‘World powered '100 per cent renewable as popularly conceived doesn’t exist'

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The notion that the world can reliably be powered completely by renewable energy does not stand up to scrutiny, according to a leading expert on climate change.

Ben Heard (right), director of Australia-based ThinkClimate Consulting told the World Nuclear Association’s annual symposium in London that his organisation did a thorough analysis of the body of literature supporting that 100 per cent renewables viewpoint, and found it lacking in supportive evidence.
Ben Heard
“A world powered 100 per cent by renewables as popularly conceived doesn’t exist. I can tell you it’s not true... the evidence is conflicted and is in fact scarce,” he said.

Heard referenced a recent speech by social activist Naomi Klein who said ‘not only do we not need it (nuclear), we must not use it’. He noted this as ‘a statement of exclusion made on behalf of all of us.’

It prefaced an introduction to his consultancy’s work which evaluated a number of published studies on electricity systems based entirely on renewable energy sources. However, an analysis of 20 of these studies shows that none of these systems is feasible.

During his presentation entitled, ‘Worlds without nuclear  - a systematic review of 100 per cent renewables literature’, Heard said that the burden of evidence for 100 per cent renewables rests on the proponents of that positon and his team had found the growing body of literature involved far from convincing.

“What tends to happen is that each new study will quite the previous studies, creating the impression of reinforced evidence- having read the studies I can tell you it’s not true – the evidence is conflicted and is in fact scarce- there are major sustainability consequences that have to be considered.”

"The challenge is to supply electricity reliably ... It is not the quantity of power supplied, but the quality of the supply."

In order to be feasible, Heard said the proposed renewable-based electricity systems must firstly be able to meet demand scenarios from mainstream forecasts. They must also be capable of constantly meeting demand, even during extreme events and take into account transmission requirements and confirm that "ancillary services are provided".

Think Climate analysis found that no constraints had been applied to the cost, speed of roll-out, materials requirements, support or planning concerns for each system. None of the proposed systems was found to be feasible, with some demand forecasts used describing "a world that doesn't exist and probably won't".

Heard also pointed out the absence of sufficient simulation studies from works advocating the 100 per cent renewables contention – ‘There were seven studies with no simulation – simply carrying the assumption that others have done it. That’s weak and compromises the evidence. Such simulation should look at (capability in) meeting demand every day all year round, right down to the five minute level, which is how markets operate. That includes response to extreme events, how the margin is affected by that.”

“Is that too high a burden of evidence? These are just the basic fundamentals of what we have now. It looks impressive – yes. It’s been centuries in the making and we fiddle with it at our peril.

He concluded by stating ‘effective decarbonisation is going to need a strong nuclear sector’ and added that the literature affirms a large dispatchable supply of electricity is indispensable and that the exclusion of nuclear - a "major, proven, scalable energy source" - is high risk. He gave Sweden, Ontario and France as examples of places that have demonstrated the high energy security and low emission benefits of nuclear energy.

Earlier Malcolm Grimston, senior research fellow at Imperial College, told the audience of power industry professionals a new energy narrative is needed to overcome the mixed messages from the nuclear industry that has stymied public support.

He said that the public can be left "deeply suspicious" when, on the one hand, the industry says how safe nuclear power is, yet on the other appears over-cautious when dealing with radiation protection. He added, "Although big accidents occur, nuclear power has proved to be one of the safest, if not the safest, large-scale ways of generating electricity".

He also criticised governments bent on phasing out nuclear power saying that "logic and politics don't necessarily go hand in hand" and that science should be pulled back into the debate.

“We entirely miss that most of the problems come from a dysfunction between political, public and scientific establishment which had a more harmonious relationship 30 years ago in the developed world but might not last in the countries where it still exits.”

To illustrate the point he referred to a recent chemical explosion, which left 200 people dead in China- “The Germans didn’t then go out and close down their chemical industry.”

Grimston called for governments to "restore the outcome of properly referred science to its proper place in decision-making", while society should have a sensible debate about how to manage scientific uncertainty.

“We have no concept of what power outages are like- we are left with anodyne, cuddly phrases such as ‘the lights go out’ when the reality of a blackout is literally unimaginably awful- because we are not in a position to imagine it we aren’t making the decisions needed to be made for the greater good instead o focusing on rights of individual, animal or rock.”

He concluded by saying that society should challenge "comfortable myths" about renewables and energy efficiency.

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