Friday, 9 January 2009

Forget Climate Change: A Fossil Fuel Future’s a Fantasy

on Jenkins in his article “The warmaholics’ fantasy” (The Australian 06/01/2009) ends by asking this: “The real question is in acknowledging the end of fossil fuels within the next 200 years or so: how do we spend our research time and dollars?”

Unfortunately, Jenkins has made the common error of not factoring in growth in demand. The latest annual figures available from BP’s authoritative Statistical Review of World Energy 2008 show that energy use grew 2.4% from 2006 to 2007. If we use this number as escalation against 200 years at current usage, we actually only have 75 years of fossil fuels left. Allow a more aggressive growth rate of 5% to factor in industrialisation of currently less developed countries, and fossil fuels will be gone in 50 years.

I’ve graphed the trend with 200 years’ worth of fossil fuel as the starting point to make it easy to see how the various growth rates pan out. As you can see, constant use takes us to zero after 200 years (off the scale of the graph). As you should be able to see from the graph, when constant demand would have used less than 40% of all carbon fuels, 2.4% growth will have used them all up. 5% growth would hit zero when only about 25% of reserves would have been consumed at fixed demand.

While it’s conceivable that 200 years is an under-estimate, any excess on that amount would include fuels from increasingly inaccessible and environmentally fragile sources. In fact, even to reach that level would require exploiting resources like tar sands and oil shale that are not only environmentally problematic but also expensive to process. What’s more, coal and oil are complex mixes of chemicals that have many uses; it’s silly to burn valuable, irreplaceable chemicals.

Long before we reach an era of real shortage, markets will be subject to massive swings as speculators ride fears of shortage – as we saw recently with oil prices. As demand from developing countries increases, we can expect prices to escalate for the simple reason that supply is unlikely to keep up with demand. We’ve already mined out much of the coal that’s really easy to dig up (Britain had massive reserves in the nineteenth century), and oil is increasingly being sought in expensive locations like the deep sea and Arctic.

Even without disputing Jenkins on climate change (I can’t see how he advances the debate with ad hominem attacks – and am pleased to see he has subsequently apologised for this in a letter in The Australian), there is a clear case for exploring alternative energy now, and doing so aggressively.

It’s clear that we will need to find alternatives to fossil fuels and sooner than most think. Will this necessarily result in massive pain? Luckily, Cambridge physics professor David MacKay has already provided a good start at understanding the problem in a new book, Sustainable Energy — without the hot air (not yet published in Australia; you can download a free copy from his web site). To cut to the chase, he calculates that Britain will battle to achieve a sustainable-energy economy because it has too high a population density and not enough sun. Much of Europe likewise will have to look to sunny low-population countries like Libya to import solar electricity. Australia gets little coverage in the book since the focus is on solutions for the UK. MacKay has reduced his calculations to simple examples that can easily be reworked for other parts of the world, or different solution mixes. Comparing us with the UK and its need to import solar electricity from Libya for example illustrates that we really do not have much of a problem here. Our population density is less than Libya’s, and we have plenty of sunshine.

What of the problems often raised about intermittency of wind and solar power? There are many creative solutions out there of which MacKay provides a good sampling. He reminds us that electricity providers have to be geared to handle massive changes in demand; much of the same techniques can be used to manage changes in supply. For example, electric cars, while charging overnight, could be equipped with smart meters that draw power when it’s cheap, and put some back when it’s expensive. Heavy users whose usage is not time-dependent could be scheduled to draw power when it’s plentiful. And of course existing techniques for load management such as pumped storage (sending water uphill when electricity is plentiful; using a downhill flow later to drive a generator) can be scaled up.

There’s too much detail in the book to cover in a short article like this. I strongly recommend that anyone interested in energy alternatives read it. Since he has neatly compartmentalised his solutions, it is relatively easy if you disagree with one to pull it out and replace it by another option. I’ve seen many attempts at covering small parts of the problem. Only a comprehensive approach such as this is really any good. Not only that, MacKay has a fine sense of humour.

