EVs – What’s not to like?

Carbon emissions from the transportation sector eclipsed emissions from the utility sector last February – the first time that’s happened since 1979. In Washington state, our electric utilities derive most of their power from low carbon sources, including hydro, nuclear and wind. Electrifying cars, trucks and buses will have a major impact on the state’s overall carbon footprint.

Imagine never filling up at a gas station again. Instead, simply pull into the garage and plug the car into a charging outlet. Adding to the convenience, electric car drivers dramatically reduce petroleum dependence, improve transportation sustainability, improve environmental stewardship, create jobs and help the economy.

What’s not to like about driving electric?

Are electric vehicles expensive?
The purchase price keeps going down and combined with an additional $7,500 tax incentive, you can buy a new EV for well under $8,000. And there is a growing “gently used” inventory as owners upgrade to newer models. Lease rates are also competitive – as low as $199 a month. (Find out more about incentives here.)

Are EVs expensive to operate?
After an average day of driving, electric cars fully charge for less than $1. The cars can be plugged into standard home electrical outlets, and electric cars typically charge at night when electricity demand is lowest. On a cost per mile basis, the operation of an EV is approximately one-third to one-quarter the cost of a gasoline-powered vehicle.

Since electric cars don’t have exhaust systems and don’t need oil changes, maintenance costs are relatively minimal. Brake wear is reduced thanks to regenerative braking, which sends the energy back to the battery. To maintain an electric car, just rotate the tires and keep them properly inflated.

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Robin Rego, generation project development manager, and Garrett Brown, Mid-Columbia Electric Vehicle Association president, discuss the benefits of driving an electric car during Energy Northwest’s Public Power Forum. (Mitch Lewis photo)

How efficient are electric cars?
Only 13 percent of the energy stored in a gallon of gasoline makes it to the wheels in a typical gasoline car. The rest of the energy is lost due to other factors like heat and friction. In a typical electric car, more than 52 percent of the energy used in charging the car goes to the wheels.

How safe are electric cars?
EVs have the standard safety features expected in conventional vehicles, such as anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control, pre-tensioning seatbelts and airbags. Another common feature is a noise generator, which, in the absence of a conventionally fueled engine, creates noise to warn pedestrians when an EV is approaching.

Manufacturers have compensated for battery overheating by equipping electric cars with preventative technology, such as fuses and circuit breakers that can disconnect the battery when sensors detect an oncoming collision. Other measures include coolant systems, which keep the temperature low while the vehicle is running. The battery pack is located in the center of the car, on the bottom of the chassis and away from front and rear crumple zones.

Will electric utilities start to raise rates as more EVs start to use charging stations?
Utilities report negligible load growth due to the 2008 recession, conservation, energy efficiency and distributed generation (residential and community solar). EVs contribute to load growth and increasing sales will reduce the need for rate increases. Electric vehicles also enable utilities to increase load without adding new generation facilities.

How do charging stations help the local economy?
Hotels, shopping malls, wineries and other businesses that have installed charging stations have experienced an increase in business from customers waiting for their EVs to charge.

Energy Northwest is the facilitator for the Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Transportation Alliance, which promotes public and private partnerships in developing charging stations throughout the service areas of local utilities in Benton and Franklin counties and along the major highways leading into the Tri-Cities area. EVITA comprises Benton and Franklin PUD, Benton Rural Electric Association and the City of Richland. Other cities, ports and chambers of commerce have signed letters of support for this venture. (See our blog post on EVITA here.)

Along with being convenient, good for the environment and the economy, safe and cost-effective; electric vehicles are sleek, quiet, clean and fast.

What’s not to like?

(Post by Robin Rego, EN generation project development manager, proud owner of an EV.)

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)

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.

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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.

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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)

Energy Policy by Headline

The headline certainly draws attention:

“Switch to Clean Energy Can Be Fast and Cheap”

In energy resource development, “fast” and “cheap” are laudable goals, but are seldom realistic.

Before an energy project can be built, it goes through multiple “processes” (planning, permitting, licensing).

It is also subject to various “hearings” (public, legislative, regulatory, even judicial – see Jim Conca’s take on the recent Supreme Court action on the Clean Power Plan).

These things are not fast nor are they cheap.

In the push to show that an “all renewables” electric grid can be readily and affordably implemented, shortcuts (intellectual and other) should not be taken that overlook what is actually needed to develop real-life power generation projects, much less massively reconfigure the national power system.

To summarize the article reprinted in Scientific American:

Wind and sunshine could power most of the United States by 2030 without raising electricity prices, according to a new study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Even when optimizing to cut costs and limiting themselves to existing technology, scientists showed that renewables can meet energy demands and slash carbon dioxide emissions from the electricity sector by 80 percent below 1990 levels.

In less than 14 years! Hey, what’s not to like about that?

