The social licence of coal

I’m (just) old enough to remember the Australian nuclear disarmament (and associated opposition to nuclear power) rallies from the 1970s, the fervent opposition to the Newport gas-fired power plant in Melbourne, Tasmanian dams protests of the 1980s, along with logging and woodchipping protests, and so on. Just about every energy source attracts opposition. The interesting thing is that although there’s a broad understanding of the need to transition from unabated coal, there doesn’t seem to be the acute feeling against coal-fired electricity in relation to historic conservation campaigns. Indeed, historically, coal was often advocated as an energy source that could complement renewables, provide energy security, and substitute for oil and gas.

A parallel narrative is the broad support for renewables. But much of the community is yet to appreciate the practical constraints of high-penetration renewable scenarios, and the inevitable synergy with gas in the absence of dispatchable renewables.

I would argue that this helps to explain at least part of the political stalemate of Australian climate policy – no consensus on CO2 pricing; but support (if recently equivocal from the Government) for renewables. Indeed, Australian electricity seems to be on a trajectory that will emulate the original aspirations of the 1980 forerunner to the German Energiewende – 50 to 55% coal and 45 to 50% renewable energy by 2030 (with a larger role for gas in Australia due to indigenous resources). The social licence of coal seems to be a key factor, and I’ve put together a few observations in no particular order –

  1. As a pioneer nation, Australia’s economic roots lie in agriculture and mining. Australia readily exploited the power of steam. Local coal was an antidote to a reliance on imported fuels – oil and natural gas were not developed until the 1960s. Furthermore, affordable electricity was essential for incubating a manufacturing industry.
  2. Prior to climate change, people really weren’t that worried about coal. Even the Australian medical and academic community seem to have not been too concerned about studying coal-fired power’s health impacts (see two recent reports by the ATSE and BZE). Most health studies were related to the mining of coal rather than combustion.  
  3. The Australian geographic distribution of power plants in low population density areas has mitigated against the worst effects of pollution. Australian coal is low in sulphur, lessening the likelihood of acid rain.
  4. During the 1970s and 80s, despite pressing for more funding for ‘alternative energy’, environmental advocates treated coal as a relatively benign fuel. For example, in advocating a policy of environmental protection, Hugh Saddler (1981, pp. 119-120) argued that coal was a more economic and less risky option than nuclear. In arguing the case against Tasmanian hydro development, Peter Thompson, representing the Australian Conservation Foundation, noted that coal plants ‘pose relatively few air pollution problems if the operation is adequately planned, sited and built to the highest standards of quality’ (Thompson 1981, p. 125). Similarly, during the Franklin River campaign in 1981, Bob Brown stated that ‘a new coal fired power station is the manifestly best option built on Tasmanian coal fields.’
  5. A similar view was held in Germany and the US. During the 1970s, the German Government actively promoted the expansion of coal for electricity and combined heat and power (Guilmot et al 1986, pg. 20). Even the contemporary Energiewende was originally conceived around Germany’s substantial coal resources. The Energiewende emerged from a study by the German Öko-Institut in 1980 that grew out of concerns of oil security from the first oil crisis, and the safety of nuclear energy (Krause et al. 1981; Joas et al. 2016; Maubach 2014; Morris & Jungjohann 2016). The study, titled ‘Energy turnaround, growth and prosperity without oil and uranium’, envisaged a German energy supply derived from 50 to 55% coal and 45 to 50% renewable energy by 2030.
  6. In 1977, pro-conservation US President Carter proposed an 80% increase in coal production for power generation and liquid fuels, arguing for ‘the expanded use of coal, supplemented by nuclear power and renewable resources, to fill the growing gap created by rising energy demand’ (Stobaugh & Yergin, 1979, pg. 80).
  7. From Lowy and other polling, the willingness to pay a higher cost for electricity is very limited – in 2011, 39% were prepared to pay no more and a further 32% were prepared to pay no more than $20 a month. The majority of Australians like the idea of an energy transition but aren’t willing to pay for it. Although the Murdoch Press and elements of the Lib-Nat Coalition are critical of the LRET, the community seems to support both the LRET and rooftop solar.
  8. The IEA projections for India illustrate the way in which a ‘techno-optimist’ narrative of growing renewables (or nuclear) can co-exist with the stark reality of growing coal-fired generation. According to the IEA ‘New Policies Scenario’, solar PV in India is projected to grow around 60-fold by 2040, wind around 7-fold, and nuclear around 6-fold. But despite coal’s share falling to 57% of generation, coal-fired generation is projected to nearly double in absolute terms because of the sheer scale of India’s demand growth. The reasons for India’s increasing demand for coal are simple – coal is cheap and easily shipped, requires no pretreatment, and most importantly, provides fit-for-purpose dispatchable generation. It does not require smart grids or storage to provide dispatchable power, nor the institutional and community support that nuclear requires.
Figure 2.22, IEA India Energy Outlook

Ferroni and Hopkirk revisited

Ferroni and Hopkirk published a paper last year titled ‘Energy Return on Energy Invested (ERoEI) for photovoltaic solar systems in regions of moderate insolation’. They concluded that the EROI of solar PV in Switzerland was below 1:1, or a net energy loss. Not surprisingly, the paper raised a few eyebrows, and a rebuttal has been published from Raugei et al. This follows on from a previously published rebuttal of a paper by Weißbach et al. in 2014, also with a low solar EROI.

