Is New South Wales going to go really, really green?
This question was posed in an electronic, renewables-loving newsletter at the week’s end.
The spark for the question was a speech the NSW Energy Minister Chris Hartcher made in Nowra in switching on a small demonstration plant for creating biofuel from carbon dioxide emissions.
Hartcher reportedly was enthusiastic about the potential for the technology, which is fair enough, but nothing he added could justify the newsletter’s “really, really green” point.
He is quoted as saying that the new federal Bureau of Resources & Energy Economics report on energy technology costs is “exciting” because of the forecasts of solar and wind power moving towards black coal costs.
Of course, this modelling is based on a carbon price around $60 per tonne (in today’s money values) at a point well down the track – towards 2030 – something that the media reports Hartcher would have seen did not make clear at all.
(As an example of BREE’s views, supercritical black coal generation is forecast to have a levelised cost of $84 per megawatt hour in 2030 without the imposition of the federal carbon price – versus $93 for onshore wind, $116 for solar PV, $201 for solar thermal and $220 for wave power, heavily hyped in the media last month.
(With the tax, the coal cost goes to $164.)
The NSW government is opposed to the federal government’s carbon tax.
According to Hartcher’s Nowra comments, his government, however, accepts the idea of carbon pricing; it just opposes the federal government’s timing and the cost implications of what it is doing today.
He is quoted as saying: “Obviously, we will be moving from coal over a period of years, but whether you do so over a period of five, 10 or 30 years is a question that has to be debated in the community and the cost has to be taken in to account.”
Well, on BREE’s 2035 generation projections, published in December, a large part of NSW and Queensland power generation then will still be from existing black coal-burning plants.
With a $60 per tonne carbon price, consumers would be paying a large amount more than they do now for a mix that included existing black coal, a lot more gas and wind and some other niche forms of renewables – and even more, on the modelling, if geothermal is included.
The NSW renewables energy action plan is due to be released this year.
Its target has already been identified as 20 per cent of consumption by 2020.
So there is no question of Mt Piper, Bayswater, Liddell and Eraring, today providing more than threequarters of the State’s power, being phased out in five or 10 years – and it would be a hell of a selling point for NSW Treasurer Mike Baird if anyone considering buying them under the current privatisation scheme believed or feared they might be.
It is curious that people on the green side of the fence, and those they manage to influence in the mainstream media, see the new BREE paper as a “game-changer.”
Headlines in more than 40 reports published after the study was released included “Renewables to win the price race by 2030?” and one academic proponent of renewable energy declared “A solar revolution is taking place that will soon transform Australia’s energy system.”
What BREE actually says is : “Australia will experience an energy transformation over the coming decades that will have a profound impact for electricity networks, how energy is distributed and on Australia’s ability to meet its targeted greenhouse gas emissions reductions.”
What the agency forecast, in its December 2011 projections, is that all renewables, including long-existing hydro-electric power, will contribute 24 per cent of national electricity supply in 2035.
(That review doesn’t consider nuclear energy because its use here today is illegal.)
Even the most optimistic of the consultancy reports federal Treasury commissioned last year to support its “Strong growth, low pollution” paper backing the government’s “clean energy future” program saw no more than 27.5 per cent supply by new renewables technology in 2030.
This included almost nine per cent to be provided by geothermal energy, which the new BREE model consigns to the nether regions of competing technologies in 18 years’ time as 2.5 times more expensive than onshore wind and very nearly double the cost of solar PV.
The hype about renewables’ prospects could be laughed off if it was not for the manner of rather a lot of media presentations, which tend to mislead the general public.
As a result, we then see polls run by the environmental movement claiming overwhelming support for renewables.
The other aspect of what BREE has now produced that the usual green suspects definitely don’t want to debate is how nuclear, in both cost terms and its baseload availability, is on the sunny side of the modelling.
At least News Ltd newspapers, Sky News and Nine News (which has a very large audience at the moment because it is broadcasting the Olympic Games) have all run stories on the theme “Energy cost report opens nuclear door.”
The BREE 2030 levelised cost comparison has small modular nuclear reactors at $116 per MWh, the same as intermittent solar PVs, cheaper than combined cycle gas plants ($135 when the federal government’s carbon price is included) and a great deal cheaper than solar thermal ($201).
One of nuclear’s most prominent local proponents, Adelaide University professor Barry Brook, has a commentary on “The Coversation” website (headlined “Low-carbon electricity must be fit-for-service and nuclear power is”) – see www,theconversation.edu.au – asserting that relying on renewables for all or most of our electricity needs is demonstrated by the BREE report to be too speculative and risky to constitute part of any serious energy plan.
Brook argues that nuclear energy at present is uniquely a proven fit-for-service, low-carbon “plug-in” alternative for coal that is commercially available, widely deployed in some countries, highly scalable and comes with a half-century’s operational experience.
“It indisputably has its own problems, but so do all of our other electricity options,” Brook declares. “There is no such thing as an electrical free lunch.”
His summing up, I think, is a fair judgement on this debate: different technologies will play various niche roles in future markets and renewables obviously will be important for Australia but they can’t do the heavy-lifting job of providing abundant, low-carbon baseload power.
One way of viewing the new BREE report, I think, is that, if we can’t drive carbon capture and storage to commercial viability (and the agency thinks we can by 2030) and if we can’t count on geothermal power, then nuclear energy has to be given serious thought in order to pursue our abatement targets.
One of my engineering friends, with substantial experience of looking at nuclear prospects, has said to me this weekend that, given where we are today, reactors could be fast-tracked for commissioning in 2025 on the east coast – but, with the present political and investor uncertainties, this would be a stretch.
He says “2030 could be a different matter.”