Big report on electricity generation options

In the grid parity discussion, reader Salient mentioned a report on energy generation options including solar thermal. There was a lot of interest, and Salient has kindly sent me the report, which is available here (7.5 Mb PDF).

25 thoughts on “Big report on electricity generation options

  1. Good thing I switched from dialup to satellite broadband on the weekend. My first observation on the report is that there has been some change in thinking since it was compiled. I’d say carbon capture and storage that the report favours has been discredited. Costs of photovoltaics have declined, there has been more experience with solar thermal and there are improved Gen III nuclear reactors plus ideas for Gen IV reactors. The summary is on p. 42 of the report not p. 26 per the index.

    This is the kicker; we won’t know what is the ‘best’ low carbon technology until we put a price on carbon. Like a rainbow it seems to keep receding as we draw closer.

  2. Once again, no mention of geothermal!

    Surely this is the stand-out medium term option?

    CCS and fast nuclear require many years of research, while all geothermal needs is some significant investment.

    Is there some big snag that I am unaware of?

  3. A little off topic but, a couple of weeks ago, New Scientist had an article about the potential for some renewable energies to contribute to warming despite releasing no carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Essentially, most energy is eventually dissipated as heat, so unless the energy source is heat from the atmosphere (e.g. solar thermal), then there is a net warming effect. This may not be as significant as the impact of atmospheric carbon dioxide, but is worth considering when looking at nuclear, geothermal and several other options. The article pointed out that photosnthesis, wind and waves are all linked to solar energy. It follows that these can be neutral in terms of warming.

    Then again, who knows the impact of removing energy from the environment. Logically, removing energy from wind, waves, ocean currents, solar radiation, must all have an impact.

  4. PeterS the pinup for novolcanic geothermal is the Geodynamics project near Innamincka SA. It has a Kalina cycle heat exchanger that looks ready to go. However a week or two ago some steam burst from a drill casing deep into hot granite. That steam contains radon gas and should not be vented, apart from the lack of local water to top up leakages. Many thought the underground plumbing problems would be from the horizontal cracks blasted into the granite, not from the vertical metal pipes. Other issues concern the low steam temperature of 250C vs 550C for other thermal plant, distance from transmission lines and the need to drill fresh holes not too far from the ammonia boiler as the granite cools.

    I’d give them two more years then pull the plug on government support.

  5. It’s a bit of a tragedy that David Mills technology has not received more publicity over the years. The small trial plant built in Australia proved the capacity to capture heat – but not investment interest in Australia.
    See the 7.30 report from January 2007:
    Ausra and David Mills are powering ahead in California now.
    I have long hoped that this technology would become the market leader. If the price has indeed come down to $50MWh for Ausra’s CLFR technology, and is predicted to go lower ($40 in 2015), in tandem with carbon prices increasing, then the end for coal, partially clean or otherwise, in subtropical and tropical latitudes is in sight. I will be interested to see the projected performance figures for temperate climates.

  6. Hermit: to be fair, they’re not the only geothermal company out there; there’s Petratherm and a bunch of others.

    As for Ausra, they haven’t yet built a complete plant either. Until they do, color me hopeful, but skeptical.

  7. CJ,

    Most of the energy in the biosphere and its near environs comes from solar radiation. Another significant source is heat from the core of the earth. Tidal energy effects are produced by the gravitation and relative movements of earth, moon and sun.

    Even coal and oil were generated from solar power (growth of vegetation and minute marine organisms) supplemented by some heat and pressure underground to convert the dead organic material to coal and oil. The abiotic theory of oil formation is still controversial.

    You can’t really remove energy from the environment, only convert it from one form to another. Removing local energy from wind, waves, ocean currents, tides and solar radiation may have a local impact. On a planetary scale the net impact in energy terms will be zero. Energy cannot be created or destroyed. The only exception to this energy neutrality in the biosphere would be any increase or decrease in earth’s albedo (light reflecting) properties. This is likely to be negligible from harnessing wind, waves, ocean currents and solar radiation.

    Renewables are the only way to go in the long run. Fossils and nuclear fuels will run out. The atmosphere and oceans are at their limit right now in terms of CO2 absorbtion if we are to retain this relatively benign climate of the holocene period.

    What bothers me is that people are not nearly frightened enough about what we are doing to the environment. The magnitude and speed of the current Holocene Extinction Event ought to be scaring the **** out of people.

    As I said in a previous post, it is clear that the natural world will have to present us with a dramatic proof or demonstration of the damage we are doing do it. Only then will we act. Only then will the fossil fuel lobby be spurned as they should be.

  8. Hermit in #1

    I believe it is a little harsh to say that carbon capture technology is discredited. It certainly has issues but they are mainly cost and regulation. See the following slide show on TECO’s POLK demonstration IGCC plant that seems to be the preferred technology on which to base a coal sourced carbon sequestration program.

