THE ENERGY CONUNDRUM

Charles Pope

One of the great pieces of legislation that has evaded policy makers is the need to produce energy at minimum cost, maximum reliability, and minimum carbon emissions. Renewables (mainly solar and wind) with battery backup are touted as the next big thing. Currently renewables and hydro deliver around 8% of our energy. There may be some upside in hydro but the possibilities are limited in a flat, hot, dry landscape. So that means to be totally dependent on renewables we have to increase our renewables to twelve times our current capacity.

But wait – there’s more. Renewables are highly dependent on the weather. The solar panels on my roof at home have produced 7.8 Megawatts over the last 334 days at an average of 23 kw-hour per day. The daily production varies from 3 kw hours in June to 46.5 kw-hours in December.  Imagine an entire electricity system operating with this variability. Would we build for the worst-case scenario or hope for the best? 

Batteries! I hear you cry. South Australia now has a battery storage capacity of 129 MW-hour. The Tomago smelter near Newcastle requires 900 MW to operate 7 days a week, 14 hours a day. The battery capacity in South Australia would have the capacity to run the Tomago Smelter for 8.6 minutes so that gives some idea of the sort of battery capacity we would need to guarantee supply for NSW power requirements. Batteries also absorb enormous amounts of rare and precious rare metals. 

Furthermore, operation of a national grid requires reliable inputs from multiple sources and to date the only such sources of energy have been fossil fuels (coal and gas) that are major pollutants including carbon dioxide, which is blamed for our climate change dilemma.  The present energy mix will not provide reliable supply without fossil fuels.

The answer to the carbon dioxide problem is nuclear power that releases nothing but water to the environment. There are 450 nuclear generators in the world across 27 countries providing reliable 24/7 electricity. French electricity is 75% nuclear. Nuclear provides 12% of all electricity generated world-wide power. It is also extremely safe. More people died installing pink batts in Australia that have died or will die from nuclear causes at Fukushima. People seem to forget that the Fukushima reactors survived an earthquake ten times its design load and the tsunami killed 16,000, quite unrelated to any nuclear cause. 

Nobody would deny the tragedy and criminal negligence of the Chernobyl disaster but apart from the courageous firefighters there were no fatalities and apart from mostly treatable thyroid cancers due to Iodine 131 to children in the immediate vicinity there has been no measurable increase in cancer rates across Europe as a result. 

Australia has around a third of the world’s uranium and also has the ideal conditions for establishing a sophisticated nuclear waste management industry – stable geology, remote areas for storage and (for the time being) a stable political system. 

This issue needs a sensible public debate. I’m not necessarily pro nuclear, but I am pro arithmetic. Let’s stop shouting and start talking. 

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