If, as I think is now possible, the Copenhagen summit leads to an agreement to reduce CO2 emissions substantially in the next decade and to very low levels by 2050, we will need to replace, or do without, a lot of energy currently derived from carbon-based fuels. It’s probably a good time to take a look at the main contenders for achieving this. Here’s my form guide. (I’m not going to give lots of links – Wikipedia is, as usual, a good place to start).
Efficiency: Often ignored or left until last, but improvements in energy efficiency will probably be the most important single response to the imposition of a price on carbon. Across a wide range of activities there are 50 per cent gains to be had at low cost, as can be seen by comparing the average energy-intensity of most activities (cars, lightbulbs, industrial processes) with the most energy-efficient commercial option. For example, the average fuel efficiency of the existing Australian car fleet is estimated here at 11litres/100km, but there are a wide range of vehicles that use half that, and plenty of options that use even less. Given some mixture of price incentives and regulation it should not be hard to achieve similar savings in most activities. In the transition to low or zero emissions, we can also make some big efficiency gains in the way in which we use carbon-based fuels, most obviously by shifting from the worst such sources (brown coal, oil from tar sands) to the best (gas and other hydrocarbons)
Substitution: Even less commonly mentioned, but again a favorite if we get a serious carbon price. For most energy-using activities there are easily available low-energy substitutes: warm clothes for home heating, cold beer (or iced coffee) for air conditioning, public transport for cars, communications for transport in general. People don’t like talking much about this because the debate is dominated by two polar opposite viewpoints: that we should consume less of everything, or that we must never reduce consumption of anything. In fact, though, over the last century we’ve consumed more of most things, but not of everything. To give just one example, although we consume more of most kinds of health services, house calls by doctors have disappeared and lengthy stays in hospital have become so expensive that they aren’t offered except to those who absolutely need them. As relative prices change, we consume more of things that are cheaper and less of things that are dearer.
Offsets: There are a bunch of these, but reforestation is the big one, probably big enough to reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations by 50-60 ppm over a century or so.
Zero carbon energy sources: These are usually discussed first, but I’ve left them until (second) last to make the point that we shouldn’t think about replacing all existing energy use with new sources. There are a lot of options and a fair bit of uncertainty about all of them, but it seems reasonable to expect that, if we give a general price incentive and put a bit of money into each of them, at least some will pay off. Here’s my list.
Hydro: Well established but not much capacity for growth
Geothermal: Exists on a small scale already and this could be expanded with modest technical progress. But the contribution will still be relatively modest. The big obstacle is the need for transmission lines from locations to markets: we need technical innovations to reduce costs and changes in market institutions that tend to discourage investment
Carbon capture and sequestration: The horse Australia would most like to see win, since a cheap and effective CCS technology would mean that we could declare the problem solved and go back to mining and burning all the coal we have. The capture part seems feasible, but there’s not much to suggest that the difficulties of underground sequestration are going to be resolved any time soon. If CCS is going to be an option, my guess is that its going to have rely on something like using the captured CO2 to grow algae. This is probably also the most promising route to biofuels. I haven’t seen much on the economics of this – any good sources
Biofuels: Technically feasible, but since most biofuels either use food crops as inputs or compete with food crops for land, they can be economically and ethically justified on a large scale only if we can achieve increases in productivity big enough to feed a growing population and have a surplus output large enough to use for fuel. I’m less optimistic about this than I once was, but it’s important not to over-react to the brief upsurge in food and fuel prices a year or so ago. Commodity markets are highly volatile and short-run movements are not a good guide to the long term.
Nuclear: In the Australian context, talk of nuclear power (for and against) is mainly political pointscoring. Even with a big government push behind it, it would take decades for Australia to build up the kind of regulatory, technical and educational infrastructure we would need for a substantial nuclear industry. And realistically speaking, we aren’t going to move until some other developed country shows that it’s possible to start a nuclear program from scratch or at least, restart a stalled program. The leading candidate is the US, which has been pushing a ‘nuclear renaissance’ since the Energy Act of 1992 and particularly since the Bush II administration came in nearly a decade ago. So far, all they have to show for it is a dozen or so proposals, mostly at existing sites. From what I’ve seen it’s unlikely that more than a handful will be in operation by 2020, which puts a large scale resurgence of nuclear power off until 2030 or later. Of course, as has long been true, nuclear plants will continue to be built in countries with a military or national pride motive, but that kind of thing is a dead end as far as any real contribution to global energy needs is concerned.
