Reader Beware: apples and oranges alert

When rhetoric edges toward demagoguery, techniques to beware of include selective use of data and misleading statements that may sound appealing but actually perpetuate misconceptions. And when an author’s own numbers don’t support their broad conclusions, it’s time to be even more wary about going along for the ride.

Enter Robert McCullough’s latest faulty comparison of the cost and value of various forms of power generating resources (Renewables Cost Report, published by McCullough Research on Oct. 5).

The primary focus of McCullough’s report is on declining costs for new renewable resources such as wind power and solar photovoltaic generation, relative to other types of power supplies, including new hydroelectric power plants. The report begins by reiterating the conclusion reached in an earlier McCullough Research report:

“This assessment only reinforces the conclusion I reached in my report last year – renewables such as solar and wind are less than half the cost of hydro.”

Immediately following this statement, the McCullough report presents a table comparing the average levelized (life-cycle) cost in Canadian dollars per megawatt-hour (MWhr) for the following generating resources:

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Careful readers will quickly note that the numbers simply do not support McCullough’s claim that hydro is double the cost of other forms of renewable generation. According to his own comparison, the levelized cost of power from the Site C hydro project is estimated to be 15.6 percent higher than the cost of onshore wind power, and 41.5 percent higher than the cost of utility-scale solar photovoltaic generation. So right out of the gate, McCullough’s rhetoric is unsupported, even by the cost comparison he prepared himself.

But wait, it gets worse. McCullough’s simplistic comparison of the cost of power from these types of power resources totally ignores the practical reality that they have very different characteristics and capabilities. As a result, the value of the power produced by different types of power generation varies dramatically.

This is not a small point.

U.S. News and World Report made sure its readers were aware of LCOE drawbacks, the exact drawbacks McCullough chooses to ignore.

Despite the strengths of LCOE as a metric – it is easy to understand and widely used – it has some shortcomings, too. Namely, it leaves out geographic variability, changes with seasons and usually ignores the cost of environmental impacts such as the cost of carbon emissions. This metric is a bit too simple when comparing variable wind and solar generators to power plants that you can turn on and off at will, such as those fueled by uranium, coal and natural gas.

And one could add water.

For example, consider solar photovoltaic generation. As the McCullough report (correctly) notes, solar PV in the Pacific Northwest only produces at a 19 percent to 26 percent capacity factor. But what the McCullough report does not mention is that solar PV generation occurs primarily during the spring and summer months between mid-morning and late afternoon. Meanwhile, consumption of electricity in most of the Pacific Northwest is typically highest during earlier and later parts of the day, and during the winter season. This means that other, less intermittent forms of generation are needed when consumers use the most electricity. It also means that a significant share of solar generation occurs when the market value of power is low – further reducing the value of solar PV compared to other types of generation. These realities are not acknowledged in the McCullough report. (He does reference the potential use of energy storage to partially mitigate the daily mismatches between solar PV generation and consumer use of electricity, but conveniently neglects to include the additional costs that would be incurred for storage.)

Anyone living in the Pacific Northwest has felt the bite of Old Man Winter of late, with temperatures falling into the single digits for extended periods. How are people staying warm? Mostly from baseload, or full-time, electricity resources like hydro, fossils and nuclear.

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Is that value worth something? We think so.

Diversity is key

One of the information sources quoted in the McCullough report is Lazard’s Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis 9.0, which was published in 2015. The Lazard LCOE analyses are actually a good source of information about costs for various types of power generation. But unlike McCullough, Lazard is realistic about how a diversified mix of resources is needed to keep the lights on. Toward this point, here is a key quote from Lazard’s press release for their latest LCOE Analysis 10.0, issued December 15, 2016:

“Even though alternative energy is increasingly cost-competitive and storage technology holds great promise, alternative energy systems alone will not be capable of meeting the baseload generation needs of a developed economy for the foreseeable future. Therefore, the optimal solution for many regions of the world is to use complementary traditional and alternative energy resources in a diversified generation fleet.”

We could go on with identifying flaws in the McCullough report, but will close by observing that it improperly compares the cost of generating resources with the market value of wholesale power, and does so only when it supports false conclusions. For instance, the McCullough report once again trots out a previously-debunked and overly-simplistic comparison of the operating cost of nuclear power with “the low market cost of electricity.” Meanwhile, the report refrains from comparing the cost of new renewable resources with “the low market cost of electricity.”

When it comes to biased, inconsistent and misleading “analyses” like those presented in the latest McCullough report, reader beware.

(Posted by John Dobken)

Innovative Solar Project Awarded State Grant

Energy Northwest will receive state funding for a first-of-its-kind solar power generating and battery storage system that will also include a technician training center in north Richland. The specific amount of funding granted each utility has not been announced. Energy Northwest requested up to $4 million.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced last week $12.6 million in Clean Energy Fund grants to five utilities in Washington. The governor made the announcement in Seattle at the Northwest Regional Clean Energy Innovation Partnership Workshop hosted by the University of Washington and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. At the event, the governor joined U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell to discuss the Pacific Northwest’s role as an international leader in developing the technologies to power a growing 21st century clean energy economy.

