Home > Economics - General, Environment > The myth of baseload power demand

The myth of baseload power demand

July 22nd, 2009

Today’s Fin has a leader arguing that we should be laying the ground for a move to nuclear power. It’s commendably realistic about the long time lags involved, and argues we should get started on preparations now. My view is that it would be better to wait and see if the US makes progress on its (currently faltering) attempts to revive the industry there. But the thing that really got me going was the repetition of the claim that alternative energy sources are problematic because they can’t meet “baseload power demand”.

I’ve said before that this claim is wrong, but I think it’s time to sharpen my position, and state two claims:

*There is no relevant sense in which baseload power demand is a meaningful concept in our current electricity supply system.

*Any electricity supply system likely to exist in the next 40 years and capable of meeting peak power demand will have no problems meeting baseload demand.

The first point may seem paradoxical, but the reasoning is quite straightforward. Our current electricity system is based primarily on coal-fired power stations which cannot be turned on and off at short notice. So, generating power during times of peak demand (daytime) entails generating power during off-peak times, even if there is no demand for that power at a price that covers average costs. That is, we have a baseload supply, which easily exceeds the demand for off-peak power at average cost, and sometimes even at fuel cost. The result, as we observe, is that off-peak power must be heavily discounted, and even so, demand is barely enough to keep the turbines turning.

To consider any meaningful notion of baseload demand, we could do a bottom-up analysis, and consider how much of electricity demand corresponds to the notion of a continuous, stable 24/7 demand. In the average household, for example, this would include the fridge and those ‘vampire’ appliances that are left on standby all the time. In addition, of course, lots of households have off-peak hot water, but this is only because of the price incentives designed to get rid of the excess baseload supply. The same points apply to offices and a most industrial uses (including some that operate at night to take advantage of cheap power, even though other costs are higher). There are only a few continuous processes like aluminium smelting that really constitute baseload demand in the strict sense. Of course, there are off-peak demands that don’t constitute baseload in the strict sense, like people watching TV at 3am, but there’s no reason to think that such demands are large.

To get a quantitative handle, we can use the following analysis: currently off peak prices are about half of daytime prices, and offpeak demand is about half of daytime demand (illustrative numbers only, will fix). If we didn’t discount offpeak electricity, it seems likely that offpeak demand would be around a quarter of daytime demand.

So, as long as 25 per cent of supply is generated by baseload suppliers like coal, oil, geothermal and nuclear, our main problem will be one of excess baseload supply, as at present. We’re unlikely to reach that point for some decades. But even then, the offpeak demand could be met by reliable sources that are independent of time of day, most obviously gas and hydro. In that case, standard principles of marginal cost pricing would suggest that there should be no off-peak discount. In such a system, the baseload sources would be used optimally, rather than generating excess low-value electricity as at present.

A baseload demand problem would only emerge in a system reliant almost entirely (more than 75 per cent) on solar electricity. And, even if such a problem emerged, it could be dealt with exactly as we deal with our current problem of excess baseload supply, by changing relative prices.

I haven’t dealt with the separate problem of supply variability from solar and wind (hint: the answer has to do with prices, as before). But, in our current circumstances, and as regards marginal increments to the system, the far bigger problem is that of supply invariability. It is a positive disadvantage for nuclear that it generates power 24 hours a day rather than solely during the daytime. Much of that power, and the fuel used to generate it, is effectively wasted.

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:
  1. July 22nd, 2009 at 18:14 | #1

    Baseload demand may be somewhat mythical but claiming a need for most power sources to be either continuous in output (like coal) or else controllable in output (like hydro) seems reasonably sound. Whilst some demand can be readily defered from day to night or vise versa it isn’t so straight forward to defer demand from less windy weeks to more windy weeks.

    If the future electricity sources are going to be more variable it seems odd that the federal government is subsidising a move away from electric water heaters. The controllable nature of these loads seems like an ideal away to help manage demand.

    Geothermal energy (eg that proposed being trialed by Geodynamics in the Cooper Basin) would provide baseload style supply. And it certainly seems that this would be a heck of a lot cheaper than photovoltaics.

  2. jquiggin
    July 22nd, 2009 at 18:19 | #2

    As I point out in the article, controllable is good. Continuous (which implies uncontrollable) is not so good.

  3. khr
    July 22nd, 2009 at 18:27 | #3

    Solar power produced by concantrating the heat to drive turbines can produce electicity well into the night.


    The trick is to store the heat in isolated containers and draw on it during the night.

    I can’t judge the claims of the proponents of the scheme, but they claim it is economically feasible.


  4. rog
    July 22nd, 2009 at 18:57 | #4

    Surely the claim that “baseload power demand” is a myth is, in fact, a hypothesis that needs to be proved?

    Ditto “Our current electricity system is based primarily on coal-fired power stations which cannot be turned on and off at short notice.”

    It is the turbines that generate the power and the source can be coal or gas or nuclear or whatever you like.

    The problem with solar etc is that they cant “meet the demand”, the demand will have to light candles or whatever until the clouds disperse.

  5. Ikonoclast
    July 22nd, 2009 at 19:09 | #5

    I’m a fan of the solar convection tower concept myself. However, I’ve posted on that topic in the past.

    If only we would adopt a simple carbon tax whilst at the same time phasing out all fuel and power generation subsidies. The resultant undistorted market would give us a sustainable energy mix. But, oops I’ve posted on that too.

    The corporates will ignore us and burn all the coal anyway. Oops, said that too.

  6. Fran Barlow
    July 22nd, 2009 at 19:12 | #6

    You might also conseder john, more load-sensitive technologies such as pumped storage (ben cruachan in Scotland for example) which can bridge the power slews in a modenr power supply system.

    A useful and detailed discussion of the issues you raise is to be found here (in a UK context)



  7. Fran Barlow
    July 22nd, 2009 at 19:31 | #7


    Personally, I believe a cap and trade system offers more than a tax provided the structures are right, though I could certainly live with a tax as an interim measure if the structures were right and it didn;t underprice carbon emissions. The trouble is that a tax in practice is simply a soft option, since politically taxes are less defencible than assets such as carbon certificates.

    Let’s face it, once carbon emission becomes securitised, business will be wedged on policy, whereas with taxes, everyone can be seen as against them.

  8. Ikonoclast
    July 22nd, 2009 at 19:58 | #8

    “Baseload” and “baseload demand” are somewhat different concepts. Baseload is the minimum continuous amount of power required in a serviced region over a typical 24 hour period. On any given day, it’s a trivial fact that baseload equals baseload demand. However, for the long haul, “baseload demand” is a more elastic concept.

    I’m sure that JQ was not saying baseload power (per se) is a myth but rather that baseload DEMAND as it exists under our current system is not an immutable fact but an artefact, to some extent, of pricing systems created to suit coal-fired generation. The baseload requirement is an empirical fact but it is an outcome of a complex system. In practice it is partly determined by “intrinsic demand” and partly determined or modified by pricing decisions meant to “smooth” demand to some extent. Other factors will play their roles also.

    I think JQ was saying the current baseload DEMAND argument used as a justification for large baseload plants (coal, nuclear etc) is a myth. A baseload standard that is at least partially an artefact of the current system (generation methods and pricing methods to suit those generation methods) is being held up as a fundamental precondition which all systems must meet.

  9. Ikonoclast
    July 22nd, 2009 at 20:40 | #9

    To reply to Fran Barlow on “cap and trade”. A cap and trade system for carbon dioxide emissions is (in one sense) merely a tax at one remove. Instead of taxing directly, the government requires producers to pay a licencing fee for permits to pollute. It then allows these permits to be traded creating an artificial trade in a negative externality that affects a commons.

    Of course, trade in negative externalities is possible (and economically logical) when a negative externality (the trash on my property for example) directly affects private amenity and the proprieter is prepared to pay to have the trash removed. But trade in negative externalities which affect a commons makes no sense at all.

    There is no economically “rational” way to price such a trade so it is still priced by legislation, corporate lobbying, corporate swindling (I say that advisedly), sweet heart deals, political patronage etc etc. However, it is then “put out to market” in a kind of financial “laundering” fashion so that it comes out whiter than white and can strut around in its fraudulent free market frills.

