Sunday, March 18, 2018

AN ENERGY UPDATE - MARCH 2018


Things continue to not bode well for the nuclear industry, as the economic impacts of construction, decommissioning, and wastes disposal come to light in the US as well as the rest of the world.

In South Carolina, the canceled plants continue to stir controversy as to who is responsible for the $12 billion already spent, with utilities and legislators wanting to stick the entire bill on ratepayers and taxpayers.  The same holds true for Georgia, where construction is still in process, with the feds opting another $12 billion subsidy.  When this project eventually gets canceled, or comes on line 5-10 years later, the cost of that electricity will be definitely noncompetitive. The same kinds of problems continue in the UK, France, and Finland.  Nuclear power plants are obsolete in today’s changing renewable world, and the promise of new, smaller reactors will make no difference.

The issue of spent fuel storage (HLW) is now getting some mention, with a recent push to get on with Yucca Mountain.  Again, that will not happen, because of the scientific, geologic, as well as the political/moral constraints.  What is now making a re-appearance though, is the privatization of waste management and storage. 

The new player is a private company called Holtec, which manufactures dry casks for spent fuel storage.  They want to build a facility (basically a large pad) where dry casks would be shipped from all over the US to their site in New Mexico.  There, the casks would be monitored and guarded until…???  It would take somewhere between 10-15,000 casks to contain all the spent fuel rods in the US.  They would have to be stored above ground because of the heat emitted, and would be vulnerable to erosion, sabotage, accidents, etc.  The nearby WIPP project, which is trying to store not-so-hot military wastes in a salt cavern is already leaking and exploding after only five years, and now under review. 
At Humboldt Bay, we have 6 Holtec casks.  They are smaller than the ones for most plants, and cost about $1 million each.  I took about 6 weeks, and $8 million to load and prepare each cask for its placement in our below grade bunker, and that facility requires about $12 million/year for monitoring and security.  There are 36 casks on site at the decommissioned Trojan plant on the Columbia River, and San Onofre is in a contentious battle with its desire to place about 250 casks right on the beach in Southern California.  The Diablo Canyon plan will require over 300 of these casks.  So do the math…10,000 casks at $10 million each, plus transportation to a central site in New Mexico…big bucks for Holtec and the utilities, since the ratepayers and taxpayers are footing the bill.  Give those CEO’s a bonus!

Another issue coming up revolves around how each state set up the rules for decommissioning funding.  By Federal law, decom funds were to be set aside to ensure the safe and clean dismantlement of nuclear power plants.  In California, The utilities collected money from ratepayers over the years, and put that money into an investment fund where it, for a while at least, grew in value.  PG&E ratepayers, as well as those in the south, are now continuing to pay into this fund for their nukes.  Things are a bit different in other states.  Some utilities took that money and invested it in ventures such as building more nuclear power plants!   Things got/get complicated when the feds allowed utilities to sell nuclear units to private firms.  The decom funds were supposed to go with the plants in the sale, but some of that money has in some cases disappeared.  The funds that do exist on the books are most often very low in respect to the actual cost of decommissioning.  Add that to the fact that many of these nuclear companies have gone through bankruptcy, buyouts, subsides (as is the case of Vermont Yankee and a few other plants back east beginning the decommissioning dialogue) and the ratepayer/taxpayer---you and I will eventually wind up paying the bills.  So much for cheap nuclear power.  They argue we can’t afford health care for all Americans , but for probably the same amount of money, we will spend it on the back end of nuclear power.

Seven years into the fiasco at Fukushima, and still there is no sign of anyone having a clue as to what to do with this site that is leaking contamination into our environment.  The $322 million ice wall is a failure, and the increasing amount of radioactive contaminated water, soil, and other materials is taking up a lot of room on this small island nation. The true exorbitant cost of decommission continues to elude the media and the public, while, CEOs, lawyers, lobbyists, and politicians continue to make millions of dollars, perpetuating the hoax that we need clean, cheap, and safe nukes if our societies are to survive.

The recent media frenzy that we will soon have fusion power (some say by 2028) continues he hoax and fraud of promises of unlimited clean electricity.  Not going to happen, at least in our lifetime.  It is so complex…temperatures in the millions of degrees, the structures and technology to contain the self-sustaining fusion reaction, and all the rest of the facilities necessary to convert that heat into electricity is mind-boggling and is not going to be cheap.  But again, the gullible public is being misled by the promise of dollars.

