• Geoff Russell

IEA calls for big investment in nuclear power

Preamble


You could be forgiven for not realising that the recent (May 2021) IEA Roadmap to net-zero by 2050, for energy emissions, was recommending that 100 big nuclear reactors be built during the next decade; and 200 in the decade after that; as well as opposing any (more) premature closures of operating reactors.


The ABC (via Reuters) mentioned nuclear power precisely once in this report, and you could be forgiven if you didn’t realise the implication that we’d need hundreds of new big nuclear reactors, globally.


Similarly with the Australian Financial Review report.


Both reports seemed to be working from the Press Release rather than the actual report.


So let’s step back and consider the content of the actual report.


Energy, a big part of a bigger picture


Nudging the trajectory of our changing climate back towards a healthy region will require more than net zero emissions from our energy and industrial infrastructure, it will also involve rolling back 200 years of deforestation and removing almost all of the 1.6 billion cattle on planet earth; among other things.


But decarbonising our energy infrastructure is critical, and targets and slogans aren’t enough; we need solid plans where people think through the consequences of their choices.


The IEA flying renewable colours


The International Energy Agency (IEA) is an expert autonomous intergovernmental OECD agency with considerable standing. The words “autonomous” and “intergovernmental” don’t travel well together, and the IEA has often been a little too focused on the rich world which spawned it, but it does have deep and broad expertise.


The IEA has never been considered a politically green-left organisation, but its roadmap is heavily predicated on a massive rollout of solar power; coupled with wind. But these are backed up by nuclear power and burning forests; euphemistically called bioenergy. All residual fossil fuel use, in addition to any bioenergy must have its carbon captured and stored under the IEA plan. There is also some direct air capture of carbon to soak up the dregs.


But the IEA, unlike many Governments and NGOs at present, isn’t just vacuously vomiting targets, it has thought the problem through in depth. They may only deal with the detail of energy and industrial process emissions and not the whole of the climate problem; but they consider everything, not just energy.


They claim that their net zero by 2050 plan will give us a 50% chance of keeping to 1.5 degrees of warming provided commensurate reductions are made in non-energy sectors. That’s a huge proviso which implies that we also get to net zero ruminant and deforestation emissions … meaning no sheep or cattle as I mentioned already.


But while they imply this at the outset, their actual discussion talks about meat reductions rather than elimination. They quantify these reductions in terms of land reclaimed; some 200 Million hectares (Mha) of pasture, and another 80 Mha of land used to grow feed.


As already mentioned, when the IEA advocates burning forests, the major component of any large scale bioenergy industry, they require carbon capture and storage. So the various massive forest burning power plants in the UK (e.g., Drax) and Germany, for example, would need to change or close. The IEA also propose a huge overhaul of the biofuel industry, shifting it entirely to woody crops and away from the usual corn and sugar cane. Half of the 140 Mha they want to use for bioenergy crops (burning forest) is slated to come from the cattle industry. I’d prefer to reforest that and not burn forests at all, but the IEA will have a hard time doing that without more nuclear.


The IEA are very clear, and indeed, view it as a major selling point, that a heavily renewable energy transformation of the scale required will be a vast industrial expansion probably eclipsing anything previously.


Their plan will also see a considerable slab of that land clawed back from cattle covered with human built structures (solar PV), made of mined and processed minerals; together with more gigafactories making batteries than even Elon Musk could conceive. A gigafactory is typically a 100-300 hectare site covered in factory and dedicated to Li-Ion battery production. They produce about 35 gigawatt hours of battery capacity per year, enough for 350,000-500,000 car batteries (depending on size).



Tesla’s Gigafactory under construction outside Berlin


There are currently 5 Tesla gigafactories, built over the past 6 years. The IEA want 20 opened every year between 2021 and 2030. That conglomerate will need to be fed by a river of minerals flowing from an vast mining expansion.


The IEA foresee that by the 2040s, the market for the minerals required will be as big as coal used to be. This isn’t the tonnage, of course, but the value.


Coal isn’t like cobalt or nickel. Coal is laid down in large thick seams. If you dig up one tonne of a seam, then you have one tonne of coal. But mining minerals for renewable technology is very different. You dig up a tonne, crush it, apply strong acid or base solutions and extract a few kilos or grams of what you are after. How many kilos (or grams) depends on the ore body and your target element(s). What’s left after that crushing and extracting is called tailings and it’s never pretty and sometimes dangerous. Tailings, particularly when rare earths are involved, are also often radioactive. But that’s not why tailings can be dangerous, it’s that tailings dams break from time to time; or if the tailings are store in heaps, then toxic components can be leached into water ways.


Remember that, on average, a warmer world is a wetter world and you can see just how carefully tailings projects need to be managed.


The IEA sees this mineral boom as a vast opportunity for mining and processing companies and they are playing to that audience. Many workers in the fossil fuel sector have skills that are readily transferable or transformable to their envisaged mining boom. They see millions of extra jobs overall.