    The “cap” in cap and trade is clarly a TOTAL LIE and I can back that claim if you wish. Read the relevant government papers and note the numerous “get-out” clauses for national government and corporations. The cap is totally illusory, all smoke and mirrors. Cap and trade equals business as usual.

    The above is an iron-clad case to anyone who applies the correct amounts of logic and justified wordly cyncism. It is simpler and more honest to price CO2 emissions by taxation using a sliding formula (continually amended by feedback of actual system outcomes) to reach zero net emissions by say 2050. I have not found anyone who can effectively refute my arguments on this issue.

  10. DDelay
    July 22nd, 2009 at 21:38 | #10

    With respect, what you have forgotten in this analysis is that even baseload plants, which are designed to run 24/7, must be taken down for maintenance sometime. This is usually done in the seasonal off peak periods. The implication of courese is the need for baseload capacity higher than the 25% figure.

    I suggest you may want to speak to a utility engineer with experience in running a power system.

  11. Hermit
    July 22nd, 2009 at 21:49 | #11

    I note that estimates of energy savings from smart meters range from 2-20% suggesting that households are not as flexible in their electricity demand as we think. When it has rained for a week you may have no option but to use the tumble dryer. Strictly speaking baseload capacity should be a lower limit which is always needed, say 40% of peak. A bugbear of wind and solar is the need for standby fossil fuelled (usually gas) plant to make up for lulls in output. Systems which oblige electricity retailers to purchase available renewables may force some coal plant into less optimal part load.

    A heralded advantage of 4th generation nuclear is variable output as well as lower capital cost and minimal waste. Note that wind and solar may both perform poorly when it is calm and cloudy. Baseload doesn’t need backing up with a large ‘shadow’ capacity. A recent UK report concluded that overbuilding of wind capacity and building extra transmission line could be twice as expensive as equivalent output nuclear. Sure wind is quicker to build but I’m not sure in Australia the current build rate is a high as in the later Howard years. In my opinion Australia should aim for some 20 gigawatts of base or intermediate load nuclear power as soon as possible. A number of decrepit or highly polluting coal fired power stations should be demolished never to be replaced.

  12. Steve
    July 22nd, 2009 at 21:57 | #12

    I’m totally with you JQ. I’m a bit tired of seeing people use the expression ‘baseload’ in debates on the merits of renewable energy, when they clearly haven’t an understanding of what it means.

    Our energy system needs multiple kinds of generation: baseload to provide 24/7 loads at lowest cost, peak load, to respond to rapid changes in demand and keep everything balanced, and ‘green load’, to reduce the emissions intensity of the grid overall.

    An idea Ive seen for replacement of off-peak hot water: electric vehicle battery recharging.

    DDelay: seems like you are mixing the idea of reserve capacity in with the idea of baseload, in a confounding sort of way.

  13. Salient Green
    July 22nd, 2009 at 22:05 | #13

    With the projected electrification of our transport, there could be much more demand for baseload power such as for charging batteries off peak. A future smart system utilizing the storage capacity of millions of vehicles could see the difference between peak and off peak reduced.

    Everything I could find on the LFTR suggests it can be quickly started and stopped, meaning this type of nuclear power will be much more flexible anyway than what we currently know as base load. If Australia is going to go nuclear it should go directly to this type of 4th gen reactor IMHO.

  14. Don Arthur
    July 22nd, 2009 at 22:39 | #14

    Interesting post.
    The idea that the shape of the load curve is a function of price makes sense. And so does the idea that the price of off-peak electricity depends on the technology used to generate it.
    But I’m curious about the claim that “If we didn’t discount offpeak electricity, it seems likely that offpeak demand would be around a quarter of daytime demand”.
    I don’t know much about the electricity business, but I’ve seen load curves for Ontario (see link below) and the difference between day and night doesn’t seem that great. While residential demand varies a great deal by time of day, industrial and commercial demand seems to vary less. I’d be interested to see data for Australian cities. As I say, I don’t really know a lot about this.
    I’m not sure how much changes in off-peak price would affect the load curves for the non-residential sectors. And I’m not sure what proportion they consume relative to the residential sector.

  15. Chris O’Neill
    July 22nd, 2009 at 22:43 | #15

    You might also conseder john, more load-sensitive technologies such as pumped storage (ben cruachan in Scotland for example) which can bridge the power slews in a modenr power supply system.

    Pumped storage schemes already in Australia:

    Bendeela (1977), 80 MW

    Kangaroo Valley (1977), 160 MW

    Poatina & Tods Corner (1964), 312 & 1.6 MW.

    Tumut Three (1973), 1,500 MW

    Wivenhoe Power Station, 510 MW

    BTW, as that article points out:

    A new concept in pumped storage is to utilise wind turbines or solar power to drive water pumps directly, in effect an ‘Energy Storing Wind or Solar Dam’. This could provide a more efficient process and usefully smooth out the variabilities of energy captured from the wind or sun

    citing http://www.solarnavigator.net/alternative_energy.htm and http://www.inference.phy.cam.ac.uk/sustainable/refs/tide/WindPumpedStor.pdf

  16. Michael
    July 22nd, 2009 at 23:14 | #16

    Interest discussion. A few points, nuclear power-stations can only be underwritten and funded by governments due to their huge liabilities. In this climate of PPP’s funding infrastructure a nuclear power plant is out of the question. I remember reading that the carbon emissions from the amount of concrete required in a nuclear power plant would also be considerable. In the Australian context discussing nuclear seems to be a fantasy.

    As far as baseload power goes, I believe that the potential to reduce electricity consumption or oil consumption has been underestimated (smart meter trails not withstanding). I know this from personal experience after buying some panel heaters. Before my electricity bills shot up I wasn’t particularly aware or interested in how much electricity I was using. After some low cost modifications to the house and some low impact changes in lifestyle my electricity consumption was more than halved. The number of people lumbering around trying to park ridiculously large SUV’s is a testament to peoples lack of awareness of energy consumption.

    What would be the economic effects of phasing in a switch from a GST to Carbon tax that was essentially revenue neutral?

  17. July 22nd, 2009 at 23:32 | #17

    Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t get JQ’s final point:
    “It is a positive disadvantage for nuclear that it generates power 24 hours a day rather than solely during the daytime. Much of that power, and the fuel used to generate it, is effectively wasted.”

    Why does it matter if energy is wasted if it produces next to nil CO2 in the process? And in any event, as someone else has said, for electric cars to be the future of transport, there’s going to be a lot of overnight re-charging going on a decade or so. The “wasteful” new nuclear power plants that could do that will only just be coming on line by then anyway.

  18. Freelander
    July 23rd, 2009 at 05:29 | #18

    If your only tool is a hammer everything looks like a nail. If you are a nuclear physicist then every solution is a nuclear reactor.

  19. Dick Veldkamp
    July 23rd, 2009 at 05:41 | #19

    Great piece!

    As a wind turbine engineer, let me add this:

    As a rule of thumb, up to 20% or so wind energy grid penetration presents no problem. I think of it this way: there is always variation in demand; wind energy just adds a varying negative demand. Total variation in demand with wind is not much larger than without it, so you do not need extra capacity. The notion can be made more precise with simulations.

    Then there’s lots of things you could do with pricing. How about getting 10% discount on your electricity bill if you accept you COULD be switched off 2 times a year in case of power shortage?

    As regards nuclear:
    – AFAIK, at current uranium use (for 16% of world electricity) there is only uranium left for 50 years or so (there’s more ore, but below the energy recovery limit). Suppose you step up nuclear, that time span would go down further. If we have to switch to wind and solar anyway, why postpone it?
    – Plant construction (as well as removal) and ore refining produce CO2. There are wildly varying estimates for this, from “nearly zero” to “so large the industry will never be able to pay back the existing energy debt”.

    P.S. How about not discussing radioactive pollution and terrorist threats, but stick to managing demand/production and CO2-consequences?