On the fossil fuel side, things again do not bode well for the coal industry, in spite of the subsidies, deregulation, and policies offered up by this administration.  It just cannot compete in cost, and in creating jobs.  The oil industry seems to be doing well…the goal for America to be the biggest producer and exporter of oil is pretty close…with gasoline around $3.50 a gallon today.  Subsidies and deregulation continue, and transportation taxes loom in the future.

On the positive side, solar and wind are doing quite well, considering all the obstacles in place to keep businesses and individuals from taking matters into their own hands.  There is rapid growth worldwide, with China leading the way.  They exported 37,000MW of solar panels in 2017…that’s the equivalent of 37 large nuclear power plants…in just one year.  World wide, solar provides an amount equal to total nuclear capacity, at c cheaper cost, with no huge decommissioning and waste storage costs.  The potential for growth, in manufacturing, job creation, CO2 mitigation, and a sustainable energy future is becoming apparent, and will blossom within our lifetime.  Again, as I’ve said, this is not a black-white situation as so many critics expound.  We will always have a mix of energy resources…oil, gas, even nuclear, along with solar, wind, and any other forms that become viable; and hopefully they will be used appropriately, determined by economics, geographic and technological limitations, time, and political will.

Wind is where the huge potential exists in the near future.  Moving offshore, where there is an almost constant airflow, and eventually coupled with the power of the movement of the oceans, the technology is rapidly entering the mainstream as the new grid infrastructure improves to accommodate renewables.  GE, who is on the verge of bankruptcy because of their emphasis on gas turbines, is developing a 12MW turbine in France (why aren’t they doing it in the US?).  Here in Humboldt County, plans are being discussed for a 100MW farm, with 10-15 turbines anchored 24 miles off-shore.  Many European countries already have the technology and experience to prove this potential’s viability. 

As I’ve mentioned many times before, the next crucial piece of this whole energy puzzle is storage…capturing excess electricity production when it is not needed, for use when it is.  Again, giant strides are being made all over the world, with installations in Australia highlighting the potential.  Starting from near zero not many years ago, the growth of lithium-ion battery production and implementation is about to exponentially take off. I still believe that hydrogen/fuel cells will eventually become equally important!
All this is happening in spite of all the deliberate obstacles…the misinformation, lies, tax proposals, tariffs, and the basic disregard of science and technology by the current administration and those who prop it up.  Climate change is real, and it has been impacting us in so many increasingly different ways.  It is a shame that we choosing an economic blind eye, when we could be building our economy, jobs, clean air and water, and more affordable and equitable world.  Maybe we really need to join hands, kneel down, and pray.

Just a few recent interesting pieces:










Tuesday, November 21, 2017

A Thansgiving Plateau for Solar Energy



A quick update worthy of a true Thanksgiving.  Two new stunning reports on solar energy are demonstrating the rapid transition in world-wide electricity generation.

The first involves China (no surprise).  Tongwei will spend $1.8 Billion in the next two years to build two 10 GW PV manufacturing facilities.  What this means, is that two-three years from now, each of these plants will be putting on the market the equivalent of TEN nuclear or coal-fired plants.  That's 20,000 megawatts of generating capacity…per year.  And the following year, another 20,000MW; and the year following that another 20,000MW.  In ten years, this one company in its two manufacturing facilities will have built the equivalent of 200 nuclear power plants! 

“The investment is part of Tongwei’s plan to achieve 30 GW of cell capacity. Its current 5.4 GW makes Tongwei the world’s fourth-biggest solar-cell producer, and the company has an additional 4.3 GW of capacity under construction.  The world’s largest cell maker, Shanghai-based JA Solar Holdings Co, has an annual capacity of 6.5 GW, and add this to all the manufacturers in Korea, Japan, Germany, and the US, and there is really no shortage of new generating potential in the world.  Of course, the other part of the equation is storage, and progress is being made in both battery technology, and of course, my pick…hydrogen/fuel cell for large-scale grid storage.

