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. Where is their 100% iron-clad proof that nuclear will work and that it won’t lead to any of the many problems clearly inherent in nuclear power?

    (1) Finite reserves of fissile material. I assume they are not pushing fusion power yet.
    (2) Unrecoverable uranium in seawater. Very dilute. Energy out to energy in will be about 1:1 or at best 2:1 after a massive fleet build-out and more massive interference with the oceans (which are struggling now)
    (3) Nuclear not cost-effective without MASSIVE state subsidies.
    (4) Nuclear weapon proliferation issues not solved.
    (5) Nuclear waster disposal issues not solved.

    I really wonder at the “green” credentials of the “greens” pushing this. Honestly, I reckon they have been infiltrated by an alt-right 5th column pushing their spurious nonsense.

    Actually, renewables have been proven to work historically (albeit at lower population and technology levels and albeit at the cost of deforestation and certain species extinctions). It was mostly renewables before the significant use of coal, then oil and then gas.

    Most nuclear supporters have a kind of medieval, alchemical/magical obsession with nuclear power (notwithstanding the seeming paradox involved in this claim of mine). They have a belief that one kind of science and technology (nuclear fission) can do far more for us than the science is actually telling us that it can do. They really do NOT understand the full science(s) of nuclear and modern renewables. It seems to be a clear case of;

    “A little learning is a dangerous thing;
    drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
    There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
    And drinking largely sobers us again.” – Alexander Pope.

    And earlier;

    “Twas well observed by my Lord Bacon, That a little knowledge is apt to puff up, and make men giddy, but a greater share of it will set them right, and bring them to low and humble thoughts of themselves.”

    Anonymous author, signing himself ‘A B’, in the collection of letters published in 1698 as “The mystery of phanaticism”.

  2. The South Island of New Zealand gets about 98% of its electricity from hydro. I can only assume that that’s not enough for the nuke advocates, since it’s only been that way since 1974 and the exact percentage fluctuates. Most years NZ as a whole gets as much electricity from geothermal as from coal. The reason it’s not 100% renewable is political rather than technical. Same reason as even France didn’t go 100% nuclear.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electricity_sector_in_New_Zealand

    I’m with Ikonoclast – by their own expressed standards via the “burden of proof”, nuclear can never work and should be ignored.

  3. The one-sentence refutation of special nuclear pleading like this is now this. SolarReserve have won a contract for a 260 MW solar tower CSP plant in Chile, for 24/7 supply using hot salt storage, at 7c/kWh. The technology is replicable in any other very sunny region, there are no limiting resources, and very probably cheaper with a more typical storage of 6-8 hours for grid storage. What the company are delivering is functionally equivalent to a small nuclear reactor, supposing you want one, at half the price and a third the time, with no safety or waste worries. Give up, lads, nuclear is a dead parrot.

  4. I think it’s kind of sad. They really really really want a nuclear playset for xmas. Poor things.

  5. What amazes me is that such a ridiculous article can get through peer review in order to be published in ‘Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews’.

  6. Full version of the paper available at researchgate for those who sign up (free) https://www.researchgate.net/publication/315745952_Burden_of_proof_a_comprehensive_review_of_the_feasibility_of_100_renewable-electricity_systems

    While you are there why not read this interesting article on how the burden of proof can be used and abused in discussions – https://www.researchgate.net/publication/256111829_Burden_of_Proof
    “The paper seeks to provide answers for the following six questions.
    1 How does burden of proof get set initially in reasoned dialogue?
    2 Once burden of proof gets set in reasoned dialogue, how is it binding upon the subsequent moves of the participants in argument?
    3 Can burden of proof be set externally before dialogue begins? Or is it set internally, during the course of dialogue, by the participants?
    4 How does burden of proof relate to the argumentum ad ignorantiam, the traditional informal fallacy of arguing from ignorance?
    5 How is burden of proof related to plausibility? Does the burden of proof rest on the interlocutor who attacks an established point of view’?
    6 Does burden of proof work the same way in conversational argumentation as it does in legal argument? Or are the two contexts essentially different?”

