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:



Friday, March 10, 2017

New Energy Era - 2017



Just a quick update on where energy policy and development is at now, with the new administration’s blatant shift away from acknowledging and working towards solutions to the global issue of climate change.  Ignoring climate change will not make it going away; and as model predictions of increasing climate extremes continue to come true, the economic, as well as environmental and social impacts, will continue to escalate until it can no longer be ignored.  The basic reason for all this denial has always been the economic threat to the fossil fuel industry.  However, today’s bottom line is that renewables are NOW the least cost technology for generating electricity, on par with natural gas, and well outpacing the increasing costs of coal and nuclear.  This is already beginning to cut into the coal and oil’s once dominance in electricity generation and transportation. In this piece, I will focus on nuclear, the third component of “big” industry’s stranglehold on energy policy.
The nuclear renaissance is basically dead.  Like a slain dinosaur, it just keeps thrashing its tail with hopes of new profits for the industry.  The bottom line is cost.  No new reactors have been ordered in over ten years, and several supposed advanced technology reactors are falling off the drawing boards in Florida and South Carolina.  One of the last “hopeful” plans is a reactor in Virginia, now estimated at $19b!! The new small modular reactors are still years away from even scaled up models for testing and licensing.  The fact is that by the time they do become available, their needs for all the infrastructure of uranium mining, enrichment, fabrication, steam generators, low and high level waste management and disposal, as well as the declining need for base load power, will make them unaffordable compared to renewables with storage and natural gas backup (1).  The same hold true for thorium and even fusion.  Nuclear technology is overkill…just to boil water…as Amory Lovins said “it’s like cutting butter with a chain saw!”  Yes, in time we will build some of these advanced projects, but they will never approach the capacity, which renewables will supply in generating electricity.
The big problem today is what to do with the 95+ reactors currently in operation in the US,  as they begin to reach the end of their useful life.  The cost of maintaining them is increasing, making them basically uncompetitive in today’s market (2).  The recent revelations of Toshiba-Westinghouse losses of $6-8 billion has rattled world markets, the problems with France’s Areva and EDF’s state of the art reactors in Finland and France, and the economic changes caused at Hinkley due to Brexit are all weighing heavily on the global nuclear industry. Again, this is all due to exorbitantly increasing costs, in the face of rapidly decreasing costs for renewables.  California is again leading in the shift to a sustainable renewable future with its plan for shutting down its twin reactors at Diablo Canyon.
Meanwhile, no progress had been made in radioactive waste storage.  The industry is now drooling at the huge upcoming market in decommissioning.  A lot of companies, such as Energy Solution, are pushing into the waste storage arena, hoping for Congressional approval to create of a centralized, monitored spent fuel cask site probably in Texas or Utah.  This is going to be a tough sell, since it was tried back in the early 90’s and failed for numerous environmental and safety reasons.  The new push for Yucca Mountain will reveal the same technical problems identified earlier that make that site unsuitable.  In a couple of months I will partake in a hearing looking into putting casks in the deep ocean bottom muds off the California coast.  Absurd!  As I’ve said before, there is no solution to high level waste storage other than keeping it on site at the various locations in well designed and built casks that can be monitored and upgraded over the millennium.
The news from Fukushima is overwhelming.   The ice wall proved to be a $300m fiasco, and the fact that there was a complete meltdown creating radiation levels so severe that even robots can survive more than a few minutes suggests that this accident will never be cleaned up and will continue to pollute for tens of thousands of years (3).  Sad!
On a positive note, Humboldt Bay is in the final phase of its $1.1b cleanup, and the last of the 4000 truckloads of contaminated soil should be off our highways by next March.  Interesting that Highway 299 has been closed since last November…that was the cheapest and most direct route to the railhead in Redding.  I’m waiting for an update.
Again, it is economics and not the environment, or safety, or the social/moral/ethical issues that is playing havoc with the nuclear industry.  It is a dangerous and complex technology, which achieved its status only because of the tremendous profits, afforded to the powerful military/industrial complex.  CEOs are still making money today, planning for reactors, which will never be built.  And the public, in its apathetic ignorance, continues to pay for it.
Depending on who/what/where you get your information, the true facts have always been out in the open.  It depends on what you read and believe.  Two recent articles display this.
And from the right wing Daily Caller, some real optimism.  Andrew has been so wrong so many times!

