Australia should embrace the global energy change

By Reiko Okazaki in conversation with Arnie Gundersen | 19 Oct 15
Arnie Gundersen
Right Now speaks with nuclear engineer Arnie Gunderson who explains how energy production based on small modular renewables is a green, equitable and promising way forward.
Arnie is a former nuclear industry executive who became a whistleblower in 1990. He was a licensed reactor operator, holds a nuclear safety patent, and served as an expert witness in the investigation of the 1979 Three Mile Island accident. He is on the board of directors for the non-profit organisation Fairewinds Energy Education.

Right Now: Australia relies heavily on the mining and export of minerals, including coal and uranium. What impacts can such policies have?

Arnie Gundersen: Australia has been blessed with abundant natural resources that it has chosen to use without regard to depletion. Extraction economies generally operate at very low profit margins with low wages, and therefore do not create a lasting benefit. Extraction also leaves behind waste that contaminates the land for decades after corporations have taken their profits and moved on. Furthermore, extraction does not create high paying jobs, does not create new capital expansion, nor is it resilient to changes in its market.

Because extraction often takes place in impoverished areas, local populations cling to the low paying salaries while accepting long-term health consequences. Additionally, extraction supports technologies of the past, like coal and uranium. After mineral extraction is complete, environmental, economic and social issues remain in most countries that sell their material assets for short-term profit.

Vibrant economies are not based solely on resource extraction, but rather are knowledge-based and adaptable to economic changes as technology advances. Germany is an example of a successful country that uses extracted materials bought elsewhere to create wealth from manufacturing.

“Vibrant economies are not based solely on resource extraction, but rather are knowledge-based and adaptable to economic changes as technology advances.”

Could you tell us briefly about the potential of new batteries and their implications for the reliability of renewables?

Storing energy or electricity is not a new concept. For example, water can be stored behind dams to be metered out over long periods of time to create electricity. Car batteries have stored chemicals that are converted to electricity for almost a hundred years. Cell phones, laptops, and tablets store energy in their batteries that is discharged over the day to power the device. What has changed during the last five years is that innovation in large-scale battery technology, especially lithium-ion batteries, has resulted in a dramatic reduction in the price of electricity storage. The purchase price for large batteries has dropped five-fold and that cost is projected to drop even further by 2020.

In addition to reducing manufacturing costs, engineers have developed computer technology that will draw energy out of each battery more efficiently and without damaging its ability to be recharged repeatedly.

What mix of energy sources would be appropriate for the immediate future, in order to reduce CO2 emissions and support peak demand?

The future of energy is renewables coupled with battery storage. The cost to reduce carbon and the time to implement that change is both cheaper and faster using renewables and battery storage than using nuclear power. My opinion is that building new nuclear power plants will actually make global warming worse.

Nuclear plants take a decade to build and cost twice as much per kilowatt to construct than renewables. Renewables could be built and made operational within a single year. Global climate change and CO2 buildup will not take a vacation while those new nukes are being built, and dollar for dollar, renewables will be a much cheaper solution as they also help to reduce problematic increases in CO2.

“Renewables will be a great equaliser between the third world and developed economies.”

What social changes might take place once we start to utilise more ubiquitous energy sources such as solar and wind? 

Impoverished indigenous groups and people of colour have always borne the brunt of the damage due to extraction of the earth’s minerals. These individuals and communities often lack the financial resources to mount a legal or political campaign to defend their land and environment from abusive extraction procedures and inadequately regulated power generation.

While some mineral extraction will occur with lithium batteries for instance, the net effect of moving to renewables worldwide will be to significantly reduce the environmental transgressions in areas of the world where mineral extraction occurs.

Just follow the money. Many developed countries with a strong electric generation structure are currently fighting the transition to renewable energy sources because the current large power plant (central generating station) paradigm is already in place. The existing power production corporations would have to invest in new technologies and facilities.

Countries that do not have a strong electricity production and transmission system will find it much less expensive to create the new renewable economy from the beginning, rather than to retrofit an old large power plant methodology. Thus, in many developing countries without an existing large power plant system, renewables are jumping ahead of the old central station system and bringing clean power to remote locations faster and at less expense than ever anticipated.

Renewables will be a great equaliser between the third world and developed economies. For example, African economies based on solar power and cell phones have completely avoided using the more complex and expensive communications and energy concepts we in the developed world think of as “normal” methods of generating and transmitting electricity.

What are some developments around the world that look promising?

There are many new promising approaches worldwide. Among the developed countries, Germany leads the world in global energy change. It has committed to close all of its nuclear power plants by 2022, and is replacing that generation with renewables and energy conservation. Germany now has so much renewable power in its north, and too little in its south that a more flexible “smart” power transmission grid should allow for a smooth transition by 2022.

Even France, which currently generates 75 per cent of its electricity from nuclear power, has set a goal of reducing its nuclear power generation to 50 per cent of its power production by 2025.

More than half of the 54 nuclear power plants currently idle in Japan will never operate again. While approximately 30 new nuclear plants are under construction worldwide, more are shutting down due to age-related issues than are scheduled to start up during the next two decades. The economic data currently available clearly shows that rapid nuclear expansion is over and the end of nuclear power is near because it is neither economically feasible nor environmentally compatible.

The computer revolution has been the unrecognised catalyst to the dynamic change in worldwide energy transmission. Just like the ongoing transition from landline phones to cell phones, electric generation is becoming less centralised and more easily delivered because the power of computers allows electricity to be distributed over larger distances than ever before.

These dramatic improvements make it a great time to be in the energy production business, as long as the momentum is geared towards the creation of sustainable and renewable technologies and is moving away from the costly economic and environmental liabilities of producing energy with nuclear or coal-fueled power plants.

Small modular renewables are the energy foundation for future economic growth, as well as human and environmental wellbeing.