Coal and the nuclear lobby (updated)

Against my better judgement, I got sucked into a minor Twitterstorm over the weekend. The main outcome was to remind me that, while Twitter is useful in the role of a microblog, providing quick links to, and sharp observations on, more substantial material, it is utterly useless as a venue for discussion and debate.

Update : A large number of nuclear fans were eager to tweet and share snarky responses on Twitter, but only three people were willing to discuss the issue here. Thanks to David Michie, Jonathan Suhanto and Ben Huxham who did at least respond. For those concerned that I might have a home-field advantage, I suggested that they post a long-form response on a site of their own, with links here, but no one took this idea up.  That says it all for Twitter, and for the pro-nuclear posters there, as far as I’m concerned.  End update.

In this case, the debate was over nuclear power, and this post from last year. It’s reasonable to ask why I would bother arguing about nuclear power, given my frequently expressed view that it’s dead as a doornail. The problem is that nuclear fans like Ben Heard are, in effect, advocates for coal. Their line of argument runs as follows

(1) A power source with the characteristics of coal-fired electricity (always on) is essential if we are to decarbonise the electricity suppy
(2) Renewables can’t meet this need
(3) Nuclear power can
Hence, we must find a way to support nuclear

The problem is that, on any realistic analysis, there’s no chance of getting a nuclear plant going in Australia before about 2040 (see over the fold). So, the nuclear fans end up supporting the Abbott crew saying that we will have to rely on coal until then. And to make this case, it is necessary to ignore or denounce the many options for an all-renewable electricity supply, including concentrated solar power, large-scale battery storage and vehicle-to-grid options. As a result, would-be green advocates of nuclear power end up reinforcing the arguments of the coal lobby.

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Can the electricity system be fixed ?

I’m going to be talking to Steve Austin on ABC 612 Brisbane today, hopefully about COAG’s rejection of the Turnbull government’s National Energy Guarantee. As I said when this policy was cooked up in a matter of a few weeks last year

The most important thing to understand about the federal government’s new National Energy Guarantee is that it is designed not to produce a sustainable and reliable electricity supply system for the future, but to meet purely political objectives for the current term of parliament.

Those political objectives are: to provide a point of policy difference with the Labor Party; to meet the demands of the government’s backbench to provide support for coal-fired electricity; and to be seen to be acting to hold power prices down.

To expand a bit on the first point, this is a policy that won’t survive past the next election. If Labor wins, they’ll need to raise the emissions reduction target and that will entail dismantling most of the elaborate structure of the NEG. If, regrettably, Turnbull is re-elected, he’ll face immense pressure from the backbench to do more for coal. On past form, and the indications of recent weeks, he’ll comply. If it should survive, the policy won’t deliver any significant change from the current no-policy trajectory, because it’s essentially designed to do nothing.

But if not the NEG, what can be done to fix the shambles that is our electricity system? Here’s a very brief outline:

(i) a publicly owned national grid, operated by a statutory authority with a service orientation encompassing the goals of security of supply, affordable electricity, and a transition to a fully renewable generation system
(ii) the abandonment of the electricity pool market, in favor of longer dated supply contracts, with an order-of-merit system of supply management
(iii) a mixture of public and private electricity generation and networked storage
(iv) reintegration of distribution and retail services

Alphabet soup of denialism

In the last week we’ve had reports on the future of the electricity system from the ACCC, AEMO and ESB.  These acronymic bodies all share in the responsibility for the mess we find ourselves in today. Their reports are not only inconsistent with each other in critical respects, but internally incoherent.

The one thing they have in common is that they all assume that Australia should do nothing more about climate change. In this, they are reflecting the Trumpist views of our  government, restated more elegantly by its vapid frontman, Malcolm Turnbull.

The idea that these denialist policies could somehow represent a solution to the dispute over energy policy in Australia is bizarre. When and if the Trumpists are defeated, we will need a radical increase in ambition. A carbon price should be part of this, but the policy disasters of the last five years mean that much more drastic action will be needed.

The only benefit of the last week’s output is to remind us that the entire alphabet soup of bodies running our failing energy season needs to be tipped down the drain and replaced with a publicly owned grid, and a radical transformation of electricity generation, phasing out coal as rapidly as possible.

Are we on the way to ending coal: the coal plant pipeline

I’ve managed to get a little free time, and I’ve decided to do a series of posts looking at the vital question of whether we are on the way to ending reliance on coal as a source of energy. I’m going to focus first on thermal coal used for electricity generation. We have the apparent contradiction of a resurgence in coal prices combined with ample evidence that new coal plants are no longer economic, and that, when health costs are taken into account, the same is true of most existing coal plants.

I’m going to start with a “fact sheet” issued by the pro-coal Monash Forum. Interestingly, it draws on the work of the anti-coal site CoalSwarm, so there’s a fair bit of basic agreement.  Here’s the sheet

Larger version available here

These numbers are taken from the table Coal Plants by Country (Units) which is available in a convenient Google Docs form.  They are accurate as far as they go – Monash has extracted the top ten countries* in terms of planned plants, and given the total over all countries. If all these plants are constructed and operate for a lifetime of 40 years, there will be continuing demand for coal well into the future, and no hope for a stable climate.

However, the table has a lot more interesting information, not reported by Monash. Here’s a table with the same countries and all the columns.

Scalable version available here

The complete table gives a rather different story to that told by the Monash Forum. The number of plants cancelled since 2010, nearly 200 per year, is substantially greater than the number still in planning.  The crucial question is whether the trend of cancellation will continue, so that the vast majority of planned plants are never built.  That’s what needs to happen if we are to have any chance of saving the global environment.

The evidence from the table shows that the necessary scale of cancellations is possible. If the 2010-2017 trend continued for another five years, the pipeline of planned projects would be wiped out**.  Such a total wipeout is unlikely, but its equally unlikely that all the projects in the list will go ahead. I’ll try to say a bit more about this in later posts.

One promising straw in the wind: A few days after the release of the Monash fact sheet, the Pudimadaka Ultra Mega Power Project, a proposed 4 *1000-megawatt coal-fired power station in India, was cancelled. As I understand the table, this counts as four units off the list. There’s still nearly 900 to go but every little helps.


* For some reason, South Africa (11th) was included and Zimbabwe (10th) omitted. It’s not important, but I’ve included both in my list.

** Some projects under construction may also be cancelled. A close look at the state of progress would be needed to make an estimate of the possibilities.

The Coal Truth

If all the coal in the Galilee Basin were burned, it would make it just about impossible to stabilize the global climate. Most attention has been focused on the Adani Group’s proposal for an integrated mine-rail-port project to develop its proposed Carmichael mine. There are however a string of would-be followers, including GVK Hancock and Clive Palmer.

The good news is that Adani’s March deadline for financial close, itself a deferral of earlier promises, has passed with no sign of anyone willing to finance the proposal. Even the Abbot Point terminal, which has long-term take-or-pay contracts with existing coal mines, is struggling to refinance its debt.

But there’s no room for complacency.
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Grattan unreliable on electricity networks

The Grattan Institute has just released a report blaming high electricity network costs on public ownership and excessive reliability standards. I commented on a draft of the report, but there wasn’t much change in relation to my comments.

My comments are over the fold. Let me offer the following, slightly ad hominem argument. Grattan has backed the National Energy Guarantee, a radical change in Australia’s energy policy, which was justified mainly by the occurrence of a single blackout in Adelaide. Yet it asserts (without any evidence I can see) that the responses to earlier blackouts in Queensland and NSW represent unjustified “gold plating”.

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