The bottom line is that nuclear will not play a new or substantial role in our energy future.  Renewables, storage, efficiency, and a modern grid system are already making headway.

Some background:

If you need more references to issues, which you cannot find yourself, please ask and I can refer you to my sources.  Or check with Fox and BreitBart!






Friday, December 30, 2016

Some Thoughts as We End the Year


A few thoughts as we end the year.  As we enter a new “reality” in US energy policy, the overwhelming consensus is that human induced climate change is real, and burying heads in the sand will not make it go away.  The hoax has been the product of millions of dollars and a well orchestrated plan to deceive, provide misinformation, and outright lie to confuse and keep the populous ignorant, so that the fossil fuel industry can continue their power and wealth accumulation.  Those folks are now at the helm, and what will happen is anyone’s guess.  At some point, the economic repercussions of the increasing extremes in weather, ecosystem disruption, and human well being will override the political neglect.



Solar and wind are not dead!  They will suffer some setbacks, but the bottom line is that they are now competitive (even without subsidies) with most any other form of electricity generation, and with continued technological developments and the implementation of storage, they will continue to provide more and more of our energy demands.  “In the end, for the political class it's all about money and votes,” said Mark Barteau, director of the Energy Institute at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. “Coal is dying and renewables are surging, and that is not going to change. Once this bunch figures out where the dollars and jobs are, they will follow.”  Business, industry, and individuals will continue to invest in self-generation, especially as the traditional utility model begins to unravel.  The past few years, we have seen reduced demand to electricity due to efficiency, changes in living patterns, and a decline of the traditional huge demand by industrial production.  Couple that with the overabundance of oil and gas, and we have some pretty low energy prices.  This does not bode well with the energy industries, which require higher prices to accumulate higher profits.  Drill, baby, drill!  That didn’t work out so well for the oil and gas folks.  In California, we’re paying 19 cents/KWH…averaging out the high cost of nuclear from Diablo Canyon, the low cost of old hydro, the declining cost of solar and wind and the “low” cost of natural gas.  The price of gas goes up…KWH prices go up…cheaper to generate your own!



Nuclear is dying an exponential death.  Nukes around the country (as well as the world) are shutting down, and even with those under construction, it will not play any bigger role in our energy future.  High construction costs, high maintenance and replacement costs, no real solution to the huge waste problems, and even the false promise of “carbon free” electricity…all have the nuclear industry in dire straits.  Toshiba just announced a $85 billion loss for this year, the escalating cost of decommissioning Chernobyl, the unknown reality of what to do with Fukushima, and the increasing need of subsidies and bailouts for nukes here at home all sour the economic hopes of the nuclear industries.  It will be interesting to see how the fossil fuel boys play with the nuke boys in this new political environment.



The new technologies of small modular reactors, advanced reactors, and even fusion will not gain in status because they are too expensive, especially as the costs of renewables continue to fall.  We will see amazing new technological developments, but they will most likely be “sunlight” oriented.



The US has always been a major force in world energy and economic policy.  However, a digression from the huge potentials of renewable energy back to the old coal and oil days will place us in an interesting position in the world economy.  The move forward by China, India, Europe, as well as he developing world, will leave us behind in many respects.  Just as television revolutionized the world in the 50’s and 60’s; personal computers in the 80’s and 90’s; and cell phones and the internet in the 00’s to now, renewable energy has the potential to provide affordable energy, jobs, a cleaner environment, and a sustainable future, while giving consumers a more democratic say in the process.  What happens will be very interesting, for the battle is really no longer about jobs vs. the environment, but oil vs. the sun.  (Remember hydrogen!)



If you want further information on any of these summations, please let me know, and I will provide references to the left wing, liberal, biased, lying, tree-hugging media and journals that I read!



A couple of recent pieces on nuclear:











Happy New Year!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!








