MAC: Mines and Communities

Who needs coal? Who needs nuclear?

Published by MAC on 2011-12-05
Source: Reuters, Climate Spectator

It seems to be a  "Hobson's choice" * par excellence!

As global climate change talks continue in Durban, South Africa's leadership is faced with a "conundrum" - does the country continue burning-up the world by depending on coal, or should it risk radiating it with nuclear power?

Of course this "dilemma" confronts many other industrialised and "lesser developing" states too.

But it's arguably completely false.

In a startling analysis, Australian climate change reporter, Giles Parkinson, contends that "alternative" energy sources, such as solar and wind power, have the potential to outstrip coal as a key source of electrical power.

Indeed, says Parkinson, this is already happening.

Nor is the move dependent primarily on government subsidies, but is firmly "market-based".

*Editorial note: The term "Hobson's choice" is said to have originated with 16th century English livery stable owner Thomas Hobson, who offered customers the choice of either taking the horse in the stall nearest the door, or taking none at all. In other words: no choice!


Nuclear power divides U.N. global climate talks

By Jon Herskovitz


2 December 2011

DURBAN - South Africa, the host of U.N. global climate talks, is faced with a conundrum -- it wants to wean itself off of coal-powered plants seen as prime culprits of greenhouse gas emissions and find a cleaner energy source.

It is turning to nuclear power, despite the catastrophic environmental degradation the world witnessed after Japan's Fukushima plant disaster this year.

The global climate talks that opened earlier this week in Durban are seeing a widening division on nuclear power, with many advanced economies moving away from it after Fukushima and emerging states heavily reliant on fossil fuels embracing it as a cleaner way to power their development.

"If you want to be part of the climate change race and mitigation you basically have renewables and nuclear. Renewables are intermittent and you need a firm and reliable baseload technology. Renewables are not in a position to provide this yet," said H. Holger Rogner, section head of the International Atomic Energy Agency's planning and economic studies section.

South Africa, among the world's top 20 emitters per capita of carbon dioxide, and many other emerging countries, see nuclear power as a way to ensure energy security for the coming years and as a bridge to a time when they are rich enough to afford adding more renewables to their power mix.

The Fukushima disaster changed the economics of the nuclear industry by drying up markets in developed countries such as Japan and increasing competition among the few global conglomerates who can build nuclear power plants.

"It has become close to a buyers market and not a sellers market, which it was before Fukushima," said Rogner.

On paper, nuclear power is an ideal energy source, producing next to no greenhouse gas emissions while churning out stable supplies of electricity. But, as Fukushima and Chernobyl have shown, an accident can quickly turn vast areas into nuclear wastelands, raises risks of radiation poisoning and leaves a massive bill for clean up.

The Electric Mix

China, the world's biggest greenhouse gas emitter due to its heavy reliance on coal, is looking to scale down its nuclear plant ambitions due to Fukushima but could still bring dozens of reactors on line in the next decade.

Chinese officials have suggested no new "second-generation" reactors - seen as more risky than newer versions on the global market - will be approved, leaving the way clear for third-generation models designed by France's Areva and U.S.-based Westinghouse, owned by Toshiba.

The head of fast-growing India's atomic energy commission, Srikumar Banerjee, told the IAEA's annual member state gathering in September of the emerging powerhouse's plans for a "major expansion" of nuclear capacity.

The IAEA says it still sees "significant" growth ahead -- forecasting at least 90 new reactors by 2030 to add to the world's existing 432 -- even though Fukushima has prompted it to cut its forecast.

The increasing number of plants has worried many environmental groups who said Fukushima served as a powerful reminder that not even the most technologically advanced states can properly manage nuclear power -- let alone safely manage the growing amounts of highly radioactive waste they produce.

South Africa has enough coal to power the country for decades, Energy Minister Dipuo Peters told reporters on Thursday at the U.N. climate conference, but wants to see it become a smaller part of the energy mix.

It now relies on coal to generate about 90 percent of its electricity but plans to spend scores of billions of dollars for nuclear power to reduce that number.

Ferrial Adam, a climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace Africa, said money would be better spent on smaller scale projects aimed at bringing electricity to the 20 percent of the country without power instead of expanding a grid where a bulk of the power goes to a few electricity-hungry industries.

She is also worried the country may opt for a dangerous option, keeping coal, building nuclear plants and not making a serious commitment to renewables.

"The South African government is so convinced that renewable won't be able to deal with this growing economy they are talking about," she said.

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz Editing by Maria Golovnina)


Why we won't need coal

By Giles Parkinson

Climate Spectator

1 December 2011

Last month, the International Energy Agency released a stunning report that suggested that the future of thermal coal exports could be threatened if the world ever decides to implement the policies to limit global warming to an average 2°C, rather than just merely talking about it, as they are doing in Durban this fortnight.

The coal industry laughed, suggesting such a scenario was highly unlikely. But what if technology took the decision out of the hands of politicians, as seems increasingly likely with the plunging costs of renewables, particularly solar PV, across the globe?