I propose we stop worrying about who is right and wrong in the climate change debate (see other articles on this site for some answers to Jenkins’s points), and move as fast as we can to sustainable energy. To do so requires some hard political will, not wishy-washy strategies like charging for pollution permits then giving most of the money back to the big polluters. If we get this right, we will be insulated from damaging swings in energy commodity prices. Should the worst predictions of climate change turn out to be true, we will be well on the way towards a clean energy economy. If not, we will be a bit ahead of where we need to be when fossil fuels start to run out and become really expensive. All three ways, we win.

Also published at Online Opinion.


Greig said...

Hi again Philip.

I read McKay’s essay with interest. I am wondering how thoroughly you have read it, since you only acknowledge solar energy as the answer, when in fact McKay insists on several requirements in order to sustain energy supply.

McKay’s conclusion is to

1. electrify transport - this reduces oil consumption in favour of electricity production.
2. use heat pumps for air and water heating.
3. use clean coal and nuclear electricity – this translates into “use nuclear electricity” because clean coal doesn’t exist, and besides he advises it is only a “stop-gap” as coal will run out relatively quickly.
4. transmit renewable energy from other countries (eg solar power from deserts) – no mention is made of the enormous cost of this, in particular the cost of HVDC transmission systems.

It should be noted that McKay’s conclusion on more efficient heating does not apply to a country like Australia where air-conditioning for cooling is the main energy drain. Heat pumps can work in reverse, and underground water storage may have real benefits in Australia. But until an analysis of costs are done, such solutions are just dreams.

McKay’s ultimate conclusion is this: Renewables cannot provide enough energy to satisfy current or future demand. But he concludes that nuclear fission (fast breeders with seawater extraction) can provide enough energy for all humans on the planet, and represents a major part of a sustainable long term solution.

McKay addresses the issue of intermittency in renewable energy by

1. promoting the notion of pumped storage. (highly inefficient, dependent on hydro resource availability - which Australia lacks)
2. suggesting that more geographically separated plants reduces the impact of intermittency (misleading)

The problem with renewables is that even though the more plants you have, the smoother the flow of power, there is still the small chance that there will be an extensive calm period on a cloudy day when tidal flows are slack. In which case, you must have a very large capacity of idle stand-by gas plants to kick in at a moments notice. Technically, this is not a huge problem, but it is a huge economic issue. It is very, very expensive. McKay, by failing to address the economics of the issue, glosses over the problem posed by intermittency in renewables. The reality is that the economic restriction created by the need for redundancy, and availability of hydro resource, limits renewable to a fraction of total capacity. The bulk of supply must come from reliable baseload sources such as nuclear power.

Philip Machanick said...

Greig, welcome back.

First, I can't be expected in short review to cover every detail of a book of that length, and I did say so in the article. If I encourage a few people to read it and enter the debate, good.

I'm please you picked up that "clean coal" doesn't exist. I did a study of one of the few plans to have surfaced and found it to be totally impractical. I don't think MacKay is advocating clean coal, only putting it in the mix in case it should be viable.

McKay's main conclusions are based on a UK scenario. He includes the numbers to do your own mix, rather than prescribing a particular solution. He allows options such as solar thermal in North Africa, which as you note would require an expensive transmission network, but wouldn't be impossible. Australia's numbers would be different because we have a lot more insolation per person.

I agree that he should have been stronger on the costing side but this is a moving target. As we saw with getting rid of asbestos and other major transitions, costing tends to favour the technology being most heavily researched, which is usually not the new one until it becomes the established technology, then the bias is reversed.

His nuclear options are not costed in net energy terms (an issue despite the massive energy content of uranium, when it's in very low concentrations). He also ignores the issue of massive low-grade waste at mine sites. There was a flurry of interest in recovering uranium from sea water in the 1980s but I haven't seen any recent numbers showing it to be viable.