The above assumes that a wide variety of technical, economic, and institutional challenges can be successfully overcome by 2030. For example:

MacDonald and Clack said the key enabler for their high renewable energy penetration scenarios is high-voltage direct-current (HVDC) transmission. Photovoltaics and wind turbines often generate direct-current electricity, so transmitting in direct current removes a conversion step that costs money and saps power.

HVDC transmission lines also have fewer losses over long distances than alternating-current transmission. The authors envision an HVDC network across the United States akin to the interstate highway system, shunting power from where it’s produced to where it’s needed in a national electricity market.

In other words, for the U.S. to make a huge, rapid switch to renewables, the study recognizes that the national transmission grid would have to be significantly re-vamped as well. All in 14 years’ time.Pop Mchx Flying Car 1957

Recall the cover of the July 1957 issue of Popular Mechanics that predicted flying cars would be as cheap as automobiles by 1967.

Blowin’ in the wind

As an example, consider the Northwest’s existing wind generating resources. They are heavily concentrated in the Columbia Gorge, for good reason; that’s where the wind is.

But, there are still weeks when the 5,000+ megawatts of wind generation capacity on the Bonneville Power Administration system isn’t contributing much, if anything, to the grid. Without the availability of firm back-up from hydro and thermal (nuclear, coal and natural gas), there’s real trouble. The lights don’t come on.

The study purports to overcome this challenge by building huge new HVDC transmission facilities to link all regions of the U.S. into a single fantastically huge grid. Imagine the expense, and the technical hurdles, that would need to be overcome to make this work.

So back to the “fast and cheap” scenario and the questions that are not asked.

Question #1: Who will pay for it?

Utilities generally don’t build generation projects because they are fond of the technology; they build them because there is a need, i.e. predicted load growth or retirement and replacement of generating resources. But in either case, there is a planning period that typically spans years before the first permit application is even filed. There is also the matter of securing the many millions, or even billions, of dollars needed to build the renewable resources, transmission facilities, control systems, etc.

Question #2: How long would it actually take to design, reach consensus on and then build a massively different power system?

Different regions across the U.S. have diverse mixes of public and investor-owned utilities with different processes located in various states with different rules and regulations and different environmental, cultural and economic concerns. In California, it took seven years just to reach agreement on and start up its regulatory program for reducing CO2 emissions.

It’s not realistic to think that all of the issues and interests could be addressed and then the new power system completed in 14 years’ time.

Question #3: Why an all-renewable portfolio anyway?

If the goal is to reduce carbon emissions, there are more alternatives than just wind and solar. There is hydro, there is nuclear, there is natural gas (which is less carbon-intensive than coal but way above the other two choices). The report does, thankfully, call for continuing existing hydro and nuclear resources, according to Rod Adams at Atomic Insights, who has delved deeper into it.

What some may not realize is that while the wind is free and the sun is free, the technology to convert wind and sun to electricity is not. It is a very mortal process with voices on all sides wanting a say. See the recent legislative episodes in Vermont.

A recent piece in the Spokane Journal of Business makes the case that in the Northwest, solar, not wind, will be the preferred new renewable going forward. A Bonneville Power Administration project engineer told the Journal:

“What we think we’re going to see is the development of solar energy take off. The cost to build is cheaper, and its power can be on a grid in a matter of months rather than years, as is the case with wind.”

But as long as there is a handful of people saying we can power the U.S. with wind and solar, the mantle will be picked up in the comment sections of energy related articles across the country. “So-and-so said we can do it, therefore we can!”

Question #4: How much new wind and solar generation do we even need in the Pacific Northwest?

When it comes to power resource planning, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council does as thorough a job as anyone of reading the landscape to see what’s on the horizon and beyond.

In the draft for their 7th Power Plan (the final plan is approved but not posted yet), the Council made clear that a non-generating resource is supreme:

“In more than 90 percent of future conditions, cost-effective efficiency met all electricity load growth through 2035. It’s not only the single largest contributor to meeting the region’s future electricity needs, it’s also the single largest source of new winter peaking capacity.”

What comes next? Demand response (we do that). And after that? Modest amounts of new natural gas-fired generation.

With just those three resources, load growth in the Northwest is covered through 2035, as projected, according to the draft plan.

As John Harrison of the NWPCC is quoted in the Spokane Journal article:

“It’s free fuel,” Harrison says. “But the bad news for wind power is that it doesn’t produce at capacity in high or low temperatures. We’ve probably maxed out on wind development.”

The Oregon experiment

That sentiment is also prominent in a recent Oregonian article by Ted Sickinger on the effort to move the state’s two largest investor-owned utilities out of the coal game.

