Popular Science Australia


Perhaps these rumbles had never quite died away from the last time, but the pace of investment in renewable energy generation has now reached a point where the Coalition itself is being accused of excessive Greenness. This aspect of building electricity infrastructure seems to be rarely given much focus. Is coal bad because it pollutes? Is wind bad because it can’t operate 24/7? Is hydro-electric bad because think of the fishes? Are all of these individually good or bad in different situations because of how much my electricity bill is?

What never seems to be given much more than a passing mention is: “How much does the company building this project need to spend and how long does it need to wait before it starts to get a return on its investment?” This is the thing about wind farms. Forget how much electricity they generate, who they give vague diseases to, how many birds they chop up, what they do to your bill. You have to admit that for someone like, say, Acciona, it is much faster to put up a bunch of wind turbines and almost literally plug them in to the grid to start making money, than it is to build a nuclear power plant. Ah yes, nuclear. Every time the debate over energy heats up, someone yells “why aren’t we considering nuclear?!” Usually from the back of the audience. And the answer to that is: big companies have considered it, and they’ve decided it’s not worth it. Even in a magical nonexistent world with no regulation costs, nuclear takes a long time and a lot of money to build. The time part is more problematic, to a business, than the money part. Much of the nuclear debate, such as it is in Australia, seems to confuse our situation with the US situation. The US already has nuclear power plants, and the debate there is whether to mothball them all, or just some of them. The Nuclear Industry (they demand the caps) in the US is very keen to see itself not die, but must contend with cheap-and-cheerful natural gas plants, renewable energy, and worst of all: falling electricity demand.

So there the debate is over whether it makes better social AND business sense to decommission a safe, reliable nuclear power plant to build a new wind farm. Generally, US nuclear plants have paid off their investment costs. Arguing to keep a power station running when it only has to pay for fuel and maintenance is a different thing to arguing whether to construct an entirely new one.

Bottom line though is that the public debate over energy supply in Australia is never going to be of much use. Because it’s not actually a debate. It’s just people desperately insisting that renewable is bad.

If a company turned up in Victoria tomorrow and said “hey we’re crazy and hate money, we want to build a new coal-fired power station!” there would be plenty of people saying “no, build renewable”. But there wouldn’t be anyone saying “no, build nuclear!” Nuclear is what you call for when someone demonstrates to you that in no uncertain terms, new coal can’t compete with new renewable. The only way to make nuclear power work in Australia is to ban all other forms of electricity generation. Because with our small and scattered population, everything is competitive at the kinds of scales we need to build. Well, except coal of course.