Wind: already commercially viable or nearly so in lots of places, and bound to become even more significant once carbon prices start rising to $50/t or higher. The big issue raised by critics is variability of supply. That hasn’t proved to be a problem in jurisdictions with up to 20 per cent wind. Given smart metering (and automatic processes capable of responding to higher prices by lowering energy use) this proportion could probably be raised to 40 or 50 per cent, and with storage, even further.
Solar (photovoltaics and thermal): I used to think this technology was a long way off being a serious contender, but recent progress has been striking. As long predicted, the shift from small-scale specialty production to large scale industrial processes has produced big cost reductions with no obvious end in sight. In particular, the industry has ended its reliance on the semiconductor industry as a source of cheap offcuts for silicon, and has been forced to develop low-cost processes specifically designed for solar cells. Assuming a good outcome from Copenhagen (and no breakthroughs on CCS), I predict that by 2020 most new electricity generating capacity will be either solar or wind, while more coal plants will be closing than opening.
Last of all, there are a variety of geoengineering solutions to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. As I said recently, these are a long way off, but could be important after 2050.
128 thoughts on “The race for a low carbon economy: A form guide”
As Crispin says, politics is pretty depressing if you are looking for radical and rapid transformation. But if you think of it as working hard (the “slow boring of hard boards” is one descripton) to make society a little bit better,it can be rewarding. It helps if you have a naturally optimistic outlook, and can focus on the wins rather than the losses. In my own case, for example, I played a role, maybe not crucial but useful in keeping the Tasmanian electricity in public ownership and in getting an extra year of schooling in Queensland, among other things.
As a comparison, doctors don’t (in the main and as far as I can tell) get depressed about the fact that all of their patients are going to die in the end. As long as you can help a bit along the way, that ought to be enought.
@TerjeP (say tay-a)
It’s silly to use terms like “evil”, ironically or otherwise in this context. I’m sure Barry Brook and Jim Hansen are arguing in good faith when they support nuclear (unlike many on the right who are motivated by dislike of greenies and desire to wedge the left). But they are not economists, apparently not advised by economists, and have, in my view, got the economics badly wrong.
Pr Q@#50 September 15th, 2009 at 10:53
I’ve lost count of the number of times I have plastered this quote over the internets, particularly on Pr Q’s blogs. The example of Iraq attack demonstrates the futility of Big Picture, Quick Fixes. These jump=to-glory styles of politics can be multiplied endlessly (financial bubbles, nationalisation, priviatisation etc).
There is much evidence that a sustained Chip Away, Long Haul approach to the problem can work eg drink driving and smoking. The battle to constrain carbon emissions will probably go down as the paradigmatic example of Weber’s dictum.
Its worth repeating the Weber’s timeless wisdom in full:
Fran Barlow: Regarding your first response, it is interesting to see how far you have shifted your ground. My reply was directed to your first claim that “The airlines did not carry 9/11 liability and still don’t, even though that was far more foreseeable and likely than the kind of catastrophic damage implied in the complaints over the P-A cap. “
My rejoinder was:
1. that the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission said that the Price-Anderson Act of 1957 was designed to ensure that adequate funds would be available for compensation in the event of a catastrophic accident, meaning the possibility of a catastrophic accident was recognised and provision made for it as long ago as 1957.
2. The release of radiation levels from the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombings more than a decade before 1957 pointed to the terrifying potential from a catastrophic nuclear power station accident. I also asked how many examples there were of terrorists taking over commercial airlines and crashing them into a skyscraper before 9/11.
You now say that because there was no such example before 9/11 “That doesn’t make it unforeseeable to security professionals of course” and you cite a failed French airline hijacking attempt in 1994 as a telling reference.
That’s a far cry from something that was foreseeable in 1957 (a nuclear power station causing catastrophic damage because of the release of dangerous levels of radiation) and that actually occurred at Chernobyl in 1986.
Your second response accuses me of being all over the place on the basis of your ludicrous claim that “catastrophic” is not a precise term. I (and from the context) the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission were giving it the precise definition contained in the 1993 edition of The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (page 351) namely: “of or pertaining to a a catastrophe; disastrous, dreadful”. Is that precise enough for you?
Far from my being all over the place, you agree Chernobyl was catastrophic (why are you using such an imprecise term?) and say about 50 people (mostly first responders) have died and that it may well be that up to 4000 may die prematurely as a result.
You then go all over the place when your make the following irrelevant comment: “Interestingly, the absence of human activity from some affected areas (around Chernobyl) has meant a recovery of local wildlife …
Prohibiting agricultural and industrial activities in the exclusion zone permitted many plant and animal populations to expand and created, paradoxically, “a unique sanctuary for biodiversity.”
