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Letters to the editor - A Climate of Hope?

Friday, 7 October 2016  | Ethos editor

In the Winter 2016 edition of Zadok Perspectives (No. 131), we published two letters and a brief counter-response on the issue of climate change, prompted by articles in the previous issue (A Climate of Hope?, No. 130, Autumn 2016).

We have received a further letter, so we are moving the discussion online.

As always, feel free to join in the discussion.

Letter from Ian Hore-Lacy (part 1)

Congratulations on an excellent issue on climate change!

Steve Hatfield-Dodds makes some very good points central to the question of climate change response and the wider ethical engagement in society canvassed by Emma Wood. However, Emma has some very questionable views on energy matters, most obviously her peculiar assertion that fossil fuels are subsidised in Australia and renewables aren’t.

Mick Pope’s editorial is a welcome introduction, though I don’t share his esteem for his namesake’s encyclical Laudato Si. Alison Sampson is spot on in regard to consumerism. Mick’s reviews of Reichardt and Flannery are good value, too.

David Lankshear’s imaginative take on Ecomodernism is perplexing, all the more so as he avoids referring to the Ecomodernist Manifesto of April 2015. But it is an explicitly Christian approach to it, which is welcome! His advocacy of nuclear power’s role is broadly right, though some details are represented in a novel way. It seems to me that Zadok/Ethos should give a lot more space to Ecomodernism, critiquing and applying the thesis in a Christian context. Certainly blind ignorance or dismissal of the limitations of renewable energy sources, as by a couple of your authors, will land us in a big mess. There is no credible or authoritative scenario for dealing with climate change which does not have nuclear power as a major contributor.

On the question of climate change science: every time I hear 'scientific consensus' I recoil. Science has little to do with consensus, and much to do with scepticism. I think some climate sceptics have been inadequately answered, though personally I go with the concerned majority, only becoming rather sceptical on the matter of projected consequences. In considering climate change issues it is salutary to remember the widely accepted 1970s prognostications of high-profile gurus like Paul Ehrlich, which were totally and spectacularly wrong. My book Responsible Dominion (first published in 2006) describes why, in some detail - and the Introduction and chapter 1 in the second kindle edition (2015) discuss the biblical basis of ecotheology.

Finally, a comment on coal. Yes, in a country like this we should immediately move to reduce our dependence on coal for electricity, with an integrated energy policy based on nuclear power and renewables, with a bit of gas back-up. We can afford it. But calling for Australia to deny coal to India for power generation is patronising, ignores several realities and is tantamount to bullying. India’s priority is quite reasonably to diminish energy poverty with a six- or seven-fold increase in per capita electricity consumption by 2050, and using coal is the only way to expedite this. It does have a commendable nuclear power program with 21 reactors operating, but the prospect of ramping it up as fast as needed in that country is poor. It is also investing in renewables, with 26.7 GWe of wind capacity and 6.7 GWe solar on grid by March 2016.

It would have been good to have contributions from practitioners, and perhaps some input from, or at least understanding of, corporations.

Ian Hore-Lacey is the author of Responsible Dominion - a Christian Approach to Sustainable Development (2006, 2015), and now Senior Research Analyst with the World Nuclear Association.

Response from Emma Wood

The article did not argue that renewables do not receive subsidies. However, these subsidies are minuscule compared to those received by coal, and as such are not on a level playing field since coal is artificially cheap.

Dr Emma Wood received her PhD in philosophy from Victoria University of Wellington in 2015. She now works as a research associate for the Institute for Ethics and Society at the University of Notre Dame, Australia.

Response from Ian Hore-Lacy

Emma Wood argues that subsidies for renewables ‘are minuscule compared to those received by coal’. In fact, the opposite is true. RET subsidies (via renewable energy certificates) are about 4 c/kWh - almost equal to the coal generation cost. The costs are not very transparent, but estimates for 2014 range from 3.5 to 5.5 c/kWh. For 2013-14 overall subsidies for coal-fired power were less than $1/MWh, those for wind and solar $41/MWh and $412/MWh respectively. The latter are mainly FITs and SRES, while wind is mainly LRET. The total subsidies for renewables that year were $2.8 billion, hardly ‘miniscule’.

As for coal being ‘artificially cheap’, that is a separate question, relating perhaps to low royalties and the fact that its external costs are ignored.

Government-commissioned modelling suggested that the net overall power cost to consumers for these renewables subsidies would be 0.5 c/kWh to 2015 and then 0.77 c/kWh to 2020.

Letter from Doug Hynd

Mike Pope has done a great job with the issue on climate change. Much to read, much to think about. Hopefully churches will engage with the questions it raises. On a personal level, Alison Sampson’s mantra on ‘I have everything I need’ I will carry with me on a daily basis.

I think more needs to be said about the questions raised by Dave Lankshear on transitioning from fossil fuels. For communities currently off the grid in India and Africa, solar power and micro-grids offer clean options to improve their lives. The technology, costs and moral imperatives align here, allowing large groups of the poorest people on the planet to access power without coal or nuclear.

For countries such as Australia looking to transition away from heavy dependence on fossil fuels, how far can renewables take us? Is nuclear power necessary and economic?

Here I have to disagree with Dave. Nuclear is not a cheap option. The recent Royal Commission into the Nuclear Fuel Cycle in South Australia found that nuclear power would not be commercially viable in Australia in the foreseeable future. The current Hinkley C Plant in the UK will require huge public subsidies in orders of magnitude above the cost of renewable energy. And France has found that the cost of maintaining its nuclear power plants exceeds the cost of original construction and is looking to cut back the proportion of power generated from this source.

