Nuclear power most ‘fit-for-purpose’

A new paper by three Australian researchers, published in the international peer-reviewed journal Energy, looks at 16 electricity generating technologies as candidates for meeting future greenhouse emission reduction targets.

The paper, How carbon pricing changes the relative competitiveness of low-carbon baseload generating technologies, analysed a range research from the International Energy Agency, Energy Information Administration, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

MNIT Group’s Martin Nicholson, Delta-G Research’s Tom Biegler and University of Adelaide Centre for Energy Technology’s Barry Brook assessed technologies in terms of their potential to produce reliable, continuous, baseload power. The assessment covers performance, cost and carbon emissions. According to the paper, nuclear stands out as the cheapest solution to provide low-emission baseload electricity over almost the whole carbon price range.

The review states only five proven low-emission technologies that could meet this set of fit-for-service criteria for the supply of baseload power. The technologies are: pulverised fuel coal combustion (PF coal) coupled with carbon capture and storage (CCS); integrated gasification combined cycle coal (IGCC) with CCS; combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) with CCS; nuclear; and solar thermal with heat storage and gas turbines.

Nuclear stands out as the cheapest solution to provide low-emission baseload electricity over almost the whole carbon price range, the report states. The next cheapest is CCGT (natural gas) with CCS, which needs a carbon price of just over $30. To justify building either of the two coal technologies (PF or IGCC) with CCS requires a carbon price over $40.

Of these five, the only renewable technology is solar thermal with heat storage and gas backup. However, this is the most expensive of the technologies examined and replacing coal with solar thermal power would require a carbon price of over $150 per tonne of emissions.

For a technology to be considered fit-for-service as a baseload generator it needs to be scalable, have a reliable fuel supply, a low or moderate emissions intensity, and high availability without the need for a large external energy storage facility.

Their research states that a carbon price must rise above $30/t CO2e before other low-emission technologies can compete with PF coal.

The International Energy Agency has warned it will be “very difficult” for Australia to meet its 2050 emissions target without the aid of carbon capture and storage technology.

IEA executive director, Nobuo Tanaka was quoted in The Australian saying Australia would face major adjustment costs in achieving greenhouse emissions cuts of 60 per cent by 2050 if it did not have nuclear power for back-up.

“If CCS is not readily available and if you don’t use nuclear, totally renewable energy is very, very expensive, and also it is fragile in terms of its productivity,” Mr Tanaka said.

“So it’s very costly if CCS doesn’t work out.”