Jesse Jenkins is a proud father to a beautiful new baby son. He is also an energy researcher based in MIT, and was a recent visiting scholar to the Kleinman Centre for Energy Policy.

I recommend watching both his presentation and the Question/Answer session. The issues which are explored have the potential to contribute to 2018 being a breakthrough year in productive energy discourse. Of many themes and highlights, Jesse examines the “mental model” of declining marginal cost of renewable energy — from solar and wind generation, in particular — versus conventional sources (coal, gas, and low emissions nuclear). The declining marginal value of supply, when a given renewable technology tends to produce all at the same time without necessarily matching demand or any other system requirement, will engender unavoidable challenges for future energy supply systems. However, it isn’t new. The International Energy Agency described characteristics, such as the capacity value (or credit) explained by Jesse, years ago.

If 10 gigawatts (GW) of wind power plants are installed in a region, and their capacity credit is 10%, then the there will be a reduction of 1 GW in the amount of other plants required, compared to a situation with no wind capacity.

Courtesy of Jesse Jenkins

The two other takeaways are the preponderance of clean energy future scenarios which include what we generally understand as baseload sources, and the rigorous work being undertaken by Jesse and his contemporaries which defines a clear, optimised role for flexible base technologies.

I think this all needs to be carefully considered against the somewhat popular attitude that baseload of any sort is unnecessary, problematic, or even “mythical”. Anti-nuclear campaigners are particularly fond of this assertion. Their alternative, in the face of urgently-needed climate action, is a preference for just renewable energy and a willingness to present the sorts of simplistic comparative cost estimates, such as those from Lazard, which other researchers caution against. Ironically, their favoured source is explicit regarding the complementarity of traditional and alternative energy resources in a diversified generation fleet, and states, “even though alternative energy is increasingly cost-competitive and storage technology holds great promise, alternative energy systems alone will not be capable of meeting the baseload generation needs of a developed economy for the foreseeable future.” This looks just like Jesse’s approach, to me.

NET Power, courtesy E&E News

So what are the options? Build solar and wind, optimise hydro and demand-side operations, gain further experience with storing renewable energy with batteries to meet demand peaks… these offer promise in the short term. I expect NET Power, an oxygen-natural gas fueled CCS technology to become a rather big deal after the 50 megawatt (MW) demonstration facility shows its capabilities this year. Advanced nuclear reactor models like NuScale (50 to 600 MW) and Oklo (2 MW) need to be supported through the exacting and time-consuming regulatory process and deployed widely as coal closures accelerate.

Jesse intentionally concentrates on electricity, quite rightly, as the linchpin of national decarbonisation. After all, emerging economies will straight-up need more, and new sources of demand, from battery electric vehicles to cryptocurrencies, can’t be powered with efficiency, they need substantial new electricity resources. But modern nuclear offers much more, as exemplified by the molten salt reactor design from Terrestrial Energy — which has most recently appointed noless than former Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz to its Advisory Board—which will provide industrial heat, cleanly powering many factory processes.

Courtesy of Terrestrial Energy

As one attentive questioner says in the Q&A:

Obviously, the goal is to transition away from fossil fuels.

We all need to grasp the scale of the effort involved if we are to seriously strive for that goal.

Courtesy of Roger Pielke, Jr

In Australia, despite the magnitude of the challenge, despite its urgency, and out of all the above examples or promising technology, only the new gas-fired plant design would be allowed. We export uranium and even research better fuel technology, not to mention a real, secure solution to nuclear waste management, but our current legislation prohibits even the most efficient, cutting edge nuclear energy options, and it needs to change. If it doesn’t, we’ll be left with a limited box of tools which may not get the whole job done, and a motivated disregard for the insights provided by compelling and robust energy sector research like Jesse’s. We shouldn’t accept either.

Eco-modernism, clean energy abundance and enhanced opportunity for future generations.

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