Friday, December 2, 2016

Entering 2017...a new era




Susan and I are off to the Bahamas for a week, where we hope to isolate ourselves from the “reality” that is occurring in America and the rest of the world.  As 2017 looms, interesting changes will most probably happen in everything, especially in energy policy and deployment for the next few years.  The new administration’s apparent rejection of climate change will have an impact on the inevitable transition to renewables.  How much of a setback will depend on many factors.  First of all, calling climate change a hoax does not make it go away.  As I said before, the biggest “hoax” has been the deliberate suppression and obstruction campaign hosted by Exxon, the fossil fuel industry, and the media.  Eventually, the US will join the rest of the world when the true economic, social, and political costs of ignorance and greed overwhelm the increasing damages that will happen to the planet. 

The dream that we will go back to burning coal, and increasing our use of oil, flows contrary to what is happening here and around the world.  “The renewable train has already left the station!” Renewables are already cheaper than most hard technologies, even without subsidies; and the “old” jobs saved or created can’t equal the huge potential of good, clean, local jobs.  Again, it’s a matter of who profits most…huge corporations or the 90% of people who want to work and have a fair chance in life.

As for the nuclear industry, things look grim, in spite of all the positive spin being thrown out there.  The “carbon-free” advantage just went out the window.  Finishing the four reactors under construction, the hope of new small modular reactors, thorium and advanced breeders, and even fusion will never happen because of the enormous costs associated with not just their development, but also with their necessary infrastructure and wastes.  Reprocessing is the basis of most of these new technologies, and it is very complex and expensive in so many ways, that without huge government subsidies, they won’t even begin to compete with the near term development of cheaper renewable generation and storage.

Then there is the issue of nuclear wastes.  A brief overview of some of the current issues show that costs will begin to mount astronomically, because we really haven’t addressed them in the past.  The new official Japanese government cost estimate for Fukushima has just risen to over $178 billion, and they still don’t know what they are going to do.  Check out the video (link below) of the new $1.5 containment structure for Chernobyl, which should enshroud the facility for 100 years; whether any progress on melted fuel removal occurs in that time frame is anybody’s guess, as well as at what cost.  The $2 billion accident at the 15-year old WIPP waste site in New Mexico sends our scientists back to the drawing board.  The cleanup of the radioactive dump in St. Louis, and the never-ending mess at Hanford, have both been pushed forward for 40+? years.  The new interest in Yucca Mountain does not change the scientific, technical, and social problems that need to be overcome.  Europe is experiences similar economic and technical obstacles to their nuclear programs.  In spite of the media push by the industry (the recent headlines of a diamond/nuclear waste battery solving the waste problem is absurd), it’s the same misinformation (post truth, or whatever you want to now call it) playing on the emotions of the ignorant masses wanting simple solutions to very complex and expensive problems. 

On a positive note, the Humboldt Bay Nuclear Power Plant is now in its final major decommissioning phase.  Everything above ground has been pretty much deconstructed and trucked off to Texas and Utah. The remaining below grade contaminated concrete reactor caisson, as well as the soil, will be removed from a hole 120 feet in diameter, and 190 feet deep.  All this will be sorted, packaged, and shipped away. This phase will cost about $300 million, involve about 3000 truckloads to Texas, and take another 15 months to complete.  Following that, final site restoration work will begin in earnest.  Surprisingly PG&E is still near the estimated budget of $1.18 billion.

Another bright note is that in spite of our tax dollars being spent on these fiascos, the future of a lot of our electricity use will be dictated by businesses (like Apple, Google, GM, Walmart, etc, who find it cheaper to generate their own electricity), individuals who will cut into utility profits with their small rooftop systems, the growth of local community based generation, and the huge savings from energy efficiency.  I am fortunate to live in California, which through its example, will lead the nation forward.  There are going to be major changes, and it’s too bad a lot of our tax dollars probably won’t be directed to this clean, affordable, and sustainable future.  As usual, I am optimistic that people will eventually figure out that the quality of the water they drink, the air that they breath, and the landscape they pass on to their children is worth more than the corporate profits of the few.  It’s called a revolution, and the citizens are arming themselves in more ways than one.

Power to the people; and God bless America!