  20. Ernestine Gross
    July 23rd, 2009 at 06:24 | #20

    “Then there’s lots of things you could do with pricing. How about getting 10% discount on your electricity bill if you accept you COULD be switched off 2 times a year in case of power shortage?”

    Nice attempt to apply the notion of ‘state contingent commodity’. A few cavets, please:

    1) A power shortage is entirely due to ‘states of nature’. (No moral hazard on the supply side)

    2) The wealth (income) distribution is sufficiently similar such that personal purchasing power is not a binding constraint on accepting discounted prices for unreliable power supply.

    3) Purchasing contracts of state contingent power supply are contingent on other prespecified conditions (eg climatic conditions relative to ‘averages’, personal health not under the control of the person; no moral hazard on the demand side).

    4) The resource costs of monitoring (physical and monetary accounting) and dispute resolution (legal) are also state contingent contracts, the prices of which are to be included in the initial decision making.

    Sounds easy and non-bureaucratic?

    An alternative is to charge a surcharge for non-essential power usage. What is non-essential is a socio-culturally determined parameter.

  21. Alice
    July 23rd, 2009 at 08:27 | #21

    I simply cant see why we cant harness more solar in this country…..why pink bats when it could have been solar panels?. Why couldnt the govt start its own solar panel manufacturing (create jobs at the same time as get economies of scale)? Solar Australia – Fed Government initiative. Double stimulus when it installs them, a boost to GDP and a boost back to the budget. Positive externalities and clean power – reduced costs for those less able to afford power could lead to lower welfare costs. When I was in Hawaii early this year I saw miles and miles of solar panels on rooves of houses. I cant see why not here. Its a pretty sunny country.

  22. Ikonoclast
    July 23rd, 2009 at 09:01 | #22

    There is no econo-physical reason why we cannot harness more solar in this country. The reasons we do not are corporate-political. The political power nexus comprised by Corporate Fossils and our Two Party / One Ideology System remains committed to business-as-usual. The correct description of our system would be ‘Two Party Corporate State with soft pretentions to democracy’. The ‘soft pretensions’ phrase is John Ralston Saul’s.

    Until this econo-political system is transformed politically or is severely disrupted by natural calamities we will get no substantial progress in greenhouse gas abatement nor in renewable energy use. Politically the system appears very stable in Australia so I expect no real change to be initiated on that front. Current stability does not in itself indicate a good prognosis. A well-trimmed ship in a smart breeze is stable but if that ship is headed straight for a reef the future chances of passengers and crew are not good.

    If real change is not likely to be initiated on the econo-political front then we must await the natural calamities to drive home the need for change. These will be calamities exogenous to the (neoclassical view of) the political economy. Climate change, sea level rise and resource depletion will drive these calamities. This outcome can now be predicted with close to 100% certainty.

  23. Alice
    July 23rd, 2009 at 09:29 | #23

    Nothing like being proactive Ikono (JR Saul – how good is that econo historian?).

  24. July 23rd, 2009 at 09:40 | #24

    I find myself agreeing a lot with Ikonclast. Especially with comment #5 and #9. Although I would not call a market with a carbon tax an “undistorted market”.

  25. Joe
    July 23rd, 2009 at 10:02 | #25

    An example of waste of electricity is suburban street lighting. As every dog walker knows, there are very few people walking the suburban streets after 9 pm, and the other users of the streets (motor vehicles) have their own lights! Turning off the lights in suburban streets from 11 pm to 6 am would save a reasonable amount of energy.
    But it will not happen, because of the outrage from people who never go out at night because they are afraid of the dark.
    I think it is helpful to think of nuclear waste as the ‘greenhouse gas’ of nuclear power – “it’s not a problem, later generations will be able to deal with it, etc”. But of course it is our problem. And we have been working on the problem slightly longer than we have been trying to ‘tame fusion’, which is a bit of a worry.
    I like the preview screen.

  26. July 23rd, 2009 at 10:32 | #26

    Turning off the lights in suburban streets from 11 pm to 6 am would save a reasonable amount of energy.

    There would be crime and personal safety implications. You could fit the street lights with motion detectors but I suspect street lights that turn on and off as people walk past might be quite annoying to adjacent households.

  27. Joe
    July 23rd, 2009 at 10:38 | #27

    But Terje, there’s no-one on the streets! And personal safety! carry a flashlight! Should the taxpayer be subsidising personal safety?

  28. July 23rd, 2009 at 10:50 | #28

    Should the taxpayer be subsidising personal safety?

    If we are going to have taxpayers then personal safety from violent assault should be at the top of the list of things they subsidise. I’m not rejecting your suggestion and I’ve previously arrived at the same thought independently however it isn’t without implications. The introduction of public street lighting does stem from an era when personal lighting was a lot less convienent or effective so perhaps it is something that is in need of review.

    If the technical smarts were affordable you could have street lights that talk to eachother and which slowly dim to an off state if nobody has been walking in the area for the last five minutes and which then slowly turn the light back up again as pedestrian approach is detected.

    Turn off the street lights has other benefits. We could see more stars. And we would save money on electricity.

  29. Hal9000
    July 23rd, 2009 at 12:58 | #29

    Street lighting was a huge thing when it was introduced in the nineteenth century, when it became a marker for civilisation. The major issue at the time was the danger and inconvenience caused by horsedrawn transport at night, which carried no lighting. Pedestrians stepping into piles of horse poo were the least of it. The nights were all the darker at the time due to the burning of coal in domestic hearths. None of these issues remain. I like Terje’s theatre lighting proposal – if every car made these days can have slowly dimming interior lights, I’d be confident it wouldn’t be too difficult for street lights.

  30. brisbanedavey
    July 23rd, 2009 at 13:04 | #30

    JQ – the only power source I can think of that is ‘controllable’ in an on-off sense is gas-fired power generation. Geothermal, Wind, Solar, Coal, Nuclear are all uncontrollable in that sense. They will work continuously, or not at all during night (and low wind if placed poorly). Only gas can be quickly turned on and off in response to demand. Or diesel-fired generation I guess, but who wants that on a large scale?

    Large-scale geothermal would be good, becasue who cares about ‘waste’ when the energy input is free and the generation process does not produce CO2? Pebble-bed nuclear is almost as good. The inputs aren’t free but they last a long time and generate energy in a similarly self-contained, carbon-free process. Either of those would be good as major energy providers, with gas for peaking, and why not solar thermal for daytime too? Solar PV and wind for small-scale and remote needs. Sorted.

    Also suburban street lights are for drivers, not pedestrians. Try driving down an unlit street at night and see if you enjoy the experience, especially on those hill corners. Seeing the ‘man lurking in the bushes’ is a secondary benefit to the road safety gains.

  31. Joe
    July 23rd, 2009 at 13:58 | #31

    brisbanedav, I’d say the unpleasantness of driving on unlit streets is because we are not used to it. Driving on unlit roads in the country is not unpleasant.
    On the crime/personal safety issues, with the money saved you could improve safety at ‘hotspots’.
    Terje and Hal9000, thanks for your comments.
    On the nuclear issue, I find it interesting that the technophiles are very often enamoured of large scale ‘solutions’ such as 4G nuclear power stations, but have very little faith in local solutions, such as generating hydrogen by electrolysis using PV that got a mention at http://www.theoildrum.com a while ago.

  32. July 23rd, 2009 at 14:24 | #32

    On the street light issue, Time magazine a few weeks ago ran a story that began:

    Every night at 11 p.m. the village of Dörentrup in central Germany is thrown into total darkness. For the past few years, the village’s cash-strapped local council has been switching off all the streetlights in the village each evening until 6 a.m. the following morning. In most places, a nightly blackout would provoke outrage as residents find themselves fumbling and stumbling their way home through the dark. But in Dörentrup, they have seen the light, with a new scheme that allows residents to turn on streetlights on demand — anytime, anywhere — using just their cell phones.


    I always like to see the stars more clearly when there is a blackout, so a scheme that might substantially reduce light pollution (as well as save energy) appeals to me.