    Full disclosure – I am a co-author of one of the studies assessed in this paper.

  7. A few years ago, some authors associated with The Oil Drum blog site speculated that it may not be possible to run an advanced industrial society entirely on renewable energy, because once the energy profit ratio falls below about 5 to 1, the Society spends an undue proportion of its time and resources generating enough energy to run itself. Solar, wind and tide energies are diffuse and it takes energy to aggregate their energy. Ted Trainer would be aware of the argument.

    This hypothesis is likely to be valid for biomass-based systems and possibly for battery-supported solar photovoltaic, given the embedded energy and the finite lifetime of the components. However, I think the latest developments in solar thermal and systems like the one described by James Wimberley probably render this rule of thumb invalid.

  8. PS. In case you were wondering, the salts used for heat storage in CSP plants are sodium nitrate and potassium nitrate. These are bog-standard bulk chemicals mined or synthesised by the million tonnes for the fertiliser industry. Chile has the best natural deposits, so the stuff will be cheap there. Googling, I found Chinese suppliers quoting $350 per tonne for sodium nitrate, twice that for potassium nitrate. Shipping costs become important for such low-value commodities, and actual prices will vary around the globe. Still, standard materials you can but anywhere in the world with a phone and a road to a port for $1,000 a tonne are not high on anybody’s list of worries.

    This technology is so ordinary that, like pumped hydro, it fails to rouse the animal spirits of venture capitalists, unlike batteries – which are essential for vehicles – and small modular reactors, a complete boondoggle.

  9. @Geoff Edwards

    In addition, fossil fuel power has on average an efficiency rating of about 25%. Typical thermal efficiency for utility-scale electrical generators is around 33% for coal and oil-fired plants. Most gasoline combustion engines average around 20 percent thermal efficiency. Electrical motors have an efficiency rating of up to 80%. Using these base values as rough proxies and allowing for further energy losses and inefficiencies at the stages of transporting, transmitting and storing energy, we could probably say that a fossil fuel economy had an overall energy efficiency of about 12.5% and an electrical economy an efficiency of about 35.7% (halving for all other energy losses). That’s three times the efficiency. So if with an electrical economy we gather one third of the primary energy needed now for a fossil fuel economy we will have enough energy to run the the world at current production and efficiency rates.

  10. @Geoff Edwards
    “…once the energy profit ratio falls below about 5 to 1, the Society spends an undue proportion of its time and resources generating enough energy to run itself.”

    One way or another there will be less to go around. Is it to be by planning or collapsing?

    Losing Our Energy Slaves

    Susan Krumdieck, Chapter 13 – Lecture 3 – Risks and Forward Operating Scenarios

    @James Wimberley
    Nitrate = gas.
    Mining, roads, ports, ships = oil.

  11. @Ikonoclast
    “…we will have enough energy to run the the world at current production and efficiency rates.”

    I don’t quite follow how you arrived at the respective overall energy efficiencies, but which world is that? The North, the South, the Third, or the First? What is “enough”? Where’s the exponential growth factor?

  12. @Ikonoclast
    Actually, I think you are understating the efficiency of electric motors. While small motors running well under maximum load are below 80% efficiency, larger motors over 15hp are up around the 90% and the latest standards for really big electric motors over 100hp are for 95%+ efficiency at full load.
    While there are probably billions of small electric motors in the world, when you think of all the large ones in industry, farming, and business, well matched to the load for maximum efficiency and running for long periods of time I reckon average efficiency is already well over 85% now. Then consider that electrification of transport will see a massive rise in high hp motors over 90% efficient.
    A Tesla Roadster uses the electrical equivalent of 2.5 litres petrol/100km
    http://www.saxton.org/EV/efficiency.php

  13. @Svante

    There is a chain of energy costs in any energy economy. For example, take the oil industry.

    (1) It takes energy to recover oil. Say 5 barrels of oil to recover a 100 barrels of oil from a well.
    (2) It takes energy to transport oil. Say 5 barrels of oil (refined into fuel) to transport 100 barrels of oil.

