Another Inconvenient Truth: A Simple Guide To A Global Energy Agency’s Roadmap To A Cooler Future

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Geoff Russell spent weeks reading and researching the International Energy Agency’s landmark report into the planet’s energy future, so that you didn’t have to. You can thank him later.

You could be forgiven for not realising that the recent International Energy Agency (IEA) Roadmap to net-zero by 2050 for energy emissions was recommending that 100 big nuclear reactors be built during the next decade. And then another 200 in the decade after that.

As well as opposing any (more) premature closures of operating reactors. And yet yet the ABC (via Reuters) mentioned nuclear power once in this report. 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 in detail what the IEA is actually saying.

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 the 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.

A cattle feedlot in the Hunter region of NSW. (IMAGE: New Matilda)

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 80Mha of land used to grow feed. For comparison purposes, 280 million hectares is almost three quarters of a billion football fields. Or about 41 ‘Tasmanias’ (10 and a half ‘New Zealands’, for the Kiwi readers).

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 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 140Mha 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, made of mined and processed minerals, constructed in more gigafactories making batteries than even Elon Musk could conceive.

A gigafactory is typically a 100-300 hectare site 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, Germany.

There have been 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 a 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 often also radioactive. But that’s not why tailings can be dangerous, it’s that tailings dams break from time to time; or mounds have toxic components leached into water ways. When you remember that, on average, a warmer world is a wetter world, it becomes clear just how carefully such 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?

(IMAGE: Martin Abegglen, Flickr)

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.

If the Chinese, and everybody else, are forced to produce polysilicon and PV panels with fair wages and renewable energy + 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 a lifeline out of oblivion if they choose to embrace this new renewable materialism, and transition their skills and people.

There have been 5 Tesla gigafactories built over the past 6 years. The IEA want 20 opened every year between 2021 and 2030.

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.

The Kudankulam nuclear power plant, under construction in India. (IMAGE: Wikipedia).

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 24×7 methane producers, they are foregone carbon sequestration. The IEA get it, but many so-called environmentalists and the global Green political movement, don’t.

(IMAGE: Terry Chapman, Flickr)

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.

The Germans have shown just how powerful and dangerous this movement is by closing down clean nuclear plants while building a massive fossil pipeline to double the gas supply to the country.

The German Greens, like ours, are irrational, ignorant, dishonest and far more concerned about being nuclear free than having a liveable planet.

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 between 2030 and 2050 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 light of the first claim, that all its 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 us don’t understand.

Using computer code and electronics to simulate all the security provided by multiple turbines, each of them 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’.

(IMAGE: morisius cosmonaut, Flickr)

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 South Australian grid has one of the highest penetrations of wind and solar power in the world, but when that plea was made, it was still only getting some 60% of its 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. This tiny battery in SA can’t keep the SA grid going for 1 second, let alone minutes or hours.

The Hornsdale Li-ion battery in South Australia.

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 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 (although 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 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 short, the 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 on technology which doesn’t exist.

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Geoff Russell

Geoff Russell qualified in mathematics and has written software all of his working life, but in the past decade has devoted increasing time to writing non-fiction with a simple goal... make the world a better place. A three decade vegan and member of the Animal Justice Party, his first book in 2009 was 'CSIRO Perfidy', a critique of the high-red-meat CSIRO 'Total Wellbeing diet'; the most environmentally destructive diet on the planet. His concerns about climate change and the ineffectiveness of renewables led to a re-examination of his lifelong opposition to nuclear power. After considerable research he realised that the reasons people fear nuclear are built on obsolete knowledge about DNA and cancer. His second book 'GreenJacked! Derailing environmental action on climate change' is an e-book available on Amazon. He has been a regular contributor to BraveNewClimate.com since 2008 and has had pieces published in The Monthly, Australasian Science and a number of Australian newspapers. He is a regular contributor to New Matilda.

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