  33. Fran Barlow
    July 23rd, 2009 at 15:16 | #33

    A couple of quick points [email protected]

    1. Tax based systems suffer from all the objections you raise to cap and trade and a couple you haven’t mentioned.
    2. It certainly is possible to calculate the value of neagtive externalities by deriving them from pro-rata harm/restitution, or perhaps the costs of removing the offending emission from the air etc. Without such a basis you can’t impose a tax without it being seen or presented as arbitrary. It’s said that CC&S will be competitive at a price of $100per tonne of CO2. That would do for a start. Industry could say no way and propose abandoning it, or accept it, or more likely fall about squabbling amongst themselves. I’d like that.
    3. The “protect local industry from ruinous uncompetitive taxes” claim is going to make for a very weak price and possibly swingeing tariffs.
    4. Giving industry tradeable certiificates takes the issue out of the political arena and wedges business, since those who buy and sell certificates will have an interest in opposing anything that would undermine their value. If they think, as many claim, that the price will rise much more quickly than inflation, they have an interest in buying them as a hedge and opposing sweetheart deals with parts of industry who traditionally get them. They also have an interest in trading them off-shore and pressing for jurisdictional reconciliation of these securities.

    Divide and conquer!
    4. Giv

  34. Fran Barlow
    July 23rd, 2009 at 15:20 | #34

    The idea of turning off street lights and having start up motion-sensitive is a good one. I understand that councils on the NSW north coast are progressively phasing in HPS lights which are far more long lived than the present ones — up to 30 years — which reduces maintenance costs — and use a fraction of the energy per lumen.

  35. Alice
    July 23rd, 2009 at 15:27 | #35

    @steven from brisbane

    Steve not a bad idea to turn the streetlights off but Id rather have a flashlight than have to use my cell phone to light my way – imagine trying to find the phone at the bottom of your bag in pitch darkness. Its hard enough in daylight and I object it costing me money even if only for a phonecall.
    I once walked home from a dinner in a blackout because no taxi came. That was interesting and it was much easier in bare feet than in high heels.

  36. Hermit
    July 23rd, 2009 at 15:33 | #36

    The pollies with current approval ratings like Rudd, Swan and Brown are all anti-nuke. The public seems untroubled by the lack of progress of wavepower, carbon capture or dry rock geothermal. Therefore I think it will take some galvanizing event like a bad El Nino for coal’s prominence to be aggressively questioned.

    I think there will be a huge rush to gas within five years. Gas fired generation has half the CO2 emissions of coal and it creates more than enough backup for showpiece wind farms, described by Lovelock as a ‘gesture’. Since gas demand will be world wide LNG exports will perhaps quadruple. According to Wikipedia natural gas derived nitrogen fertiliser enables the survival of a third of the world’s population. Meanwhile countries like Argentina, Iran and Pakistan are are switching their vehicle fleets to compressed natural gas. Therefore someone will undoubtedly say let’s not use so much gas for electrical generation. If solar and wind can’t displace coal then what?

  37. Fran Barlow
    July 23rd, 2009 at 16:03 | #37

    I suspect you may be right about gas, hermit. It’s kind of a soft option, though IIRC the emissions per BTU are about 70% of anthracite.

    Seriously though, the key to getting intermittents to produce despatchable power to meet slews is the creation of a big enough buffer — effective storage. The most attractive and scaleable of these IMO is pumped storage, retrofitted to places where there is hydro where possible, and built for purpose otherwise.

    You can make pumped storage “dual personality” alternating with desal as needed and you can of course store power from any source — intermittent renewables, coal, nuclear etc … meaning that one need not build pumped storage on the basis of a commitment to renewables. Pumped storage can reduce the need for redundancy even in an utterly conventional grid, reducing emissions intensity. That wasted coalfired capacity JQ mentioned could be reduced sharply and we could put the spinning reserve largely aside as well, saving even more.

    Of course, with substantial pumped storage, intermittents can operate in place of traditional thermal sources, especially if one does demand management, smart metering etc.

    Of course,

  38. Ken
    July 23rd, 2009 at 22:07 | #38

    I like pumped storage but it’s very geographically and climatically constrained. Compressed air and thermal like molten salt certainly have potential but it’s not about whether technologies can store energy it’s whether we can consider the shift to low emissions optional according to price. I don’t consider it optional at all.

    Much as I believe we are well able to service our energy requirements from renewables and should I don’t doubt nuclear will be back on the table – I think that climate change is serious enough that it must be – however, Oz is not going there any time soon and not before new Gen nuclear begins proving itself elsewhere. I do know that if we have to have it, it should be the best of nuclear. Whether it’s IFR running off existing spent uranium, Thorium or pebble-bed it will only come after politics in our country truly takes climate change seriously and bipartisan policy bypasses the Greens.
    Meanwhile, as we speak coal exploration and approval of new mines goes on. Growing coal production being locked in from the world’s no.1 exporter (and some people still think what we do is small time). That is indicative of where policy currently is really at. The ETS wouldn’t be cutting one thirtieth of the increases from our coal exports!

    I have some hope that mainstream Australia will accept the new climate change reality as presented by CSIRO, BoM etc over what I think of as 3D’ers – Doubt, Deny, Delay… (a lot like ID’ers only with a poorer grasp of science): The Australian will get a new editorial slant that doesn’t include climate denial: Conservative politics will see climate change as the real threat to our prosperity and security it actually is and face it square on. Oh, and Labour will come to see climate change as the threat it actually is and face it square on! Until then it’s greenwash from all. I’m doubtful it will happen soon enough.

  39. Donald Oats
    July 24th, 2009 at 01:53 | #39

    A lot of rural folk don’t take kindly to talk of anthropogenic global warming, or climate change more broadly. I think the Carter Crew have rather sadly contributed to locking down rural people’s beliefs concerning AGW, namely that it is some sort of confidence trick being played on us suckers. Luckily there are other rural people, who for whatever reason, have spent time looking into the issues surrounding AGW and have accepted that the scientific case is strong enough to commit to necessary changes.

    It is good to see here on this blog that people are able to come up with plenty of technologies capable of servicing a sizable fraction of our energy demands while meeting the goal of GHG reduction. One other thing that may reduce “baseload demand” or perhaps changes the definition of it, is the fact that smaller communities may choose to set up there own power production making them effectively “off-grid” for all intents and purposes. Where I live there is ample sunlight and a reasonable wind profile along the hills nearby. Couple household level power generation with community-based power generation and a small (but hopefully significant) fraction of Australia wouldn’t need to be coalfired power customers.

  40. Donald Oats
    July 24th, 2009 at 01:55 | #40

    And before anyone beats me to it, yes, I am using off-peak power right now. But I’ll change my ways, surely I will!

  41. July 24th, 2009 at 02:23 | #41

    Whilst nuclear is on the radar this technology looks like it is worth a look:-


  42. Fran Barlow
    July 24th, 2009 at 07:45 | #42

    @Donald Oats

    In this context Donald, did you hear this on PM yesterday?


    Three big manufacturing companies in regional Victoria say they’ll be able to meet a voluntary 30 per cent target to cut greenhouse pollution by next year. … Bill Youl from Don KRC is confident the company can meet a 30 per cent reduction target by next year. … Dr Bill Lilley from the CSIRO he says a lot of energy is lost in transmission.

    BILL LILLEY: That electricity is being sent out to the grid, and in transferring that electricity from the point of generation to the point of use, we lose about another 17 per cent.


  43. Fran Barlow
    July 24th, 2009 at 07:49 | #43

    The article above speaks of the advantages both of energy efficiency, co-gen and local generation. I wasn’t aware that transmission losses over 250km were as high as indicated — a regularly quoted figure is about 10% for 1000km, but this suggests there’s a lot of low hanging fruit both in generating power locally and in HVDC lines to lower losses moving power over distance.

  44. Fran Barlow
    July 24th, 2009 at 07:51 | #44

    And in terms of managing slews V2G is worth a look. This too was on PM yesterday:


    It sounds very attractive.