    (3) It takes energy to refine oil into fuel. Say 5 barrels of oil refine 100 barrels of oil.

    (4) It takes energy to transport refined product. Say 5 barrels of oil (refined into fuel) to transport 100 barrels of oil.

    We already see 10 barrels of oil from an earlier batch are needed to make this batch ready for use,. So, we are down to 80 barrels energy profit. Then the oil and fuels economy wastes about 75% of that energy in heat and gets 25% useful work. So we get 20 barrels worth of useful work profit from that 100 barrels of oil. This is so as the useful transport and refining work is not in the energy profit column so far as end use goes.

    That economy is running at about 20% energy profit efficiency. A electrical economy will do far better because even if other losses (use of solar and wind and the power transmission losses were higher (which seems unlikely) there is still the fact that electric engines are at least 75% efficient and I.C. engines are only about 25% efficient. Using these as general proxy values for the efficiency of each kind of economy, the electrical economy only has to collect a third as much energy to do the same amount of useful work. This is an enormous factor in favor of the electrical economy.

    Of course growth cannot continue indefinitely. We need to create a steady state, or gently oscillating state, renewable and socialist economy. Capitalism can’t manage the new set of problems now confronting us. Capitalism was a great tool for a certain stage of rapid and rather ruthless growth and development. It is no longer the right tool now we have filled the world to capacity with humans and their works. A new economic tool, socialism, is needed to deal with the new challenges of a non-growth, renewables economy with long term staying power and compatibility with, and proper protection of, the environment and natural values.

  14. Ikon, electric motors, large ones anyway, are usually over 90% efficient.

    Also, using a chemical process to extract uranium from seawater to generate electricity via a nuclear process can release much more energy than it requires.

    However, extracting water from stones and shooting it into the sun, despite the high delta-v requirements, may eventually result in an even higher energy output, so it may be more logical to work out the kinks in the stone water to space fusion supply chain first.

  15. @Ronald Brakels

    I was on the conservative side allowing for variable use and sub-opitimal uses for electric motors.

    The energy physics and materials requirements for extracting uranium from seawater are not good. Reputable papers on the topic suggest an EROEI of 1:1 to 2:1 at best. It would take a fleet bigger than the world’s current fishing fleet to put out and drag in all the collection membranes needed. It’s a heck of a lot easier and cheaper to just harvest solar and wind power.

  16. @Ikonoclast
    Thanks Iconoclast. Granted, your first 5 barrels of the oil economy inefficiency is inherent to that economy. I’m not so sure that the next 15 barrels, perhaps more, don’t also apply to the ‘electrical’ economy. Oil derived energy for the most part is consumed by shipping, land and air transport, mobile plant, portable plant, plant in remote areas. How is that consumption to be met in the electrical economy?

    A change to grid supplied electrical energy will do for some of it, isolated renewable electrical power generation will cover a bit, due to comparatively tiny energy densities batteries won’t cover much at all that can’t be covered by grid/isolated supply, so presumably there will still be a very large requirement for some type of synthesised oil substitute: a liquid fuel economy. To your “further energy losses and inefficiencies at the stages of transporting, transmitting and storing energy” in this liquid fuel category add the energy losses inherent in its synthesis, and in its final consumption when combusted as fuel. I believe it’s not quite back from the get go to your given 20 barrels per 100 of oil equivalent inefficiency, but with similar losses in final combustion powered applications its not much better than that “20 barrels worth of useful work profit from that 100 barrels of oil”.

    How much would this need for transportable energy dense liquid fuels reduce the efficiency of the overall ‘electrical’ economy given business as usual attempting to carry on? I’m particularly mindful that agriculture turns oil into food. Sure, graziers may jump back onto horse back relatively easily, but it’s a tremendous leap for farmers to jump back off tractors.

  17. I’ve supported nuclear power in the past and don’t regret it. Ex ante, it looked at least as promising a technological fix for AGW as solar or wind. I’ve certainly always believed that most of the safety arguments against nuclear aren’t actually that strong.