Furthermore, the timeframes for starting a serious shift away from fossil fuels to nuclear rule out the latter making any substantial contribution within the next two decades. We simply can’t wait that long.

Based on available empirical evidence, the variability of renewable energy sources for the grid is not a problem until renewables reach 50-80% as a proportion of power generation. That represents a substantial step forward and, if implemented during the next few years, would enable us to close a good number of coal fired power stations. Moving beyond that level will depend upon reducing storage costs, which seem to be coming down faster than Dave assumes. Already, on the edges of the Australia grid in remote Queensland, transmission companies are finding it more economical to use a combination of solar and battery storage to reduce costs and improve supply reliability.

It seems likely that replacing the final 20% of fossil fuels will be manageable with: improvements in technology; changes in economic incentives that realign consumption and production and encourage energy efficiency; battery storage; pumped storage using wind and solar; and probably concentrated solar combined with molten salt storage. While these may be relatively expensive, they are likely to be substantially cheaper than nuclear power and have the advantage of being smaller scale in production, making the grid more resilient and less vulnerable to the management issues of large plants shutting down at short notice – and to potential terrorist strikes.

Such a shift in technology offers the prospect of shifting responsibility for decisions about power use and related ethical questions out of the hands of distant centralised corporations and back to us.

Doug Hynd

Former public servant, currently working on a PhD on the impact of Government contracting on the identity and mission of church-related welfare agencies.


Ian Hore-lacy
October 11, 2016, 8:43AM
A few comments on Doug Hynd’s letter.

The SA NFC Royal Commission actually said “Taking into account the South Australian energy market characteristics and the cost of building and operating a range of nuclear power plants, the Commission has found it would not be commercially viable to develop a nuclear power plant in South Australia beyond 2030 under current market rules.” “However, …. Nuclear power,
 as a low-carbon energy source comparable with other renewable technologies, may be required as part of a lower-carbon electricity system.” Hence, “The Commission recommends that the South Australian Government promote and collaborate on the development of a comprehensive national energy policy that enables all technologies, including nuclear, to contribute to a reliable, low-carbon electricity network at the lowest possible system cost.” Also that it keep tabs on the development of smaller reactor designs – around 300 MWe size would fit in over there.

Doug asserts a big difference in UK nuclear cost compared with renewables. First, the comparison is meaningless in context of future energy policy, since if the supply is only for one quarter to one third of the time depending on weather, it doesn’t matter how much cheaper it might be compared with constant reliable supply. Ask any South Australian. Secondly the evidence for UK does not support that assertion in general.

Re Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant, the cost is certainly high due to a combination of factors, governmental and corporate. In a privatised market, obviously any investment needs to have some assurance of long-term prices, hence the particular ‘contact for difference’ formula applied to building a very complex and expensive design, the EPR. I will be surprised if CfDs for AP1000 and ABWR plants following are nearly as high, not to mention the Chinese Hualong. As to whether these CfDs represent subsidies or not, the EU looked long and hard at that and said that the price support for electricity from the plant over 35 years was found to address a genuine market failure. If wholesale prices are above the strike price from about 2025 the generator will refund the difference, if lower, it will get a subsidy. Incidentally the CfD strike prices for wind are significantly higher, albeit for lesser periods.

Re France, it produces from its nuclear plants generally the cheapest kilowatt-hours in Europe, so I am not sure from where Doug gets his assertion. Operating costs are low. Nuclear generation cost is about EUR 5 cents/kWh (7.36 cents AUD). The supposed cut-back from 75% of electricity supplied by nuclear to 50% is a whim of President Hollande and will likely not come to pass.

Re timeframes for developing nuclear power, we are further ahead than was the UAE in April 2008 when they pressed the ‘go’ button, and they expect the first Barakah reactor (of 5600 MWe total) on line mid 2017, and the last one three years later. They had to set up the full legal and regulatory infrastructure as well as the engineering side, and drew heavily on international help in doing so ( 

Re how much intermittent renewables input can be used: it depends on cost constraints. Above about 15-20% of kWh, the problems and cost escalate. Forget about 80% from non-dispatchable sources! Germany’s Energiewende is a wonderful case study and warning! – though here its policies are in effect subsidised by neighbours, since Europe is very much interconnected. Its love affair with wind and solar and its anti-nuclear ideology is enabled only by building 10 GWe of new coal-fired plants in contradiction to its climate change policies. My paper on all that: 
Apart from pumped storage with very limited potential in Australia, battery storage is certainly developing fast at household level for short term, but nothing is on the near horizon for large-scale multi-day storage. At grid level, batteries can be useful at the margin, but they don’t substitute for reliable input.

The costs of intermittent renewables escalate for several reasons: subsidies (RET or whatever); and the effect on wholesale markets and viability of the inevitable full backup capacity required, due to lower utilisation. Above about 20% there are also significant system and ancillary services costs, as the SA blackout reminded us of the need for.
Regarding relative costs of nuclear vs base-load alternatives, in the USA four large new reactors are nearing completion (in regulated markets) and these will certainly come on line at higher cost per kWh than can currently be generated from fracked gas (and involving lower capital costs). But no-one is expecting that cost relativity to persist very far into the 60-year life of those reactors. In China the centrally-set wholesale price of CNY 0.43 (8.45 cents AUD) per kWh for new nuclear plants is comparable with coal-fired power except in Liaoning province. (China’s wind FIT is CNY 0.54/kWh incidentally.)

Energy policy does need to look a little way ahead and be earthed in reality, not just hopes. Thanks to SA’s policy recklessness, there is now some hope of reviewing spendthrift RET targets and considering what is actually required for reliable, affordable and clean electricity for the next 50 years or so.

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