  45. Salient Green
    July 24th, 2009 at 08:38 | #45

    Energy transmission and distribution losses.
    click on ‘per capita’ for another perspective.
    According to wiki, US and UK losses were 7.2% and 7.4%. From that I would have to say that improving efficiency at the power station will be far more effective in the short term.

  46. Michael of Summer Hill
    July 24th, 2009 at 08:59 | #46

    Fran, you have hit the nail wright on the head for the biggest problem facing the renewable energy sector (ie wind-power) are costs associated with ‘distance’ rather than ‘markets’ for until a solution is found clean coal technology will be more efficient and cheaper.

  47. Fran Barlow
    July 24th, 2009 at 09:08 | #47

    @Michael of Summer Hill

    “Clean coal” (an oxymoron if ever there was one) cannot in the foreseeable future, ever meet reasonable feasibility tests as well as almost any other source of power. EROEIs are very poor, capacity for secure storage limited, timelines to commercial construction far too long, incidental emissions still high, and coal mining is at least as harmful to health as smoking heavily. The transport of coal is itself a major burden on infrastructure. Apparently in the US, 40% of rail freight by weight is coal. CC&S would increase that a lot, whereas reducing it would free up capacity for other goods.


  48. Fran Barlow
    July 24th, 2009 at 09:14 | #48

    @Salient Green

    Interesting. I’d like to see it expressed and ranked as a proportion of power delivered, or expressed as a function of extra installed capacity needed to cover the losses.


  49. Michael of Summer Hill
    July 24th, 2009 at 09:33 | #49

    Fran, until more money is poured into the renewable energy sector Australia has no alternative.

  50. Fran Barlow
    July 24th, 2009 at 09:51 | #50

    @Michael of Summer Hill
    The money poured into CC&S will certainly be at the expense of the renewable energy sector despite the latter’s far greater feasibility

  51. Salient Green
    July 24th, 2009 at 14:55 | #51

    Fran, this one sets it all out. http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf64.html

    Penny Wong was asked about the Govt’s positon on nuclear power this morning on ABC 891. She said we are blessed with tides, wind, solar and geothermal and the government is committed to developing them.

    I have posted several times on what a nonsense CC&S is, including one with many facts and figures which easily showed how silly it is to waste money on it’s research. I would have thought Michael would have read them.

  52. Michael of Summer Hill
    July 24th, 2009 at 15:13 | #52

    Salient Green, the problem is not the science but the will to go green.

  53. Donald Oats
    July 24th, 2009 at 17:10 | #53

    I heard Kym Beasley on AM Agenda this morning saying that although the scientists were saying it’s real tricky we need to press ahead with carbon Captcha-n-StoreIt, because coal won’t go away overnight. Boy oh boy. Wouldn’t it be great if it was a snap to make this work – but scientists are saying it’s pretty tricky – so we’ll just politely ignore their judgment and indulge in some p*ssing uphill against the wind. Rather than chuck a $100 million or so into Captcha-n-StoreIt blow it on something that works now and just needs some encouragement. The Coal Crew would no doubt start pouring some serious money into Captcha-n-StoreIt if they felt the heat of various carbon markets upon their industry.

  54. Fran Barlow
    July 24th, 2009 at 18:38 | #54

    There’s no point selling me on the idea of nuclear as part of the solution. I’m already on board, especially with thorium and LFTRs but the reality is that no party will push it and there is no timeline on which you could introduce at scale to make a difference when we need the difference to be made.

    Simple as that really, SG

  55. Michael of Summer Hill
    July 24th, 2009 at 19:07 | #55

    Fran, I got a problem with nuclear energy especially after Chernobyl and the many associated problems such as ie recently when the Swedish-German utility Vattenfall had no idea as to why the Kruemmel nuclear plant in Germany malfunctioned. No thanks.

  56. Fran Barlow
    July 24th, 2009 at 19:16 | #56

    Do you also have a problem, Michael, with flying in aircraft because of all those plane crashes? Will you stay away from cars because the Trabi is a pretty ordinary piece of equipment? You know, you should stay away from ocean liners — remember the Titanic?

    We humans try stuff out. If it doesn’t work we figure out why and either improve the design or do it a different way. These days, nuclear plants have containment structures. There are safety standards. We can run sub-critical plants. We don’t monkey about with the controls to see what would happen.

    An you’re the one who wants coal plants … sheesh … what are the morbidity and health impactis associated with them again?

  57. Michael of Summer Hill
    July 24th, 2009 at 19:24 | #57

    No Fran, the Kruemmel nuclear power plant incident was recently.

  58. Fran Barlow
    July 24th, 2009 at 19:49 | #58

    Kruemel was built in 1983

    It was shut as a precaution when a fire broke out *near* the plant but if didn’t fail and no person was injured. What was your point?

  59. Michael of Summer Hill
    July 24th, 2009 at 20:23 | #59

    Fran, the Kruemmel incident is but one in a long long long long list of nuclear power plant accidents around the world. No thanks, the future lies in solar energy and in harnessing sunlight similar to what the Europeans are now focused upon; the $560 Billion DESERTEC project.

  60. Alice
    July 24th, 2009 at 20:26 | #60

    I have a problem with nuclear accidents. A big problem. A plane crash is usually contained relatively to the potential for spread from nuclear accidents (and then there is the spread that you dont find out about…the leaks, the contamination of water supplies, the leaks of material into the black arms and weapons markets. Its an ugly filthy business.

  61. Alice
    July 24th, 2009 at 20:28 | #61

    There is no need for nuclear. Period. I dont care how damn efficient it is – efficiency and cost isnt the be all and end all.

  62. Fran Barlow
    July 24th, 2009 at 20:36 | #62


    All technologies carry risk. The only rational way to copmapre them is to realte cost and risk to benefit. By this standard, nuclear is way ahead of coal. I happen to prefer soalr thermal and geothermal and wind and biomass, and tidal where these can work, but where they can’t, nuclear is preferable to coal.

    Waste from thorium plants is not weaponisable. Thorium plants can be used to burn and degrade weaponizable materials, reducing the risks that we all would want to reduce.

  63. Salient Green
    July 24th, 2009 at 21:17 | #63

    To change tack a bit, I think the Australian Labor Government’s, and the Coalition are the same on this, only real goal is to milk every dollar they can out of coal and uranium. To do this, they are prepared to push and manipulate public opinion to it’s limits by token expenditure on anything which obfuscates this purpose.

    The clue to this is in the link I posted above. “Australian electricity prices are almost the lowest in the world. Residential prices are 36% of those in Japan and a little over half of those in most of Europe. Industrial prices are 30% of Japan’s and 60% of most European prices.”
    Average Victoria 2.8 c/kWh
    Average NSW 3.9 c/kWh
    Average Qld & SA 3.2 c/kWh

    Carbon Capture and Storage is a callous waste of money. Grants to geothermal projects are token only. What Geodynamics or Petratherm could do with the money being spent on CC&S and other coal subsidies would be truly exciting for most Australians. Everyone knows that the solar power rebates would have returned many times the KW/hrs if directed towards large commercial arrays of PV or Solar thermal.

    Much of our best research into renewable energy has gone overseas, safely unthreatening to our cheap, coal based power. Any mention of nuclear power is off the agenda, not because it is proliferating or waste producing or dangerous, but because the looming 4th gen reactors threaten income from uranium mining.

    Anyone with vision and integrity can make renewable energy 100% of Australia’s electricity source. I believe the Greens can do this. But, in the absence of the Greens in power, 4th gen nuclear is preferable to coal and is needed, somewhere in the world, to use a large part of the waste generated from older nuclear technologies.

    Our politicians are unable to make plans or set goals that are meaningfull. I admit we are in an uncertain phase of development in so many technologies but this fixation on the current economic system of population, consumption and economic growth takes priority, with most of our politicians, over handing a better world over to our children.

  64. Salient Green
    July 24th, 2009 at 21:36 | #64

    Here’s an interesting link on Nuclear waste in the US but more interesting to me was one of the comments on the economic value of the waste-

    “There’s $35,000,000,000 worth of rhodium in those spent fuel rods.
    There’s $500,000,000 worth of palladium in them.
    There’s enough plutonium and uranium in them to provide all our electricity for a century or more.
    And that’s not even starting to talk about the ability of Gen IV reactors to use the rest of the waste as fuel and fission it until it’s not a problem anymore.”


