Cold weather is just fine for Columbia Generating Station

For many of us, cold weather tends to slow us down a bit, causes us to stay inside, accumulate more calories from all those holiday cookies.

But for nuclear energy facilities (and other thermal plants) cold weather means a higher efficiency – and that means more electricity generated.

One of our engineers, John Zielinski, explained it this way: Cooling Tower 1

Columbia is more efficient in the winter from the results of colder circulating water flowCooling Tower 2ing through the condenser from the cooling towers. The winter months increase the cooling tower’s heat transfer effectiveness by removing more heat from the circulating water. The circulating water flows to the condenser and absorbs the waste heat from the steam used by the turbines. As the heat is being absorbed, the backpressure of the condenser is lower. Lower backpressure allows more energy to be removed from the steam in the turbines which in turn produces more electrical power.

So what does that mean for Columbia? On a recent cold day in November Columbia produced an extra 130 megawatt hours of electricity – just from the cold weather.

What about the vapor?

We know the air is getting chilly around here because the water vapor cloud above Columbia’s six cooling towers starts getting more and more visible. Here’s what John Z. says is happening there:

The clouds created by the cooling towers are water vapor entering the atmosphere. The visible cloud is the same process as seeing your breathe during the winter. As you exhale out, or cooling towers blow out water vapor, the water Cooling Tower 3vapor starts to lose energy due to cold temperatures and the molecules start to pact together. The water vapor condenses into tiny water droplets forming a cloud. As for the summer, the warm air provides the energy to keep the water vapor as a gas resulting in a less visible or non-existent cloud.

While we love seeing the cloud, we do love those warm, sunny Tri-City summers.

(posted by John Dobken)

Christmas comes early thanks to Energy Northwest employees

It started in 1980 – four years before Columbia Generating Station began its commercial operation.

And every year since then, each and every child enrolled in Head Start programs in Benton and Franklin counties has received gifts of new toys and clothing from Energy Northwest employees.

34 years. More than 11,000 children.

(The national Head Start program began in 1965 and has served more than 30 million children in that time, providing early childhood development programs serving low-income children from ages birth to five and their families.)

The committee that plans the event sends out an email to all employees looking for volunteers to “adopt” a child for the program. If you don’t respond quickly, you’ll likely lose out, the kids are adopted fast – 443 this year alone. Employees then receive a sheet with the child’s first name, school location, gift request and clothing size.

Jessica Hansen, one of Santa's "elves" and Chair of the EN Head Start effort.

Jessica Hansen, one of Santa’s “elves” and Chair of the EN Head Start effort.

“The (EN) Head Start program has a very special place in my heart. I adopt a child every year, but last year I had the opportunity to volunteer as an elf at the Children’s Center and that is what really had an effect on me,” Jessica Hansen told me recently.

Jessica is the Chair for this year’s employee committee. As an elf, she attended several of the parties where the gifts are presented to the children, by an EN employee dressed as Santa.

“The expression on their faces when Santa walks through the door is priceless!  You can truly feel the excitement in their hearts and even if they weren’t getting any presents they would still be happy just to see Santa. The experience completely changed my life and I knew I wanted to do more, so I decided to become Chair.”

As Santa could tell you, making sure all the gifts reach their intended recipients is no easy task. Energy Northwest volunteers turn one of the large meeting rooms on site into our version of the “North Pole” and stage the gifts before they are packed up for their eventual destinations. The term “some assembly required” also comes into play if a child requested a bicycle, for instance. (And because we value safety, any child who requests a bicycle, skateboard etc. will also receive a helmet.)

Vivian Le working in the North Pole to get gifts ready for transport.

Vivian Le working in the North Pole to get gifts ready for transport.

Throughout the organization, the program is a highlight of the holiday season, including among senior leaders. In fact, CEO Mark Reddemann and Chief Nuclear Officer Brad Sawatzke have both taken turns in the Santa chair. This week it will be Grover Hettel, vice president of Operations.

Jessica says many employees make it a family tradition. “I know I am looking forward to taking my daughter this year and letting her pick out toys for another kid who might not have as much as her.  I think it teaches kids a very important lesson about life and the importance of helping others.”

A lesson that captures the spirit of the season quite well.

(Posted by John Dobken)

An Open Letter to Environmentalists on Nuclear Energy

More and more environmentalists are embracing nuclear energy as key to a clean energy future.

Brave New Climate

Professor Barry W. Brook, Chair of Environmental Sustainability, University of Tasmania, Australia.

Professor Corey J.A. Bradshaw, Sir Hubert Wilkins Chair of Climate Change, The Environment Institute, The University of Adelaide, Australia.

