Planning for an Energy Future: The Zero Carbon Australia Plan as Representative Example
The creation of realistic plans for a viable energy future have, as of yet, received far to little attention. Energy goals should be tested with the creation of plans intended to demonstrate that the goals can be realized. Plans. in turn, should be subjected to rigorous criticism intended to test the plan's viability. This process should be open to public inspection, and participation. I have intended, on Nuclear Green to offer some limited criticisms of energy plans. Barry Brook's blog, Brave New Climate has offered a detailed criticism of one plan, Zero Carbon Australia 2020 Stationary Energy Plan. The ZCA plan is a major attempt to demonstrate that the Australian society can be powered by renewable energy sources, by as soon as 2020. It is rational to criticize the ZCA plan on one of two grounds. The time frame of the plan might be overly ambitious, even if the plan itself was viable over a longer stretch of time. The viability of the plan would be a second grounds for criticism. Critics might argue that the plan
* Underestimated plan costs
* Underestimated resource requirements required to fulfill it.
* Over estimated the potential effect of efficiency on energy demand
* Underestimated the number and size if renewable facilities required to meet plan goals.
* Underestimated the size of energy storage facilities needed to maintain stable electricity production
* Underestimated carbon savings brought about by the plan
T'he first BNC discussion of the ZCA plan was sort of a free for all. Barry Brook noted the plan, and through open the discussion to anyone who read the plan - or part of it - and had a criticism to offer. The discussion drew 560 comments of varying quality, Early on in the discussion, I and Electrical Engineer Peter Lang, focused on Plan cost. I wrote:
Much of the solar power cost estimate is based on the SolarReserve’s 100 MW Tonopah project in Nevada. A little analysis brings out some interesting information. The project is designed to operate with Molten Salt Energy storage, and will reportedly produce 480,000 MWe a year, for a capacity factor of 55%. Zero Carbon estimates its cost at $700 million according to a 2009 news report, but they have since backed away from cost estimates. In addition the project will have to use some form of dry cooling, which is likely to increase costs, while lowering project efficiency by about 10%. So think in terms of a 50% capacity factor. On the basis of the estimated capacity factor, the cost of the gathering field could run as high as $12 per watt of rated output. Zero Carbon estimates 10.5 billion (Australian?) dollars per watt for the first GW project.
Given the speculative nature of the assumption that the cost of subsequent projects will drop, we cannot assume the sort of future price drops Zero Carbon assumed. EIA 2016 cost projections make ST power twice as expensive as nuclear power, and this is certainly plausible, given what we know about the Zero Carbon estimates.
Peter Lang then responded,
Did you see Section 3.1, pp45-61? It does contain cost estimates. On page 61 they give a total for the CST (air cooled) at $190 billion. On page 60 they state an efficiency loss of just 1.3% for air cooling. This figure doesn’t look correct to me.
Table 3.7 (page 57) shows they are assuming a capacity factor of 72%.
I am ‘thinking out loud’ in the following comments.
I suspect the real problem with this exercise may be in their assumptions for the CST storage capacity and the transmissions capacity from each power station. Figure 4.1 and 4.2 show a summary of the output from the modelling. They have 17 hours of storage at each CST generator. They have analysed the demand and supply on half hour intervals, which is good. They have identified what they say is the worst case situation (page 84). I am left wondering if they have considered the storage, generation capacity and transmission capacity required from each individual site. For example, if half the CST power stations are under cloud at the same time for several days, as happens, the other CST power stations have to provide all the power. Is the storage, generation capacity and transmission capacity from each site sufficient to provide all the power when many of the other sites are not contributing? I suggest they need to analyse not only by half hour intervals of total output, but by half hour intervals at each individual generator.
For this reason, I do believe (at the moment) their figures for required CST generating capacity and transmission capacity.
A comment on total cost. They estimate $370 billion. (I suspect it is much higher). However, even if the $370 billion figures is correct, that is still over three times the cost of nuclear to do the same job.
