Strengths and weaknesses of different Electrical Power Plants.

With the ever-increasing cost of electricity putting a large strain on the average citizen, energy policy is at the centre of heated debate in Australia.

In this article, we will attempt to give an objective review of all major electricity generating sources in Australia with their pros and cons.

We will examine attributes such as the reliability of energy production, the scale of infrastructure, environmental impacts, Financial costs for operations and consumers and other factors that may be unique to different Power Plants.

Fossil Fuels can be broken down into two major sources of use in Australia being coal and gas. Renewables, on the other hand, are made primarily of  Solar, Wind, and Hydroelectric.

We have also included in our assessment Nuclear power despite it not being used in Australia as it is a major energy source around the globe.

 

Coal

Reliability of energy production:

Coal provides reliable steady energy production the vast majority of the time. As a plant gets older efficiency in energy production does diminish, but this is not unusual for all power sources.

Coal-fired plants are susceptible to hot weather. The efficiency of energy production can be affected and in heat waves powerplants can even cease to operate. [1]

Scale of infrastructure:

Coal plants are relatively small compared to most other electricity generating power plants. They do however need to be placed strategically close to coal mines in order to make logistics of feeding the plants with coal more cost-effective.

Financial cost:

Coal powered plants are among the cheapest producers of electricity over the course of their lifetime. [2]

The construction cost of Coal power plants is relatively cheap compared to other plants, however, costs over their life add up as they need a steady stream of resources to produce electricity.

Cost becomes very expensive when you build power plants with costly Carbon Capture Systems (CCS). Carbon Capture Systems are a relatively new technology and add significant cost to the construction of a Coal-fired power plant.

However, CCS is not a mature technology so the price of CCS is very likely to decrease depending on the market uptake and further technological advances over the course of the coming years.

Environmental impacts:

Coal-fired plants are the most environmentally damaging electricity producers of all. They emit extremely high levels of pollution from the burning of coal.

This pollution is detrimental to the health of humans and animals in the immediate vicinity.

A recent study conducted on the life expectancy of Chinese residents living in close proximity of Coal-fired plants has revealed that there is a reduction of 5.5 years compared to other residents [3].

In addition to health concerns, the emissions of coal-fired plants cause Acid Rain. Acid Rain degrades the buildings of residents, business owners, and public infrastructure which then costs more to maintain and ultimately shortens their lifespan [4].

Sustainability:

At the present, we are unlikely to run out of coal to feed Coal-fired plants however coal is a finite resource and at some point, it will become impossible to supply the world’s energy demand via the use of coal. This is inevitable with all non-renewable power sources.

 

Gas

Reliability of energy production:

Gas is much the same as coal. It is a very reliable electricity producer however just like coal, it does suffer in hot weather as the efficiency of Gas powered plants diminish during hot summers. [5]

Scale of infrastructure:

Gas plants can vary in size depending on the power generation they produce.

Small systems can even be transported and relocated. However generally speaking Megawatt for Megawatt Gas plants are similar in size to Coal-fired power plants.

Flexibility:

Gas plants are ideally suited as backup generators. Gas plants have a quicker turn on cycle time than coal plants in times where electrical shortfalls need to be made up in the grid.

Furthermore as indicated above gas plants can be made in a variety of scales with even small plants being easily transported to provide energy to remote areas. [6]

Finacial cost:

Gas fired plants provide some of the cheapest electricity generation over the course of their life cycle. The infrastructure cost is the cheapest of all power plants, however, the ongoing supply of gas is more expensive than coal. [7]

These financial costs do go up significantly just like Coal plants with the addition of CCS technology, although that cost is cheaper than Coal with the same technology.

Environmental impacts:

Gas is a fossil fuel so pollution is unavoidable.

Having said this, the amount of carbon produced via natural gas in modern plants is 50% less than that of coal [8].

So while there are still health and environmental consequences for the use of gas-fired electricity generators, they are significantly less than that of Coal-fired plants.