  65. Fran Barlow
    July 24th, 2009 at 22:26 | #65

    From memory rhodium is even better than platinum in cat converters. There’s some talk of it being used in CO2 sequestration as well. Apparently it’s about 6 times as valuable as gold.

    It’s not surprising that palladium is there too as this is the decay product after rhodium.

  66. Michael of Summer Hill
    July 24th, 2009 at 23:07 | #66

    Tell me Salient Green, where are the so-called generation IV reactors you claim are in service?

  67. Salient Green
    July 25th, 2009 at 10:43 | #67

    Michael, I don’t claim any 4th gen reactors are in service but I do know that the technology is proven. India is committed to the LFTR as they have oodles of thorium. Visit http://bravenewclimate.com/ and read what Barry Brook has to say on the IFR. Please don’t misjudge me on this Michael. I am not a fan of nuclear power at all but I believe the 4th gen technology is better than using coal. There are much worse effects on the planet from coal than the CO2 it produces.

    I truly despair at the damage we have done to the natural world. This is not what I would have liked to be handing over to my kids. We need to be working now on a world population of about one billion by the end of this century. This process alone would solve many of our problems but especially energy.

  68. Michael of Summer Hill
    July 25th, 2009 at 11:09 | #68

    No Salient Green, the so-called generation IV reactors you speak of is still a pipedream, even after 3,000 plus scientists have worked countless hours on the project since 2001. At best the first of these so-called generation IV reactors will be rolled out in two or three decades, if ever.

  69. Salient Green
    July 25th, 2009 at 13:17 | #69

    Michael, you really needed to have visited Brave New Climate before that post. This is from The Science Show interview with Barry Brook.

    “Robyn Williams: How much do they cost and how long does it take to put them up?

    Barry Brook: That’s a question that can only really be answered by building a commercial scale demonstration. The Russians are building a reactor called the BN-800 right now, which is a sodium cooled fast reactor, it’s one of these generation four reactors, currently under construction. The Chinese are looking at building one too. The Indians are building a fast breeder reactor. So we’ll know within the next couple of years about how much they cost and about how quickly they can be built.

    General Electric Hitachi, one of the major world producers of nuclear power stations, has got a model blueprint called the S-PRISM which is one of these integral fast reactors that they say can be built for about $1,500 per kilowatt installed, which is extremely competitive.”

  70. Michael of Summer Hill
    July 25th, 2009 at 13:53 | #70

    Salient Green, unless I am totally wrong sodium-cooled fast breeder reactors are not safe and can lead to a Chernobyl ie the Indian nuclear power industry still rely on plutonium as a driver fuel. No thanks.

  71. Fran Barlow
    July 25th, 2009 at 15:11 | #71

    SG — 1 billion by 2100?

    Surely you jest. We are going to have 9 billion by 2050, and if we do well we might stabilise and decline to about 7 billion by 2100. Where do the other 6 billion go?

  72. Michael of Summer Hill
    July 25th, 2009 at 15:29 | #72

    Salient Green, I will end up by saying the nuclear industry is riddled with problems and provide a sample of what is happening in the real world. During 2002 two workers were exposed to a small amount of radiation and suffered minor burns when a fire broke out at the Onagawa Nuclear Power Station Miyagi Prefecture, Japan. And during 2005 at Dounreay, UK the site’s cementation plant was closed when 266 litres of radioactive reprocessing residues were spilled inside containment & in October another of the site’s reprocessing laboratories was closed down after nose-blow tests of eight workers tested positive for trace radioactivity. In 2007 at the Hunterston B nuclear power station the plant was shut down due to “problems with controls that keep the delicate process at exactly the right temperature”. During 2008 100 employees were exposed to low level radiation during maintenance on the 4th reactor at the Tricastin Nuclear Power Center. Still think nuclear power is safe?

  73. Fran Barlow
    July 25th, 2009 at 15:56 | #73

    Please post here deaths and harms associated with the normal operation of coal plants and their feedstock, Michael

  74. Donald Oats
    July 25th, 2009 at 16:09 | #74


    That’s pretty much hitting it on the head: if a nuclear accident contaminates a large scale area, and that area is surburban, the cost of clean up and compensation would be enormous. And I’m not forgetting the health impacts upon those in the affected area. While Chernobyl was an unlikely set of events, it happened, exposing all and sundry.

    Two conditions must be met before I am likely to accept nuclear power in Australia.
    The first condition is that the reactor and plant technology are robust enough to limit the impact of any adverse event to a small, localised zone around the reactor and plant. None of this Chernobyl malarky, none of this construction along a known faultline, next to population water supply, etc.
    The second condition is that the reactor and plant, and all of its waste, are located a Hell of a long way from any populated regions, known aquifers, and from arable land. The reason for stipulating this is that it is tempting to get the cost down by placing them near the customers and near a good water supply, often competing with customers for that very water supply. Legislation that actively prevents reactor, plant, and any waste from being anywhere near people – other than the employees – is essential, otherwise due to cost the kit will be put right next to the bigger cities.

    There are a whole range of other things I’d like to see too, but those two conditions are primary. Personally, in Australia, I see little need for nuclear when that same capex would massively boost other alternative energy solutions readily available in Australia, now.

  75. Salient Green
    July 25th, 2009 at 17:02 | #75

    Fran, world populaton will not get to 9b. Resource shortages will constrain population growth well before this. There is a groundswell of awareness of overpopulation and ecological overshoot. Our business and political leaders will be dragged kicking and screaming to their senses well before 9b. I also said we need to work on 1b, it wasn’t a prediction.

    Michael, some of the adverse environmental effects of coal mining and burning.

    Release of carbon dioxide and methane, both of which are greenhouse gases, which are causing climate change and global warming according to the IPCC. Coal is the largest contributor to the human-made increase of CO2 in the air.
    Generation of hundred of millions of tons of waste products, including fly ash, bottom ash, flue gas desulfurization sludge, that contain mercury, uranium, thorium, arsenic, and other heavy metals
    acid rain
    Interference with groundwater and water table levels
    Impact of water use on flows of rivers and consequential impact on other land-uses
    dust nuisance
    Subsidence above tunnels, sometimes damaging infrastructure
    rendering land unfit for other uses
    Coal-fired power plants without effective fly ash capture are one of the largest sources of human-caused background radiation exposure
    Coal-fired power plants shorten nearly 24,000 lives a year, including 2,800 from lung cancer.
    Coal-fired power plant releases emissions including mercury, selenium, and arsenic which are harmful to human health and the environment.
    Mountain top removal is an environmental disaster.

  76. Michael of Summer Hill
    July 25th, 2009 at 17:05 | #76

    Fran, I’ll answer your question by saying the “true cost” of coal-based electricity is much higher than the current “market price” depending upon how one values human life but until more money is poured into renewables we are stuck with clean coal technology.

  77. Fran Barlow
    July 26th, 2009 at 00:36 | #77


    I don’t have any basic issue with your constraints on nuclear power plants — the containment is always met these days. Having it away from large population centres is not really going to help though because safety really isn’t altered either way.

    It’s possible to use molten salt as the coolant rather than water.

    I see no pressing need for nuclear in Australia, and in most places I doubt it can play a role for reasons that are largely political or economic, though it might well do so in Japan or China as the less nasty alternative to coal.

  78. Donald Oats
    July 26th, 2009 at 02:06 | #78

    I broadly agree with Salient Green on the population problem. It has already doubled in my lifetime and I’m only at the 50% mark (touch wood). Another doubling would put it at 12-14 billion before I pop my clogs. Of course, the odds aren’t entirely favourable on water, food and resource sufficiency, and that implies war and stuff. While it is difficult to forsee technological changes that may make it possible for 14 billion consumers to squat on this block, extinction rates for anything larger than a squirrel will most probably climb – until the naturally imposed limit is reached, of course. To say nothing of land prices…

  79. Ken
    July 26th, 2009 at 22:22 | #79

    Michael – what clean coal technology?!! There’s more CO2 produced than the coal burned. CO2 is much more difficult get hold of, to transport and store than coal is. You can’t load it in open trucks. You can’t just dump it, it’s got to go deep, in the right kind of geology, where it won’t resurface. Gigatons of it. Renewables, expensive as they are, are already cheaper than what coal would cost with CCS. Nuclear, when it can come in on budget, looks cheaper than both. On that basis it’s going to be attractive.