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-09-05/better-than-a-battery-big-energy-backs-hydrogen-power-storage

The second major bombshell comes from the very reputable US investment firm Lazard.

https://thinkprogress.org/solar-wind-keep-getting-cheaper-33c38350fb95/

“Building new renewables is now cheaper than just running old coal and nuclear plants.”  All the “costs” of energy technologies are starting to make their way to the front of the balance sheet.  Not only are new construction costs for old-school steam-generating plants the main issue, but, the cost of fuel, maintenance, repair, upgrades, wastes disposal, and environmental compliance now are being quantified in the deliberation of energy policy.  Already, renewables are displacing new fossil construction, so now their impact on actually replacing older units is significant.  Natural gas will continue to be the appropriate transition fuel during the development of storage and new grid technologies.

The current administration is fighting this battle with hopes of derailing the renewable train.  A proposed 20% tariff on imported “cheap” (because they are subsidized by the Chinese government) solar panels will put a dent in the progress of our renewable businesses.  However, most of them say that within a few years, the costs of solar panels will be so low, that that tariff won’t make any difference.  The US is not supporting its solar industries, by slowly repealing subsidies and credits, increasing tariffs and taxes, and blocking most legislation aimed at science, technology, business, and job creation.  Instead, there are proposed new subsidies in the works for coal and nuclear, as well as a continuation of the enormous subsidies for the oil industry. 

The same issues face the wind industry, whose exponential growth is being implemented world-wide.  Renewables (solar and wind) are the future, in spite of the huge political bias against them.

Happy Thanksgiving!!!!!!!!!!!

PS  An accident, most-likely at a nuclear reprocessing facility in southern Russia, and released radioactivity into the atmosphere.  Heard about it?????!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-nuclearpower-accident/russia-finds-1000-times-normal-level-of-radioactive-isotope-after-nuclear-incident-claims-idUSKBN1DL0X2

 


 


Monday, October 2, 2017

Energy Update Entering the Last Quarter of 2017



Energy Update Entering the Last Quarter of 2017

 Following the cancellation and $10 billion loss in the nuclear construction in South Carolina, the folks in Georgia seem to have more political clout involving their Vogle plant also under construction.  Although about half complete, several years behind schedule, and a budget that has gone from the original $7.5 billion to a current hopeful estimate of $25 billion, the utility has finagled another $3.7 billion from the government on top of the original $8.3 billion originally paid out.  That means you and I will have our tax money buy half of a nuclear power plant who's new generation design may not work as intended, will produce electricity with a cost way beyond what is currently competitive with gas and renewables, and may not even be needed with the trending decrease in demand due to efficiency and a developing scale distributed grid system.  Again, no mention of operating and maintenance costs, upgrading, future decommissioning costs, or the unknown costs and problems associated with dealing with both high-level spent fuel and low-level wastes.  Kick that can down into the future.
Back to South Carolina, it seems the two utilities owe numerous sub-contractors $244 million.  Will they get paid, or will they pull a “Trump” and either default or squeeze out some partial payment on that debt?  The ratepayers there already have 18% of their monthly utility bill paying for this huge default.  You and I get no real benefit from all this, since we don’t live in the Southeast!

As the average age of our nuclear fleet approaches 36 years, the scramble for license extension and forestalling eventual shutdown continues as utilities fight for ratepayer and taxpayer dollars to upgrade and extend what they can squeeze out of their existing power plants for a few more years.  There is the industry argument that closing plants would impact communities with job losses, reduced tax revenues, and other fiscal problems.  True.  Little mention, however, is given to the billions of dollars that will be spent over the next 40-60 years in that community to ultimately decommission the facility and manage the nuclear wastes.  Here at Humboldt Bay, close to $1.5 billion has been spent since 1976.  During the 8-year peak of dismantling, there were 500 jobs at the plant.  Today, there are still about 200, close to three times the number of jobs when the nuke was operating; and the perpetual storage and safeguarding the spent fuel canisters will continue to cost $10-15 million per year, perhaps, forever.  There has been no progress on what to do with the various wastes…both commercial and military.  The exorbitant costs of the problems at Hanford, the technological failures at WIPP in New Mexico, and the attempt to resurrect Yucca Mountain all boggle the imagination and the Federal budget.  The fiasco in Fukushima still challenges the entire global industry with the lack of technological ability to deal with the damaged reactors, the radioactive waters, and the laid-barren landscape.  Interestingly, the Nuclear Energy Institute has just released a new ad campaign promoting the wonders of nuclear in the “new” future.  Sound familiar?