    Who knows – if we’d got serious about AGW twenty or thirty years earlier and spent the required bucket loads of development money around the world on SMRs, thorium reactors or even just Gen IV we may already have a cheap nuclear power industry.

    But then we’ll never know because history is path dependent. Ex post the only game in town is solar, wind, storage and smart demand management. So these guys really are dreaming.

  18. @Svante

    Farmers won’t have to jump off tractors. Think of circular fields. There are many now around the world for irrigation reasons. The irrigation system sweeps around like a clock hand. At the center of circular fields you have can have a utilities hub including plug-in electrical power for electric tractors. Too easy.

    Ships? Sailing ships will again be possible for some purposes or at least sail-assist. Modern “sails” are vertical aerofoils or wing sails not those old canvas or nylon flappy things.

    Hard to see even wingsails on container ships of course. Maybe they can run on diesel and natural gas for a while since cutting all other fossil fuels (except avaition) will save a huge percentage of carbon emissions. Dare I guess 90% plus saving of the fossil fuels component?

    Shipping needs will decline. For a start there will be little call for supertankers as oil use will be down to 10% or less.

    We can re-jig our entire economies world wide to reduce shipping needs. A proportion of shipping needs will decline. Manufacturing may well occur in country of use via robot factories and printing which can happen in metal now. Printed cars and so on. Shipping of luxury goods may need to decline. There is also the issue of reducing our expectations a little and living more frugally within the planet’s capacity to support us.

  19. “Shipping needs will decline”
    Really? You are going to be using quite a lot of natural gas to fill in the blanks with renewables for quite a while yet. And gas tankers are scarier than oil tankers (google “BLEVE”).

    I think in the long run shipping of manufactured goods will decline anyway for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with AGW. As world incomes converge manufacturing the comparative advantage of individual countries will become less (or if you prefer, capitalists will run out of poor countries to exploit). And as you point out the world economy is “dematerialising” – becoming ever less dependent on bulky material goods.

    But it’s burning solid carbon rather than nicely hydrogenated very-short-chain hydrocarbons that does the great bulk of the AGW damage. I’ll settle for a world where we leave coal in the ground but exploit our reserves of gas until they run out.

  20. @Moz of Yarramulla
    The work for NZ, by Mason et al, is very good and received the highest score in our framework.

    Had John actually read the study, he would have noted we treated two of the papers by those authors together, as the work is clearly tied together and mutually applicable. The evidence does not all need to be originally developed in just one paper. However as John has criticised our work having only read an abstract, I guess that misunderstanding is to be expected.

  21. Given how easy it is to reach me, I am amazed that anyone would write a review of a paper without actually reading it.

    John, would you like a copy?

  22. @Ikonoclast
    “At the center of circular fields you have can have a utilities hub including plug-in electrical power for electric tractors. Too easy.”

    What’s the packing efficiency of all those circles? How does topography and cropping regime affect that scenario? How big do these circles grow in the dry land cropping regions, eg expansive grain belts? How are row crops affected? There are rail and gantry systems already used in some high value intensive horticultural production systems, but this is not suitable on a bigger scale – batteries, extension leads… muscles? – it always gets back to the practicalities of energy dense liquid fuels, or starvation.

    How is aviation not affected? Cutting edge sail assist on ships is in fact constructed of flappy textiles: kites. All the commercial shipping sail assist options I’ve seen are only for courses off the wind. The actual trade winds are not aligned favourably or are absent from many contemporary shipping routes…

    You may be dreaming Ikonoclast, but still you’re doing far better than those who should actually be taking stock, planning, and implementing now. People don’t change their expectations of, nor their way of doing things tomorrow until they find themselves in a new paradigm built for them. See Susan Krumdieck vid on transition engineering (eg. Chapter 13 – Lecture 3 – Risks and Forward Operating, linked earlier but still in moderation).