    This equipment is more complex and thus more expensive to build, operate and maintain that the simple rankin cycle power plants currently in use in Australia. TECO state that penality for IGCC is 20% and carbon sequestration will add an additional cost penalty. This probably pushes the cost up to same level as nuclear but who knows with such immature technology. Until there is a penalty for the carbon that the current rankin cycle power plant emit, the IGCC plants will not be built. This is what happened when TECO planned to scale up their demonstration plant and could not get government guarantees with respect to the regularity environment in which they would operate.

    I think it is a pity. I guess the all the old codgers that dominate Florida politics will need to start dying from heat stress when their air conditioners are shut down due blackouts in a future heat wave before things change.

  9. PeterM interesting to see the Florida IGCC plant can use eucalyptus chips. If harvested sustainably I’d argue that the CO2 would not need to be separated and buried since it is a closed loop. I presume recycled newspapers can also be gasified. Coal on the other hand is carbon buried millions of years ago and will add to the atmosphere. Since it has been accumulating for so long there is a lot more available than biomass.

    Other cleaner coal ideas are moisture removal as in Victoria’s Latrobe valley and supercritical steam such as Queensland’s Kogan Creek. The $10 a tonne pseudo carbon tax supposedly starting 2011 will still favour coal fired baseload over nuclear even without CO2 capture and burial. I’m unconvinced by those who claim that wind and solar can replace coal fired baseload, say 20 GW in Australia’s case. Natural gas has more important uses than making baseload electricity.

    I presume Rudd’s Clean Coal Institute is no longer needed, a handy saving of $110m a year in a tight budgetary situation.

  10. Ikonoclast,

    I don’t think we are in disagreement. There are some fuels were energy is trapped in a fairly stable form other than heat (e.g. in sub-atomic bonds; in the C-H bonds in fossil fuels), or is located outside the ‘biosphere’ (e.g. subterranean heat). Using these fuels will heat the biosphere more than would be the case if they were not exploited.


  11. Clean coal is a dirty lie as someone pithily put it. A wag at my old workplace, told me it was easy to get clean coal. You just whitewash it.

    Carbon capture is a deliberate confidence trick by those who are pushing it. Most of them know it will never work (or don’t care) but are pushing the clean coal line to continue to use coal. It is one of a number of deliberate stalling tactics of the fossil fuel lobby. Hold out a false hope, fail to deliver and then just continue to drag it out with one proposed fake solution after another. It reminds me of Kevin Rudd’s modus operandi actually. He’s certainly a corporate clone and stooge.

    The main reasons it will never work (on a commercial scale) are the technical difficulties and the energy overheads involvled in carbon capture and piping, pumping etcetera. This is not to mention the dangers of some storage sites failing and causing a mass re-release of the CO2 into the atmosphere.

    “CCS applied to a modern conventional power plant could reduce CO2 emissions to the atmosphere by approximately 80-90% compared to a plant without CCS” – Wikipedia

    “Capturing and compressing CO2 requires much energy and would increase the fuel needs of a coal-fired plant with CCS by 25%-40%.” – Wikipedia.

    In other words, the extra coal burnt for extra for sequestration would about halve the effectiveness of the sequestration effort. In addition there are piping and pumping costs which appear not to mentioned in the above.

    Also, add in the risk of CO2 re-releases by catastrophe or leakage out of geo-sequestration sites. It appears likely that coal reserves could be run down 40% faster for no appreciable amelioration of atmospheric CO2 concentrations.

    Footnote: A little mentioned point is that carbon sequestration as CO2 is also oxygen sequestration. We would be scrubbing a proportion (admittedly a very small proportion) of the oxygen out of our atmosphere.

  12. Comparing the outlook from the report with present day conditions I have become much more optimistic about renewables.

    My position is definitely anti-CCS. If we can’t do without coal for a few decades then the most polluting should be shut down or replaced/upgraded to CHP. Forget IGCC.

    I am coming around to Thorium (IFTR), especially the type which require a particle beam to operate because you switch off the beam and the reaction stops. But IFTR is many years off which is many years for renewables to evolve.

    What we really need now is a report of the same quality on the impact of population and growth policies on ecological sustainability and stewardship of the natural world for future generations.

    We need a CRC for Human Sustainability.

  13. CJ, amount of energy used for human activity is still tiny in terms of the terrestrial energy budget.

    To get a feel for it, it is calculated that Australia’s total electricity requirement could be generated by a 35km square solar plant with a conversion efficiency of (like) 20%. There are about 220,000 35k squares in Australia. If we remember that the earth surface is two thirds water and combine the factors we get a ratio of one to 3.3 million.