In the world of wind and solar, costs continue to come down, and installations continue to rise, in spite of the continued political pressures to discourage and suppress these inevitable energy sources, and push for more fossil fuels and nuclear.  There are some very interesting problems associated with this rapid decrease in production costs and the evolving technological breakthroughs, especially in solar cell manufacturing.  I remember in the early days of computers when every year brought newer, faster, cheaper desktops from manufacturers.  Did you buy the 386, or wait for the 486, or the next generation? The same sort of thing is happening in the solar industry, where a manufacturer invests in a production line making cells that will be superseded the next year by new cells that are more efficient and maybe cheaper to make.  One of the solutions to this dilemma is creating mass demand for the product, which China is doing.  It's wonderful that new solar systems are becoming more efficient and cheaper; but that does not reduce the value of older technology.  Several systems around Arcata have been in place for 20-30 years and are still producing electricity.  They have already "paid" for themselves, and their value at making electricity in a clean sustainable format has not diminished.  Cost is no longer the driving force, and we should be encouraging (subsidizing?) a whole array of viable solar projects large and small.  The current surge for electric vehicles will have a large impact on future solar deployment.

One last thought, and some meanderings into the future.  Hurricane Maria devastated the main power plant and almost the entire power grid in Puerto Rico.  FEMA funds are slated to only "replace" what has been damaged or destroyed.  There is a huge opportunity to rebuild the entire power system on this island with small, decentralized renewable systems and a new smart grid.  This type of thinking will not come from the current administration, but is being proposed by major players like Tesla and Google.  Very bigly exciting!

Monday, August 28, 2017

FAIR AND BALANCED




In the interest of being “fair and balanced,” here are just a few current pieces coming in support of nuclear power. 

In light of the canceled reactors in South Carolina, and the questionable future of the two in Georgia, Duke Energy just announced the cancellation of its proposed twin reactors also in South Carolina, at a pre-construction cost of $354million, which they want the ratepayers/taxpayers to pay.

An article the other day in Forbes, a conservative business media exemplifies the concepts of “fake news,” biased media brainwashing, and outright misstatements and lies.  James Conca, for years, has been a mouthpiece for the nuclear industry via Forbes, and has consistently not only promoted nukes, but more importantly argued vehemently against renewables.  Forbes is supposedly one of the more “respected” business media outlets, along with the Financial Times, the Economist, the Wall Street Journal, Fox Business, etc.  All have been arrogantly ignorant of the positive business potentials of renewables, downplaying and misleading the “business community” about the status of wind and solar at any particular time. As with a lot of economists, they are miles behind reality.
His claim that solar is too expensive (over $10billion for 1500MW) is based on the $2.2B cost for the 392MW Ivanpah solar THERMAL plant built several years ago.  That was one pilot project which probably will not pan out in the future, compared to the 150,000MW of developed PV throughout the world.  As stated in an earlier blog, 1500MW of PV solar today would cost closer to $1.5B…Spain just did it for under $1B…and the costs are coming down.
More importantly, there is absolutely no mention of the enormous future costs of decommissioning the power plants, the decommissioning and clean up of all the associated nuclear fuel infrastructure, nor the unknown issues and costs of the maintenance, storage, and ultimate fate of the High Level
Waste spent fuel.

The conservative Hoover Institute at Stanford University just released a book by Cal and Fedor.
Their main argument is that nuclear is so necessary to combat climate change…I thought that was a hoax!  Their claim that nuclear plants do not emit CO2 is one of those twisted facts.  The CO2 emissions from the entire fuel cycle are enormous, and all the other emission create their own separate problems.  The decommissioning of the tiny Humboldt Bay nuke will have resulted in close to 10,000 truckloads of wastes to Texas, Utah, and Idaho…20,000 since the trucks have to return.  Go figure the diesel fuel used…lots of emissions!!!
Again, they focus on just the building of current power plants with the promise of "new" technology being cheaper and safer than renewables.  The other underlying myth often stated is the renewables cannot be brought on line fast enough (compared to building nukes?) to make a difference.
They do make the point that there is not (has not been) a free market in energy.  Between the utilities, government regulators, and the big energy companies, the most logical, cheapest, cleanest, safest, and sustainable resources have been given very bad lip service.