    “There is also the issue of reducing our expectations a little and living more frugally within the planet’s capacity to support us.” – The planet’s capacity is diminished, continues rapidly diminishing, whilst our numbers explode. – There is something seriously wrong with the leger ongoing here, and the auditor won’t be welcome.

  23. There is a terrific visualisation of the current levels of waste in the energy system in the Sannkey charts for the US produced by the Lawrence Livermore National laboratory. (Easy to Google). You need theirs, as other producers of similar charts leave out waste.

    You might quibble that the convention that renewable energy generators are 100% efficient is misleading. But since the unconverted energy of sun, wind, and water has no cost and no environmental impact, the convention is defensible. The incentives to increase conversion efficiency are unaffected.

  24. Gee, somebody better tell these people that circular crop fields don’t work.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Center_pivot_irrigation

    Of course this sort of farming can and does work ONLY IF adequate water and energy can be provided but this holds true for all farming. To make foolish claims that packing efficiency, lack of suitable topography in countries with great plains and cropping regime issues will be crucial limiting factors in the case is just plain wrong.

    You reveal your prejudged conclusion “it always gets back to the practicalities of energy dense liquid fuels or starvation”. No it doesn’t. Solar power will supersede fossil fuel power. The physics prove it will work. The economics already prove it. Solar power is cheaper already.

    “2016 was the year solar panels finally became cheaper than fossil fuels. Just wait for 2017” – Quartz Media.

    There are many challenges facing us. The combined effects of these problems might well still bring us down. But to blindly harp on that oil is irreplaceable when the facts are already telling us something different is to be impervious to the evidence about solar and wind power.

  25. @James Wimberley
    Grr. Sankey not Sannkey. Site here.

    Mark Jacobson’s thorough scenarios for 100% renewable energy come out at an overall efficiency gain of about 50% from a complete transition. There are are a lot of uncertainties here, as the technology roadmap is very hazy on a string of important but still secondary issues: cement, long-distance trucks, shipping, and aviation. Still, it’s clear enough on the big-ticket items, electricity generation, light vehicles and space heating. He must be in the right ballpark.

  26. The “Burden of proof” study has only one intention: to question the wisdom of excluding nuclear power from consideration when it comes to tackling global co2 emissions.

    IMHO, the study does a good job of showing that it is very risky to exclude nuclear power. We need to use anything and everything that works, otherwise our climate will be toast.

  27. @Svante
    “Nitrate = gas.
    Mining, roads, ports, ships = oil.”
    As I pointed out, in Chile the nitrates are mined in situ. Elsewhere, you really have to show some numbers instead of reciting a talking point. The 110 MW Crescent Dunes CSP plant uses 32,000 tonnes of salt for 10 hours storage (Wikipedia). So we are talking about one big shipload and three trainloads, once. For comparison, world demand for nitrogen fertiliser alone is over 100 million tonnes a year (FAO); they expect world demand for all fertilisers to break 200 mt by 2018. The salt in a CSP tank will cycle every day for 30 years, and of course it’s not used up but is available for fertiliser or another CSP plant at the end. Is your proposal that we should not use oil at all even for capital goods that will get us off fossil fuels? That’s suicidal.

  28. @Joris van Dorp
    “We need to use anything and everything that works.”
    No, emphatically no. We need to use to use the cheapest method or combination of methods that works. If we pick high-cost or untried methods (especially high-cost and untried methods, like SMRs), the risk of failure goes up. We could go back to sailing ships for trade, but the cost of everything in the shops would more than double.

    You have not taken in the lesson of Gemasolar, Crescent Dunes – a working commercial-scale plant – and Copiapo. I used to think that CSP was just a long shot, but SolarReserve have proved me wrong.

  29. Personally I’m pretty confident that some time in the next fifty years we’ll perfect fusion power, at which point we’ll stop having to worry about energy. The problem is that we need to get there from here without destroying our environment in the meantime . . .

  30. @Ikonoclast
    A quick glance at the satellite image at your wiki link would have shown you how little of that area is actually covered by the centre pivot irrigation systems. It’s Kansas and probably close to ideal agricultural land (which there aint much of, it would be nice to see a wider angled view of adjacent areas there) but no more than half the area is covered. You will also note that areas not covered show signs of cultivation.