    Sorry, but if ever there was greenwash it’s CCS. It’s Federal Labour’s way to ‘look’ serious about the new climate reality whilst presiding over the continuing expansion of the mining and export of coal and entrenching domestic reliance on coal powered electricity.

    With the current ‘negotiations’ over the ETS, the intent of the Opposition seems to be to commit Australia to no more than the least our trading partners do. Wow. Such is the ‘leadership’ on climate change! It’ll take a changing of the guard before we see more than greenwash from Opposition – or from Government.

    Even so, I think the sense of urgency needed will come to permeate politics. The coal industry’s calls for concessions will come to arouse the ire of middle Australia. The 3D’ers, the doubt, deny, delay crowd, want us to face the greatest challenge of their times with eyes closed and ears blocked! I don’t believe Australia will ignore the great challenge we are facing.

  80. Fran Barlow
    July 26th, 2009 at 22:37 | #80

    And one may add, Ken, that at least with nuclear (unlike with CC&S), the waste need not be sequestered forever.

  81. Michael of Summer Hill
    July 26th, 2009 at 23:09 | #81

    Tell me Ken, which political party has nuclear energy on its books for the last time I read the papers Australia was stuck with clean coal technology. But then I maybe be totally wrong.

  82. Kevin Cox
    July 28th, 2009 at 06:29 | #82

    The “Better Place” electric car batteries will give a large amount of electricity storage capacity. Many renewables harvest “heat” which is turned into electricity. You store heat. Electricity from water turbines is easily adjusted and so you can pump water uphill when you have too much power. Smart grids can turn off your beer fridge if there is not enough power.

    There are dozens of ways of evening out the load in a grid.

    Base Load Power requirement always was and still is a “non problem”

  83. Newsman
    July 28th, 2009 at 11:53 | #83

    This analysis is false. It is not the average amount of electricity delivered by renewables that matters, but whether they can handle all peak loads.

    Any electricity system must be able to deliver near-peak load at many times during the day, including after dark (wintertime when everyone is home from work watching TV, keeping their houses warm, etc), and when the wind is not blowing. Even if solar and wind could cover 95% of the peak-load times (which they clearly cannot), we would still require a parallel system capable of delivering peak load the remaining 5% of the time. That is, we would still require essentially twice the generating infrastructure as we do at present.

  84. Fran Barlow
    July 28th, 2009 at 20:02 | #84

    @Newsman #33

    Not at all. Hydro/pumped storage could easily cover the slew, and before these ran out we could bring NG or small waste biomass plants online, do demand management etc.

  85. Newsman
    July 28th, 2009 at 22:01 | #85

    Hydro/pumped storage could easily cover the slew

    Australian governments are so captured by green interests they won’t even approve new dams for essential drinking water. What makes you think they’ll allow them for hydro/pumped storage?

    And you can’t do demand management at peak load times. All “demand management” means in that case is “demand reduction”, which is fine, but still doesn’t change the fact that you need a parallel system to deliver the peak load when the renewables cannot.

  86. Ken
    July 28th, 2009 at 22:10 | #86

    Michael, if clean coal is all we’ve got we’ve got nothing. Seriously, capture and storage of CO2, on that scale … there’s more than 3 times as much CO2 produced as coal burned to make it and it either has to be bound chemically by as much of something else again to become a stable solid or forever be pumped deep underground… Seriously it makes more sense to use the deep drilling capabilities needed to develop geothermal energy as our baseload and underground cavern systems are better used for very large scale compressed air storage than used up first in a quest for places to put CO2.

    I think nothing much has happened on large scale energy storage because there’s not much current need for it by electricity providers. They haven’t changed much of anything about how they produce electricity in response to climate concerns. Pumped hydro gets used but it’s not something Australia is likely to be able to boost capacity of much although grid upgrades could make what there is more widely usable.

    CAES or molten salt or whatever storage will be more expensive than coal fired baseload electricity. What will be more expensive than all including coal and nuclear is losses in agricultural production and increased security costs of climate change.

  87. Michael of Summer Hill
    July 28th, 2009 at 23:01 | #87

    Ken, it has been estimated that Australia could reduce its current energy consumption by some 20-30% and Labor is exploiting this one area. And whether we like it or not we are stuck with clean coal technology until governments have the ‘will’ to go truly green and pump more money into renewables.

  88. Fran Barlow
    July 29th, 2009 at 00:09 | #88


    Who said anything about new dams?

    There is enormous scope for building pumped storage into city based water and water treatment facilities and saving power in the process, for example.

  89. Jonathan Baxter
    July 29th, 2009 at 02:32 | #89

    “There is enormous scope for building pumped storage into city based water and water treatment facilities and saving power in the process, for example.”

    How exactly?

    For example, peak NSW power consumption is around 15GW. Assume for safety you need to store at least 12 hours of power for those windless, freezing nights when everyone runs their heaters. So that’s around 200GW hours. 1 cubic meter of water at 100M elevation is about 1MJ of energy or 0.27 KW hours.

    So to store 200GW hours you’d need around 700 million cubic meters of water at 100M elevation, or 700 million kilolitres (you’re not going to get much more than 100M elevation change within the city system). An average household consumes around 200 kilolitres per year (from memory it’s something like that), so you’d need to pump the equivalent of 3.5 million household’s annual water consumption in 12 hours.

    Even assuming there are 3.5 million households in NSW (an overestimate), to handle that level of pumping using city-based facilities you’d have to increase the capacity by a factor of 730 (= 365 * 2 – ie pump a year’s worth of water in 12 hours). So I think your “enormous scope” claim is rather overstating things. You’re not going to get that kind of pumped storage capacity without huge new reservoirs or dams.

  90. Ken
    July 29th, 2009 at 09:53 | #90

    Michael I think it’s not merely a matter of waiting for Labour to really go green, it’s a matter of LibNats accepting the real danger to prosperity and security that is climate change. It will take serious bipartisan efforts to get more than greenwash. That’s all ‘clean coal’ is – greenwash.
    Fran, I have to agree with Jonathan – pumped storage in a water and geographically contrained Australia is not going to be sufficient.

  91. jquiggin
    July 29th, 2009 at 10:21 | #91

    Jonathan, I very much doubt that even on cold nights, power demand is anywhere near the peak. The problem is more likely to emerge on cold, cloudy, windless days. But there are solutions less drastic or technologically demanding than pumped storage – warm clothes, for example. Given the right prices, I’m sure these tried and true energy conservation measures will go a long way towards solving scarcity problems.

  92. Fran Barlow
    July 29th, 2009 at 10:50 | #92


    There are several problems with the way you went about specifying the problem which ought to be addressed before I respond in some detail, as I will when I have more than a couple of minutes to compose an outline of what I had in mind.

    1. The window we need to protect is the minimum time between the onset of a negative slew and the bringin on line of new generating capacity. Natural gas can be bought to capacity within about 30 minutes — and so can diesel generators — and depending on the specific locality either of these might be plausible

    2. You’re assuming that the entire generating capacity were lost — i.e. all 15GW at peak, but this in practice has never happened. What can happen is a loss of 5-10% of the capacity normnally online to service the load. Current redundant capacity is not set up to stand in for 100% of peak load or anything like it. What happens is the largest installed capacity or 5% is covered. More would be prohibitively expensive.