The conservative “economic and business” media has historically been promulgating negatives and untruths about renewables…everything from “panels won’t last more that 15 years; they can never be cost effective as an investment; there is not enough sun or wind to make a difference in our growing demand for electricity; and something better and cheaper will come along.” 

Two of my favorites are:
            From Fox news, solar works in Germany but can’t work in the US because Germany gets more sun than the US!

            A report from the prestigious Wyoming Institute of Technology (it’s just a fancy website) which influenced the town Woodland, North Carolina to outlaw solar energy because the town leaders feared for their children’s future.

A lot of things are starting to change…interestingly enough due to economics…high-level dollars and low-level cents…and the increasing impacts of climate change.  Most of us can just sit back and watch in amazement.  As my friend says, “there ain’t no fix for stupid.”

Monday, August 14, 2017

Some Economics of Solar vs Nuclear



The recent abandonment of the two nuclear reactors under construction in South Carolina deserves some scrutiny with regards to our energy technologies and policy.  There were two main reasons for scrapping the 45% completed projects: cost overruns, and falling behind construction schedule.

Each reactor would have been able to churn out 1000 megawatts (1 million kw) of electricity per hour, 24/7, for about 85% of each year.  That’s a lot of electricity.  We measure our own residential usage in kilowatt/hours.  The original construction cost estimate back in 2006 was $4 billion per reactor.  The most recent estimate is over $12 billion per reactor.  This translates into construction costs of $12,000/kw of installed capacity.  Comparing that to what is available today, new natural gas generation is coming in at about $1000-1500/kw capacity.  PG&E in Humboldt County recently built a new 160MW state of the art natural gas facility for $250m. This is just the cost to build the power plant, and does not take into account the cost of the fuel, the operation and maintenance of the facilities, and in the case of nuclear, the equally expensive future decommissioning costs, and the unknown storage and maintenance costs of the radioactive wastes.  That being said, it is important to realize that the biggest problem with nuclear plants already in operation, and new ones proposed, is that they cannot compete on the open market with the currently cheap price of natural gas.  That is why so many of the old nuclear plants are now being scheduled for retirement…too expensive to do the upgrades and the maintenance required.

But true to form, the powers that be in the energy world have been/are very reluctant to discuss the other major player today…the significance of renewables in this economic equation.  We've passed the point of saying solar is too expensive, too intermittent, and incapable of ramping up fast enough to meet our increasing (?) electricity demands.  Solar prices (the focus here is on photovoltaics) have decreased dramatically in the past 5+ years.  The magic number bantered around for decades, has been 50 cents/watt for solar panels to be competitive.  That means the equipment for the plant would have to cost $500/kw.  Add to that the cost of installation, and you can then compare total construction costs.  We're way past that…panels now cost between 25-35 cents/watt, and estimates are that those costs will be reduced even more by new technology using new materials and increasing efficiency.  Spain just installed a 100MW plant for 65 cents/watt…$650/kw INSTALLED.  A friend works for a major international company that manufactures and installs large scale PV tracking systems, and he just finished a project in Mexico…965MW for under $1/watt.  He now is being transferred to Australia for two years because of the growing market there.  Tunisia is in the planning stage of 4,500MW in the Sahara Desert, with three transmission lines sending that electricity to Europe.  Lots of sun in Tunisia!  And Australia!  And the US!

I am fortunate to have a lot of friends “on the inside” who are working and are knowledgeable of what is really going on.  The “fake” news media…actually, most of the media has shied away from reporting on the tremendous gains solar is making not only here, but throughout the world.   In 2016, The US installed 14,626 MW of solar with a total of over 40,000MW nationwide.  This is mainly large-scale commercial projects, and does not include residential solar which is difficult to tally because of the small size of those systems.  But those small and diverse systems on residential roofs, churches, schools, parking lots, ballparks, etc. do add up, and will continue to push the ramping up of our solar capacity to meet the new electricity demands in transportation and communications. The wind industry installed 8,203 MW in the US (2,611) in 2016, bringing the combined capacity total to 82,143MW.  All this data is readily available from government and industry sources, but rarely makes the mainstream media.