    Even if we increase the population density and energy use by (eg) 100, the terrestrial budget still totally swamps the human energy budget. These are rubbery figures that don’t take into account local effects but it still pretty obvious that our energy use is minuscule in the whole earth picture. Things like broad scale changes in vegetation and land use will have way bigger effects on the earth’s energy budget than the energy sources humans use.

    CO2, on the other hand, acts on the big numbers not the small one.

  14. Uh Oh. Sorry, that’s wrong. There are about 6200 35x35km squares giving a human use to incident solar ratio like 90,000 for Australia based on those simplified BOE assumptions. It’s still small.

  15. Ikonoclast #11 and Salient Green # 12.

    Despite the growing competitiveness of the various renewable electricity sources, they still face the problem that they are unreliable and it is very expensive to store significant quantities of electrical energy. (Pump storage is still the preferred solution here.) So there will be a continuing need for some form of peak and standby powers source for when the wind stops blowing and the sky clouds over. Currently this tends to be supplied by gas turbines but these use relative expensive petroleum fuel. (We really should be planning to reserve this for feedstock for the chemical and plastic industries.) This is where IGCC comes in.

    The combined cycle used by POLK demo plant has about 40% thermal efficiency complied with just over 30% for a typical Rankin cycle plant. This gives you the 30% additional power to run the carbon sequestration process without using additional fuel. (Mind you, the 40% efficiency is only produced when you run the plant flat out so you won’t get this if you run the plant as peaking plant). So this so of plant is not a one solution meets all needs but a necessary part of an integrated system.

    I can’t see Nuclear or combined heating plants filling this role. They require base load operation to make they economical. (Not that heating plant is relevant in Florida where refrigeration is more of a factor than heating.) Never the less, renewable generation is abysmal in the roleof a base load power produced. So if we don’t want carbon in the atmosphere and want to keep the same living standard, Nuclear will probably need to be part of the solution as well. I notice that the governor of Florida has started talks with the French about commencing a nuclear reactor construction program.

  16. Jim Birch, you make an excellent point about looking at the big picture. We shouldn’t forget that there is already a massive amount of carbon and oxygen already sequestered in carbonaceous rock. I don’t have any precise figures but I recall the carbon contained in the Tibetan plateau alone is many orders of magnitude greater than what is presently in the biosphere. Any carbon we put in the ground we be trivial compared to this carbon. (Indeed, I can recall a theory that acidic sulphur rain from India and China in associated with land clearing in Nepal and China could release this sequestered carbon at rate that make coal burning a side issue. I don’t know what the current state of this theory or if it still has any legitimacy )

  17. Many thanks to Salient Green & JQ for this report. It was really helpful in better understanding the Oz electricity setup, although maybe someone could say a little more about the nature of the CCSD. What kind of entity is that, really?

  18. #15 “We really should be planning to reserve this for feedstock for the chemical and plastic industries.”
    a point made in the mid 70’s by Donald Carr (Energy and the Earth Machine) – Carr had been an industrial chemist so was tuned to the value of petrochemicals as other than fuel.
    From memory he advocated nuclear as a significant contributor to future energy requirements.

  19. John Mashey Says:

    …although maybe someone could say a little more about the nature of the CCSD. What kind of entity is that, really?

    I’ve never heard of them before, and their website indicates that they disbanded in 30th June 2008. The website states that it was a joint venture.

    The joint venture partners are all identified in the report, and they are all large and well known coal producers or consumers, and they make no secret of this.

    So it looks to me that CCSD was an ad hoc group put together specifically to fund this type of research. There are two links on their website. One is to the report, and the other to a document that sets out what other stuff they’ve done.

  20. SJ – one of my favourite posters! Trust you to drop in with some useful information.

  21. SJ: thanks.
    I’d looked at the website, but your additional context is useful. I thought their report seemed OK, but of course had noticed the coal company presence.

    JQ: I posted a long discussion with a lot of links, shortly after #17 – it may be hung somewhere, but if not, I’ll try reposting.

  22. Jim Birch,

    The Hunter Valley open cut coal mine is 600 square kilometres large. Or 20 kilometres by 30 kilometres. Nearly the area required to be covered with solar collectors to generate all of Australia’s electricity. And that is just one coal mine. The amount of energy and effort required to make a hole that large dwarfs the effort required to build a solar energy collector field.

    So why have we not built such an energy system? Our government simply refuses to want to do it.

  23. PeterM # 15 you are correct in saying IGCC can be an important part of the mix, I was wrong.

    But, (always a ‘but’ isn’t there), I believe it’s value is not for Carbon Capture, but in cleaning up the toxic emissions (not the CO2) from the gas stream so that it can be sited close to where the waste heat can be used.

    It would then become 90% efficient as a CHP IGCC plant. It would still mean far less emissions because of the efficiency of the plant, reduced need for coal mining and piping hot water a few Km is a lot easier than liquifying and piping CO2 tens or hundreds of Km.

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