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Gov. Jay Inslee speaking at UW’s Clean Energy Institute. (Photo courtesy: UW)

Besides EN, the grants will fund projects proposed by Seattle City Light, Snohomish County Public Utility District, Orcas Power and Light and Avista. The utilities and their partners will match the state funding at a minimum ratio of 1 to 1.

“With these awards, our leading utilities will demonstrate how to integrate battery storage with solar energy and stand-alone energy systems, train the workforce to build and maintain these systems, and lead the industry into the clean energy future,” Inslee said.

The Horn Rapids Solar Storage and Training Center would be located at the regional educational training center owned by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. The project would comprise a four-megawatt direct-current solar generating array across 20 acres, a one-MW battery storage system and an IBEW technician training center. What makes the project unique in Washington state is the integration of the 1-MW vanadium flow battery, making it the first utility scale solar and battery storage project. The project will be developed and operated by the Energy Services and Development division of EN.

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Brad Sawatzke, EN COO

“Energy Northwest is committed to developing smart energy solutions for our customers and the region,” said Brad Sawatzke, EN chief operating officer. “This one project will deliver clean energy, provide valuable research, and offer training for IBEW members. It’s a win-win-win.”

First Solar, a Tempe, Ariz., manufacturer of photovoltaic modules designed for large scale, grid connected and off grid solar power plants has offered to donate half the panels needed, significantly reducing costs for the project. The City of Richland has expressed interest in receiving the power, and the local economy would benefit with hundreds of IBEW workers each year receiving training at the center. “Currently 1,200 hotels rooms in Richland are used by students visiting the center,” Robin Rego, EN Project Development Manager said. “The training center expects the number will triple with this project.”

Both PNNL in Richland, and the University of Washington’s Clean Energy Institute, will utilize the project for clean energy-related research. Utility construction company Quanta Services/Potelco of Washington also has played a major role in developing the project.

Commercial operation of the facility could begin by late 2017.

According to a news release from the office of Gov. Inslee, the Clean Energy Fund strengthens Washington’s position at the forefront of a clean, low-carbon energy future. Through the fund, the state invests in technologies that save energy, cut costs, reduce emissions and create good-paying jobs.

“Gov. Inslee and the state of Washington continue to champion clean energy innovation. Driving innovation is at the core of how our country maintains its leadership in developing clean, low-carbon energy technologies,” said Moniz. “I was pleased to join the governor to highlight innovation, as the Department of Energy is an active partner with Washington and many other states to enhance the U.S. energy security, climate resilience and economic leadership.”

(Posted by John Dobken)

Clean Energy Standard a Breakthrough for New York’s Environment, Economy

(From the Nuclear Energy Institute/Environmental Progress)

WASHINGTON, D.C.—The New York Public Service Commission today approved New York’s first-ever Clean Energy Standard, a policy championed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo which explicitly recognizes the role nuclear plants play as carbon-free sources of power. Following is a statement from Marvin Fertel, president and chief executive officer at the Nuclear Energy Institute.

“New York’s visionary Clean Energy Standard blazes a vitally important public policy path. It establishes an important state policy precedent for efforts to achieve significant carbon reductions from all clean energy sources while maintaining a healthy economy.

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“Gov. Cuomo and the Public Service Commission correctly acknowledge nuclear power plants as indispensable sources of emissions-free power, meriting explicit valuation by the state as a clean energy source. Other states should strongly consider emulating New York’s new energy standard.

“This program provides enormous cost savings to New York’s consumers. The Public Service Commission staff estimates that the benefits of retaining the state’s nuclear plants in the first two years of the program, valued at $5 billion, dramatically outweigh the estimated costs of less than $1 billion.

“New York’s six reactors produce nearly 60 percent of the state’s carbon-free electricity. With the state’s aggressive carbon reduction goals, the state’s leadership acted swiftly and emphatically to ensure preservation of its most significant low-carbon tool. The New York Public Service Commission’s action today will assure New Yorkers of a future that protects the environment while maintaining facilities that are linchpins of local economies.

“Reactors elsewhere in the country are under financial stress today, because their attributes are not fully valued while at the same time natural gas prices are at historic lows and renewable energy sources are subsidized via tax credits and/or mandated additions of wind and solar capacity. Policymakers and leaders in other states should closely review New York’s Clean Energy Standard and work expeditiously to enact comparable policies that preserve these vital clean energy assets.”


The group Environmental Progress, which has also been campaigning for the measure, celebrated today’s victory…

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…while noting there is much more work to do to fully value nuclear energy’s contribution to the environment.

We applaud the Public Service Commissioners and Governor Cuomo for crafting a Clean Energy Standard that will at least temporarily save New York’s nuclear plants. This initiative is an inspiration to environmentalists and workers in Illinois, California and other states fighting to save other nuclear plants at high risk of closure.

At the same time, the measure still discriminates against nuclear by not including it in the state’s long-term clean-energy mandates. That makes New York’s policies less ambitious than they could and should be.

Read more at their blog here.

(Post by John Dobken)

Closing Diablo Canyon a big loss for California

Pacific Gas and Electric announced last month an agreement in which they plan to close Diablo Canyon by 2025.  Basically, Diablo Canyon’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission licenses finish in 2024 and 2025 (two-unit plant), so PG&E would have to make a decision, fairly soon, on whether to attempt to renew the licenses. PG&E decided not to file for renewed licenses. In other words, if this agreement holds, California’s only nuclear plant will close in about eight years.