Here are several points to put all this in perspective.
1.          Renewables are by far way cheaper than building new nuclear power plants.  Enter the argument that the sun doesn’t always shine or the wind doesn’t always blow, and the 1/3rd rule comes into play…it takes about 3X the capacity of renewables to match the constant output of a nuclear or fossil power plant over a long period of time.  Even so, construction costs still favor renewables.  And the big argument/dilemma is the need for constant base-load power, and the role of renewables and natural gas meeting peak load demand, which varies from geographic area and season.  With the advent of new smart technology in our management of the national grid, with changes in electricity demand due to efficiency, and with the soon to come introduction of battery and other storage systems, the base-load plants become unnecessary and expensive.
2.          A 1000MW plant takes 10+ years to build, and when it comes on line it would generate 1000+/- MW each hour that it runs.  If it has a lifetime expectancy of 30 years, it would produce some 7 million MW hours.  A lot of electricity.  The US installed 8,203 MW of solar last year, which will produce 8,203MW each hour that the sun shines…the ball park figure is 8 hours/day for 1/3 of the year.  Those facilities would crank out about 2 million MWH.  True…no comparison here…BUT if the US were to install 8,000MW of solar EACH year, the total output would be exponential…the 2016 installations would produce 240,000MW capacity over 30 years, and each additional new installation would contribute an additional equal amount EACH YEAR!  Large renewable projects take 2-3 years to construct, providing many jobs, and can be tailored to specific geographic needs.  New nuclear takes decades to plan and construct, and is limited to a geographic area.  The potential is overwhelming.
3.          Another major component in this discussion, which receives little lip service, is that the fuel for renewables is FREE.  That is the major stumbling block in our current capitalistic system.  There is no profit to come from exploration, extraction, processing, and transportation.  Once you've built the solar plant (like you build a nuclear or fossil fuel plant), it operates with a minimum of maintenance, expense, and oversight.  In 1990, my colleague and I tour several megawatt sized PV installations in Southern California.  We were not able to talk to anyone about those projects because the gates were locked and there was nobody there!  Yet the plants were fully operating on line.  That was 27 years ago, and the technology has improved greatly.  Much is made of the fact that natural gas is cheap…will it stay cheap?  It is definitely a transition fuel, which has its place as a compliment to renewable generation, but the big unknown as to its availability and future cost pales in relationship to the sun.
4.          The "hard" energy folks propose a lot of misstatements and untruths about solar PV cells.  Since there are no moving parts (just electrons), they should last forever.  Degradation due to the glass encapsulating materials and the external framework and wiring is vastly improving.  New cells are guaranteed to maintain 90% of their output at the end of 20 years.  Systems are warranted for 25+ years. New cells with new technology are on the immediate horizon, with estimates of 10 cents/watt coming soon.  This, of course, impacts manufacturing companies…the only way they will be able to make a profit will be through mass production…selling a lot of product at a low cost.  This is all part of the economic dilemma. Others argue about production processes, which do use nasty chemicals.  As with any manufacturing procedure, waste products are produced and have to be regulated to protect air, water, land, and people resources.  These wastes are nothing compared to the high-level and low-level wastes created by the nuclear industry fuel cycle, the coal industry, and the tar-sands and fracking technologies
5.          A last piece of this discussion must include the concept of technology change and time.  It is admirable to strive for 50%, 100% renewable for electricity generation, for electric cars replacing gas engines, and for a modern efficient grid to run everything.  This transition will take time, and we also need to realize that it is really not necessary or even possible to do completely away with burning fossil fuels, or even implementing new nuclear technologies as they are developed.  We need to be guided by the appropriate application of technology to the needs of energy demand, and address the full assessment of environmental, geographic, social, and economic impacts.   What I am hearing is that there are amazing new technologies coming very soon…cheaper, more efficient, easier to use energy technologies.  A lot of these cut out the middleman…the oil and energy companies, the big utilities, the traditional Wall Street investors, and the huge lobby interests.  It's politics at its pinnacle.  Why is Massachusetts moving forward on renewable implementation, while next door, Maine is almost outlawing solar systems?  Why are Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico…the entire South where the sun really shines, not leaping forward in developing their renewable resources?  There is an enormous potential for not only cheap abundant energy, but also for clean jobs, and even lots of money to be made.  Politics and Dark Money!  It's where we are today, but stay tuned, because things can change very rapidly in today's world.

