Burden of proof

Ted Trainer, with whom I’ve had a number of debates in the past, has sent me an interesting piece claiming that “no empirical or historical evidence that demonstrates that [100 per cent renewables” systems are in fact feasible”. The authors, at least those of whom I’m aware, are “pro-nuclear environmentalists” (Ben Heard, Barry Brook, Tom Wigley and CJ Bradshaw) The central premise is that, given that renewables won’t work, and reductions in energy demand are unrealistic, we need to get cracking on nuclear (and also carbon capture and sequestration).

It’s paywalled, but the abstract is sufficient to get the main point. In fact, the whole piece is summarized by its title “Burden of Proof”. To give the shorter version: Unless every possible detail of a 100 per cent renewable system can be proved to be workable decades in advance, we must go nuclear.

The longer version is in these paras from the abstract

Strong empirical evidence of feasibility must be demonstrated for any study that attempts to construct or model a low-carbon energy future based on any combination of low-carbon technology.

The criteria are: (1) consistency with mainstream energy-demand forecasts; (2) simulating supply to meet demand reliably at hourly, half-hourly, and five-minute timescales, with resilience to extreme climate events; (3) identifying necessary transmission and distribution requirements; and (4) maintaining the provision of essential ancillary services.

This list is mostly notable for what’s not in it: adequate year-round power supplies, at an economically feasible cost. That’s because it’s now obvious that solar PV and wind, combined with one of a number of storage technologies (solar thermal, batteries, pumped hydro) and a bit of smart pricing, can deliver these goals. So, instead we get demands for the precise details in the list above. To lift the burden of proof a bit more, it’s not good enough to address them separately, they all have to be done at once in a single study. Unsurprisingly, no one has yet produced a study that meets all of these demands at once.*

And this is where the burden of proof works so brilliantly. Renewable technologies are well established, with annual installations of 100 GW a year a more, and a record of steadily falling costs. But, according to our authors, they haven’t met the burden of proof, so we have to put tens of billions of dollars into technologies that are either purely conceptual (Gen IV nuclear) or hopelessly uneconomic on the basis of current experience (CCS and generation II/III nuclear).

To be fair, this use of the burden of proof, while more blatant than usual, is very common. One any policy issue, most of us would like to compare an idealised model of our preferred solution with the worst case scenario (or, at best, the messy and unsatisfactory reality) for the alternatives. But it’s important to avoid this temptation as much as possible. On any realistic assessment, renewables + storage (with the path to 100 per cent smoothed by gas) offer a far more plausible way of decarbonizing electricity generation than nuclear or CCS>

Clarification: In comments, Ben Heard points out that the authors counted two publications from closely related studies together.

81 thoughts on “Burden of proof

  1. @James Wimberley

    While I take your broad point — that ‘the last mile’ can be deferred, I’m not sure it will generally prove to be the most expensive or technically challenging. My own perception is that the first 50% of decarbonisation has been far more difficult. All the technologies and their interfaces with the grid had to be reconciled with a system designed to maximise industrial, commercial and residential demand at timesof convenience to ‘baseload’ plants.

    All of the new technology is/was in a process of refinement as the whole energy market is/was changing. Yet both storage and energy harvesting measures are improving sharply each year. Recently, bids on offshore wind in the North Sea fell to around €4.4MW for wind. At least one offered to supply at €0 — taking their chances that the wholesale market would bail them out.

    Really, I’d sooner limit FHC use to settings where it really is unavoidable even if doing so came initially at a premium price. There are ways in which CO2e can be drawn down and sequestered long term — e.g. algae … But we are about 1500GT of atmospheric CO2 above what is in the longterm interests of humanity, and seemingly about to lose large chunks of our glacial mass and permafrost. We must not allow that to happen, or treat mitigation as an e istential project on the only place in the universe where we know life exists. Every cost that forecloses this probably unique ecosystem from collapse is warranted — and would be even were a consequence that our quality of life would decline in some measurable way.

    Since nuclear power has been raised, some will recall that, like Derrida above, I regard the objections on safety as exaggerated. The other objections – principally schedule and mission (and in Australia, technical and regulatory) feasibility — seem to me to be far greater problems than safety, or even cost.

    While I don’t favour forced decommission of existing nuclear plants that are fully compliant with all reasonable safety provisions (particularly in the light of Fukushima) and regard bulk container shipping as a plausible target for nuclear engines — these ships are a terrible source of both CO2 and other marine hazmat — it seems very clear that if nuclear had a window of opportunity to grow, it was missed — probably in the late 1970s. By 2012 other low emission technologies had clearly elbowed their way in front and now continue to put nuclear out of any contest for market share of the domestic stationary energy market that could conceivably arise.

  2. @James Wimberley
    Detractors have previously said that if we cannot get to 100% renewables, we need to choose a different path right now as we are barking up the wrong tree. The point of 100% RE scenarios is to test and evaluate the limiting case. Call it a framing bias if you like, or call it pushing the envelope.

  3. I don’t know if this paper is intended to invoke discussion, or simply advocate nuclear generation. Had the world stridden that path years ago we might still be needing solar/wind, but less urgently. That would have been nice but we can’t go back.

    Two thoughts spin in my head: necessity is the mother of invention; politicians don’t see the necessity.

    What I would find helpful is something like a sequel to the book by the late David MacKay FRS:

  4. James Wimberley :
    Why pick 100% renewable?

    Because it makes the task of the “opponents” much harder. In theory we’re on the same side, but in practice I think there’s a bit of “when all you have is a hammer” going on.

    As you saw above when I suggested that the obvious comparison was with countries that have gone 100% nuclear … the comment was laughed down. Which is a suitable response, IMO, to any of the 100% demands. 100% requires insanity at the margins, for example collecting and disposing of carbon dioxide and methane emissions from freshly felled biofuel plants, not to mention the need to completely automate everything in order to eliminate emissions from humans.

    The amusing thing is that it’s much easier to get to 100% renewable than any other broad field except “zero emissions” since that’s a superset.

  5. Now 410.28ppm C02. (I though you said the age of increase – and increasing increasinbng – was over…)

  6. @Dennis Horne

    I read the Mackay text some years ago, and was on the whole, impressed with it. It does make some plausible claims for nuclear power.

    The problem with the text is that its focus is, on the whole, concerned with the engineering or technical feasibility questions — which is scarcely surprising, given Mackay’s background.

    What it fails to deal with, and which is now considerably more plain than it was when Mackay composed it — were the falling cost of renewables, the speed with which RE can be rolled out, relative to nuclear, and the associated risk premiums on bankrolling new nuclear power given the uncertainties if both the approval processes and the longterm markets for power over the likely working lives of plants.

    In effect, bankrolling plants entails taking the longest of long positions over a very slippery commodity — power supply. Only states can contemplate that, which is why to keep nuclear vaguely competitive in a market where energy production costs are sliding sharply, those places where nuclear development is taking place are either wholly owned by states or given feed in guarantees. Yet in theory, most states avow ‘free market principles’ and in the UK and the US much of the ruling class is against an explicit price on carbon emissions.

    More generally of course, solutions to a low carbon power supply are needed far earlier than in the period 2032 to 2092 — the earliest that most nuclear projects in western countries could begin supply, so Mackay’s argument is rendered entirely moot by the failure of the technology to meet schedule and political feasibility.

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