The discussion in Oregon is to shift PGE and PacifiCorp to 50 percent renewables by 2040 (10 years later than the NOAA plan). Both would need to do away with a total of 2,400 megawatts of coal capacity, which means nearly tripling the current amount of wind capacity in the state (from 3,000 megawatts to 8,000 megawatts) if that is the chosen replacement resource. Cost: up to $13 billion.

Sickinger writes, “Yet there is a practical limit to the buildout in Oregon. The wind here doesn’t match Montana and Wyoming, and the windiest sites with nearby transmission on the Columbia Plateau are already taken. To maintain reliability, utilities will also avoid clustering all their wind turbines in one area.”

It’s a daunting task and ratepayers will ultimately decide if the environmental benefits of snipping the coal wire (the coal plants aren’t actually located in Oregon) are worth the estimated costs. But it is a shame that carbon-free nuclear energy is not part of the discussion, given NuScale’s development of homegrown small modular reactor technology. $13 billion buys a lot of NuScale modules. Just saying.

Smart energy strategy

More than aspirational dreaming, we need smart energy strategies – ones that take into account the economic, technical and environmental aspects of energy resource development. And what is possible. Also, one that values existing clean energy resources, such as nuclear.

In the real world the lights have to stay on. The heat pump has to work in the winter. The air conditioner in the summer. The margin for error is very small concerning people’s lives and livelihoods. “Fast” and “cheap” may not always cut it. Reliable and cost-effective will do just fine.

(Posted by John Dobken)

How Serious About Climate Change Are We, Really?

“If we let the world keep warming as fast as it is, and sea levels rising as fast as they are, and weather patterns keep shifting in more unexpected ways—then before long, we are going to have to devote more and more and more of our economic and military resources not to growing opportunity for our peoples, but to adapting to the various consequences of a changing planet. This is an economic and a security imperative that we have to tackle now.” – President Barack Obama in Paris, Dec. 1, 2015

Peter Thiel, a partner at the investment group Founders Fund, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times recently urging President Obama to get behind nuclear energy development and deployment, essentially as John F. Kennedy did with the space program, because of climate change.

Thiel acknowledges the wrong-headed nature of anti-nuclear activists who have spent the past 40 years fighting to cripple development and innovation in the nuclear energy industry, with some success. Their victory has meant dirtier air and more deaths from fossil fuel pollution.

Still, with the catastrophes of climate change looming, surely the scales of logic would tip in favor of using more nuclear energy. Surely.

Thiel writes to President Obama, “Supporting nuclear power with more than words is the litmus test for seriousness about climate change.

Hundreds of readers commented on the Thiel op-ed. Sadly, many of them were just fine with failing the seriousness test. Let’s look at some of their arguments.

The Ramp-Up Argument

To battle climate change effectively requires new thinking at every level – and that seems to be happening in some corners. But not when it comes to changing (nudging?) the mindset of those long opposed to nuclear energy.

From one reader identified as Brian Williams: “First off, it’s impossible to build (and fuel!) enough nuclear plants (400 or so at a bare minimum) to replace fossil fuel generated power… in the time frame needed to avert catastrophic global warming.”

RampUp

 

China seems to be doing all right with its efforts to ramp up nuclear energy generation with 140+ planned reactors, 21 under construction. That is more than one-fifth of the current U.S. nuclear fleet. France showed that nuclear energy can be deployed relatively quickly once everyone is on board with the plan. Currently, France gets about 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear energy – 17 percent of that from recycled fuel, according to the World Nuclear Association. See also this graph.

As we have chronicled in this blog, even a simple wind farm can take a decade to permit and build. The number of utility-scale wind and solar farms that would need to be constructed to significantly replace fossil fuel would be astronomical, certainly more than the “400 or so” nuclear plants estimated by Mr. Williams.

Peter Thiel writes that wind and solar now account for 2 percent of global energy production. Even if that number became 20 percent in the next 20 years, it would not be enough to address the magnitude of climate change effects. And the amount of natural gas (or even coal) back-up to cover renewables’ intermittency would significantly negate some of the benefits.

To think the permitting and regulatory (and activist) playing field will be cleared for wind and solar development is folly. It would take about 40 50-turbine wind projects to provide the same power as one nuclear plant; each wind project with a separate process to site and permit. And the only reason to do this is to replace fossil, which is a baseload or full-time resource, which means a gas plant (or two or three) to back up those 40 wind farms. More permitting and infrastructure. And carbon.

China gets about 4,200 TWh of electricity from fossil fuels. Can that be replaced with renewables? By when?

France replaced its fossil fuels with nuclear energy pretty darn quickly.

The Free Market Argument

From NYT reader ando arike: “What Peter Thiel is calling for here is a massive government program to stimulate and develop the nuclear industry…”

Good!

Truth be told, without government mandates and subsidies, the wind revolution in the U.S. would likely not have happened at the pace and scale seen over the past ten years.