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Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, located in San Luis Obispo County, Calif.

Closing Diablo Canyon before it needs to be closed would be a disaster for the environment, the grid, the ratepayers, and the people who live and work near the plant.

The announcement raises a lot of questions.  It is not quite what it seems to be.

Why now?

So, the first question might be: why is the announcement coming now?  Does it take eight years to get an NRC license renewal?  Well, maybe. NRC license renewals for controversial plants can take many years.  For example, Duane Arnold and Vermont Yankee are sister plants. Duane Arnold’s license review took two years.  Vermont Yankee, beset with protesters and near large anti-nuclear groups based in Massachusetts, received its license renewal only after five years.

Meanwhile, Indian Point applied for license renewal in April 2007, five years before its license expiration date of September 2013 and 2015 (two units).  The licenses are still under consideration by the NRC, but because the owners submitted the license applications in a timely fashion and the NRC review process can be slow, the NRC has extended the original licenses for plant operation. From the point of view of getting an NRC license extension, Diablo Canyon didn’t even have to apply  to the NRC until 2019. So why this announcement now for Diablo Canyon?  Why not wait a few years?

This announcement came now because Diablo Canyon also needed an extension of its lease on waterfront land (for its cooling water intake and so forth) by 2018. This month, the California Lands Commission held hearings on granting the extension.  Also this month, because of those hearings, five pro-nuclear groups in California held a March for Environmental Hope. This march started in San Francisco and ended in Sacramento, in the hearing room about the lease extension. In other words, the state of California Lands Commission was on the spot to say “yes” or “no” to Diablo Canyon.

I rarely feel sorry for bureaucrats, but I almost do in this case. Many California politicians are anti-nuclear, which would have meant that the Lands Commission would try to oblige them and shut down Diablo Canyon.  Yet, there was no scientific basis for such a decision, and any decision against the power plant could easily be challenged in court.  Plus, the pro-nuclear marchers were showing up at the hearing.  What to do?

The answer was: kick the can down the road.  Endorse the agreement. But to understand that answer, we have to understand who made the agreement, and what the agreement was.

The agreement

Now, as a usual thing, an agreement about operating a plant is made between a state and a plant owner. Such agreements are enacted by Public Service Boards or Public Utilities Commissions (quasi-judicial bodies). This agreement, on the other hand, is an agreement between PG&E and several other entities: they agreed on a joint proposal they presented to the California Public Utilities Commission. Who are these entities? Rod Adams describes the agreement in his post at Forbes: NRDC Announces PG&E Has Agreed to Kill Diablo Canyon.

Yes, you read that right. NRDC: Natural Resources Defense Council.  The majority of signers were anti-nuclear groups: Natural Resources Defense Council, Friends of the Earth, Environment California and Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility.  Two more groups were unions of utility employees (IBEW and Coalition of California Utility Employees), and then there was PG&E. The joint proposal these groups recommended is that the Lands Commission continue to lease land and allow Diablo Canyon to operate past the 2018 date of their California land license. In return, PG&E will not seek a renewed NRC license for 2025.

The can has been kicked down the road.

The crowing and the consequences

PG&E’s press release about Diablo Canyon Includes the statement that “California’s new energy policies will significantly reduce the need for Diablo Canyon’s electricity output.”

Meanwhile, others said closing Diablo will make it easier to bring more wind onto the grid (given that nuclear is just so reliable at supplying electricity, which used to be the point, it can’t ramp down quickly enough to accommodate the fluctuations of weather-dependent wind).

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The turbine deck at Diablo Canyon. (Courtesy http://www.jimzim.net)

About here, no doubt, people would expect me to discuss the millions of difficulties with integrating wind to the grid, and the tons of carbon dioxide that will go into the atmosphere as consequence of shutting down this plant. For example, when the much-smaller Vermont Yankee plant closed, the natural gas and greenhouse gas emissions on the New England grid went up 7%, according to Utility Dive.

Yes, closing nuclear means increasing carbon emissions. Closing nuclear means increasing natural gas, pretty much everywhere. The trouble is that a carbon increase is so obvious that it almost doesn’t bear repeating.  I want to look at some other things instead.

The fine print                                                      

PG&E isn’t actually going to replace Diablo Canyon’s power with low-carbon power. This isn’t really the fine print. It’s in pretty big letters in the Joint Proposal about Diablo Canyon (link above).

In words and in press releases, PG&E talks about replacing Diablo Canyon power with low-carbon power.  Meanwhile, in the actual Joint Proposal, PG&E promises to replace the 17,600 gigawatt-hours of low carbon electricity with 2,000 gigawatt hours per year of “reduced energy consumption,” and another 2,000 gigawatt hours of “GHG-free energy resources or energy efficiency.”  There seems to be no acknowledgment of the separation between 4,000 gigawatt hours (we will do this by 2025, says PG&E) and 17,600 gigawatt hours (nuclear provides this at Diablo Canyon.)  Michael Shellenberger’s article “How Do We Know? We Read the Fine Print” has the details.