I also questioned the ZCA's future cost projections,
Cost data for solat tower instalations are derived from a 2003 study,”Assessment of Parabolic Trough and Power Tower Solar Technology Cost and Performance Forecasts,” by Sargent & Lundy LLC Consulting Group.
Sargent & Lundy makes assumptions about economies of scale that are at best speculative. The assumption is that with increasing unit production, prices will go down. But this assumption was not born out in the wind generation Industry. Between 2003 and 2008, the cost of wind generation units went up between 2003 and 2008 despite increasing production.
Zero Carbon Australia Stationary Energy Plan does not attempt to verify Sargent & Lundy cost projections between 2003 and 2009, despite the availability of data that could be used to do so.
The Energy Information Agency of the United States DoE annually publishes projected cost estimates for energy projects. The 2016 cost estimates for ST are would place its levelized cost at $0.2566 per kWh, excluding the cost of new transmission lines. This figure is far higher that the S&L 2003 estimate of $0.14 per kWh for solar tower output.
The study also made use of Sandia National Laboratory’s notoriously optimistic Sunlab estimates of solar costs. Again, no attempt was made to verify the accuracy of Sunlab estimates for 2003 to 2009. The Sunlab’s 2016 cost estimate for solar tower levelized power appears to be lower than the EIA estimate by something close to a factor of 10. Quite obviously both estimates cannot be right.
Thus the Zero Carbon Australia does not appear to offer credible cost estimates for the solar tower portions of its plan.
Peter Lang responded,
Excellent point. Another example that supports what you say is the NEEDS (2008) study. They used enormously optimistic “learning curves” for new capacity which resulted in them projecting that the cost per MWh would decrease by about 10% per year. Instead, as you point out, the costs actually rose. EPRI, an authoritative source of electricity industry cost information, has the LCOE of solar thermal rising from $175/MWh to $225/MWh between their 2008 and 2009 reports – a 30% increase in one year.
EPRI’s LCOE of $225/MWh for 2009 is close to the EIA LCOE of $0.2566 per kWh ($256/MWh) you mentioned.
[EPRI (2009), Table 8-2 and p10-20 gives cost as US$225/MWh (= A$250/MWh) for case with 6h energy storage (2008 constant $). It is worth noting that the cost has increased 30% in 1 year; the cost in the 2008 version of this same report was US$175/MWh.]
EPRI (2009): EPRI (2009b). Program on technology innovation: integrated generation technology options; Technical Update, November 2009.
NEEDS (2008). Final report on technical data, costs, and life cycle inventories of solar thermal power plants.
What did the plan authors do to answer the numerous BNC criticisms of their plan?
ZCA co-author Patrick Hearps commented on the Climate Spectator,“The review at BraveNewClimate is mainly a couple of renewable-energy-deniers who are able to handily exxagerate their renewable costs but put blind faith in their promise of cheap nuclear, the same promise we heard 50 years ago when nuclear was going to ‘too cheap to meter’.”Heaps strategy in response to BNC criticism is to blow the 560 critical comments off as the work of "renewable-energy-deniers" without ever demonstrating that the deniers were making any errors. None of the ZCA plan's coauthors offered any comments in the discussion, and only a very limited defense was offered by plan advocates.
A second discussion of the ZCA plan followed a August 12 BNC post. Unlike the free for all, that followed the July 14th post, the authors of the August 12 post, Martin Nicholson and Peter Lang, offered a more systematic review of the ZCA plan. Nicholson-Lang observation included
They assume we will be using less than half the energy by 2020 than we do today without any damage to the economy. This flies in the face of 200 years of history.
They have seriously underestimated the cost and timescale required to implement the plan.
For $8 a week extra on your electricity bill, you will give up all domestic plane travel, all your bus trips and you must all take half your journeys by electrified trains.
They even suggest that all you two car families cut back to just one electric car.
