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Energy Solutions

 

Most informed commentators agree that Australia needs a better mix of energy sources.  We are too dependent on fossil fuel.  This results in a very high rate of carbon dioxide production per capita; and this has international and domestic implications in the context of concerns about climate change.

 

For a more in-depth discussion of climate change follow this link.

While we can increase the production of renewables the potential to significantly expand hydroelectricity (the largest renewable resource worldwide) is limited by:  

  • insufficient rainfall in populated areas;
  • the generally flat nature of the continent; and
  • strong public and political objections to further river diversions and/or dam construction on a scale that could make a significant contribution. 

Wind power is the next best option.  

After making an allowance for 'externalities' related to climate, and recent and expected fossil fuel price rises, wind is already economically competitive at around twice the price of fossil sourced electricity.  But there are serious limits to the contribution wind can make in Australia due to the fluctuating nature of the resource, and the shortage of good sites close enough to most mainland consumers on the to deliver the energy without unacceptable losses. 

 

Capitol Wind Farm Publicity Shot
Capitol Wind Farm NSW - Publicity Shot

 

Solar is effectively unlimited but despite declining Photovoltaic (PV) panel costs, still more costly to recover (per kWh).  It may become competitive if battery and other cost limitations can be overcome. But at the moment (despite a lot of small domestic units installed) it is making a very small contribution to total electricity generation.  For a more in-depth discussion follow this link.

Australia hopes to obtain up to 20% of our electricity (which in turn contributes about a fifth of our total energy consumed - mostly from fossil fuel) from renewables by 2020.  This is very much a 'stretch goal' and on present trends is unlikely to be achieved.

We could do much better and also dramatically decrease our transport and industrial dependence on fossil fuel if we had fossil-fuel-free electricity. For example then we could use rail electrification and electric vehicles to reduce (rather than increase - as at present) carbon dioxide production.  But we have chosen not to.  So unlike the thirty or so countries that employ nuclear power and/or have vastly more hydroelectricity, we are 'fighting with our hands tied behind our back'.

I have come to support a nuclear component in the Australian energy mix after looking at these facts.  I have no financial or personal investment in the technology.  Indeed, I have a small financial (pragmatic) interest in wind, gas and coal businesses that might be inferred as creating the opposite bias.  

In practical, if not political, terms it seems a relatively trivial matter to progressively replace existing coal and gas fired stations with larger advanced nuclear ones in the same locations as they reach their end of life.  Elements of the electricity grid and cooling facilities are already in place, as is a workforce experienced in running power stations.  Local communities would benefit.  Ionising radiation from a coal fired power station is significant and would be lowered substantially and other hazards such as coal transport, noise, dust and toxic oxides would be eliminated.

The US National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP) estimates the average radioactivity of coal is 17,100 millicuries/4 million short tons.  This results in a radiation dose to the population from a 1GW coal fired plant of 490 person-rem/year; a hundred times more than from a comparable nuclear plant.

Notwithstanding the problems in Japan at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant, caused by the unprecedented earthquake and tsunami on March 11 2011, it remains safer to live near a modern nuclear reactor than near a fossil fuel burning power plant.  

If you doubt this, a recent New Scientist article [open this link] quotes the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force (The Toll from Coal, 2010): that reports that fine particles from coal power plants presently kill an estimated 13,200 people each year in the US. 

 

 

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Travel

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