A few recent reads:





Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Costly Demise of the Nuclear Renaissance




I feel like I won the lottery because I finally nailed down a bet I made in 2006 that the supposed nuclear renaissance was going to be a huge failure.  I predicted that the 30+ new reactors being proposed would not be built, and the four that had actually gained construction permits would not be built on time, would be way over budget, and that even if they did come on line, their electricity would be so expensive it would have to be subsidized. The nuclear industry, on the other hand, claimed the new unproven Westinghouse AP-100- reactor would be cheaper to build and operate, would be safer, and would be the leading star in the “new” nuclear era here in the US and throughout the world.

The two Summer reactors under actual construction since 2008 in South Carolina were abruptly canceled last week after the utility confessed that the project was now estimated to cost $25 billion+ (up from the original $8 billion), was about 45% complete, and would not open before 2024.  If those plants were up and running by their original date of 2019, they would have been eligible for up to $8 billion in federal subsidies and tax credits.  Not going to happen.  So the big question now is who is going to "foot the bill" for the $9 billion that has already been spent on concrete, steel, labor, and executive's bloated salaries?  In 2007, the state legislature authorized an unheard of rule which allowed the utility (South Carolina Electric & Gas and the state-owned power company Santee Cooper) to immediately start charging the ratepayers for the construction costs, claiming it would be cheaper down the road since that would avoid borrowed money interest charges.  So the big question now is who pays?  The utility? Toshiba/Westinghouse, whose state of the art new generation design (the AP-1000) turned out to be a total disaster?  The state and/or feds, with a huge bailout?  Or do the citizens of South Carolina, who realistically had no choice in this boondoggle other than the empty promises of cheap electricity, construction jobs, increased local tax revenues, and the American dream? 

As one analyst reported, wrong assumptions were made from the start by the CEOs and other top brass who have so far profited immensely, and would have continued to profit from this white elephant if it ever went critical.  As many activists have purported, they knew because history repeats itself (think of the doomed half built Clatsop reactors sitting in Washington state because of the failed WPSS nuclear plan); and the environmental/anti-nuclear community told them, waging a battle offering knowledgeable testimony and discourse.  The big money won in the end.  It is interesting that the blame bantered around by the utility and the nuclear industry today does not focus on those damn environmentalists, as it has in the past.  Many of the reasons for the failure lie with the fact that this is a very complex and complicated technology that is very expensive to construct, and it must conform to stringent safety requirements and regulations.  The other big factor in this demise is the cheap cost of natural gas and the equally cheap and growing abundance of renewables such as solar and wind.  Add to that the third cost driver – efficiency – and no way would the large nuclear base-load dinosaur would ever be cost effective.  The decreasing demand for electricity, driven by such things as efficient LED lighting, better standards for appliances, and the shift to the digital age were not adequately addressed in the assumptions made 10-15 years ago.  The times they are a-changing, and most utilities are still in the dark ages dreaming of centralized control and profit.

The significance of the cancellation of this project now brings to the forefront the question of the two Vogle reactors currently being built in Georgia.  Begun about the same time, these nukes are way behind schedule, hoping to come on line in 2023; and the current cost estimate is $19 billion+, up from the original $8 billion.  A big difference here is that a consortium of investors all have a piece of this pie – Georgia Power, a subsidiary of Southern Co, Duke Energy, and even Toshiba (the parent company of the now bankrupted Westinghouse Electric, whose same AP-1000 reactor is being used, and several other players.  This consortium was awarded an $8.5 billion loan guarantee from the feds in 2007.  Is that going to be paid back to us, the taxpayers?  It's already been spent.  We'll see.

All of this will play out over the coming years.  The nuclear industry continues to be oblivious to the fact that there is no future for nuclear power generation – not in advanced reactors, small modular reactors, or even fusion.  The fiscal competition from natural gas (for the moment) and from the decreasing costs of solar and wind make it a no-brainer. They will soon have to face the facts that as current reactors shut down (10 scheduled this year alone) there is an enormous bill waiting to be paid for decommissioning and waste management.  The big argument will be "who pays?"  A fiscal conservative’s dilemma!