<update 21 May 2017 – Ferroni, Guekos and Hopkirk have published a rebuttal to Raugei et al’s critique here>

The critique from Raugei et al. identifies a number of methodological flaws and inconsistencies in Ferroni and Hopkirk, but the main criticism relates to the use of non-conventional methodology –

Net energy analyses may be conducted using a variety of boundaries and assumptions, all of which, in principle at least, may be considered valid … but that … extending the EROI boundaries … shifts the goal of the analysis from the (comparative) assessment … to the assessment of the ability of the analysed system to support the entire societal demand for the type of energy carrier it produces, or sometimes even for all forms of net energy.

I agree with much of Raugei’s critique regarding PV system price, the problem of ascribing energy consumption to labour, the use of outdated data, assumptions around performance and others. Raugei (and others) have made an important contribution. The only way in which EROI can be taken seriously is be adhering to a consistent methodology. But the critique also reflects a broader problem – the IEA-PVPS guidelines are not providing a comprehensive examination of the value of PV. It’s worth looking at how these studies are conducted.

Solar PV life-cycle assessments (LCA’s) are nearly always conducted with a process-based life cycle inventory using an attributional framework. This requires drawing a boundary around the manufacturing processes of PV and measuring the direct energy into those processes. Depending on time and effort, the researcher steps back up the value-adding chain and cumulatively adds up the embodied energy. Since there are a only few energy intensive processes, identifying those processes is said to provide a reasonably comprehensive stocktake of embodied energy. The main benefit of this method is that the researcher can apply the clearly defined guidelines and boundaries from the IEA-PVPS. This is useful for comparing similar products. LCA practitioners declare the scope, utilise standard methods, and these work well within the LCA community.

The main point of contention is that many EROI practitioners are more interested in a ‘bigger picture perspective’ than a comparative assessment of different PV types. High EROI generally correlates with low energy cost and contributes to productivity and economic growth. The EROI of oil, coal, and hydro has conformed to this principle. High EROI oil drove earlier 20th century economic growth, while lowering EROI from the 1970s contributed to recessions. We want to know whether an energy source is a net-source or net-sink and how much it contributes to human welfare. Where is our energy going to come from as we rely less on fossil fuels? What is the new energy source substituting for?

The problem is that the pre-defined and narrow boundaries defined by the IEA-PVPS are not really telling us much about the impact of solar PV on overall energy costs or economic growth.

As a starting point, solar PV has three important strengths –

1. it’s modularity makes it highly scalable
2. the photoelectric effect lends itself to progressively lower manufacturing costs and easy installation
3. its social acceptance ensures a low regulatory hurdle.

Yet despite improving EROI and lower costs, solar is not leading to lower overall energy costs or transforming industry in the way that previous energy transitions have. In European countries, there is a strong correlation between installed RE per capita and electricity costs. The conventional idea of EROI as it applies to oil, coal, and hydro does not seem to apply.

There seems to be three main issues.

1. Solar is highly seasonal and in many parts of the world, it’s availability does not correlate well with demand.
2. Although predictable, solar power is of course variable.
3. Unlike conventional electricity generation, nearly all of the energy investment of solar is an upfront energy debt, but the EROI is calculated on an energy return over a 25 or 30 year life.

Ferroni and Hopkirk’s solution for intermittency is to add storage to the analysis. But Raugei et al. note that –

For example, they add an unreasonably extended storage requirement to PV but not to nuclear, ignoring that PV primarily serves peak loads while nuclear only serves base loads and both of them (not only PV) would require storage in order to satisfy total demand loads. This is problematic because the way in which the analyses are presented to the reader implies that any differences in the reported EROIs are due to data inputs – i.e., something inherent to the technologies or resources under investigation – and not an artefact emerging from methodological inconsistencies between the studies being compared. The latter is actually the case here.

I agree that there is a problem of adding an arbitrary amount of storage without providing supporting evidence for why this quantity has been selected. But Raugei et al. also seem to mistake the reason for buffering of solar. Conventional generation does not need buffering to ensure a low outage rate – each generator contributes to overall system reliability. The reason for adding storage to intermittent power is to increase its availability, whether that is used during peak or off-peak periods. There is certainly a case to made for thinking about whether the cumulative energy demand (CED) of peak-load generation should be added to baseload in order to arrive at a total picture, but this is quite different to arguing that there is an equivalence between variable renewable energy and baseload. Electrical systems are built according to system capacity, not system annual energy.

In summary, the second last paragraph in the conclusion perhaps reflects the divergence between the aims of different EROI researchers –

Also, extending the boundaries of the EROI calculations in order to estimate the ability of a certain technology to support the present civilization tends to stretch the value of this measurement beyond its initial intended purpose, and the vast uncertainties involved in doing so make it a risky enterprise that might easily lead to wrong policy choices.

Yet understanding how the ‘present civilization’ can transition from fossil fuels is precisely the motivation for many EROI researchers. If EROI researchers are not going to undertake this task, who will?