Sustainability:

Gas is in high abundance and much like coal, it is a finite resource. It can not power the world’s needs for electricity indefinitely.

 

Solar PV (Photovoltaic or better known as solar panels)

Reliability of energy production:

Solar PV can only produce energy during the daytime. In addition to this limitation, they also suffer from what is called intermittency. Depending on the day and even the hour the amount of energy they can produce is directly linked to the amount of sunshine available. Solar PV will typically produce more energy in the summer months when there is more sunshine as opposed to winter where we have shorter days and less sunshine.

 

Scale of infrastructure:

For large scale solar farms the scale of the infrastructure is very large. Greater land area is required in order to produce similar Megawatt outputs to fossil fuel power plants.

Additionally, strategic locations are desirable for the placement of solar panels in order to take advantage of geographical locations with higher exposure to sunlight to maximise energy production.

Financial cost:

Large-scale solar farms produce relatively cheap electricity. New for new, large-scale solar PV farms are slightly more expensive than coal-fired plants [9]. Their infrastructure cost is expensive, however, the fact that Solar panels need very little maintenance beyond their installation as well as having no resource requirement means they recoup the expensive startup cost over the course of their life cycle.

Flexibility:

Solar PV is not a versatile generator of electricity due to its intermittent nature, however, where Solar PV shines (no pun intended), is in its flexibility of application.

Solar can be applied at almost any scale.

It is the most useful and cost-effective energy production source for personal residential use.

Easily installed on residential or commercial properties in order to subsidize and reduce energy reliance on the grid. A solar system will typically pay its own cost back in savings on electricity in 6-8 years [10].

Add to this that most solar panels have a 25 year 80% efficiency guarantee, solar panels are an extremely wise investment as they will pay themselves off over the course of their life many times over.

Solar on its own, however, can not provide 100% of residential electricity needs due to their inherent day-night cycle production without the addition of other technologies like battery storage.

Environmental impacts:

Solar produces its electricity from capturing sunlight. As such it does not emit any greenhouse gas or pollution from expending resources.

Having said that, the production of solar panels does have a carbon cost. Aluminum and other materials need to be constructed in order to produce a final product.

This carbon cost though is significantly less over the duration of its life cycle in comparison to both Coal and Gas. It is 10% that of Coal and 20% of Gas plants.

Solar panels and their materials can also be recycled for their components in order to reduce further waste from spent panels.

These above factors make Solar PV a preferable choice over fossil fuel generation options for the environment.

Sustainability:

Sunlight is a renewable resource making solar amongst the most sustainable energy sources on the planet.

 

Solar Thermal

Reliability of energy production:

Solar Thermal does not have the same limitations on day-night cycles as traditional Solar PV.

Where Solar PV harnesses sunlight to convert to electricity, Solar thermal harnesses the “heat” of the sun (by reflecting sun rays) to power turbines that produce electricity much like Coal and Gas plants. Solar thermal is able to operate at night due to the use of salt as the “fuel” for powering turbines.

Molten Salt does not cool as fast as other liquids (like water) and can be stored during the evening allowing it to produce electricity round the clock [11].

Scale of infrastructure:

Solar thermal does not require near as much land mass for its infrastructure as Solar PV to produce similar power outputs. Similar to large scale Solar PV farms though, strategic locations of installation are required to maximise this power sources efficiency.

Financial cost:

Solar Thermal is a very new technology, as such it is one of the most expensive sources of electrical production. Much like CCS for coal and gas though, we can expect the price of these plants to reduce over the course of time as the technology improves and market uptake increases.

Environmental impacts:

Solar thermal has virtually no carbon footprint. Much like Solar PV, its carbon price is upfront in the construction of its facilities and has no emissions during operation. Salt used to power turbines is non-toxic and last up to 30 years meaning there is virtually no waste.

Solar Thermal application works best in desert environments meaning that its impact of installing infrastructure on local nature and human populations are extremely minimal.