You better stock up on candles because you can certainly expect more blackouts and brownouts.
Addressing these drawbacks could add over $50 a week to your power bill not the $8 promised by BZE. That’s over $2,600 per year for the average household.
Nicholson-Lang compared the ZCA 2020 energy se estimates with estimates made in the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARE) report on Australian energy projections to 2029-30. Despite the fact that the ABARE estimates assumed small but realistic increases in efficiency between now and 2020,
In the Plan, total energy demand was reduced by 63% below ABARE’s assessment.
The gap is justified by increased efficiency. Thus the plan's authors assume a huge increase in energy efficiency in only 10 years period of time. Such an assumption can be described as speculative and very unlikely, and are typical of every renewables based future energy plan I have looked at. Nicholson-Lang
increased electricity demand by 38% above the demand proposed in the Plan.
Which was itself a wildly optimistic assumption. The plans calculations of 2020 renewable energy costs could best be described a dodgy, and Nicholson-Lang suggested
that ABARE’s future cost reductions were more likely to apply than the reductions used in the Plan. Applying these costs to the increased installed capacity increased the total capital cost almost 5 fold and increases the wholesale cost of electricity by at least five times and probably 10 times. This will have a significant impact on consumer electricity prices.
Thus simply by checking ZCA2020 estimates against other, and very likely more reliable sources, the assumptions of the plan begin to fall apart, and a hugely more expensive energy future begins to emerge. Even when making very generous cost allowances to the ZCA plan including ignoring likely inflation, Nicholson-Lang estimated the wind portion of the ZCA plan would cost in excess of 180 billion Australian dollars, while the solar portion of the plan was estimated to cost 1.270 trillion australian dollars. There were numerous uncertainties that effected renewable costs by 2-20 and the authors confessed,
we have used a downside uncertainty of 50% and an upside uncertainty of 260% for solar plants and 200% for the other components.
Thus the true cost of the ZCA plan could work out to be as high as 3.77 trillion Australian Dollars.
e have reviewed the “Zero Carbon Australia – Stationary Energy Plan” by Beyond Zero Emissions. We have evaluated and revised the assumptions and cost estimates. We conclude:
The ZCA2020 Stationary Energy Plan has significantly underestimated the cost and timescale required to implement such a plan.
Our revised cost estimate is nearly five times higher than the estimate in the Plan: $1,709 billion compared to $370 billion. The cost estimates are highly uncertain with a range of $855 billion to $4,191 billion for our estimate.
The wholesale electricity costs would increase nearly 10 times above current costs to $500/MWh, not the $120/MWh claimed in the Plan.
The total electricity demand in 2020 is expected to be 44% higher than proposed: 449 TWh compared to the 325 TWh presented in the Plan.
The Plan has inadequate reserve capacity margin to ensure network reliability remains at current levels. The total installed capacity needs to be increased by 65% above the proposed capacity in the Plan to 160 GW compared to the 97 GW used in the Plan.
The Plan’s implementation timeline is unrealistic. We doubt any solar thermal plants, of the size and availability proposed in the plan, will be on line before 2020. We expect only demonstration plants will be built until there is confidence that they can be economically viable.
The Plan relies on many unsupported assumptions, which we believe are invalid; two of the most important are:
1. A quote in the Executive Summary “The Plan relies only on existing, proven, commercially available and costed technologies.”
2. Solar thermal power stations with the performance characteristics and availability of baseload power stations exist now or will in the near future.
The Nicholson-Lang study received well over 300 comments, most of which were supportive of its position. Again none of the plans authors or researchers availed themselves of the opportunity to refute their critics arguments.
A third BNC critique of ZCA. this one authored by Australian scholar Ted Trainer appeared on BNC nearly a month after the second critique. Trainer, again notes what has already been noted, that ZCA sets its energy generation goals far too low.