What is the point of this?
While I agree that no nuclear power plant would ever be built like Chernobyl again, I think there is real cause for concern about the extensions being given to ageing nuclear plants in the US. You may not be as sanguine if you read more about this aspect of the subject.
by 2020 most new electricity generating capacity will be either solar or wind, while more coal plants will be closing than opening Maybe so if the green tinged left holds sway. However like Germany we will probably have very high energy prices. My prediction is a swing to gas fired generation but at world prices since there is no set-aside for domestic gas. LNG export currently has free rein. I also predict a swing to gas as a vehicle fuel by 2015 when the Peak Oil downslope will be well under way.
Domestic stationary CO2 may reduce somewhat if gas fired generation replaces older coal plants when they retire. Again the Germans think that biomethane from sewage farms will replace piped gas from Russia. I doubt it will even come close. I believe there is no realistic alternative to substantial nuclear power. If we don’t wake up to that until 2020 we will have probably fallen behind other countries. That is, adequate low cost energy with lower emissions.
I’ll leave the nuclear argument alone except to note that if small, modular, factory-built nuclear power plants become available (as well they might around 2020 or so) the economics of nuclear become will become a lot more predictable.
As far as John’s handicapping goes, it’s mostly reasonable. Personally, I think the technical difficulties with sequestration are overblown – but then, it only needs to fail spectacularly once and it’s Chernobyl all over again.
I also suspect he’s overly generous to solar PV.
A couple of quick points.
1. The term catastrophic is imprecise and subjective and your dictionary definition doesn’t make it less so. My point #5 was that
I certainly think businesses should be compelled to cover catastrophic losses that are reasonably or perhaps improbably foreseeable. Had a plant like Chernobyl been operating in the US in the way that it was this would have fit the description, but of course it would not have passed muster in the US, precisely because of P-A.
Your point 2 is nonsense because an attack with nuclear weapons is not the same or similar to a mishap with a nuclear plant, so it foreshadows nothing.
I made the point about biodiversity recovery because it underscored that some types of damage to the environment are overstated.
You say that there is real cause for concenr about extensions to ageing nuclear plants, but you don’t specify what these are. Logically, you should want remedies made or upgrades done, assuming the concerns are not simply a wave of the hand at the general principle that older stuff is dangerously less reliable.
Somewhere in all of this, despite what governments do or do not do, as important at that is, we might (should) be reducing our carbon footprints by 10%. Ideally we should measure our carbon footprints, but I am not sure about how reliable such a measurement might be. Maybe a checklist to this end might be developed?
Fran Barlow: You apparently like to wallow in ignorance and wish to display it for all to see.
You repeat your nonsense that the term catastrophic is imprecise and say “your dictionary definition doesn’t make it less so”. That definition on page 351 of The New Shorter English Dictionary (the only definition it gives of catastrophic) is: “of or pertaining to a catastrophe; disastrous, dreadful”.
You compound your inanity in the following two sentences when you say: “No business can reasonably be expected to cover every remotely conceivable confluence of events involving catastrophic loss” and “I certainly think businesses should be compelled to cover catastrophic losses that are reasonably or perhaps improbably foreseeable.”
It take a particular brand of silliness to continue using the adjective catastrophic when you consider it imprecise.
You obviously suffer extreme comprehension difficulty when you interpret my point that: “2. The release of radiation levels from the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombings more than a decade before 1957 (when the Price-Anderson Act was passed in the US) pointed to the terrifying potential from a catastrophic nuclear power station accident as meaning that I am equating an attack with nuclear weapons as the same or similar to a mishap with a nuclear plant.
In the hope (probably misguided) I will explain the point again to you: Nagasaki and Hiroshima demonstrated the terrible potential of radiation levels on the populace and that this was also a potential from a nuclear power accident.
But you do have form for making wildly inaccurate statements and sticking to them stubbornly.
On September 8 you corrected John Quiggin by stating wrongly: “Given that the RET (Renewable Energy Target) has been decoupled from the bill (and amended), the double dissolution trigger is gone. They are back to square 1 with a new bill.”
When I asked if you were sure about this, you replied: “yes, because in order to be a DD trigger the bill must be returned after 3 months in an unamended form to satisfy the requirements…”
Your interpretations were as wrong then as they are now.
Calm down, please, everyone.