Sustainability:

Solar thermal is amongst the most sustainable energy sources available for the same reasons listed above in Solar PV.

 

Wind

Reliability of energy production:

Wind is able to produce electricity at all hours of the day however due to environmental factors, much like Solar PV, wind generation suffers from intermittency.

Depending on the day and even the hour, wind speeds can change as weather patterns shift from day to day.

Wind farms are ironically vulnerable to extreme weather events where excessive winds, like those of highspeed storms, can force plants to shut down in order to protect turbines.

Scale of infrastructure:

Wind farms are immense in size taking up much land space in order to produce similar outputs to that of fossil fuel generators.

Having said that, it is not uncommon to share land with agricultural land, as the wind turbines have little to no impact on the animals that graze in fields. This allows for a more efficient use of land that Turbines can be placed on.

Some farmers prefer wind turbines on their property due to the added income derived from rentals of their land to energy producers per wind turbine [12].

A farmer in Australia can receive up to $8,000.00 per annum per wind turbine on their land.

A landowner with ten turbines can wake up each morning comfortable in the thought that a tough year with poor rain or bad frosts can be ridden out, thanks to income from wind generation.

Financial cost:

Wind is the second cheapest generation of renewables and as cheap as Gas and coal generators.

Environmental impacts:

Wind shares similar traits with other renewable energy facilities in that they emit no pollution during operation. The carbon cost associated with the construction of Wind turbines is paid back many times over during the course of the plants’ life cycle being even more efficient the Solar PV.

A wind farm has just 3% of the carbon cost of Coal plants over the course of its life.

Sustainability:

Wind is a renewable resource and materials that go into the construction of Wind farms can be recycled, making Wind amongst the most sustainable sources of energy production in the world.

 

Hydroelectric (Hydro)

Reliability of energy production:

Hydro is the not only one of the oldest electrical generating technologies in the world but one of the most reliable.

The first ever publicly-owned electrical power plants in many nations were from Hydro.

Australia’s first Hydro plant dates back to 1895.

Hydro can be constructed in a way that they can produce reliable and steady rates of electricity all year round.

Severe drought can hamper the production of electricity due to the nature and reliance of flowing waters needed to turn turbines to produce electricity.

Despite this, Hydropower plants can be constructed with pumped hydro storage facilities, which act as batteries to further increase the efficiency and reliability of Hydropower generation.

Scale of infrastructure:

Hydro facilities are not particularly large compared to Fossil fuel generators however the nature of the plants requires them to be built in rivers and dams to be created to help regulate water flow for reliability and regulation of water flow.

Finacial cost:

Modern Hydro plants are extremely efficient making them the cheapest source of electrical production [13].

Environmental impacts:

Due to the nature of Hydro’s reliance on river flows, construction of facilities have an inevitable impact on local ecology and wildlife in the direct vicinity of the power plant.

The impacts are not extreme, yet are not to be taken lightly either. Local flora and fauna are disturbed and displaced to make way for man-made structures [14]

Sustainability:

Fuel for Hydro is provided by virtually a never-ending water cycle on the planet. This makes Hydro a sustainable source of electrical generation.

 

Nuclear

Reliability of energy production:

Nuclear is perhaps the most reliable energy source provider compared to all other electrical plants. Modern reactors are highly regulated and controlled to deliver precise amounts of energy all year round.

Extream weather events like heat and earthquakes can affect production as reactor’s outputs are scaled down or even turned off to protect nuclear facilities [15].

Scale of infrastructure:

Nuclear plants are similar in size to their Fossil fuel counterparts.

Financial cost:

Operating costs of nuclear are very low but the barriers to entry of nuclear are high as the cost of infrastructure is immense. This makes nuclear options for nations like Australia highly unlikely due to a lack of starting infrastructure to build on.

Environmental impacts:

Nuclear production has surprisingly very little environmental impact from the day to day operation. The lifecycle GHG emission intensity of nuclear power generation is consistent with renewable energy sources hydroelectric and wind and even less than Solar PV.