    Centre pivot irrigation has its applications, and limitations, but you’ll also note in that image the linear machinery tracks left across those areas covered under the irrigator. If you know of areas where farm machinery other than the irrigator also turns in circular tracks over those areas, perhaps is plugged into the central point somehow for power, and is able to get into and work those 50% of irregular angular shaped areas outside the circles let us know.

    “..ONLY IF adequate water and energy can be provided but this holds true for all farming”, but you fail to state what alternative systems will work to generally power industrial farming field operations other than for a limited circular case.

    I did not harp on about oil being irreplaceable, rather I stressed the wide utility of energy dense liquid fuels. I earlier suggested they’d be synthesised, and how that would lower the overall energy efficiency of your suggested ‘electrical’ economy. This brought that scenario somewhat down to earth.

    Re Quartz reference: Solar power cheaper than fossil fuels when used for what application?

  31. @James Wimberley
    “Is your proposal that we should not use oil at all even for capital goods that will get us off fossil fuels?”

    No. We should be mindful of it. Mindful of how it is embedded. Mindful of how it thoroughly permeates everything we have and do at present and has done so for as long as we can remember. We are soaked in it because there is nothing like it – yet.

  32. Ben Heard
    I read your full paper and I agree with Quiggin’s comments. You have set up your criteria so as to get a predetermined result. Your paper is a poor quality opinion piece masquerading as science. I repeat that I am amazed it got through peer review.

  33. @John Goss

    Yes they’ve spun it.

    A few blatant instances I noted:

    “In September 2016, the loss of transmission lines in South Australia during a major storm caused disturbances triggering the departure of 445 MW of wind generation. Without adequate synchronous generation, the rate of change of frequency exceeded prescribed limits, resulting in total power loss to all 1.7 million residents, all business and all industry in the state [92]. The estimated economic impact of this event was AU$367 million [93].”

    Left out: The price gouging operators not switching generators on.


    Finally, we gave another score of one to scenarios that specifically attempted to account for, and adequately addressed, the impact of extreme climate events.

    Left out: Extreme siesmic events. Not to mention human error, civil strife, and war. For thousands of years. (Nuclear desirability is mentioned elsewhere)


    “Record-low dam levels in Tasmania coincided with the failure of network interconnection and triggered an energy crisis for that state in 2015–2016 [131”

    Left out: An imprudent government first drained the dams to make what they though would be easy money.

  34. @Ben Heard
    Is it worth my while?
    – JQ says it’s rubbish. John Goss and Svante, who have read the full article, agree. Their reasons look good to me.
    – 100% renewable electricity or close has been achieved, by some small states (Costa Rica. Paraguay, Iceland, Bhutan) on a year-round basis, and by Denmark and Scotland for days at a time. Arguments that reality is impossible are not convincing. Grid operators, who actually bear operational responsibility for security of supply, are resolutely pragmatic and do not support a priori limits on renewable penetration.
    – The abstract does not mention the negative learning curve for nuclear (Arnulf Grübler) or, my hobby-horse, CSP.
    Pro-nuclear advocacy is sliding into the territory of Velikovsky and the anti-vaxxers. The one informed pro-nuclear regular on this blog, Will Boisvert, seems to have given up.

  35. Given how easy it is to reach me, I am amazed that anyone would write a review of a paper without actually reading it.

    The purpose of an abstract is to represent the broad outlines of the paper so that people can do a baseline judgement of the likely worth of the paper without reading them. As a researcher you should know this: not only have you been writing abstracts for years, you’ve been reading them too, and using them in the exact same way that JQ here is, to decide whether a paper is worth reading.

    No?

