energy system, especially the electricity industry,” Diesendorf and Elliston write.
“As a result, supporters of the politically powerful incumbent industries and others are critiquing the feasibility of large-scale electricity generating systems based predominantly on RE.”
Diesendorf and Elliston says it is clear that 100 per cent renewable energy systems – including those predominantly supplied by variable sources such as wind and solar – can be readily designed to meet the needs of reliability, security and affordability.
They say the main critiques of the idea contain “factual errors, questionable assumptions, important omissions, internal inconsistencies, exaggerations of limitations and irrelevant arguments.”
And it has ever been thus, they note, citing this quote below.
“We were once afraid of what would happen when wind energy generation reached 5% of the total consumption. We then worried about approaching 10% – would the system be able to cope? Some years later, we said that 20% had to be the absolute limit! However, in 2016, Danish wind turbines produced more than the total electricity consumption for 317 h of the year, and we barely give this any thought.” – Peter Jørgensen, Vice President Associated Activities, Energinet.dk
Diesendorf and Elliston say that the principal barriers to 100 per cent renewable electricity are “neither technological nor economic”, but instead are primarily “political, institutional and cultural,” and the protection of vested interests.
The head of the world’s biggest utility, China State Grid, has said much the same thing.
The main targets of this study are a collection of papers lead-authored by the likes of Australians Barry Brook, Ben Heard, and Corey Bradshaw, all fervent critics of renewables and advocates of nuclear power in Australia.
It also draws into the raging and bitter battle between Stanford academics led by Mark Jacobsen, who has written extensively of the opportunities for 100 per cent renewables, and another team led by Chris Clack.
“Contrary to unsupported claims by pro-nuclear RE critics that base-load power stations are essential, several of the simulation studies achieve reliability with zero or negligible base-load capacity,” Diesendorf and Elliston say.
They also point to other misconceptions and myths commonly found in the conservative press and media discourse.
This includes a favourite of the pro-nuclear critics of wind and solar, including “biologists Brook and Bradshaw” who insist that each renewable energy power station needs to be dispatchable – a myth readily adopted by the Coalition government in their campaign against high penetration of renewables.
The authors note that both simulations and practical experience show that this is unnecessary for a reliable generating system.
The other defence of nuclear over wind and solar is the assumption of an ever-ballooning demand for energy, which appears to ignore energy efficiency, or the fact that a unit of electricity from wind and solar uses three times less energy to produce than fossil fuels, and EVs half as much as internal combustion engines.
The paper goes on to dismiss the myths that renewables can’t power an industrial society, and criticises technical details such as the absurdly low capacity factors attributed to wind farms, and the false assumption that capital costs of wind and solar farms are ignored, and that large amounts of wind are curtailed in Australia.
Actually, it is little more than 2 per cent.
Diesendorf and Elliston go through the many false assumptions propagated by the pro-nuclear lobby. But they lament that this inadequate understanding of the engineering, scientific and quantitative modelling has found its way through to the political mainstream.
They cite the Australian Coalition government’s attack of Labor 50 per cent targets – both state and federal – as “reckless”, the UK government’s attachment for nuclear because of the “need for baseload”, and President Trump’s administration defence of coal and nuclear over renewables.
“Clearly political ideology and the capture of governments by powerful vested interests is a major barrier,” Diesendorf and Elliston write. “Critics of RE who misrepresent RE can be seen as part of that political barrier, giving support to politicians who are unduly influenced by incumbent industries.
They compare the campaign to that run by the tobacco industry to sow doubts about the serious adverse health impacts of their product and their (for a long time successful) attempts to delay action.
But they note that the rapid growth and declining costs of renewable energy are weakening the influence of such vested interests, as is the arrival and cost reductions in battery and other storage.
But resistance continues, from market designs that favour fossil fuel technologies, neoliberal economic rhetoric of “leave it to the market”, even in a system where market failure is endemic; and the efforts of utilities to cling to their traditional business models.
And there is also strong resistance from a few older power engineers, who remain attach to the concepts of base-load, intermediate and peak load power stations and … “cannot envisage a system that contains a large fraction of variable RElec and where demand can be modified almost instantaneously.”
“Electricity supply systems, operating on 100% renewable energy with the major proportion from variable renewables, are technically feasible, reliable and affordable for many countries and regions of the world,” the authors write.
“This is even true if future RElec is limited to technologies that are commercially available now. Regions with insufficient local RE resources will in future be able to import RE via transmission line and/or tanker carrying renewable fuels.
“RE’s environmental and health impacts are much less than those of fossil fuels and, within a risk fra- mework that recognizes low-probability high-impact events, nuclear power.
“RE contributes to community development and participatory democracy, and is compatible with a steady-state economy. A 100% RElec system can provide directly, and indirectly via renewable fuels, all future energy use, including transport and heat.
“The principal barriers that are slowing the transition are the poli- tical power of the incumbent fossil fuel, nuclear and electricity in- dustries, bolstered by misinformation disseminated by RE critics, and existing institutions such as market rules that are inappropriate for climate mitigation and discourage RElec and flexible, dispatchable power stations.
“The inertia against change can be overcome by the growing public awareness of the increasing impacts of climate change, the competitive economics of RElec, and positive visions of a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable future.
“However, because time is of the essence, community groups and the population at large must increase pressure on govern- ments to resist vested interests and transition to 100RElec and then 100RE.”