The spectacular conclusions ZCA arrives at are largely due to the energy supply target set, which is very low. Present Australian final or end-use energy consumption is 3900PJ/y, and ZCA says this can be reduced to 1660 and kept there. (Fig 4.1 represents the task as supplying an average of 1317 PJ…35 GW, and the wind and solar thermal plant requirements seem to correspond to this lower figure.??)
In recent years Australian energy consumption has been growing at over 2% p.a.;, although ABARE expects this to fall to 1.9% p.a. by 2030. ZCA notes electricity consumption is growing at 3.15% p.a., and transport energy use is growing at a similar rate. A 2% p.a. growth rate indicates that demand will double by 2045. In my view the appropriate target for a discussion of the Australian energy problem is the likely 2050 demand. In other words as I see it the discussion should begin by focusing on supplying around 8000 PJ/y in 2050 if business as usual continues, and then consider how conservation effort and new ways might reduce this.
Trainer is a neo-Malthusian, but this is beside the point. Trainer points to facts that strongly mitigate against the ZCA view, that australia could supply all of its energy needs through the use of renewables and resort to greater efficiency as soon as 2020. Trainer attacks the efficiency illusions of ZCA by pointing to one of its statements,
“Ongoing per capita efficiency gains of 1 – 1.3% p.a. after 2020 keep total demand steady at least to 2040, while allowing or population growth.” (p. 15.)
No support is given for this statement.
This is not the only occasion on which ZCA simply says things are going to work out without offering a reason why we should thnk that is the case, as Trainer points out
“[the plan]…intends to decouple energy use from GDP growth” . . .
Trainer notes the plan offers
no further comment. The implied assumptions are astronomical, i.e., apparently that the factors presently driving over 3% p.a growth in electricity and transport energy demand at will cease to operate from now on.
Thus the plan assumes a very large role for efficiency in fulfilling plan goals,
However, I have not been able to find more than a few scraps of useful data on what is likely to be achieved. (In CAN I assumed a 33% reduction.) The 2050 task for ZCA therefore seems to me to be dealing with a 6400 PJ/y BAU supply task.
ZCA discusses many valuable ideas whereby this BAU demand might be reduced, such as moving from petrol to electricity for cars. Their major strategy is to assume that the whole economy can be more or less totally shifted to electricity, and that this can come from wind and solar thermal systems. However while they discuss at length many functions that can be shifted to electricity, they do not show what proportion of present energy demand can be shifted. This requires good data on the forms and uses of energy in the Australian economy, which I have not been able to get, e.g., how much how goes into water heating, space heating, furnaces…
Trainer finds many other flaws in the ZCA plan.
i. The efficiency gain assumed for electric vehicles should be perhaps halved.
ii. The assumed proportion of travel that can be transferred to electric vehicles is too high, in view of how well people and freight can be got to intended destinations by light vehicles and public transport, and in view of what people will accept.
iii. The embodied energy costs of plant might be much more than 10 times as high as has been assumed.
iv. Far more storage for solar thermal needs to be assumed, perhaps 96 hours, as distinct from 17.
v. The amount of solar thermal capacity might need to be trebled I am right about the peak vs average issue.
vi. Very optimistic assumptions and estimates have been made throughout, including regarding costs.
Trainer's conclusion then is
Combining clear and confident estimates for all these factors would obviously yield a final multiple of ZCA plant requirements, costs and annual investments that would be many times greater than those ZCA arrives at. The application of the CAN approach to Australia’s situation indicates that even with our good renewable resources we could not afford to depend solely on them. (This . . . is an argument against the possibility of running an energy intensive society on renewables.)
In the comment that followed Trainers post, Neil Howes offered a partial answer to some of Trainer's points, yet Howes argument fell far short of a refutation of Trainer's analysis. It should also be noted that yet again, none of the ZCA writers showed up on BNC to defend their work from Trainer's critique. In this regard Matthew Wright and company resemble other renewable advocates including Amory Lovins, Mark Z. Jacobson, and Joe Romm, who have repeatedly failed to respond to criticism.
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