Of nuclear and renewables

24 April 2017

As the UK is celebrating its first working day of coal-free power generation,  Australia has another large-scale renewable energy project on the way, the 113 MW Bodangora wind farm in NSW. Meanwhile a symposium of expert has again opened a can of worms that others in Australia would very much like to keep closed. It called for an open debate on the role Australia plays in the nuclear fuel cycle.

The global shift away from coal is creating newsworthy milestones, as the UK's National Grid confirmed that for the first time UK's power generation mix on a working day was without the use of coal.

However, gas and nuclear power accounted for around 70%, with another 8% from imports. Renewable energy contributed 22.5% of power generated on that day.

Australia is far from a coal-free energy future, but the share of coal in electricity generation has fallen by over 20% since 2000.

Still, coal accounts for over 60% of our electricity generation, and according to the Australian Government's 2016 Australian Energy Update, it's share in electricity generation even rose again in 2014-15, up 2% from the previous year.

Renewables were contributing 14% to total power generation in that year,  a long way off from the Government's target of 23.5% by 2020.

However, wind and solar power are on the rise in Australia, with wind generation increasing by 12 in 2014-15, and solar increasing  by 23% in that year.

And major renewable projects are on the way, with the latest including Infigen's 113 megawatt Bodangora Wind Farm in New South Wales.

In April, the company announced financial close of the project, after it secured debt facilities totalling $163 million from the Clean Energy Finance Corporation ($80 million) and German bank NORD/LB ($83 million).

Infigen was also able to secure a 13- year power purchase agreement with EnergyAustralia, which will buy 60% of the 360 gigawatt hours the plant is expected to produce each year from 2018.

Meanwhile, a symposium of energy experts supported by the Australian Academy of Science, the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering and Engineers Australia has called for a national discussion on nuclear options, including mining, power generation and waste storage. 

And it yields general support for a recommendation by the South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commisssion in 2016, which says:

“Pursue the opportunity to establish used nuclear fuel and intermediate level waste storage and disposal facilities in South Australia….”.

The experts point to the global need and economic opportunity for a commercial waste facility in South Australia, and argues that legislated prohibitions to this should be removed.

And the experts understand that in line with the Royal Commissions findings that storage and disposal of international nuclear waste would bring the greatest economic benefits.

The experts emphasised the need of a bipartisan national energy policy.

However, to establish a low carbon, reliable and cost-effective energy system all options will need to be on the table.

In a communique released by the experts it says:

"However, with the current legislative prohibitions effectively preventing any further investigation of nuclear as an option, it is impossible to develop a technology-neutral national energy policy that considers all the available options for power generation in Australia."

It calls on removing legal impediments to nuclear power in Australia.

However, the environment in which the political debate takes place is far from ideal in Australia, the experts find:

"The current understanding of nuclear issues in Australia is often not based on empirical evidence and data, but rather on political and ideological beliefs and sentiments."