    If you can’t judge the paper — in broad outline at least — by the abstract then you did a bad job writing the abstract, no? That’s the whole purpose and role of the abstract. If the abstract indicates conceptual or methodological errors then the only conclusion a person can come to is that the paper itself contains those errors and is not worth reading. Or that you can’t write an abstract… but since the abstract is itself part of the paper

    I mean, noone expects the abstract to represent every detail of the paper. That would be silly, and also impossible. But if it doesn’t represent the broad/general thrust of the paper then the abstract is just plainly badly written: since it’s possible for a paper to have errors not only in its detail but also in its broad/general thrust, some errors in papers [the ones in the broad/general thrust] can be revealed simply by reading the abstract and there’s no need to go to the paper to see the same mistakes reiterated in more detail.

    Why do you need this explained to you? How much money do you earn, and why do you not understand some of the basic elements of the job you’re paid to do?

  36. @Ben Heard

    OK, so you relaxed the “all in one paper” requirement to “all by one research team”

    I’ll correct the post to note this trivial amendment. I’ve now read the full paper and it seems to me that the abstract is a fair summary, and that nothing in my post (with the exception noted) needs to be changed.

  37. The authors have neglected to survey published work from the UNSW research group since 2014 which has substantially advanced the modelling capability and analysis. Modellers understand that you cannot do everything and attempting to do so risks making the model incorrect or computationally intractable. It is a careful exercise in trade-offs and reasonable approximations to the physical world. Modelling can be slow and methodical work and one may often be accused of not working at sufficient detail. eg, “Your solar data with 5 minute resolution is too coarse. You could miss a cloud event.”

    Full disclosure – I am a co-author of one of the studies assessed in this paper.

  38. @Ben

    Cool. This research paper: “What cost for more renewables? …” (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960148116302646) (pre-print here: http://ceem.unsw.edu.au/sites/default/files/documents/WhatCostMoreRenewables-preprint_0.pdf) could have with minimal extra effort, kept track of what maximum electricity transfers between the states would be required in order for the model to reflect some degree of reality. And consequently provided us with an indication on how much larger the transmission line interconnectors between Queensland, NSW & Victoria in particular would need to be. I know you mention it (on page 20… it’s just that most informed readers start asking that question on page 3), and it is also one of the Burden of Proof criteria (because it is obvious). I recognise that modelling is not trivial work; it’s just that given this one omission potentially radically alters the conclusions your paper reaches, this work could have been significantly better.

  39. If the nuclear for climate option is to succeed it is necessary that renewables must fail? The presumption that they must fail – because there are still elements that need significant improvements and uncertainties remain – looks predicated on outdated data and dismissal of the real potential for those improvements to be realised.

    Two and three decades ago “renewables can’t do the job” was a compelling argument. But nuclear’s political support base, that might have pushed that line hard, chose instead to doubt and deny any real need to displace fossil fuels and chose to frame the whole issue, problem and solutions, as “green” and “left” and “fringe”, a losing combination that dealt themselves out of a front and centre role in the climate policy development game. It was not done like that to constrain nuclear but to sustain fossil fuels and avoid all that fuss and bother about climate stability. It doesn’t matter that nuclear’s wounding appeared to be “friendly fire”; there is nothing “friendly” about climate science denial for anything but fossil fuels. It’s the gift that keeps on taking. If nuclear for climate advocates want to be taken seriously they need to clearly and unequivocally break with the climate science deniers of the Conservative Right.

    I think the energy game has changed too much already for nuclear to deal itself into the Australian energy market; even if the LNP nuke spruikers can bring themselves to abandon Doubt, Deny, Delay and their pretend advocacy it isn’t steady baseload power nuclear is going to be competing with and for, it’s going to be the intermittent gaps left by intermittent renewables, it’s (initially) the 4 hour evening period that batteries are already competing for, and even that window can disappear if the wind is blowing. If nuclear struggles to be economically viable with 24/7 demand, how can it do so when solar owns the daytime market and batteries and wind are eating away at the evenings and overnight? It would take extreme market interventions to establish nuclear and special treatment to keep it’s production and income quarantined from an evolving NEM that is unlikely to favour it.