And what does that mean also for Australia's energy infrastructure, and the tens of billions of dollars that will be invested in the coming decade on the basis that business will continue as usual?

New forecasts from China suggest the cost of solar PV in that country will fall below that of coal-fired generation within 10 years. From that point, or even before, says Wu Dacheng, the vice chairman and secretary general of the China Photovoltaic Society, the country's energy build out will be dominated by cheaper renewables.

China, which has only just introduced its own feed-in tariff for solar PV, is anticipating massive growth, and has already upgraded its official forecasts to 2020 from 30GW to 50GW. But it concedes that 100GW of PV is possible and may even be overshot. Wu himself said earlier this year that China would reach 5GW in capacity by 2015, but it is now likely to reach that in 2012.

As Abengoa's Scott Frier noted, FiTs are not necessarily the cheapest form of incentive, but they are devastatingly effective in unleashing the forces of greed and pushing down costs as developers try and squeeze as much capacity within those metrics. And the Chinese are not fettered by established industry vested interests trying to hold this back. In China, the government is the vested interest, and they have already been ruthless in their closure of inefficient power stations.

Wu told Climate Spectator in Sydney on Wednesday that solar PV is already cheaper than peaking prices in some areas of China, and will match parity with commercial and industrial supply in 2014, will reach retail parity in 2018 (households pay less for electricity in China than industrial users), and match wholesale price parity by 2021, when prices will be around 0.6 yuan/kWh.

His forecasts were reinforced by Martin Green, the executive research director of the world-leading Photovoltaic Centre of Excellence at UNSW, who says solar PV is likely to fall below the cost of coal in Australia (wholesale grid parity) before the end of the decade. He points out that most studies, and much of government modeling, are based around solar PV having a cost of $3.50 a watt. He says it is already down to just over $1/watt and will likely halve again to 50c/watt by 2020.

This has broader implications for energy grids. Green and other experts say much of the infrastructure spending on poles and wires is based around the assumption of business as usual: that coal will continue to be the cheapest and the central source of power. "I don't see anyone discussing a national grid centred around renewables, but they should be," says David Mills, the founder of solar thermal technology firm Ausra, and one of the leading experts in solar technology. "We're about to spend so much money on the grid, shouldn't we thinking about what we are going to be powering it with?"

Mills last year released the first version of his ground-breaking research that showed that the entire US grid could be powered by just wind and solar thermal, and he provided an update on that research at the Solar 2011 conference on Wednesday. Mills challenges the very concept of baseload power, the sort provided by coal and nuclear.

"People say we need baseload plans, but we don't," he says. Instead, grids can work perfectly well with a mixture of inflexible supply (wind that blows whenever it wants), and flexible supply (solar thermal with storage). Mills has yet to release the financial modelling for his scenario, but notes that wind is already cheaper than new-built coal in the US, and solar thermal with storage, and used as a peaking plant, will be competitive with peaking gas.

Mills did not factor in PV in his scenario, but it would have the same impact as wind. As wind and PV fills up the energy stack (they go first because they have the lowest short run marginal cost - wind and solar radiation is free), what is needed to complete the requirements is flexible generation. Coal doesn't fit the bill.

The first impacts of this have already been seen in South Australia, where wind has provided more than 20 per cent of annual output last year and much higher on occasions. In Germany, where wind and PV capacity amounts to 45GW, Statkfraft has announced this week that it may close two gas-fired power stations, amounting to one gigawatt of capacity, because of this impact. And this in a country which has just shut down half its nuclear fleet and will soon close the rest.

A UNSW team of Ben Elliston, Mark Diesendorf and Iain MacGill has just released its own study of how Australia could power its entire grid on renewables. And like Mills, they also see solar with storage as a type of peaking plant. "The whole concept of baseload becomes redundant," Elliston told Climate Spectator. "It's worse than redundant, it gets in the way."

The UNSW study, based on simulations of Australia's energy needs in 2010, found that the entire supply could be met by a mix of solar thermal with storage, wind, solar PV, existing hydro and peaking gas plants running on biofuels. Only six hours of the year fail to meet the NEM's reliability standard, all in evening peaks in the winter months.

Elliston says that one of the biggest impediments is the build-out of long-life assets - or the lack of long-term signals. "The business-as-usual market approach, where we plan at the margin, is not going to get us there. We need to start a new strategy now, which means not building new coal-fired power stations, and building transmission lines in the right place to build renewables ."

The authorities, and the utilities, do not seem to be listening. Indeed, Rick Brazzale, the head of Green Energy Trading, took up this theme when he told the conference that the Australian Energy market Operators' annual statement of opportunities report, which gives forecasts of demand and is used by the industry to plan its expenditure, showed that non-peak demand would continue to rise in the coming decade, even though the experience of the past three years showed that PV and energy efficiency initiatives had caused it to stop, or even retreat.