Meanwhile, the actual grid situation in Southern California is pretty bad, even with Diablo Canyon on-line.  As the San Diego Union-Tribune reported: Heat wave raises worries about power outages. A summary of that article: rotating outages are being planned…but so far….”the system is holding up.” 

In a way, reading various articles about rotating outage planning in Southern California is a little like “reading the fine print.” Nobody seems to be mentioning these rolling black-out plans in the same breath as they mention the plan to close Diablo Canyon. And California is still a long-way from its goal of 50 percent renewables. In Washington state, for instance, the renewable portfolio standard is 15 percent by 2020. But it is aimed principally at diversifying, not de-carbonizing, the state’s already abundantly clean energy supply. As such, eligible renewables integrate, rather than compete with, clean hydro and nuclear. All are critical for meeting a state’s clean power goals.

In summary, the low-carbon power from Diablo Canyon cannot be replaced by more wind turbines. PG&E doesn’t even claim it will do this. The nuclear power will almost certainly be replaced by gas-fired power. However, if you read the rotating-outage articles, you will note that Southern California is currently having a hard time getting enough gas.

I fear that the overly-Utopian dream of a purely-renewable-power-supply may soon turn into a nightmare for Southern California.  However, I hope that in eight years, pro-nuclear advocates can turn this around and keep Diablo Canyon open. (My post at my own blog: Diablo Canyon and What To Do About It).

With nuclear power, I hope we can change this potential nightmare back into a low-carbon reality.

(Post by Meredith Angwin)

It’s about value (and the future)

Matt Wald at the Nuclear Energy Institute wrote an important piece this week about energy policy and the current state of electricity markets. (He gets added points for working in a Joni Mitchell reference). The post is anchored around a Department of Energy summit on nuclear energy economics taking place today.

His gist:

Unlike other energy sources, nuclear power plants get no special credit for being carbon-free. In fact, they have not even been included when states establish minimum quotas for clean electricity (although New York and Illinois are considering changing this). As a result, they provide a benefit of global importance, carbon emissions reduction, as well as a reduction in the pollutants that cause smog and other problems. But while the climate benefit is shared globally, other well-intended programs to conserve electricity or to promote renewable energy have skewed local electricity prices. The programs were supposed to cut carbon emissions but they have created the unintended consequence of threatening existing reactors, which produce 62 percent of all U.S. carbon-free electricity.

Two news items this week made Wald’s point and then some. They have to do with how this nation views subsidies for energy generation – and also how we value our energy generation resources.

(Note: this is not about wind versus nuclear as generation resources. We need both and companies that invest in such resources should be applauded for helping us all breathe easier).

First, details came out on a proposed 600-megawatt wind farm in Colorado at a cost of $1 billion. Platts reported the project will be eligible for the federal Production Tax Credit ($23/megawatt-hour) which pencils out to $55-65 million a year for 10 years. That’s as much as $650 million in taxpayer subsidies for the project.

According to the Denver Post, the project will create “…350 construction jobs, and then six to 10 permanent jobs.”

Now let’s go to Illinois where many people are working hard to save existing nuclear energy facilities.

The Environmental Progress organization (via Crane’s) says a plan to subsidize two nuclear plants (Clinton and Quad-Cities, owned by Exelon) would cost $250 million a year. Sounds like a lot of money and it is.

But…

The plan to save the nuclear plants pencils out to $10/megawatt-hour, or less than half the federal wind subsidy. The reason is the plants produce so much clean energy. And in terms of employment, 1,455 high-paying jobs would be saved.

Ill Subsidies

From a carbon standpoint, the Colorado wind farm is firmed by natural gas, a carbon-emitter. Nuclear is carbon-free. An earlier Platts article said, “Clinton’s shutdown also would … raise carbon emissions in Illinois by almost 8 million mt/year, the company said.”

Hearings and summits

On Tuesday, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee had a hearing on advanced nuclear energy technology where the subject of wind energy subsidies came up.

Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee (an opponent of the subsidy and a proponent of nuclear) used the occasion to continue his call for an end to the subsidy. From E&E:

The senator, citing Congressional Budget Office reports, complained that the government spent $9 billion in 2015 and 2016 to subsidize wind energy, and only $5 billion on energy research.

Alexander called for scrapping the tax incentives and doubling expenditures on energy research to $10 billion to spur the development of new reactor designs, as well as carbon capture and sequestration from coal-fired power plants.

At the DOE summit today the subject of challenges to the economic sustainability of nuclear plants brought about the question: “Is that a flaw in the market or a flaw in subsidies?”

The answer from a panelist: “yes.”

Which means there is a lot of work to be done on both fronts to maintain (and expand) the energy resource that now provides more than 60 percent of our clean energy.

As Matt Wald concluded:

Nuclear reactors provide carbon abatement, a hedge against future changes in the price of natural gas or other fuels, “always on” reliability, electric grid stability and other benefits.

In a word, nuclear energy provides value. The time has come to recognize that value.

(Posted by John Dobken)

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Earth Day Q & A with Dr. Jim Conca

As an environmentalist and a keen watcher of the global energy picture, we asked Dr. Jim Conca to talk to us about energy and the environment as we mark Earth Day 2016.