You need some of the redundancy you complain of anyway because large fossil fuel power plants can't be turned on and off quickly. Adjusting load and supply more intelligently is a hard engineering problem but not impossible. You have a range of variables to play with: testing emergency power generators on full load when the grid is below par, using batteries in cars as distributed storage, smart meters set up to reward efficient use of power ...

Electrifying transport even if you don't move off fossil fuels results in huge efficiency gains. Get more people into public transport and you do even better. Cars are harder because battery technology (or infrastructure to swap batteries as you would refuel a petrol car) isn't quite there yet.

I don't think any of these are insoluble problems but if we don't spend a decent amount on R&D for them, they will not solve themselves. It's a pity the Rudd government is blowing $42-billion on things that will mostly not add to solving any of these problems (and at best have a short-term effect on an economy that is clearly headed for a multi-year recession).

You worry about "expensive". Look at how much money is being blown in propping up the world banking system. It still is not clear to me what the net benefit to society is when, for example the US government gives a bank $1-billion, then it pays the same amount out to its execs as bonuses.

You want analysis of costs. Why not push hard for that so we can get all this on a sound footing, rather than pushing the case that we shouldn't try? I am not an electrical engineer so I won't benefit personally but getting all these options costed properly makes a lot of sense to me.

Your only solution appears to be to go nuclear but that doesn't solve the problem of how we power aircraft when oil goes and (not that long after) there isn't much coal left.

Greig said...


I am all for doing the costing analysis properly. But I am willing to bet you right now that nuclear fission will be way ahead in terms of economic viability over transmission of solar electricity across a large-scale HVDC grid. And nuclear offers continuous supply, solar thermal is still subject to intermittency. McKay makes this point clearly, which is why he emphasizes the absolute need for nuclear in the mix. And I don’t agree that solar makes more sense in Australia than in Europe, we will still need a massive HVDC grid, and we are servicing a much smaller population so economy of scale is an issue.

As you say, adjusting load and supply to address intermittency is a hard engineering problem but not impossible. The answer is to use idle stand-by gas turbines (natural gas or biogas). But this solution is absurdly expensive compared to other solutions. That is why continuous base-load supply from nuclear is a critical component of future electricity supply.

I agree with you on electrifying transport. There will be both electric public and electric private transport in the future. But I would argue that more people will telecommute in the future, use video conferencing etc. and this will reduce the load from transport requirements. And nuclear doesn't solve the problem of how we power aircraft when oil goes , neither does solar power. Again, I would argue that people will use telecommunications technologies rather than travel by air. There will be a resurgence of the use of shipping, and this will be mostly powered by nuclear fission.

Finally, I am not opposed to renewables, I think they will produce around 10-20% of our power in the medium-term future. This is a substantial and important part of the mix. My main thesis is that too many people are assuming it will continue to scale to produce all of our power. This is not feasible until there is a dramatic change in the base infrastructure of energy generation, for example a shift to a hydrogen economy. And whilst this is possible in the long-term future, it is not conceivable that such changes can occur in the timeframe mandated by the decline in fossil fuels. That is why large scale nuclear power will be critical to supply in the next 100-150 years at least. And Australia needs to consider nuclear if we are to replace our coal-fired plants.

Philip Machanick said...

The trouble with scaling up nuclear fission the way you want to is that it requires very different technologies than those in current use, so the costing is not that clear. Otherwise you run out of uranium very fast. The latest estimate I can find (2007, International Atomic Energy Agency 2008 estimates) for the worldwide share of electric power generation by nuclear is 12-14%. You want to add nuclear power to shipping as well. How long do you think uranium reserves would last if we scaled up usage 8 to 10 times? Please also don't forget to allow for 3% growth in energy demand per year, doubling every 24 years. (My figures in the main article were conservative at 2.4%, but choose your own figure if you don't like mine.)

What of alternatives to uranium?

