No Time for Energy Comfort Zones

If anyone would definitively know about the value of clean, ‘baseload’ power supply, it would be the boss of an aluminium smelter.

If Australia’s politicians were brave they would consider nuclear energy.

This was the view last week of Matt Howell of Tomago Aluminium. He emphasised the vital nature of secure, constant, guaranteed power supply — the sort required by an energy-intensive facility which employs nearly a thousand people.

Without fail, this call was derided by someone from the old no nuclear camp. In this case, Labor’s Pat Conroy MP.

…it would take 15 years to build up a nuclear industry and secondly, the levelised cost of energy for nuclear is well above the cost of renewables.

This response obviously shirked the main issue, the vital requirment of an industry like aluminium: guaranteed constant supply. This is something which every serious commentator agrees can’t be supplied by what Mr Conroy means by renewables: solar and wind. Not by themselves.

So, to hypothetically and directly compare the nuclear energy Mr Conroy dismisses with, say, the solar he favours, we might imagine adding the storage he’s clearly quite keen on. And not just a bit to helpfully shift solar generation into peak demand times, but much more, enough to arguably simulate ‘baseload’.

A serious solar farm like Nyngan in NSW has a capacity of 100 megawatts and generates for about a third of the day in good weather. That leaves 100 MW x 16 hours = 1,600 MWh of remaining demand to be met from what was stored that day (for now, let’s ignore the second and third solar farms required to charge that storage). Supporting information to the recent Finkel Review has provided assumptions regarding the dominant and most deployable and popular battery technology that could potentially provide this storage: lithium ion batteries.

Adding that 1,600 MWh (1,600,000 kWh) storage today would apparently cost $960 million. Waiting till after 2025 would drop it to under $480 million — but then, with an expected replacement timeframe of about 10 years this on-going cost is unavoidable. It’ll be well past $1.5 billion spent by the end of the solar plant’s 30 year rated life, just for the batteries at the assumed falling cost, to hypothetically simulate only 100 MW of ‘baseload’ supply. Accounting for conversion losses, poor weather and winter conditions, even more battery capacity would beinevitably required.

But this is just one solar farm. And there are centers of heavy industry all over Australia, besides the constant electricity demand from the rest of the population. How much more battery storage could we be talking? A ballpark figure was actually estimated in 2015 at the WattClarity blog: 992,000 MWh.

Saving money by installing all these batteries around 2032 would still cost about $220 billion. 2032 is in 15 years, in which time we could apparently have a nuclear industry in place.

This is why, if storage is the crutch of one’s preference for renewable energy, falling costs don’t actually help much.

What does all this hypothetical storage mean for the levelised cost of energy which Mr Conroy relies on? The LCOE metric is often misused in this way, and even analyses which, on the face of it, support his assertion on costs also caution against his dismissal of ‘baseload’ supply technologies.

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. Therefore, the optimal solution for many regions of the world is to use complementary traditional and alternative energy resources in a diversified generation fleet.

In an era where 1000 megawatt class nuclear units are being offered in our region for USD$2.5 billion, and next-generation small modular reactors will be ready in such a timeframe, we need bravery insead of technological comfort zones which crumble under scrutiny. We need to include options which won’t break the bank, and which will serve our needs for at least a generation.

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