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Dr. Jim Conca

Over the last 30 years, Conca has been Director of the Center for Laboratory Sciences, Director of the New Mexico State University Environmental Monitoring and Research Center, Team Leader at Los Alamos National Laboratory, faculty at Washington State University, a scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Coordinator of Shuttle Activities over the Poles at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Conca obtained a Ph.D. in Geochemistry from the California Institute of Technology in 1985; a Masters in Planetary Science in 1981; and a Bachelors in Geology and Biochemistry from Brown University in 1979.


Earth Day 2016 is upon us, what is the most pressing environmental issue facing the U.S.?

I have to say the continued use of oil and coal in America, because they affect so much of the environment. The release of carbon is the most voluminous, but the adverse environmental effects of drilling and mining, oil spills and pipeline leaks, strip and mountain top mining, coal impoundment failures, the non-carbon emissions such as sulfur and nitrogen compounds and particulates that pollute not just the environment, but contribute to the unnecessary deaths of about 15,000 Americans every year, these are huge issues that dwarf almost all others.

When did you realize you were an environmentalist?

When I was growing up during the advent of the environmental movement in the 1960s and 70s in New England. The creation of the EPA when I was in high school was dramatic, and there were many ads on TV about air pollution, especially in Los Angeles.

As an environmentalist, what would you most like to change about that movement/community?

It seems to have adopted a rather strong ideological tone, as opposed to a grassroots tone based on science that it used to have. There does not seem to be any room for discussion of options. And, of course, the vehement anti-nuclear stand, even in the face of all scientific and historic data, plus (the criticism of) a few key people like James Hansen, who understand that our environmental goals will not be met without significant nuclear and hydroelectric power.

When did you first realize nuclear energy is a good thing?

When I started working at NASA in 1985, seeing its use in the space program, and especially after I started working on nuclear waste in the next few years. I had always been told that nuclear had problems and was dangerous, and kept looking for the reasons behind those claims. After a while I saw they were incorrect, and then kept working within the nuclear field and accumulated so much direct experience, and came to know so many lifelong nuclear colleagues that it became clear the myths that arose from the Cold War years were just that – myths.

Jim Conca

Jim Conca featured in a public service announcement about the need for carbon-free nuclear energy. The spots can be viewed here and here.

What is the biggest obstacle, as you see it, to wider acceptance of nuclear energy?

Political and ideological anti-nuclear stands that prevent media from pursuing objective reporting and that prevent public schools and normal outlets for information from providing the scientific truth about nuclear energy, especially in perspective with other energy sources. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, and people need to know all the issues surrounding energy in order for us, as a nation, to pursue a reasonable and environmentally safe energy future.

Much is made about nuclear waste, or spent nuclear fuel. What should people know about nuclear waste?

First, there just isn’t much of it. All of the nuclear waste from all sources would fit in one good-sized landfill, although that landfill should be a deep geologic repository in the correct rock. We know what that rock is and how to do it. We just aren’t allowed to do it.

Second, most of the waste is old bomb waste from the Cold War, completely different from used fuel from power reactors. The former really is waste and should be disposed of as soon as possible. The latter is not really waste at all, but can be burned in future reactors that can get 10 times as much energy out of it as present ones. One of Bill Gates’ projects, TerraPower, is actually designing just such a reactor, called a fast reactor. So put used fuel aside in dry cask storage for decades until we burn it all. Then that waste would go into a deep geologic repository like the bomb waste. In fact, since there still won’t be much volume to it all, it could go into the same repository decades later.

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Dry cask storage containers at Columbia Generating Station. Each cask weighs 180 tons and can safely store used nuclear fuel for 100 years.

From a global perspective, how important is it that nuclear energy technology continues to advance?

Absolutely critical! We cannot provide the 30-plus trillion kilowatt hours per year to eradicate global poverty and handle the environmental effects of past fossil fuel use without expanding nuclear. Almost all the present reactors in the world will be retired by mid-century or so and need to be replaced with new designs, which we already have and are building. Even with as much renewables as we can produce over the next 50 years, if nuclear fails to double or triple, then coal use will continue to grow in the world. Coal is still the fastest-growing energy source in the world, contrary to public opinion in America.

China is firmly committed to nuclear energy. Bill Gates is supporting a company that is looking to operate a new type of reactor in China. Can the U.S. hold on to its nuclear technology leadership? What will it mean if we lose it?

Yes, China is the country with the fastest growing nuclear energy program. They break ground on a new reactor almost every three weeks. And yes, while Bill Gates and Chinese President Xi Jinping looked on in Seattle, TerraPower signed an agreement with the China National Nuclear Corporation allowing the two companies to collaborate on advanced nuclear technologies that address safety, environmental and cost issues, just this fast reactor technology we need. Of course, it’s sad this didn’t happen in America, but the ideological anti-nuke sentiment is preventing our government from maintaining our lead in nuclear power. We still do lead, but if we don’t get moving again quickly, China will overtake us in as little as 15 years, both in number and technology.

NuScale and its small modular reactor design have a real opportunity to become an American success story. If that happens, what does it mean for the U.S. economy and the environment?