An Open Letter to Environmentalists:

As conservation scientists concerned with global depletion of biodiversity and the degradation of the human life-support system this entails, we, the co-signed, support the broad conclusions drawn in the article Key role for nuclear energy in global biodiversity conservation published in Conservation Biology (Brook & Bradshaw 2014).

Brook and Bradshaw argue that the full gamut of electricity-generation sources—including nuclear power—must be deployed to replace the burning of fossil fuels, if we are to have any chance of mitigating severe climate change. They provide strong evidence for the need to accept a substantial role for advanced nuclear power systems with complete fuel recycling—as part of a range of…

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Energy Northwest and Columbia Generating Station– Three Decades of Value

Dec. 13, 2014 marks 30 years of operation for the Northwest’s only nuclear power plant – Columbia Generating Station. In that time, this facility has proven its value to the region and its citizens in providing reliable, clean energy, as well as many other benefits such as good paying jobs – and what’s more, Columbia Generating Station is on track to continue to provide these benefits to more than 9 million people for another two decades.

Columbia Generating Station’s history began in the late 1960’s with predictions of increasing energy demand; ideas moved to action when a nuclear plant, originally called Hanford 2, was ordered in 1971. General Electric would provide a BWR-5 boiling water reactor, while Burns & Roe would design, and Bechtel Corporation would build, the nuclear plant. Ground was broken to build the plant August 14, 1972; the plant, delayed as were so many in those years by both inside and outside factors, and eventually renamed Columbia Generating Station, was given its NRC operating license in December 1983 and was declared to be in commercial operation one year later, on Dec. 13, 1984.

A concept drawing of Columbia Generating Station from 1976. (Courtesy: Will Davis)

A concept drawing of Columbia Generating Station from 1976. (Courtesy: Will Davis)

Nuclear Value

Nuclear power plants are large, complicated projects that cost large amounts of money and take a long time to build. The value of nuclear as a generating source, though, isn’t all told by these facts; for example, General Electric, the reactor vendor for Columbia, found in 1977 that, on average, all of the energy required to fabricate all of the parts of a nuclear plant, including the fuel, and all the energy required to build it is returned by the nuclear plant in an average of one year’s worth of operation. Considering the lifespan of Columbia will be 60 years (for now), the return on energy investment is enormous. At that same time, GE found that a contemporary nuclear plant paid for itself (capital cost) in terms of fuel cost savings compared to fossil fuel in just four years. Considering today that we face ever tightening EPA carbon regulations that will further drive up the total cost of using fossil fuels, and also considering the widespread gridlock of today’s crowded and undersized railroad infrastructure (that is required to ship all coal, and most oil used for power generation) the advantages of nuclear continue to climb.

And how much energy does Columbia Generating Station produce? Well, the output of the plant is 1,170 Megawatts – enough to power the city of Seattle, including not just residential but commercial and industrial loads. That might be hard to grasp, but it is easier to grasp that just one of the many thousands of small, cylindrical fuel pellets in the reactor at any one time (about the size of the end of your pinkie finger) is equivalent in energy to almost 1,800 pounds of coal, or almost 150 gallons of oil.

And the fuel cost itself is both low, and reliable. Because Energy Northwest makes long-term strategic deals for uranium to be made into fuel (and refuels every two years, replacing a portion of the fuel only) it has been predicted by the Energy Information Administration that the levelized cost of power from Columbia through 2043 will be lower, even at its highest cost, than the lowest cost of natural gas or wind – and will be significantly lower than any projected solar power.

Speaking of long term – Columbia Generating Station made news in November when it set a new plant record by generating power continuously for 506 days without interruption, at a capacity factor of almost 97%. (They’re still going).

This reliable, around the clock power – not hindered by weather or time of day – has real future benefits when compared with alternatives. For example, a 2012 study conducted by the Bonneville Power Administration found (among many things) that if Columbia Generating Station were to shut down, energy costs in the area would go up overall through 2043 by $2.5 billion; worse, if the new added costs/taxes on carbon are added in, the figure goes up to an increase of $5.4 billion. Put the other way, Columbia Generating Station is saving somewhere between two and five billion dollars over the next two decades compared with a fossil powered alternate scenario – and this is just money, not environmental impact. These findings were bolstered by a 2013 study by IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates showing Columbia as the best of all options available to ratepayers when compared with all alternatives.

A Good Neighbor

Columbia Generating Station provides other benefits to the Northwest beyond providing reliable, affordable electric power. Columbia employs hundreds of dedicated, highly educated employees who live right in the region and participate in the economy – it’s estimated that Energy Northwest generates about $440 million in economic activity right in the Mid-Columbia. We mentioned refueling every two years; when that happens, the on-site work force swells by over 1,200 as temporary workers (many from the area) are brought in to not only refuel the reactor but to perform other work that must be done only when the plant is shut down. Certainly, this is another significant boost to the local economy. In addition to direct employment, Energy Northwest pays a “privilege tax” for being able to generate power ($4.5 million per year) and itself directly spends over $10 million per year to local businesses for a variety of goods and services. Columbia Generating Station is an integral part of the community in more ways than one.