Their understanding of the mineral supply chain behind renewables has spawned a companion report, of around the same size as the Roadmap and released at much the same time, The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions. It calls for strong Government action to assure enough of the right mining takes place and in a timely manner while pointing out that miners also face the “necessity of stricter environmental and social standards”.


Really? I wonder how the IEA thinks that the Chinese pushed down the price of PV panels? With stricter environmental and social standards?


The Chinese now produce about 80% of the world’s polysilicon and its cheap price has largely displaced the competing technologies of monosilicon and thin film technologies. With such a strangle hold on the supply chains for PV panels, it hardly matters where the final panel is assembled.


The Chinese have dominated the polysilicon market by producing it using subsidies, cheap coal from the Zhundung coal fields, and coercive labour practices (using Uyghur and other minorities). They have people crushing quartz with hammers and little facemasks. If you want to give people silicosis, then this is a terrific way to do it. And yet the IEA predicts prices can drop even further; obviously those masks cost money and can be eliminated.


If the Chinese, and everybody else, are forced to produce polysilicon and PV panels with fair wages and power the production with wind + solar + batteries, then you can expect prices to rise, not fall. Polysilicon production relies on huge electric arc furnaces running at over 2300 degrees centigrade for days at a time; power outages are unacceptable.


The IEA have made it clear that their renewable vision is one that the biggest of big extractive businesses will love. The big fossil fuel conglomerates have been given an lifeline out of oblivion if they choose to embrace this new renewable materialism and transition their skills and people.


Poverty and development


The IEA is to be congratulated in understanding that as well as fixing our climate, we must also lift a couple of billion people out of deep poverty and that will require prodigious energy. But it also means getting rid of the traditional energy source of the poorest of the poor; wood (and cattle dung). Replacing these fuels with electricity is estimated to prevent about 2 million premature deaths annually from indoor pollution. While the anti-nuclear movement has spent decades delaying and slowing down the use of nuclear power in India, Indian children have been paying a deadly price for the dominance of wood and coal in the Indian electricity supply. But the anti-nuclear movement has always been happy to sacrifice any number of people as canon-fodder for its ideology; consider those killed by the unnecessary evacuation after Fukushima.


Technology choices have implications; face them


I love that this IEA report is both honest and expert.


I love that this IEA report clearly tells the anti-nuclear movement that we can’t fix our climate problem without nuclear power; even if it doesn’t base its roadmap around them.


It does, as I pointed out at the beginning, call for an extra 100 “large” nuclear reactors, in addition to replacing any retiring reactors, to be online by 2030.


This is tantamount to clearly telling the anti-nuclear movement to shut the f… up.


This is very much a pro-renewable report, but it isn’t ignorant and or stupid. It fleshes out the consequences of choosing technologies based on price rather than functionality, ecological impact and longevity; and embraces them.


The most frustrating things about dealing with the green side of politics are its ignorance and dishonesty; its pretence that what they want is soft and cuddly and treading lightly on the planet; when it is the opposite. Their hypocrisy is consistent in their continued support of the cattle industry because they don’t get it that animal agriculture isn’t just bad when it is factory farms, it’s a climate disaster even when it looks as idyllic as rolling green dairy pastures. Those pastures aren’t just homes to 24x7 methane producers, they are foregone carbon sequestration. The IEA gets it, but many so-called environmentalists and the global Green political movement, don’t.


The renewable revolution isn’t cute and cuddly, it’s an energy transition fuelled by a vast expansion of extractive industries. The IEA gets this.


The best we can try to do while rebuilding our energy infrastructure is minimise the biodiversity impacts, not eliminate them. The IEA hasn’t done this, it has chosen a fairly ecologically damaging path; and I am guessing that this is because it’s worried about the anti-nuclear movement; but also likely it wants a jobs transition plan for the fossil fuel workforce.


The Germans have shown how powerful and dangerous the anti-nuclear movement is; closing down clean nuclear plants while building a massive fossil pipeline to double the gas supply to the country (Nord Stream 2). The German Greens, like ours, are irrational, ignorant, dishonest and far more concerned about being nuclear free than having a liveable planet. I met with one of our Green MPs some years back and got accused of battering them with facts; yes, that’s exactly what I did. I know that influencing people isn’t about facts or the truth, but I just can’t help myself. I expect MPs to be adults and interested in facts and truth. That particular MP didn’t know anything about nuclear power or radiobiology but was resolute in their opinions. Perhaps they thought that being photogenic, well spoken, well intentioned, and sincere was enough. No it isn’t, you need to be well informed also.


What’s wrong with the report?


This is an amazing report and well worth the weeks it took to read and digest. But there are, in my view, some serious flaws.


Firstly, it claims to use only proven technologies in its pathway to 2030; this simply isn’t true.


But, after 2030 they are explicit in allowing assumptions about technologies that are currently only in early development:


The importance of innovation increases as we get closer to 2050 because existing technologies will not be able to get us all the way along the path to net‐zero emissions. Almost 50% of the emissions reductions needed in 2050 in the NZE depend on technologies that are at the prototype or demonstration stage, i.e. are not yet available on the market (see Chapter 4).