That we can work through the physics of thorium reactions for example doesn't imply that we can build a commercially viable plant. Fast breeder reactors sound nice in principle but if they are to be adopted worldwide as they would have to be to make a difference, you are going to have massive potential for weapons-grade plutonium to leak out of the system. While you can design a reactor so that the bomb-grade materials are hard to extract, how can you be sure that a country with an independent nuclear program doesn't violate the rules?

The existing uranium technology is heavily subsidised with hidden subsidies from military applications. That may be a hint as to why technologies with no bomb potential are not heavily researched.

There are many risks in going the nuclear route, and it's not sustainable if you do it on a very wide scale. Even doing what you want to do, you need to manage demand to reduce base load dramatically over the current situation, otherwise you run out of fuel too soon to be worth the effort.

If I had to put big government money on anything nuclear, I would be trying to crack the problems of fusion (interesting stuff here).

Some numbers on the energy costs of extracting uranium as yields decrease.

Greig said...


The basis for this discussion is that fossil fuels are going to become expensive as they overrun the supply/demand curve. What is more, demand for energy is increasing. In my opinion it is going to increase at a much faster rate than 3%pa. We agree there is a big problem, now to look for answers.

It doesn’t help the cause if you repeat anti-nuclear propaganda as if it is fact.

(1) Whilst you are correct in saying that scaling up nuclear requires the use of new technologies (not currently in commercial use), you are mistaken about the costing not being done. The French have tested and priced fast breeder technology (very expensive, but look at the benefits in terms of sustainability), the Japanese have tested and priced seawater extraction (about 4 times current price), the Indians have tested and priced thorium reactors (marginally more expensive than current).
(2) It is true that fast breeders will breed plutonium, but that does not increase the likelihood of weapons manufacture. If anyone wanted plutonium for weapons, they could produce it in a small purpose-built reactor for less than 1% of the price.
(3) Other than some economy of scale regarding enrichment facilities, military subsidies do not impact the viability of nuclear power. The Japanese and Canadians are running viable nuclear electricity programs, are they not?
(4) Big government money is required for any large-scale centralized power generation capability, whether it is nuclear, coal, hydro or natural gas. And what is wrong with that?
(5) Thorium reactors work, no problem, it is just slightly more expensive to manufacture the fuel at the moment, so uranium is more commercially viable. Thorium will have its day.
(6) Current official estimates of uranium supply are based on “known reserves”. We know there is a lot more uranium , we just haven’t found it yet, or it is not officially acknowledged. Did you know, there are several sites of commercially recoverable deposits in NSW, but they do not appear in any figures for political reasons. Unofficial estimates suggest we can use current fission technology to supply 75% of the world’s electricity (all required baseload requirement) for about 150years, including with projected growth. 1000 times longer with fast breeders. And there is good reason to believe that extraction technology will improve, perhaps to the point of extracting uranium and thorium from seawater, which will make fission viable for millennia.

And that is why McKay is so enthusiastic about nuclear power.

You didn’t mention nuclear waste or decommissioning, and I presume that is because you have done your research, and realize that it is not a problem. Reprocessing along with either Synrock or copper cladding are adequate for the task, it was always just a challenging engineering problem, and now it is solved. And decomm has been done in the US, and whilst it is a challenging problem it is proven to be economically viable.

The Europeans are putting over $1billion into fusion research, and it may work. If it does, we may never need to continue to develop fission. Fusion may happen, we should not assume it will happen. We should be developing fission in line with the precautionary principle.

Renewable energy is only capable of supplying about 10-20% of our needs, for the reasons I have explained, (and I note, you have not argued). Promoting renewable, hoping for a break-through in technology to solve the big problems, is not in line with the precautionary principle. Therefore, if the problem of fossil fuel running out is as dire as you predict, we best be looking toward nuclear power, as it is the only proven base-load technology.

Otherwise, we really are in big trouble.

Anonymous said...

Greig said: 'We know there is a lot more uranium , we just haven’t found it yet, or it is not officially acknowledged.'

No, Greig, we really are in big trouble.

Porl said...

Our concern with the cost implications is funny against the world current military spent.