Two of the many articles covering this:




Friday, April 14, 2017

Renewbles Going into 2017



2017 and the new administration is creating a Maginot Line in the fight for clean sustainable energy in the US.  Alternative facts, half truths, and deliberate misstatements have really been with us for a long time, especially with regards to renewable energy and its counterpart, the fossil and nuclear industries.  The perceived backtrack on renewables in favor of coal as a foundation once again in our electricity generating future is one of the most blatant lies. The battle is coming to a head within the next few years, as basic economics and the marketplace, and not politics, determine the direction of electricity generation and the fuel for transportation vehicles.  These are currently the two big users of the traditional hard energy.  Renewables are charging full speed ahead, and it’s because of economics.  Over the past few months there have been many reports and sources documenting the exponential growth of megawatt capacity and very large number of jobs currently in the solar and wind sector.


For the past 20-30 years, THEY (and I’m going to lump all the conservative economists, industry leaders, think tank analysts, and politicians) have said solar is too expensive, and the cost of solar cells needed to decrease to 50 cents/watt to be competitive.  Today, those costs are between 25-25 cents/watt, and are continuing to decrease.  The cost of the equipment (the power plant) is decreasing, along with the O&M (fuel, operating, and maintenance costs).  Today, renewables are the cheapest path to electricity, even without subsidies, when all the true costs are taken into account.

Here are some of those alt-truths. THEY told us that solar panels would not last over 20 years, and thus when they were amortized over their lifetime, they were just too expensive.  Today’s reality is that solar panels will last a long, long time.  Manufacturers are warranting them for 25+years, and most say that a good panel may even last “forever” since there are no moving parts.  The framework and glass encapsulation materials have gotten better; and as with anything, a well made product can live up to industry expectations.  If a solar array is amortized over 30-40 years, as most industrial power plants and other facilities, the true cost is reduced.  Add to that the fact that there is no fuel cost, and that there is minimum maintenance, and the cost over that “lifetime” is really low.

Since the sun’s energy is not available 24/7, a 33% capacity factor is relatively valid.  But what has not been readily discussed is the value of the electricity produced during the day, when the greatest demand (peak power) required the purchase of expensive “peakers” electricity…usually gas fired turbines which would run for very short periods of time during the day and throughout the year.  A lot of those have a lower capacity factor; yet they have been constructed and sit idly by.  Solar is slowly surpassing the need for this expensive electricity, as seen just recently in California where there was so much free/solar electricity available for about six hours, resulting in a negative price for wholesale electricity for a certain time of that day.

Renewable technology will continue to expand, with increased efficiency, lower production costs, and new products and applications such as Tesla’s solar roof shingles (“Would you like a roof that looks better than a normal roof, last twice as long, cost less and by the way generates electricity, and that’s including the labor costs and without subsidies for solar.”) The ultimate realization that solar has minimal Operating and Maintenance costs (fuel, maintenance, replacements, and operational labor), can be placed literally anywhere there is a beam of sunlight, the integration of vast new electricity storage components, and the inevitable upgrades and modernization of the Grid, all make the future look very bright. 

Of course there are many obstacles and problems ahead.  Some of THEY worry that as the costs come down, there won’t be any incentive to invest and make money.  Electricity will be too cheap to meter!  Some utilities continue to fight the integration of solar into their ancient and out-dated business models.  Wyoming and Indiana are trying to outlaw solar (it is un-American, whereas coal is) by placing heavy taxes on its production.  PG&E in California is leading the way in re-thinking, re-organizing, re-structuring it’s entire operations…from shutting down it’s 2000MW baseload Diablo Canyon reactors, to modernizing how available electricity is distributed from where it is produced to where it is needed.

The bottom line is that we have reached the point TODAY where renewables are cheaper, cleaner, afford individual freedom of choice, and require less government regulation.  It is a shame that the greed and simple mindedness of our current political powers are letting America’s leadership in clean sustainable energy and its economic benefits slowly slip away.  But the sun will continue to shine and the wind will blow, and the enormous potential is still there!


An interesting article snuck into the relatively conservative “The Economist” last December kind of broke the old mold: