Physical Insights

An independent scientist’s observations on society, technology, energy, science and the environment. “Modern science has been a voyage into the unknown, with a lesson in humility waiting at every stop. Many passengers would rather have stayed home.” – Carl Sagan

The Garnaut climate change review draft report.

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As many of you will know, Professor Garnaut’s much-awaited Draft Report on the implications of anthropogenic climate change in Australia was recently released. Let’s take a look at it.

[There’s a mirrored host here, courtesy of the GreensBlog. Please be aware that that’s a direct link to a very large PDF file.]

I haven’t read the entire thing yet, and I don’t expect that many of you have, either.

In some industries, notably aluminium smelting and some steel production, indirect emissions in generating electricity would need to be taken into account. These emissions could be assessed according to a simple and robust approximation, based on the emissions intensity of the systems from which they draw their power, and made subject to the sectoral emissions tax. Indirect or embodied emissions that fell below a threshold would not be considered, in the interest of simplicity.”

“Chapter 9 suggested that under a reasonable set of assumptions about the threshold ratio and the permit price, only a limited number of industries might clearly satisfy the emissions intensity eligibility criteria. As the permit price rises, they may include — assuming an economy-wide emissions trading scheme — aluminium smelting, cattle and sheep products, cement production, and iron and early stage steel manufacturing.”

It all sounds terribly complicated, doesn’t it? I’ll be the first to profess that I’m not an economist, however.

The example of the aluminium production industry is one that gets bought up again and again in the context of high-GHG-emissions industries, and it raises an interesting question.

An aluminium smelter itself does emit a little bit of carbon dioxide and other GHGs, but not all that much by comparison to most other large industrial chemical and metallurgical engineering.

What an aluminium smelter does do, however, is consume large amounts of electrical energy, and this is where this notion about the aluminium industry being responsible for vast amounts of GHG emissions comes from.

The aluminium producer buys their electricity from the grid from the electricity generating utility. If we assume that this utility is predominantly operating coal-fired plants, then the utility is paying a high price for its large carbon dioxide emissions, under an emissions trading scheme.

The utility will inevitably pass this cost onto electricity consumers – so, is an industry such as the aluminium industry or steel industry being expected to pay for the carbon dioxide intensity of their energy use twice – once in the price of their electricity, and again simply because they’re using that electricity? That’s what the above passage seems to imply, doesn’t it?

The same scenario applies to every one of us, with regards to household electricity consumption. Could you reasonably be expected to pay for “your” carbon dioxide emissions corresponding, even after you’ve already paid them in the form of the bill from your electric utility?

Just like aluminium smelters or electric arc furnaces in industry, light bulbs or plasma TV’s aren’t responsible for significant direct greenhouse gas emissions – it’s fossil fuel combustion power stations that are.

Now, I’m pleased to note that there’s at least some mention of nuclear energy in the report, and it’s interesting to take a look at that, too.

This renewed demand arises from a combination of influences from climate change, energy security and relative costs. With more than one-third of currently estimated global uranium resources, Australia is well placed to benefit from this growth.

Doesn’t this sound – coincidentally – very much like the “Nuclear energy is fantastic for Australia – just as long as it isn’t actually in Australia” policy of the federal government?

The 2006 Uranium Mining, Processing and Nuclear Energy Review for the Commonwealth Government concluded: ‘Although the priority for Australia will continue to be to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from coal and gas, the Review sees nuclear power as a practical option for part of Australia’s electricity production. This conclusion was based on a cost of nuclear power of $40–65/MWh, which is within the range of the $35–80/MWh estimate of the Nuclear Energy Agency and the International Energy Agency from 2005, but below ranges specified in the more recent official UK publications of $60–80 MWh. Nuclear power stations will have been disproportionately affected by the recent increases in capital costs on account of their exceptional capital intensity, and will have been rendered less competitive by this development. Newer-generation nuclear technologies indicate potentially lower costs.

Less competitive with what? Less competitive in the presence or in the absence of an emissions trading scheme? How less competitive?

Increases in capital costs affect all energy systems – nuclear energy, fossil fuel combustion, solar, wind… you name it. In terms of the relative sensitivity to capital costs of nuclear power plant construction for a given amount of energy generated, nuclear energy is indeed quite competitive.