Mills notes how the rollout of PV and electric vehicles could dramatically alter the way consumers use the grid. With utilities expanding time-of-use pricing - at 42c/kWh or more in peak periods in NSW, nearly twice the cost of PV - consumers were more likely to use their own solar arrays and the battery in their EV to reduce their demand on the grid. As British Telecom found out when raising phone charges to justify its land network, people use it less - forcing prices to go even higher to recoup the cost of investment. The same trend is likely to occur in energy, Elliston says.

So, if coal no longer has a place in the energy stakes of the future, is Australia then impoverished by its lack of thermal coal exports and doomed to take the cheapest PV imports from China? No, says the UNSW's Green - he says more than half of the economic value of solar PV remains in its installation and commissioning, which is all local. And he says Australia has a unique opportunity to become a solar technology hub for the Asia Pacific region.

China may have the biggest manufacturers of solar PV, but they are relying on partnerships with Australian universities such as UNSW for their R&D, and their ability to remain at the cutting edge. And, says Green, there is also a great opportunity in education and training. Education is already Australia's third largest export earner with $18 billion of sales last year. Cleantech such as solar could be a sizeable component of that sum.

John Grimes, the head of Australian Solar Energy Society, agrees. "The public has a perception that that solar is expensive, that it has failed," he says. But there is in fact a seismic shift happening globally and it is all about China, which has flicked the switch on domestic consumption.

"This presents threats and opportunities. Threats are what we need to manage, but we should be pursing the opportunities." Grimes says Australia should be pursuing a more strategic partnerships with China - like that between UNSW and Suntech, the world's biggest solar PV maker. "Australia can leverage off the enormous manufacturing juggernaut that is China and generate maximum benefit to the economy."


Activists to unite against climate gangsters

Sharon Pillay


30 November 2011

201-30, Issue 560

Dirty Energy Week has come to an end, but the ‘unity started' by the event ‘has a great potential to grow and be at the forefront of moving beyond fossil fuels", says the South African campaign organiser, groundWork.

Last week Friday saw the ending of the Dirty Energy Week strategy conference, organised by the South African based environmental justice NGO, groundWork together with 14 national and international NGO's, and community organisations.

The conference was successful in creating a synergy among all the community people, NGOs and unions who are determined to expose the false energy solutions and carbon trading at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of the Parties 17 (COP17). It was emphasised that organisations and governments should be held accountable for their actions. Dirty energy projects including fracking, tar sands, big dams, shale oil, crude oil, coal to liquids, mining, oil refining and cleaner development mechanisms projects.

Pablo Solón, the former Bolivian Ambassador to the United Nations, had delivered the closing address at the Dirty Energy Week. Solón, representing the Bolivian government, was the sole voice of conscience at COP 16 in Cancun, Mexico, and was the only delegation to vote against the outcomes of the Cancun negotiations which failed to make progress on the steep, binding emission cuts for developed countries that the planet needs for survival, according to all reputable scientists.

Solón commented that the focus should be on the key issue which is the reduction of green house gas emissions and what the exact emission reduction numbers will be. He was concerned that the present rate of reductions is not happening fast enough. The KP should be amended so that solid commitment s can be made.

"If COP17, ends up with those emissions reductions will be minimal and temperature increase more than 4 degrees Celsius, we will burn our world and cook Africa. Finance, transfer of technology, binding agreement is important and also the numbers. If GHG emissions are low, we will lose this decade and will be unable to cover the next decade. Reports say exactly that, even Price Waterhouse Coopers says last year for first time greenhouse gas emissions grew more than GDPs," he said.

Solón added that the situation can be changed if there is enough pressure from social movements. "We are all part of same battle against the one percent of the population who controls fifty percent of the resources. The real cause of climate change is capitalist system and way most developing companies work. We need a planet where we can all live. Our futures should not depend on just once percent of the population."

The Dirty Energy Week campaign was brought to a final close with a march to the Durban World Cup Stadium, where the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) Executive Board meeting was taking place. They have spoken up against the systematic disregard of the wastepickers communities in the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) rules, which are impacting their livelihoods and increasing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This is the first of several actions planned by the Global Alliance of Wastepickers and allies at COP17, which is starting next week in Durban.

Simon Mbata, a wastepicker from Sasolburg, and the coordinator of the South African Wastepickers Association (SAWPA) is one of an estimated 30,000 wastepickers in South Africa. These wastepickers sort, collect and resell plastic, paper, steel, and scraps, earning a livelihood while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

"The CDM is supporting landfill gas systems and incinerators that are taking away our livelihoods. Why do they keep registering projects that are burning or burying what we recycle? In the process of revision of the CDM methodologies for waste projects, are they going to take us into account and stop giving carbon credits to incinerators and landfill gas systems?"

"Meeting with so many community people from the frontline of fossil fuel struggles was amazing and strengthening to all our struggles. I believe that this unity started here has a great potential to grow and be at the forefront of moving beyond fossil fuels", says Bobby Peek, Director of groundWork.

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