The Future

America now sees the future of energy as something more complicated than it was when Columbia Generating Station was conceived. Renewable sources like wind and solar, only a distant dream in the early 70’s, are now coming on line. What’s more, fossil-fired stations – especially those burning coal – are now going to face ever tighter EPA restriction and penalty as a result of the Clean Energy Rule. Even home and business energy meters stand to be changed from simple recording devices to interactive, connected parts of a system; yet, the outcome of any of these changes or policies remains generally uncertain. Standing in the gap of these developments is Columbia Generating Station, which has received NRC approval to operate through almost the end of the year 2043 after two and a half years’ worth of review and over $17 million dollars of expenditure to ensure safety and reliability over the extension period. All of the benefits to the community detailed above will continue, year after year; all of the reliable and steady-cost energy the station provides will also continue, every day for three more decades.

As Energy Northwest looks back on thirty years’ worth of operation of Columbia Generating Station, it’s important to realize the accomplishments of the past are poised to continue into the future, almost half-way through the present century. With the state of change in other generating sources including availability, price and transport, it’s reassuring to know that this good neighbor will be there, rain or shine, for decades to come.

Will Davis for Energy Northwest, Dec. 11, 2014

Snohomish PUD’s Energy Storage Initiative

Everybody talks about renewable intermittency, but nobody does anything about it.

Well, that is not quite true. Snohomish County Public Utility District is doing something about it: they are building the infrastructure for energy storage. Not balancing, but storage. There’s a big difference.

Snohomish PUD is the second largest publicly owned utility in Washington state and serves more than 327,000 electric customers.

A grid in balance

Right now, utilities “balance” their renewable inputs. Indeed, balancing renewables is a major focus of current utility research and practice. Most renewable sources are intermittent, and some other source of generation balances it—fills in the gaps. For example, when the wind springs up, hydro plants power down to balance. When the wind dies down, hydro plants power up.

In general, “balancing plants” have to be hydro or combined cycle gas-fired plants. Most “demand side management” is too slow to balance wind energy. Demand side management is when the utility manages the customer’s demand, not the power output of its generation plants. This technique requires cooperation with the utility’s customers, of course. However, while demand side management can solve some balancing problems, the speed at which wind energy can change output makes demand side management difficult. Few industries are willing to promise to power down and power up within ten minutes, whenever they are asked to do so. On the other hand, it is comparatively easy to arrange demand side management by asking industries to conserve energy between two p.m. and six p.m. on hot days.

In the Northwest, we have abundant hydro power, and hydro power is used for balancing. However, managing a river is more than just balancing the grid. The river must Slide5be also be managed in favor of the fish, for recreation, and sometimes for flood control. As a bottom line, most people would say that keeping the river in balance is very important, almost certainly more important than using the hydro plants to balance the wind output.

Storage, not balance. The MESA standards.

In other words, balancing the grid brings its own problems. But what if you didn’t have to use generation or demand side resources to balance the grid? What if you could store some of the energy when the wind is blowing, and use it when the wind dies down? If this could be achieved, intermittent renewables could become a much more important part of our electricity mix.

Snohomish PUD is a member of the Energy Northwest, and has an active program to help achieve cost effective, utility scale energy storage. Snohomish PUD is a founding member of MESA Standards Alliance (Modular Energy Storage Architecture)—other companies in the Pacific Northwest are also members. The MESA standards alliance is designing standards for the infrastructure of storage: at this point, storage (batteries, compressed air) simply does not scale to fit utility needs. There’s a disconnect between what the storage manufacturers are providing, and the kind of modularity and control that utilities need. The MESA standards are changing this by Slide7creating a standardized approach to the energy storage system controls and integration with utility SCADA and power scheduling software platforms.

To test the modular-storage-architecture concept, Snohomish PUD is first installing a one-megawatt storage facility (lithium batteries) with all necessary controls. This system is almost ready for implementation, which is planned for this quarter (fourth quarter 2014). This project will be expanded in 2015 with an additional megawatt of capacity. The staff at Snohomish PUD, along with subcontractor 1Energy, are leading this effort with a team that includes the following groups:

Substation Engineering / Construction; Communications, SCADA, and IT; System Planning and Protection; Environmental and Safety; Power Scheduling; Facilities; and, Cyber Security.

Slide19Hopefully, this system will be a breakthrough in the cost effectiveness and scalability of utility-level storage.

The Pacific Northwest Leads Again

The Snohomish PUD storage initiative is another way that the Pacific Northwest continues to lead in the quest for reliable, clean, inexpensive energy!

(Written by Meredith Angwin)