It will be wonderful, because NuScale is firmly on track to build the first SMR in America, and it is truly a revolutionary design. All of the environmental issues we worry about have been solved and it is truly walk-away safe – can’t melt down. Since the cost is about the same as coal plants, and the design is modular, able to be sized for any application and location, together with larger new designs, it could replace coal by mid-century.

Many states have renewable portfolio standards. Should states reconsider and switch to clean energy standards?

Indeed! The most foolish decision in the recent history of energy legislation was to exclude nuclear from low-carbon energy sources able to meet the new portfolio standards. Making the standards clean energy, or low carbon, instead of just renewable, would actually make headway in our attempts to decrease fossil fuel use in America. Switching from coal to natural gas will only get you so far. Also, since we’ll be getting uranium out of seawater soon, nuclear will even become renewable, since uranium will be replaced in seawater as long as the winds will blow on Earth.

Thank you and happy Earth Day to you.

And to all of us.


You can read more of Jim Conca’s analysis and thoughts on energy and the environment at Forbes, where he blogs.

(Posted by John Dobken)

Curiosity and Carbon – Discussing Nuclear Energy with CASEnergy’s Ron Kirk

Ron Kirk was curious.

As Co-Chair of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, Kirk had visited a half-dozen states to talk about the benefits of nuclear energy and everywhere he went people enthusiastically asked him about these things called small modular reactors.

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Ambassador Ron Kirk

Which is why when the opportunity to visit Oregon presented itself Kirk was eager to make the trip. “I have been wanting to come out here to learn about SMRs. I had to come see it for myself,” Kirk told me.

Oregon is home to NuScale Power, the leading player in the U.S. small modular reactor arena. NuScale, with offices in Corvallis and Portland, employs about 600 people and anticipates submitting its SMR design certification to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission later this year.

NuScale’s Dr. Jose Reyes and Mike McGough led Kirk on a tour of NuScale research facilities on Oregon State University’s campus, including the Integral System Test facility, a working prototype of the NuScale reactor design.

But with Kirk, President Obama’s former trade ambassador and past mayor of Dallas, the discussion inevitably makes its way from technology to policy, specifically policies that govern how this country will generate low-carbon energy into the future.

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Ron Kirk, left, speaks with NuScale’s Dr. Jose Reyes at the NuScale facilities on the OSU campus.

Kirk was surprised to learn about Oregon’s moratorium (as it were) on new nuclear energy projects. Passed by voters in 1980 (the year after Three Mile Island), Measure 7 basically says there can be no new nuclear energy plants in the state until there is a permanent federal repository for used nuclear fuel storage. Any new nuclear plant proposed would also have to be approved by a majority of Oregon voters.

Kirk says that was then and this is now.

“Literally, you have the world coming here because of this incredible, potentially game-changing technology that came out of Oregon State,” Kirk said. “It’s going to be built elsewhere and deployed elsewhere and I’m just stunned that Oregon provided all the intellectual fuel and capital in what could be a game-changer in the war on carbon emissions and it’s not going to be deployed in the state.

“This is the equivalent of saying we produced the scientists who discovered penicillin and the state saying, ‘sorry, we passed a law that says you can’t use it here.’”

Addressing the mythology

Ambassador Kirk quickly discovered after joining CASEnergy that when it comes to nuclear, one spends a lot of time dispelling the myths and misconceptions before the conversation can progress to the benefits of nuclear as a generation resource.

One of the myths most in need of dispelling, in Kirk’s view, is that nuclear energy can’t help with climate change.

Indeed, a recent poll by the Nuclear Energy Institute found that 70 percent of respondents did not know that nuclear energy is the largest source of clean air energy in the U.S.

“Nuclear energy is the workhorse of clean energy,” Kirk explains. “You just can’t get around the fact that two-thirds of our carbon-free energy in this country comes from nuclear energy. That doesn’t make you anti-wind or anti-solar, we love those. But you simply cannot build enough wind and solar to replace the benefit that nuclear contributes to our carbon reduction strategy, both existing and going forward.”

Which is one reason he questions why a state like Oregon would essentially turn its back on a resource that has so much potential for providing carbon-free, full-time electricity.

“For Oregon to justifiably pride itself on its commitment to the environment, I just find it a little incongruous that they can’t find a way to square with that, the humility to say ‘maybe we had very legitimate reasons for the moratorium that went into place years ago. But today, knowing what we know now, let’s have an intelligent debate about that and revisit that,’” Kirk said.

Ron Kirk and Student

Ron Kirk speaks to a student at Portland State University.

As in Oregon and elsewhere, Kirk also tackles head-on the myth that nuclear waste, or used nuclear fuel, is an issue that would prevent more nuclear energy facilities from coming online. Kirk says the real issue with nuclear waste is the poor political discussion about it that has taken place for decades.

“We don’t have a (technical) challenge with nuclear waste because we know how to store nuclear fuel. We could recycle it. But the truth is nuclear fuel can be stored safely on site for 100 years. That’s not a reason to not deploy nuclear going forward,” Kirk said.

“If you had the fullness of the debate, people would see the nuclear waste issue is more of a red herring than it is a reason to not go forward with embracing nuclear energy.