    I think storage, for homes and small businesses at least, should be put in perspective; even now it’s not an investment greater than that of a small car – and most households can afford several of those, and the investment will be largely and perhaps entirely recouped from energy cost savings and improved energy security. There will be some need for backup capacity whilst the market in batteries develops but nuclear is not going to be in a position to provide any. That will be from repurposing of existing fossil fuel plant where possible.

    It isn’t going to be a case of dropping in a 100% renewables system, complete, to replace the existing system, it’s a transition. Even before the next big bend in that course prediction is getting foggy; the end of the road will be next to invisible and that applies to nuclear options as much as renewables. That isn’t to say that foresight and planning can’t improve visibility and allow us to be prepared for the upcoming impediments; it would be good to actually see some being applied.

  40. @Ken Fabian

    “I think storage, for homes and small businesses at least, should be put in perspective; even now it’s not an investment greater than that of a small car – and most households can afford several of those, and the investment will be largely and perhaps entirely recouped from energy cost savings and improved energy security. There will be some need for backup capacity whilst the market in batteries develops but nuclear is not going to be in a position to provide any.”

    This is a point I made a while ago in relation to roof-top solar (no more investment than small car and sometimes a deal less). Prices are trending to the point where roof-top solar, evacuated tube solar hot water and back-up home storage battery packs combined will cost no more than a small car. And a small car is a bit of a semi-non-necessity sometimes, especially as a 2nd family car when compared to such a very useful and productive combined home energy system.

  41. Svante,

    “If you know of areas where farm machinery other than the irrigator also turns in circular tracks over those areas, perhaps is plugged into the central point somehow for power, and is able to get into and work those 50% of irregular angular shaped areas outside the circles let us know.”

    Can’t I suggest a logical innovation or possible development? It is not the case that everything we do next has to have been already done. We can innovate after all.

    Also, the “irregular angular shaped areas” in between circular fields are not the show-stoppers you seem to imagine them to be.

    1. The final formula for the answer = r squared x (4 – pi). Disclosure, I looked it up rather than dust off my rusty Senior maths.

    2. This area is not “dead” or unusable. Uses could and likely would include foundation/base for wind generator, solar panel “field-let”, service sheds, chook yards, market gardens, fruit trees, access tracks (albeit the whole area of the access is track will be new non-broad-crop area).

  42. @John Quiggin
    No, it doesn’t need to all be by one research team. Previous work by other research teams in a specific area that is sufficiently detailed, applicable and cited in the studies is fine.

  43. @James Wimberley

    “100% renewable electricity or close has been achieved, by some small states (Costa Rica. Paraguay, Iceland, Bhutan) on a year-round basis”

    First I don’t think that’s true, at least for Costa Rica. Second, in any case, none of these have been achieved without massive dispatchable hydro and/or natural geothermal resources. These are not available in most of the world, including Australia.

    The burden of proof is legitimately lighter for nuclear because it doesn’t rely on models, it can point to reality: https://twitter.com/jmkorhonen/status/844819198308069377 For all the spluttering about ‘hopelessly uneconomic’, France was still a going concern the last time I looked. On this score, JQ has previously said the secret of France’s efficient construction has somehow been ‘lost’. I just don’t buy that. Is this a climate emergency or isn’t it?

  44. Also, the “irregular angular shaped areas” in between circular fields are not the show-stoppers you seem to imagine them to be.

    Centre-pivot irrigation. Modern farming soil is an engineered product; if we’re short of it, it’s because we haven’t made enough. Actual physical space or the dirt occupying it is in no short supply.

    A person who thinks their thoughts on agricultural economics are worth something shouldn’t need this sort of thing pointed out to them.

  45. @Ben

    Ben,

    I agree.

    Note, we covered two papers from that research team.

    Note also, we singled one of them out as an example of a paper that was providing a great methodology and important directions, while achieving a low score in our framework, to highlight one of the deficiencies we see in the framework: in some cases good research work can achieve a low score when high-quality in one area but lacking breadth.

    Of course research is incremental and sequential. I take no issue with that. The issue of concern is when valid research leapfrogs to invalid claims on policy demands and directions well ahead of the evidence.

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