This is an important admission. Particularly in the light of the first claim, that all it’s technologies on the path to 2030 are proven; they are not.


Nowhere is there a sizeable 100% renewable grid. The fact that the components are buildable at scale doesn’t guarantee that they can be connected into a workable whole.


This hasn’t been done anywhere and the closest example we have isn’t looking promising. It happens to be an example I’m rather familiar with, because I live there.


South Australia.


In April 2021, the Australian Energy Security Board, wrote that:


Security is the most concerning and urgent issue in the NEM.

The NEM is the National Electricity Market, but is being used here to refer to the Eastern Australian electricity grid: NSW, VIC, QLD and SA.


“Security” in grid-speak means the ability to maintain the voltage frequency and waveform in the face of things like generators failing, transmission pylons being blown over, and so on. Roughly speaking it is composed of two things: inertia and strength. The first is about keeping our 50 cycles per second power supply at 50 cycles per second. And the second is about keeping our voltage in a nice clean sine curve. Generators involving big lumps of spinning metal provide these services automagically. "Automagic" is a word that conveys some appropriate awe and mystery about something that most of use don’t understand.


Using computer code and electronics to simulate all the security provided by multiple turbines each weighing hundreds of tonnes and spinning at 1500 rpm or so isn’t trivial. If it was simple, somebody would have done it already. They haven’t.


Suppose you build a space station. How do you simulate gravity? On the surface of the planet, it is provided automagically.


Will rotating space ships as in science fiction do it? Kind of. But it won’t be quite right. Gravity impacts the operation of every cell in your body in very subtle ways and attempts to simulate this will keep running into new and subtle problems.


So it is with system strength and inertia. When I said “Roughly speaking”, it was because there isn’t any other kind of speaking. The Energy Security Board is still screwing around trying to define system strength.


They do have a precise technical definition they work with, but recognise that it is subtly inadequate. All over the world there are engineers working on this problem and they still don’t even have a definition of the problem they are working on! Think about that next time somebody tells you how easy it is to run a grid with a high penetration of wind and solar.


So while the entire Australian grid is in a little trouble with relatively small amounts of renewables, South Australia, with the highest penetration is a basket case.


In May 2020, the designer and market operator of the Australian grid, AEMO, made a strong recommendation for an additional inter-connector between South Australia and the eastern states; the project being known as EnergyConnect:


If EnergyConnect does not proceed, extensive further measures (beyond those outlined in this report) will be required to address identified system security risks. Potential further measures could include commissioning significant utility-scale storage to provide FFR, retrofit of a large number of distributed PV systems to improve disturbance ride-through capabilities, resistor banks for managing excess distributed generation, and possibly a moratorium on new distributed PV connections.

Do they sound desperate? Over a decade into this energy transition and they are speculating about retrofitting hundreds of thousands of devices. The published a new set of inverter standards at the end of 2020 in an effort to stop the wildfire of spontaneous grid disconnections that could be a consequence of the current inverters.


The South Australian grid has one of the highest penetrations of wind and solar power in the world, but when that plea was made, was still only getting some 60% of it’s power from those sources. It has a tiny Li-Ion battery, which is suitable for short term frequency control and nothing else. People who know nothing at all about electricity grids keep calling it a big battery. It isn’t. In normal usage, we talk about a phone battery as big if it will keep a phone going for 12 hours or so of use. This tiny battery in SA can’t keep the SA grid going for 1 second, let alone minutes or hours.


So how come people call it a big battery? It isn’t big relative to what is required to store energy to run a grid overnight; because that isn’t it’s job.


The SA grid is only stabilised by interconnections to a bigger grid in the eastern states with far more big lumps of spinning metal. Note carefully, this has nothing to do with coal or gas, it’s about the turbines … use solar power to heat water and make steam to drive turbines, and the grid would be sweet (except when the sun went down).


The IEA Report is aware of this security problem. It is discussed in a Highlight Box on Pages 178-9. It discusses, among other things, synchronous condensers, one of the methods South Australia is using to make the grid more secure and to prevent price gouging by the tiny battery operator; they write:


The technology is already proven at GW‐scale in Denmark and also in South Australia, but experience needs to be expanded at larger scale.

This claim is interesting since the installation of the condensers in SA wasn’t complete when the IEA released their report; they weren’t operating.


The condensers are certainly expected to be operating very soon, in June and July of 2021, and there is high confidence that they will solve one aspect of the problem; because they are actually very old and well understood technology. They are big lumps of spinning metal; but they don’t generate electricity.


But they won’t solve all of the system strength issues or any of the windless night problems.


The other interesting point in the in the Box is grid-forming converters. AEMO doesn’t regard these as proven it’s reasonably clear from the language in the Box that the IEA also wants more evidence:


though experience with this approach needs to move beyond microgrids and small islands to large interconnected systems.

In their October 2020 report on System Strength, AEMC said it didn't expect these kinds of inverters to be available for until 2025.

In short, IEA is betting the planet on technology out to 2030 which hasn’t been proven anywhere at scale, and in the 20 years after that, it is betting on technology which doesn’t exist.

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