Climate change

October 2, 2009

Thinking critically about sustainable energy (TCASE) 1: Prologue


This is the first post in what is planned to be an extended series, ‘Thinking critically about sustainable energy‘ (henceforth TCASE #). As explained in my previous blog entry, A necessary interlude, this series will look in detail at the issues confronting renewable and nuclear energy, with an aim to break down the often complex and multifaceted critiques and promotions being made about various energy generation technologies into simpler, single-issue chunks, which can be more readily pinned down and understood.

I will also profile some of the less well-developed low-carbon technologies, such as tidal, wave, microalgae, and geothermal, as well as nuclear fusion, fusion-fission hybrids, travelling wave reactors etc. and speculate on their possible future roles. I hope in this way that I’ll be able to reinforce people’s understanding of why I no longer hold renewable energy to be a primary solution — and yet, by the same yardstick of maintaining intellectual honesty, acknowledging that I’ll also keep an open mind to unconsidered possibilities and caveats that are raised by commenters (be these against nuclear energy, and/or for renewables). Indeed, I’ll also discuss critically the social and technical impediments facing nuclear power adoption and the Generation III/IV synergy.

First up, a little history of the evolution of my thought on this topic, as documented my professional research and in the archives of this blog.

My scientific training and subsequent research career has, in various ways, involved the use of ’systems models‘. My published works have been largely in the area of ecological complexity, stochastic model evaluation, palaeoecology and statistical inference. So I’ve always had strong interest in how small pieces of a puzzle can fit together to make up the big picture — including trying to: (i) understand and quantify the relative sensitivity, redundancy and irreplaceability of different components; (ii) determine the degree to which they are additive, complementary or substitutable, and (iii) assess whether synergistic interactions can result in amplifying benefits or other emergent non-linear properties. As it turns out, the assessment of such system properties is also rather important for understanding how an integrated energy supply can function effectively.

My interest in energy systems is relatively new, but now constitutes somewhat of an obsession! My first post on topic was a guest blog by Stewart Taggert: “Australia can be a clean energy superpower“. This was followed by the post “Climate ripe for transformative change” in which I said:

The decision to invest heavily – and rapidly – in renewable energies like geothermal (hot rocks), solar thermal (desert mirrors), wave and wind power, and rooftop photovoltaic systems, is a no brainer. These technologies offer the only way to achieve an ongoing, growing energy supply.

and “Thinking big and fast on renewable energy” where I extolled our great clean energy resources:

But if Australia has vision, plays its cards right, and becomes a leader in the global climate solution, we could be humming with global exports of clean energy as world-leading discoveries make exploitation of unlimited energy resources ever cheaper. Australia is incredibly well placed among developed countries to move completely to renewable energy. We have huge, unexploited solar resources in our continental interior akin to the oil fields of the Middle East in the early 20th Century.

It is particularly instructive to look at a couple of the critiques I published at the bottom of that last piece, and my ‘answer’ to them at the time. Ahhh, it’s fun to reflect on the naivety of one’s youth…

Anyway, my focus at this point was pointedly directed at carbon emissions reduction (clean energy was just a means to an end), and it was obvious to me that the logical path to achieve this was renewable sources such as solar and wind power. I was coming at this issue from a genuine concern for eliminating carbon-based energy, and was overwhelmed by a sense of frustration, because I couldn’t understand why the ‘clean energy revolution’ wasn’t happening. Surely, all we had to do was put a price on carbon, to reflect the damage fossil fuel combustion was causing to the environment, and big things would start to happen! Bottom line is, no one could look back over those early posts and imagine that I came at this issue with anything other than a firm conviction that renewable energy was the answer. Indeed, I hadn’t given much thought to nuclear power at this point, not because I was ever ideologically ’anti-nuclear’ — I had simply accepted the ‘peak uranium’ argument and not thought much more about it, as this comment I made back in Dec 2008 indicates.

Then, reality bit me, and it hurt. I remember I was sent an early version of Trainer’s thesis, and against all reason (’what nonsense is this?‘ I recall first thinking), I read the damned thing. Somewhat crestfallen, yet also morbidly fascinated, I followed up, reading ‘The Solar Fraud‘ (the only other book on this topic of renewable limits, according to Trainer’s piece) and then a bookshelf worth of other tomes on this general topic, including ‘Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air‘ and ‘Prescription for the Planet‘ (kicking off my nuclear education in earnest),  followed by various technical analyses, IPCC WG III, blogs, etc. My first post on this blog on nuclear power was on 28 Nov 2008, 3 months after it has been launched. My transformation of thought had begun in earnest, and was reinforced by the work of people such as Peter Lang. The TCASE series is the next, more logically formalised, step in this process.

As a quantitative scientist with a bent towards statistics and models, I was willing to let preconceptions go if the evidence was there that I was wrong. Although it is often misused by those who actually do the complete opposite, the famous quote from Keynes here is apt: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” — although in this instance, it wasn’t the facts that changed as much as my knowledge and understanding of them. So begins a journey with TCASE to look critically at sustainable energy, in all forms. It is written in the hope of providing a resource for others to understand the magnitude of the challenge we face in eliminating our dependence on coal, oil and gas, to signpost the blind alleys to avoid, and to arrive at a rational conclusion as to what the most likely path(s) to success might be.

Addendum: Here is an updated version of the chart profiled in this post.

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