I’m perfectly calm John
Misdirection. I’ve no problem using the term catastrophic in general discussion, but basing your argument on catastrophic having a precise dollar or human life value (and more, one that is capped) is perverse. P-A didn’t imply that damage above the cap wasn’t catastrophic — that would have been absurd. Essentially they imposed an insurance excess — what the nuclear industry should meet before the public insuirance kicked in. So far, that limit has never been tested.
Misleading to the point of dishonesty. Nuclear plants do not explode like fission bombs, so the benchmark is incorrect. If you merely mean to say that serious radiation exposure is pernicious and thus that uncontrolled escape of actinides from nuclear facilities should be avoided then I’m happy to stipulate it. P-A took into account the kinds of release that were conceivable from the plants at the time rather than those associated with someone creating a plutonium fission bomb (as at Nagasaki) or a U-235 fission bomb (as at Hiroshima) over a city. You are deliberately blurring the lines between nuclear weapons and nuclear energy.
My reasoning was correct, but my premise was wrong as the bill had been compartmentalised. That you adduce that irrelevance to attempt to make your claim here amounts to an attempt to win a point through ad hominem argument. Since the arguments I put would be as telling if someone else had proposed them, your tactic is a concession that your claims stand on poor ground.
Its not how we build any nuclear power plant…its what happens when it degrades or we lose control of it…eg they would sure become targets if a war broke out or an earthquake can cause leaks (and may have leaked already into water supplies, air plus the terrible ‘close’ accidents…its not the predictable, the costable or the supposed efficiencies of nuclear that niggle at me its the faulty mechanism man using a susbtance that is essentially incompatible with life and yet will outlive us all and our desperation for power…(that is actually the danger that screams at me…its two legged man with his oversized brain that is the problem )…
Ill add to that …the danger of man’s oversized brain is that he thinks he can cost away and rationalize away the risks and justify the use of nuclear…but it cant be done.. the risks are too great from any angle, the risks can only be deferred on to future generations who may sit back and ask…”what the hell were they thinking?”
@Alice ‘what the hell were they thinking’?
They were thinking of avoiding handing on a world ruined by CO2 and other pollution by drawing energy from comparatively low cost comapred to renewable sources with manageable pollution?
RE: Barry Brook and Jim Hansen are arguing in good faith for nukes.
Agreed. These guys reek credibility on climate change. They’re not shills for the nuclear lobby, they’ve come to the conclusion that nukes are the only option we have now. Nothing else will do the job, regardless of the economics.
“I think the obvious answer is if the coal customers won’t cut back we should cut it for them”.
I have always found this sort of phrasing wrong, even offensive, from the way it misrepresents what is suggested. In this, that or the other case there may well be sound reasons for what is proposed, but it is never “for them”, it is “to them” or “instead of by them”. This phrasing may be more a matter of self-deception than of deliberate deception of others, but nevertheless it strangles sound analysis by substituting another’s judgment of “their” interests for their own. Even if their own values are insufficient or not compelling enough to determine what should be done, those are the values that should be taken into consideration, and they should not be not substituted. It’s like the story of the four Boy Scouts who helped a little old lady to cross the road – it took that many because she didn’t want to go.
“Agreed. These guys reek credibility on climate change. They’re not shills for the nuclear lobby, they’ve come to the conclusion that nukes are the only option we have now. Nothing else will do the job, regardless of the economics.”</p.
However that is simply not true no matter who says is. Nuclear is not the only option and may be one of the worst. The desire for nuclear is simply a continuation of the unsustainable party that got us into this mess. Barry and Jims’ justification is that climate change is such a huge problems than ANY measure to mitigate it is automatically OK. The problems that have lead to a stalling of nuclear will not magically go away just because climate change is a problem.
We need to change the way we view energy. Renewables are part of a package that goes some way to changing the way we think about energy so there is a chance that we can build a sustainable future.
Nuclear is simply putting a finger in the hole to plug one leak without changing anything else. If we plug this leak and don’t change, another leak will spring up and eventually we will run out of fingers. It it time to fix the source of the leak and we can do this in part with EE&C and renewables.
The end (reduced CO2 emissions) does not justify the means (nuclear power).
in case this link to a recent CSIRO report on biosequestration has not been here before
And if “do the job” is interpreted as “replicate the output of the existing coal-based system”, they are probably right.
@Stephen Gloor (Ender)
Its been time to make big changes for a decade or longer. Nothing is happening. Nothing will happen. Every day we delay, a panicked rush to nuclear (sometime around 2020) becomes inevitable.
I’m sorry, but I just can’t believe in the renewables fairytale for much longer.