“Our message is our nation is richly blessed to have a diversity of energy resources, and a non-carbon diversity of energy resources. Where we’ve gotten into trouble is when we try to arbitrarily pick winners and losers.”

Looking to the future

As the former U.S. trade representative, Kirk has seen the world. He has seen parts of the world that aren’t so abundantly equipped with rich energy resources. And it’s made an impression on him.

“When you travel around the world and you see what it’s like to grow an economy, operate a medical system, without the benefits of a reliable energy system, you come to realize we’re so blessed in America,” Kirk said. “In Dallas, we had the only person die of Ebola in the U.S. The real tragedy of that story, if you’ve been to the Ivory Coast and Africa, that’s not a story of infectious disease, that’s the story of the tragedy of living in the 21st century in a society that doesn’t have access to clean water and power. If they had those two things you don’t have an Ebola crisis. You can’t run research in hospitals if you don’t have those two elements.”

Kirk mentioned that on his visits to developing countries the Secret Service wouldn’t let him take the elevator for fear the power could go out at any minute, potentially stranding the group.

“When we were in office, India had a brownout that affected a third of the country. I had to remind my daughters that a third of India is almost all of North America. The mayhem and anger across the U.S. if we didn’t have power for 10 days? Our kids think it’s a birthright to wake up and plug in their smart phones and iPads and laptops. Our kids’ rooms suck more energy than our entire homes did growing up!”

It’s for all those reasons that Kirk says choices and decisions about where we get our electricity in the future need to be made now and made rationally.

“The time to start thinking about energy isn’t going to be 10 years from now when Vermont says maybe we shouldn’t have shut that plant down. You can’t call Wal-Mart and say we need a 1,000 megawatt electricity facility. These are decisions that require years of planning and design and billions of dollars in investment. America has been fueled, our growth has been fueled, by decisions that were made about clean water and energy 30, 40, 50 years ago. It’s up to our generation now to make sure we’re going to have the power, the infrastructure, to continue to drive our economy in the future.”

Optimistic about nuclear energy

Kirk sees reason for optimism concerning nuclear energy. The current energy debate is closely linked to reducing carbon-emissions, and that plays right into the need for more nuclear. He also sees younger generations making that linkage. Couple that with an embracing of technology and a growth of employment opportunities in nuclear energy, that bodes well for changing opinions among Millennials.

He also sees a change at the highest levels of government around the world.

“That diversity of hydro, wind, solar and nuclear is what our global leaders embraced in Paris (at the climate talks). They wanted to give nations the flexibility and very much over weighted it to not just renewables, but non-carbon sources. If it makes sense for India and it makes sense for China, which are two of the largest carbon-emitting nations, then it makes sense for the United States.

“Our president and our Energy secretary have embraced nuclear and amended the federal rules to say we are getting our energy from non-carbon emitting sources and I would hope Oregon would see the wisdom of that and soon follow suit.”

(Posted by John Dobken)

Deep Dive: What is Resource Adequacy?

Electricity is something many take for granted, except in those rare instances when the power goes out. It’s not an overstatement to say that electricity is an invisible, ubiquitous and essential part of modern life; it keeps our homes and businesses well-lit, comfortable and safe, and it powers the various devices we use for work and leisure.

Whenever we flip a switch, adjust the thermostat, go online, recharge our smartphone, or drive through an intersection with a traffic light, we are counting on the power system to always be ready and able to reliably meet our needs.

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Courtesy BPA

Highly dependable utility service is no accident – instead, it is provided by complex and sophisticated power grids that are the largest machines in the world. These electric utility systems consist of multiple parts, including power plants, transmission lines, local distribution facilities, and associated control and communication systems.

As our consumption of electricity fluctuates from moment to moment, hour to hour, day to day, and month to month, an equal amount of power needs to be produced and delivered to match the load. If at any given point in time not enough juice is being produced, the stuff we’re using starts to shut down. Conversely, if there’s too much juice, things start to overheat. So a continuous re-balancing of loads and resources takes place, like an intricately-choreographed, ongoing dance that enables modern life.

What is resource adequacy?

Simply defined, resource adequacy means having sufficient power resources available when needed to reliably serve electricity demands across a range of reasonably foreseeable conditions.

Electricity consumption is measured using two metrics – peak demand and energy load. Peak demand is the maximum amount of power used at a specific point in time, such as in the evening during very cold or very hot weather after people have arrived home and are using multiple power-consuming devices. The second metric, energy load, is the amount of power consumed over a period of time, such as the monthly energy amount shown on your electric bill.

To keep the lights on, the utility system has to do three things. First, it needs to have enough generating capacity available to meet the peak demands when they occur. Second, it needs generating resources that can produce energy to serve loads across time, from day-to-day, month-to-month, and season-to-season. Third, the utility system needs to have enough operating flexibility to follow upward and downward fluctuations in electricity demands. If the system has sufficient resources to do all of these things reliably, then it is deemed to have resource adequacy (including additional resources to protect against sudden unplanned outages).

What types of resources contribute to resource adequacy?

Traditionally, utilities have used three basic types of generating resources to perform the load-resource balancing act described above. The three types of power plants are known as baseload, peaking and midrange generators. All three types are needed to achieve resource adequacy.

