Archive for September, 2015

A touch of sun

I do like reading good writing – my current book is “Flash Points,” a study of Europe’s potential future by geopolitical forecaster George Friedman and it is a great example of the power of well-crafted words – but in the energy arena any such pleasure is frequently marred by authors’ inability to get the basics right.

The classic and perennial problem, perpetuated by international media agencies and frequently on exhibition in local media, is the inability to understand the difference between power generation capacity and output.

Thus there is a story doing the rounds at the moment to the effect that solar power has met 10 per cent of Japan’s summer needs where the writers’ focus is on what capacity has been engaged rather than production.

In the real world, solar power has been meeting about two per cent of Japanese electricity demand in recent years.

The true picture of what has happened in Japan, post-Fukushima and the sudden withdrawal of nuclear power (meeting 27 per cent of electricity production in 2010), is that the natural gas share of generation has jumped from 30 per cent to 43 per cent and the coal share from 24 to 30 per cent. The oil share has doubled to 14 per cent. On the renewables side, hydro-electric power’s share has remained static at eight per cent and “other renewables” (including solar) have almost doubled to five per cent.

A significant development, but one not much publicized, I am told, is that Japan’s major trading houses are supporting the development of seven substantial state-of-the-art coal-fired power stations. A leading Japanese environmental group claims as many as 40 could be built eventually. Japanese technology sees such plants operating at above 40 per cent efficiency compared with 36 per cent in America (and 27 per cent in India) and a semi-experimental power station is boasting close to 45 per cent.

No less interesting is the fact that Japanese finance has backed more than 22,000 megawatts of new coal power plants using modern technology in countries around the globe, including Vietnam, India and Chile.

For the eager beavers of a green power future, the implication of the 10 per cent solar line mentioned above is “why not 100 per cent in the future,” enabling Japan to do away with nasty nuclear and unclean fossil fuels.

It never seems to cross the minds of the purveyors of this propaganda that meeting all Japanese electricity needs from solar power (allowing for the inconvenience of nights) would require some 20 per cent of the land area (a bit less than six times the area of Greater Tokyo) and roughly 70 per cent of the country is forest or mountain. Ah so.

Nonetheless, looking more widely, the issue of just how far use of solar can be driven, and what is required to drive it in terms of all the costs laid on consumers and the community, is fascinating.

Reading about it would be more enjoyable if those spruiking its future could resist playing arithmetical games.

There’s a salutary sentence in the most recent International Energy Agency commentary on the costs of various forms of power production: “No single technology (is) the cheapest form of electricity generation under all circumstances; many factors determine the final cost of investment, principally local influences such as market structure, policy environment and resource endowments.”

Horses for courses, in other words, and much depends on the political jockeys and the handicaps imposed on various runners – including, one should point out, the ultimate handicap in Australia of an outright ban on the use of nuclear energy.

That there will be surprises here and overseas in the energy stakes over the next 10-15 years (let alone longer time frames) should go without saying and the notorious inability of the body politic to foresee such changes is the major reason politicians should eschew picking winners.

All this said, Australia is a natural environment (literally) for solar power.

Household use of rooftop photovoltaics is steadily growing, interest in this application among factory-owners and the like is growing, too, and, supported by government funds, the initial tentative steps in to utility-scale solar generation are under way.

The extent to which this solar progress can proceed, its overall costs and the implications for a resilient east coast electricity market are the realm of much speculation.

I see Origin Energy’s Grant King quoted in a newspaper report today as saying that we should be prepared to be surprised by the rate at which utility-scale solar will take up “a significant amount” of our renewable energy target.

He says there is as much interest in solar sites now as there was in wind farm sites a decade ago.

It needs to be pointed out, however, that, even if utility scale solar accounted for half of the investment in generation needed to fulfill the RET as presently planned, its contribution to national grid-connected power production would be statistically minute at the end of the next decade.

It should also be said that a sea change in east coast gas supply, with lower wholesale prices than presently perceived (feared), would alter the equation, too – as would a political decision that opened the way to small-scale nuclear power production.

This, of course, is where politics looms large.

Governments too lily-livered to support new gas development or gung-ho about supporting renewables with taxpayers’ and consumers’ money in pursuit of votes or suddenly opting to open the door to nuclear energy can change the energy equation big-time.

Vested interest advocacy thrives in this environment, spin in the media soars to ever-new heights and context gets kicked in to the corner.

In closing, here is some context from a source that is both extremely well-researched and also well written, the 2015 “Energy Perspectives” publication produced by the economists of Norway’s Statoil.

In their modelling, the Statoil team observe that there is a 10,000 or so gigawatt difference in the renewables capacity built over 25 years in an environment where, post-Paris, the world is chasing a 450 ppm atmospheric concentration of carbon and one they characterize as a “disorderly world” where nations are not able to agree on “co-ordinated and forceful measures against climate change.”

That’s a massive financial incentive for vested corporate interests, never mind the ideologists.