If you ask me why I am so pessimistic, look at where the real money is being invested. The people investing in Australia’s massive coal expansion clearly believe there will not be any substantive action on climate change. Those investors include our governments, state and federal, who are spending billions on railways, ports and other infrastructure to get the coal to market faster.
Clearly the mining industry, investment community, and our government anticipates much higher demand for our coal in the next 5-10 years, and they have the confidence to invest billions just a few months prior to Copenhagen, when apparently there’s some chance the world will agree to significant reductions in carbon emissions. Absent of the fantasy that is CCS, how can the world’s largest exporter of coal expand production by 30% at a time the world is making big reductions to carbon emissions? Someone has made a big mistake, and either way Australia loses. Either the world decides it no longer wants to burn our coal, or the world carries on with business-as-usual and burns as much coal as it possibly can. Lose-lose.
Well that’s what we have in place at the moment, and given there’s no indication of Australia building the smart, adaptable grid that would allow renewables to make a significant contribution, then that is the only option.
Is the baseload myth really a myth? Who knows. Certainly we’re not doing much to find out.
“Its been time to make big changes for a decade or longer. Nothing is happening. Nothing will happen. Every day we delay, a panicked rush to nuclear (sometime around 2020) becomes inevitable.”
That is true however it does not mean that renewables cannot replace fossil fuels. The problem that a panicked rush to nuclear in 2020 will do nothing except deplete the remaining resources we have and hasten the crash (if it happens).
“I’m sorry, but I just can’t believe in the renewables fairytale for much longer.”
And I do not believe in the nuclear fairytale either. Perhaps they are both fairytales however a distributed system of renewables will be far more resilient if society crashes to whatever extent and will leave no dangerous potential for weapons in a post society world (again if this happens). In short renewables are a far better prospect of powering something if the worst happens and our present society does break down.
“The people investing in Australia’s massive coal expansion clearly believe there will not be any substantive action on climate change.”
Remember that making coke for steelmaking requires vast amounts of coal and our coal is particularly valued as it is low in sulphur. Even without steaming coal our industry could still be viable. Also the Greenhouse Mafia will ensure that nothing is done until it is too late. As I have said over and over again while making money CAN be more important than the climate then that is exactly what the moneymakers will do until such time as it is impossible. Most of the present moneymakers should be dead by the time climate is more important (and too late to change) so this generation of moneymakers can happily go on making money and then die rich leaving the consequences for others. This is the essence of capitalism and we are stuck with it. I really do not think that there is anything we can do – the only sure fire thing that will work is to collapse the economy now which will drastically reduce emissions as has been seen from the recent GFC.
Update, Update, Update, forty of the world’s leading scientists have signed an open letter calling on political leaders to take tougher action on climate change of 40pc emissions cuts. Thumbs up.
Have these scientists developed efficient technologies to enable conversion to renewable energy which does not bankrupt countries and cause brownouts or blackouts?
SG, I running short of time but just consider Germany and ie Australia for there is no comparison.
A suite of solutions that could achieve this does exist. Lester Brown’s “Plan B” is on the right track though I think I’d have greater and more early resort to nuclear power than he allows.
This is from the House of Lords report:
“234. Future developments depend upon many variable factors But it seems clear that the base costs of generation of electricity from onshore wind are likely to remain considerably higher than those of fossil or nuclear generation and that costs of generation of marine or solar renewable electricity are higher still (paragraph 85). We hope that the Energy Technologies Institute’s work will yield technological advance and lower costs. The Government should consider, perhaps in collaboration with others, offering a substantial annual prize for the best technological contribution to renewable energy development (paragraph 93).”
It means that we need to focus on nuclear which is not a politically viable option.
I think the panicked rush to lock in long term export sales of coal and gas, presumably without any carbon tax, is of greater concern than a rush to go nuclear. It’s going on as we speak.
I’m thinking that without that carbon tax not much has happened and not much will happen. Ben’s concerns about Jevon’s Paradox go away when energy is expensive; so does reluctance to make real investment in alternatives. But will Australian voters find steep hikes in electricity too unpalatable? It’s the mass media’s nature to sell illusions and also to sell out to the highest bidder; doubt, denial and delay are easy to sell and the hip pocket nerve still has power to influence votes. The depth and strength of climate change denial shouldn’t be underestimated.
I think exports can’t be exempted from a carbon cost and that gas can’t be exempted; unlike Hermit I can’t see gas as a real alternative to coal given the reductions in emissions needed exceeds what gas can deliver, especially with such a slow start on early emissions reductions. We needed an ETS a decade ago and here we are still waiting while Labor and Liberal thrash out details of how to exempt the industries it’s supposed to slug hardest.