Baseload generators can produce power at a constant rate for extended periods of time, and usually have a relatively low variable cost of production. Examples of baseload generation include nuclear power plants, as well as coal-fired plants. Baseload generators
are the workhorses that produce large amounts of energy, along with steady, dependable capacity.

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Columbia Generating Station near Richland, Wash.

At the other end of the spectrum are peaking generators, which can quickly provide capacity to help meet peak loads and to follow short-term fluctuations in loads. Peaking generators also tend to have higher variable operating costs. A common type of peaking generation is single-cycle combustion turbines. These are basically large jet engines that can burn either natural gas or liquid fuels. Peaking generators are good sources of capacity and flexibility, but due to their relatively high operating costs, they are not used to produce large amounts of energy.

Midrange generators have more operating flexibility than baseload generators but less than peaking generators. Midrange generators also have variable operating costs that are higher than baseload generators but lower than peaking generators. The most prominent example of midrange generation is combined-cycle combustion turbines, which produce power in two stages. In the first stage, natural gas is burned in a combustion turbine and used to turn a generator. In the second stage, exhaust heat from the combustion turbine is used to make steam and turn a steam turbine-generator. Typically, midrange generators are used to help supply moderate amounts of capacity, energy and flexibility.

Okay, by now you are probably wondering: What about all the hydroelectric power we have in the Northwest? Traditionally, hydro generation has helped meet the region’s needs for all three types of power. It is a particularly effective, low-cost resource for meeting peak demands and following fluctuations in demand. As a result, the Northwest has historically not needed as much fossil-fueled peaking and midrange generation as other regions of the U.S. Our Northwest hydro power also produces significant amounts of annual energy, but not as much as could be produced from an equal amount of baseload generating capacity.

How do utilities decide which resources to use?

When deciding how to operate their resources to meet consumers’ demands for electricity, utilities seek to provide reliable service at the lowest possible cost.

The resources that a utility normally decides to use, or “dispatch,” first are its resources that have the lowest variable operating cost. These include baseload resources such as Columbia Generating Station. Next, the utility dispatches its resources that have the next highest variable operating cost; often these are midrange generators. Finally, if its loads are relatively high or may be subject to rapid fluctuations, the utility will dispatch its more expensive peaking resources.

Columbia Generating Station is one of the key resources that BPA uses to deliver clean, reliable power to public power utilities across the Northwest. Columbia produces 1,190 gross megawatts of baseload power, including both firm energy and capacity.

For wind power to produce the same amount of energy on an annual basis, more than 3,500 megawatts of wind turbines would be needed. Also, Columbia is not subject to the fluctuations that affect generation from wind and solar-PV. As a result, Columbia provides capacity that is much more firm, and does not require other forms of generating capacity to be held to provide incremental and decremental reserves to integrate wind and other intermittent forms of generation.

How do renewables and other alternative forms of resources fit In?

During the last 15 years, large amounts of new renewable resources have been developed in the Northwest. To date, the predominant share of renewable resource additions in the region have been wind power, totaling over 8,000 megawatts of installed capacity. In more recent years, falling costs and government incentives have also begun to make solar photovoltaic power more attractive.

Nine Canyon Wind Farm

Nine Canyon Wind Farm, located south of Kennewick, Wash.

Wind and solar-PV differ from other existing power resources. In particular, wind and solar-PV produce power intermittently. This limits their ability to contribute to resource adequacy. However, both also have very low variable operating costs. This means that to the extent they can be integrated into the system, it is economically desirable to dispatch them early in the utility’s stack of resources.

To date, the Bonneville Power Administration has integrated over 5,000 megawatts of wind power onto its system. To do so, BPA has dedicated significant hydro resources to mirror changes in production from the wind fleet. BPA maintains 900 megawatts of generating reserves that can be rapidly increased or decreased to offset wind resource fluctuations. This illustrates how a portion of BPA’s hydro generating resources that could be used for other resource adequacy purposes are diverted and used to integrate wind power.

Other steps are being taken to deal with the greater variability created by renewable resources. These include implementing shorter, intra-hour scheduling and dispatching practices, as well as developing new energy imbalance markets.

Demand response is another type of resource that has potential to contribute to resource adequacy. Demand response is not a generating resource; instead it works by adjusting customer use of electricity to help maintain the overall supply-demand balance on the power system. For example, if overall electric loads are increasing rapidly toward peak levels, a demand response can be used to reduce certain loads of customers who have volunteered to participate, typically in exchange for compensation.

Energy Northwest partnered with the City of Richland, Cowlitz County Public Utility District, Pend Oreille County PUD and BPA on the Aggregated Demand Response Pilot Project. This project is using 35 megawatts of aggregated fast-response demand-side resources to test their use to help meet capacity needs as well as flexibility needs on the BPA grid.

Tools – We need them all

Maintaining resource adequacy requires responsible energy policy decisions, at the local, state and federal levels, policy not driven by whims and fads. For instance, having a resource like Columbia Generating Station during the Western U.S. Energy Crisis of 2000 and 2001 saved the region approximately $1.4 billion according to the Public Power Council. That could not have been anticipated in 1999.

(Post by Charlie Black)