Do climate sceptics and anti-nukes matter?

Don’t miss Barry Brook’s latest post subtitled “How I learned to stop worrying and love energy economics“. Barry has come to the above-captioned view primarily because he believes that the energy sources chosen by China and India determine who close we get to zero-carbon at the 2050 goal post. In this segment Barry makes the core argument:

(…) In the developing world, there’s a race on. A race to higher standards of living and lots of energy, delivered as cheaply as possible. Environmental concerns have tended to take a back seat, although immediate, local problems, such as air and water pollution, are quickly rising to prominence. These nations represent an economic and demographic freight train, and nothing we ‘decide or advise’ in the developed world is going to slow it down. Anti-nuclear campaigners and climate change sceptics are both utterly irrelevant in these places. By the time the dust has settled, and these societies have the ‘luxury’ of paying any attention to special interest groups, it’ll already be game over — be it a ‘win’ or a ‘loss’.

Now, if the Chinas and Indias of this world do end up following a fossil-fuel-intensive pathway to development, we’re all stuffed — whether they manage to make it all the way up the development curve or fail in the attempt. It won’t matter at this point what gains the currently developed world might have managed to achieve. If, alternatively, these rapidly growing economies are able to develop and deploy non-fossil energy sources cheaply and on a massive scale, we all win. Whether the technology ends up being ‘proven up’ in China, the US, or wherever, the very fact that it will have proven cost-competitive with coal will mean that everyone has won. I return to my favourite quote from Steve Kirsch:

Pouring money into token mitigation strategies is a non-sustainable way to deal with climate change. That number will keep rising and rising every year without bound. The most effective way to deal with climate change is to seriously reduce our carbon emissions. We’ll never get the enormous emission reductions we need by treaty. Been there, done that. It’s not going to happen. If you want to get emissions reductions, you must make the alternatives for electric power generation cheaper than coal. It’s that simple. If you don’t do that, you lose.

Please continue reading Barry’s post. There are MANY comments, some of which are well-informed and well-reasoned. In the following example John D Morgan refutes an earlier comment by John Tons. I will quote Morgan completely as he has made the effort to reference several important analyses by Barry Brook and Peter Lang. So in his comment John offers a good place for a reader to start into an understanding of the renewable realities:

John T, thanks for taking the time to give a detailed response. The great thing about this blog is that it is open to such detailed argument.

Your response stands on two premises – that nuclear deployment is too slow, and that we could build a zero carbon energy system by ~2020. I don’t accept these premises, in particular the latter, which has been argued at great length here.

The Beyond Zero 2020 plan is based on CST with 17 hour molten salt storage, wind, biomass and hydro. CST has been analysed by Peter Lang in these posts:

Barry has looked at the resource requirements for wind, solar and nuclear here:

He also looked at CST requirements in particular here:

One big difference in Lang’s assumptions is a three days storage requirement, not just overnight, to take account of cloudy days. If that seems unreasonable, see his note on cloud cover in the first link:

“A loop through the midday images for each day of June, July and August 2009, shows that much of south east South Australia, Victoria, NSW and southern Queensland were cloud covered on June 1, 2, 21 and 25 to 28. July 3 to 6, 10, 11, 14. 16, 22 to 31 also had widespread cloud cover (26th was the worst), as did August 4, 9, 10, 21, 22..”

The 17 hour storage implementation would have seen the grid shutdown for several days in each of those months. I assume those months are not atypical.

The BZE study costs the required new transmission capacity at $92b. Peter costs the trunk lines in the new transmission at $180b (Perth to Sydney trunk), and notes that the lines probably represent about half of the required upgrade costs. (For reference, Peter costs the entire nuclear option at $120b, less than the cost of the new power lines for renewables).

In the second link, Peter looked the build rate, the total cost, and the dollar cost of co2 avoided, for different energy source mixes. He assumed coal was being decommissioned at the same rate for each option (1.4 GW/year). You can go have a look at that piece and check his assumptions – I’ll just quote the conclusion:

“The nuclear option reduces CO2 emissions the most, is the only option that can be built quickly enough to make the deep emissions cuts required, and is the least cost of the options that can cut emissions sustainably. Solar thermal and wind power are the highest cost of the options considered. The cost of avoiding emissions is lowest with nuclear and highest with solar and wind power.”

On his modelling, it costs 4x as much to eliminate a tonne of carbon with renewables than with nuclear.

In the TCASE4 post, Barry looked at the material inputs required to roll out renewables. For the same power deployment rate, they use about an order of magnitude or more concrete, and steel, and land.

In TCASE7, Barry looked at scaling up just an Andasol type plant, in comparison to an AP1000 reactor. Materials usage on a comparable power basis was solar:nuclear

Concrete = 15 : 1; Steel = 75 : 1; Land = 2,530 : 1

The material resources, capacity overbuild, land requirements, intermittency, storage requirements, transmission infrastructure, grid integration and cost just don’t get factored in to the renewable projections on a realistic basis. You write as if we have a choice between a renewable power system and a nuclear power system. But I don’t think we do. I think our choice is between a nuclear power system and a carbon power system.