This is not to say that there is no impact as nuclear waste is highly toxic and the few nuclear accidents that the world has seen have been catastrophic [16].

Sustainability:

While Uranium and Plutonium are not renewable resources the amount required to power Nuclear plants is so low compared to the availability that Nuclear is perhaps one of the most sustainable sources of electrical production available [17].

In summary below is a table showing the costs of new for new power plants wholesale electrical price.

Electrical production cost

In summary below is the chart for emissions by energy source.

emissions by energy type

[16]

 

 

 

References

[1]  http://www.tai.org.au/content/coal-and-gas-reliability-liability-heat-report

[2] http://old.co2crc.com.au/dls/brochures/LCOE_Executive_Summary.pdf

[3] http://www.pnas.org/content/110/32/12936

[4] https://www.epa.gov/acidrain/what-acid-rain

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/feb/23/gas-fired-power-plants-failed-during-nsw-heatwave-report-reveals

[6] http://reneweconomy.com.au/ge-wins-south-australia-tender-for-back-up-generators-19258/

[7] http://old.co2crc.com.au/dls/brochures/LCOE_Executive_Summary.pdf

[8] http://www.world-nuclear.org/uploadedFiles/org/WNA/Publications/Working_Group_Reports/comparison_of_lifecycle.pdf

[9] https://theconversation.com/the-greens-plan-for-90-renewables-by-2030-sounds-hard-but-it-stacks-up-51115

[10] https://www.choice.com.au/home-improvement/energy-saving/solar/articles/solar-panel-payback-times

[11] http://www.solarreserve.com/en/technology/molten-salt-energy-storage

[12] https://theconversation.com/wind-turbine-syndrome-farm-hosts-tell-very-different-story-18241

[13] http://www.wvic.com/content/facts_about_hydropower.cfm

[14] http://environment-ecology.com/energy-and-environment/100-hydropower-and-the-environment.html

[15] http://www.climatecentral.org/news/in-tennessee-heat-waves-frustrate-nuclear-power

[16] http://large.stanford.edu/courses/2017/ph241/sarkisian1/

[17] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2214993714000050

[16] http://www.world-nuclear.org/uploadedFiles/org/WNA/Publications/Working_Group_Reports/comparison_of_lifecycle.pdf

 

One thought on “Strengths and weaknesses of different Electrical Power Plants.”

  1. the above costs don’t tell the truth -giving figures like that mislead people , those costs are when financed by the Banks – the economics of infrastructure Australians have been fed is bullshit economics – First we need a national bank of public Credit to finance infrastructure instead of Banks creating money out of thin air and charging a fortune the Government does it for Infrastructure. The nationalize our power supply , build Nuclear Power stations and the money can be paid back over a 100 years so there are not large monthly payments and they can just bill electricity users for the cost of production and that makes manufacturing in Australia competitive and then the country starts producing real value – and this is in the long term wipes the debt on the books. Plus if we get smart we expand our Railway system and make it an electric System -saving on the import of oil to run the trains and removing most long haul trucks of our Roads and besides not needing all that diesel it save billions of $’s wear on our Roads – plus we build a high speed rail network – so with more people employed and more people sharing the tax burden – We don’t listen to Dickheads like Dick Smith a wanker of the highest order. For starters we populate Australia to the same ratio as Tasmania which is no way over crowded but is the most densely populated state in Australia. The New Coal mine in Qld should be taken off the Indian and we don’t need ports for the export of that coal.it should not be exported it should be used in the Iron Boomerang Project that will bring in $trillions of Dollars to the Australian Budget and create 10’s of 1000’s of New jobs and require new cities for workers and as part of it we build the Bradford large scale Water Projects in the North . sheep and Cattle Farmers will need less land and be able to carry more stock -we can create forests and Timber plantations. Grow more food. Green up more of Australia and not brown it up as the fucking Greens want as the people who created the Greens want to kill us. The greens that are offended by me saying this really know fuck all about the Greens

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