In fact, one wind industry insider told me 90 percent of wind projects are driven by the Production Tax Credit, which pays wind operators $23 a megawatt hour for the first 10 years of a qualifying project.

Following passage of a renewable portfolio standard (I-937 in 2006) in

BPA Resources (1)

Source: Clearing Up

Washington state, thousands of megawatts of wind capacity appeared on the grid. That wind is now being balanced by reducing the generation of clean hydropower. So taxpayers chip in $23 a megawatt hour for wind and then see reduced hydro production, raising costs there, too?

In other regions, the PTC leads to market distortions.

Now, imagine if governments passed clean energy standards instead, which would obviously include nuclear energy. Imagine if states fought to keep their existing nuclear plants open through smart energy policies. The climate would be better off.

What is the difference between a carbon-free megawatt of wind energy and a carbon-free megawatt of nuclear energy?

The nuclear energy industry is simply seeking market reforms to assign the fair and proper value to the clean air energy already produced. If we face fires, drought and rising oceans, this is some very low-hanging fruit.

The Carbon-Free Argument

 A few comments, though not as many as expected, attempted to make a point that nuclear energy is not carbon-free because of the carbon output of its entire fuel-cycle.

As David from The Bronx wrote: “I hear it all the time, ‘Nuclear power is carbon free.’ This is simply not true. The amount of carbon that is harvested for the construction of a plant puts the entire enterprise in a huge deficit from the moment it comes on-line. This does not even include the carbon deficit for mining uranium.”

The truth of the matter is that nuclear power generation is almost as carbon-free as it gets. Wind is a little better, but it also requires mining of iron ore and production of huge amounts of cement (see graph below from The Breakthrough Institute). And depending on the balancing source (hydro or natural gas or coal), wind could even be worse on carbon. Solar definitely is worse.

Cement Use edit

Here’s what DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory found. Because a single nuclear plant can produce tremendous amounts of electricity, carbon-free, for 60 years, its carbon footprint ends up being negligible in the long run.

Lastly, anti-nuclear energy positions for the past 40 years have resulted in a much higher use of fossil fuels and much higher carbon levels for the planet. Rather than owning that, anti-nuclear energy activists simply ignore it and move on. If one is going to take a position, one should be willing to defend the consequences of that position. Every consequence.

The Waste Argument

The effects of climate change will be devastating if realized. Here in the Northwest they already include wildfires, insect outbreaks and tree diseases according to NASA. In other regions, drought and coastal flooding will wreak havoc.

One way to stop this is to switch to low-carbon sources of energy. One low-carbon source of energy is nuclear.

“Oh, but the waste!”

This is the red herring that will likely survive any amount of ocean acidification due to fossil fuel use. This argument was used unsparingly by many NYT readers.

For instance, MRG in L.A. offered, “Nuclear waste is a catastrophic issue we have not been able to tackle appropriately…”

A “catastrophic issue?” How so?

We have dry cask storage canisters that are well-made to protect used fuelA Small Footprint from the environment for a 100 years. If we aren’t using that fuel in an advanced reactor by then (and if not, shame on us), it can be put into another canister for another 100 years. The point is – it’s well-managed.

One hundred years into the future will Los Angeles still be utilizing the same landfills they use now? What about in 10,000 years? So the concept of setting aside ground for specific uses is not unique to nuclear energy. Every community in the United States already does it. What is unique to nuclear is the amount of space needed – it’s tiny! And unlike landfills and mercury (“Once buried, some of the inorganic mercury in the landfill is converted by bacteria living there into a more toxic form, called organic or methylated mercury.”), used nuclear fuel is a solid that will never reach the environment or people. It’s also a valuable commodity that can be recycled, providing hundreds of years of clean energy. So instead of a landfill and waste, with nuclear used fuel think Fort Knox and gold. Carbon-free gold.

Just Plain Silly Arguments

There were a few of these.

Sharon from Worchester County, Mass. writes: “Hanford, WA. located nuclear waste storage on the Columbia River!!! It is now leaking into said river. Nothing more to say.”

Hanford is defense-related nuclear waste from plutonium processing, which has nothing to do with commercial nuclear energy. Some people confuse the two even here in the Northwest. Old habits and what not.

A New Hope (Same As The Old Hope)

Some who used to be against nuclear energy are changing their minds. It’s happening more and more and that’s a good thing. With new generations fully embracing advanced technology; with more distance put between the Cold War nuclear arms race with the fear that evoked; with the realities of climate change beginning to crystallize before our eyes; perhaps we will see a seriousness to our discussions about our energy future.

And by serious, I mean embracing nuclear energy as part of a low-carbon energy strategy.

As Peter Thiel wrote: “We can keep on merely talking about a carbon-free world, or we can go ahead and create one.”

What comes out of COP21 will be telling.

(Posted by John Dobken)