“Australia has better non-nuclear low-emissions options than other developed countries, especially (but not only) if carbon capture and storage is commercialised within the range of current cost expectations. Australia is a major net exporter of a wide range of energy sources, notably coal, liquefied natural gas and uranium. Transport economics should favour local use of those fuels in which the gap between export parity and import parity price is greatest (first liquefied natural gas, then coal). As a consequence, Australia is not the logical first home of new nuclear capacity on economic grounds.”

This sounds like the oft-encountered yet worrisome “fossil fuel combustion is the cheapest source of energy – so just use that instead, without bothering with those more expensive sustainable low or no emissions alternatives” reasoning.

Is that perhaps what we have to expect when we put economists in charge of preparing a review for the government of the impacts of anthropogenic greenhouse effect forcing in Australia?

Without real attention paid to the environmental impacts of fossil fuel combustion, the health impacts, and the energy security impacts, no energy system is competitive with cheap, abundant coal and petroleum on economic grounds.

“In Australia, as well as in most other developed and developing countries, public acceptability is an important barrier, that would need to be recognised as a constraint and a source of delays and increased costs by any government committed to implementation of a nuclear power program.”

“Given the economic issues and community disquiet about establishing a domestic nuclear power capacity, Australia would be best served by continuing to export its uranium and focusing on low-emissions coal, gas and renewable options for domestic energy supply. However, it would be wise to reconsider the constraints if:

• future nuclear costs come in at the low end of the estimates provided above
• developments in technologies reduce the need for long-term storage of high level radioactive waste
• there is disappointment with technical and commercial progress with low emissions fossil fuel technologies, and
• community disquiet eases.”

Many who support nuclear power already believe that the failure of fossil fuel combustion with CCS technology to deliver truly competitive and truly low-emissions energy is a foregone conclusion for the next several decades at least.

As for dealing with used nuclear fuel and high level radioactive waste efficiently, sensibly and safely, the efficient recycling of nuclear fuels and the deep geological permanent disposal of unusable long-lived radioactive wastes are already scientifically and technologically solved problems – only political debate remains as the “unsolved problem”

Ongoing developments in the design and construction of Generation III, III+ and IV are working to address concerns over the economics of nuclear power, as do rising natural gas and fossil fuel prices. The introduction of GHG emissions trading schemes increases the economic acceptability of nuclear energy still further, relative to other energy systems. It is always essential to approach these issues in the context of meaningful comparisons to other forms of energy generation – or realistic degrees of reduction in demand, or the slowing of demand growth. The energy, ultimately, has to come from somewhere.

This leaves public acceptance of nuclear power – supposedly – as the overwhelming issue preventing nuclear energy use within Australia.

Does this supposed community disquiet truly exist to a significant degree, or is it merely the meaningless noise of a vocal, fervent and dogmatic minority?

Acceptance of nuclear energy amongst the public may be swayed by dramatically increased energy costs, and failures to achieve desired reductions in GHG emissions, if real alternatives to coal and fossil fuels are not deployed in a meaningful way.

The 2007 McNair Gallup poll found 53% of Australians were opposed, 41% were in favour of the construction of Nuclear power plants and 6% were uncommitted.

It seems from the 2007 McNair Gallup poll that the need to consider nuclear power as an alternative energy source is considered increasingly popular amongst Australians, with more Australians conceding the need for nuclear power plants to be built in Australia.

The 2007 results contradict Peter Garrett’s claim that “Australians are very clear that they don’t want nuclear energy and nuclear power in this country.”, with 41% of Australians in favour for the construction of nuclear power plants.

Other informal polls, such as those run on the websites of Australia’s major newspapers every once in a while, continually return strong majority support for nuclear power. Some may question the reliability and coverage of such polls – but it is clear that as concern over anthropogenic greenhouse forcing and the use of coal grows, along with concerns of the economic impacts of GHG emissions trading and the need for large scale energy generation also grows, more effort needs to be made to gauge the true degree of community support for a rational, informed and sensible consideration of nuclear energy – along with greater education of the public, which is increasingly desired by the community.

In fact, I am not unconvinced that there is not already majority support for a rational, informed, dogma-free and sensible consideration of nuclear energy amongst the Australian public today.

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