    3. Much of the standard load in major urban areas is used to pump water to supply points. This work is scheduled around the existing load shape, but delaying it for 12-24 hours really has no major implications for public access to water. In short, this basic pice of demand management can be used to brdige slews fairly easily. Moreover, was we know, significant portions of residential demand are of doubtful marginal utility. Smart metering devices can cut power to non-essential devices — electronic devices on standby, off-peak water heaters etc as needed. During the rolling blackouts during the California heatwave a few years back (2005?) as much as 6% of demand was in standby devices, many in homes where people qwere on holidays away from their residence — more than the shortfall in supply.

    I believe my comments about the scope to use pumped storage to manage slews was reasonable with all this in mind, though I wish to comment in some detail later.

    I would also note that nobody claimed that baseload capacity could be discarded entirely and indeed, if much of it were NG or waste biomass derived feedstock rather than coal then slews should not pose the magnitude of problem you suggest.

  93. Jonathan Baxter
    July 29th, 2009 at 11:24 | #93

    2. You’re assuming that the entire generating capacity were lost — i.e. all 15GW at peak, but this in practice has never happened.

    That’s because we currently use fossil fuels which are available regardless of the weather. It will happen if we generate most of our power through wind and solar.

    “I would also note that nobody claimed that baseload capacity could be discarded entirely and indeed, if much of it were NG or waste biomass derived feedstock rather than coal then slews should not pose the magnitude of problem you suggest.”

    If your main generating capacity can disappear altogether, which it can (and will) if you are relying on solar/wind, then you need a parallel supply of equal generating capacity. It doesn’t matter what that parallel supply is. Maybe you could get 5% storage out of the city water but then you’d still need 95% in NG. Which begs the question: why not just build NG plants and be done with it?

  94. jquiggin
    July 29th, 2009 at 11:57 | #94

    “If your main generating capacity can disappear altogether, which it can (and will) if you are relying on solar/wind, then you need a parallel supply of equal generating capacity.”

    This claim is wrong, as the post shows. The whole idea that there is a fixed demand that must be met is an artifact of a system which needs to produce a fixed supply. As pointed out at length in the post, the existing system needs to use price signals to get any kind of night-time demand. A solar-wind-gas system would need different price signals, but would still work fine.

  95. Fran Barlow
    July 29th, 2009 at 12:59 | #95

    @Jonathan Baxter

    That loss of all baseload has never happened does not derive from fossil fuel usage. It derives from the fact that the systems are stable and about 85% available with some redundant capacity built in.

    If, as JQ suggested about 25% were baseload — possibly geothermal, NG from either fossil or waste biomass; biomass or petroleum-derived diesel then the slews asociated with negative volatility in demand and supply could easily be covered from demand management and pumped storage, and a range of others sources. I believe I’ve quoted these above in the thread.

    In practice though a properly designed system of reticulated wind solar and tidal will always be producing most of its power since the wind and the tide is always going to be supplying energy somewhere, and the sun’s patterns of insolation are highly predictable. Molten salt and other storage is also possible as is using the East west axis to extend the hours of daylight available.

    When was the last time that there was simultaneously an unpredicted and zero notice outage of insolation, tidal pressure and wind everywhere in the continent and its immediate waters?

    You assert 100% redundancy is necessary but you don’t show why one should foresee losing 100% of installed renewable capacity.

  96. Fran Barlow
    July 29th, 2009 at 16:37 | #96

    @Jonathan Baxter
    Some assumptions about specs I am taking into the calculations

    1. The aim of pumped storage would be to provide on-demand capacity for a slew of about 5% for two hours (or the likely slew in any intermittent capacity, whichever was the greater) i.e. enough time to allow thermal capacity such as NG to be brought online and/r demand management to be implemented.

    Taking your figure of 15GW*0.05 = 150MW *2 hours = 300MwH

    2. The Sydney area, for example comprises about 1600Km2. Assuming the creation of five pumped storage facilities each supplying treated water and/or power to the grid as required implies servicing an area each of about 320Km2 — an area covered roughly by a circle of with a 10km radius. Given average population densities of about 30 persons per Ha each area would service somewhere between 800,000 and 1 million people. Note: These densities are much lower than ideal. While Hong Kong is much too densely populated at about 300 persons per Ha to be desirable, somewhere between 75 and 100 would probably be viable for low cost infrastructure … but I digress.

    3. Although you would, ideally choose locations as high as possible on stable gvround in the releavnt locality, given that you are going to need a low reservoir, one could simply achieve the difference in height one wanted by excavation. Assuming a 100 metre differential you’d need about 1.2 Gl of water stored or about 240ML capacity in each of the five locations. Each reservoir (upper and lower) would have to have a capacity of around 240,000m3. You could store a little more than that amount of water in a cylindrical vessel with a diameter of 86 metres and a height of 43 metres. Assuming the lower band of 800,000 people in a district and 2.4 per household that’s 333,000 households. Assuming your 200Kl each per annum that’s 66,600,000kl or 66.6Gl per annum or 182.4Ml per day — which would be about 75% of the capacity of the reservoir to be pumped in a day. Given the elevation and the nature of the sites, it would prbably make sense to locate wind turbines at these points. Given the likely strong winds, VAWT might well be apt.

    I should add that IMO the system should not merely or even mainly be reliant on the outflux of sub-potable water from households that have ultimately sourced that water from places like Warragamba. Instead, what I’d prwefer to see is localised water collection from the rooves of residential, commercial and industrial buildings. At the moment, every serious rainstorm causes water to flood stormwater drains with debris and other plastic waste that either winds up in creeks or causes road hazards. Collecting this on rooves, doing basic primary filtration for PM locally, and then pumping that water to the local reservoir would not only massively reduce the call on the major dams, and abate environmental nuisance and road haazrds but reduce the distance every cubic metre of supplied water was pumped, both at input to consumers and at outflow. We could radically cut effluent at ocean outfalls and save power and make it part of a system of localised power supply and storage that could lower the emissions intensity of our power grid. And of course, at higher densities and higher relative elevations, it would work even better.

    What’s not to like about that?

  97. Fran Barlow
    July 29th, 2009 at 19:58 | #97

    PS … and I didn’t even mention the possibility of similar facilities to Sydney’s north at Peats Ridge and the Central Coast, the west at Blaxland and the south around Bulli all of which have excellent topography for this sort of thing

  98. Jonathan Baxter
    July 30th, 2009 at 01:30 | #98

    jquiggin As pointed out at length in the post, the existing system needs to use price signals to get any kind of night-time demand. A solar-wind-gas system would need different price signals, but would still work fine.

    You don’t need price-signals to generate night-time demand after dark. You may need them at 2AM, but look at your electricity bill: you are not paying cheap rates for evening consumption.

    Peak load in NSW occurs on cold winter evenings when people turn their heaters on. So imagine there’s a cold, windless evening. The frost crunches underfoot, your breath condenses, and the trees glow with the moon’s silvery light in the frigid, still air.

    The only power you have available is gas (no sun, no wind). And absent a countervailing price signal you have demand for peak load. Your “price signals” will have to be so large that people would rather shiver under blankets than turn their heaters on. Sure, it’s doable ($10/KWh would do it), but political suicide. It would not “work fine” as you claim.

    Therefore, you either have to store enough energy to get you through the night, or have peak load capacity in your gas system, which begs the question: why bother with solar/wind?

  99. Jonathan Baxter
    July 30th, 2009 at 02:00 | #99

    @ Fran Barlow
    “In practice though a properly designed system of reticulated wind solar and tidal will always be producing most of its power since the wind and the tide is always going to be supplying energy somewhere, and the sun’s patterns of insolation are highly predictable.”

    The sun’s patterns of insolation are very predictable after sunset.

    Even throwing tide into the mix you’ll still have times of peak load with little generating capacity. That’s what the “baseload” concept addresses. You can get around that either by storage, or by having a parallel system capable of picking up the slack. My point is that a parallel system is going to need nearly enough capacity to handle the peak-load, which negates the need for the renewable solution.

    Of course if you can come up with a storage system to handle sustained periods of peak load, then that’s your “baseload” solution. But I don’t think we’re even close to that yet.

    Frankly, if we want to get rid of fossil fuels, lets just go Nuclear. Barry Brooks has a great series on his blog discussing the new generation reactors.

Comment pages
1 2 6369
Comments are closed.