Just a few:




Thursday, September 8, 2016

Rooftop Solar as a Finacial Investment



One of the biggest obstacles to the deployment of solar energy, especially in small-scale residential systems is the lack if accurate and up to date information.  The powerful fossil fuel industry has done a marvelous job with the media over the years, denouncing climate change and the potentials that renewables offer in creating the transition that ultimately will occur.
Recently Donald Trump pooh-poohed solar with a shrug saying "an 18 year payback...come on!"  A retired friend in the Sacramento area said he would love to go solar, but it would never pay for itself in his lifetime.  Another person asked what the payback period was on my personal system, and adamantly said that number was the most important number in the solar discussion.  What they are missing is an understanding of what that number really means, and how its value measures up with today's financial investments.
Let's analyze what an 18-year payback period for a certain dollar investment in a solar system means in a grid-intertied system.  During the day, electricity is produced, and is used to run our appliances and other electric loads as needed.  We are producing our own electricity, and saving the cost of buying what we need at that time from our utility.  If we produce more than what use, the excess is fed into the grid, essentially running the electric meter backwards and giving us a credit.  We are getting money one way or another for what the electricity produce.  We could store our excess in batteries, but in reality, a grid-intertied system is very simple “storage system,” and ultimately has major benefits for all.  At night, or when conditions demand more electricity than what we can produce at that time, we buy KWHs from the utility, just as always.  Your meter is a two-way portal. How much we produce relies on how large a system we install, what the weather conditions are during that day, what the "solar window" looks like on our roof with regards to southern orientation, shading from tree or buildings, and the season...more and better sun in the summer months than in the winter…and a variety of factors.
The dollar value of the solar electricity produced depends on many variables, mainly in which state you live in.  Like property taxes, sales taxes, and income taxes, each state and its utilities varies greatly in what it "pays" for solar generated electricity.  This is a very large problem...often a huge un-incentive...in many places, and political battles are being fought in Nevada, Florida, and Arizona, where there is a huge abundance of solar potential that is being squashed by the energy industry's effective lobbying.
Let's focus on California, and my utility...PG&E.  The setting of utility rates for various users by the state PUC is virtually incomprehensible; but for my energy account, the cost of a KWH is atg the moment 18 cents.  This price includes the cost of electricity generation (bought on the wholesale market), transmission and distribution, taxes, insurance, special programs, nuclear decommissioning, wages and CEO salaries, shareholder dividends, and all the other costs associated with doing business.  When I use one KWH from PG&E, my meter records it, and  18 cents is added to my monthly bill.  When I put a KWHfrom my solar system back into the grid, running the meter backwards, I am paid 18 cents.  This is called net-metering, and is a huge issue in the solar debate, since the average wholesale price nationwide is somewhere between 4 and 10 cents/KWH depending on where you are, and when you are using that electricity.  Utilities complain that they are paying way more for that residential solar than what they could buy on he open market, and that the solar generators are not paying their fair share for the other costs of the grid. Fair enough...non-solar producing customers are subsidizing solar generators.  Arizona and Nevada, the loudest complainers, moan the fact that less than 4% of their customers are on solar…a huge burden on them and their ratepayers.  What about all the subsidies to nuclear, natural gas, and coal?  The utilities should be the ones "owning" the solar systems so they could control the flow of electrons and reap the benefits.  But that's another story.  So in California, at least for now, you size your system to produce as much electricity as you want, but try NOT to exceed 110% of what you use in a year.  If you produce more than that, PG&E will pay you about 6 cents/KWH for that excess electricity (the wholesale price), and not 18 cents.  Again, fair enough for now.  A friend has a great solar site, has a huge system producing way more than he uses, and got $212 from PG&E.  They certainly wouldn't want everyone to become individual power plants; that would add competition and muddle up their traditional business model.  Things, of course, are in flux, especially with businesses, such as Apple and Google, who can now sell their excess electricity on the open market.  This all is very complicated stuff, and will eventually get worked out as more and more people and businesses go solar, and as storage comes on line down the road, and the cost of baseload nuclear and coal continues to climb.  But for now, my 3.7KW system is estimated to crank out about 90% of my annual electricity demand.
My system cost around $13,000 after tax credits, etc.  I preface this by saying I could have gotten it cheaper, but as with almost anything we buy such as cars, cameras, cell phones, etc., there are many personal choices and decisions to be made as to how much money we spend.  My system should produce about 4000KWH per year.  At 18 cents/KWH, that’s $720 per year that stays in my pocket, not having to buy that equivalent amount of electricity from PG&E.  So what is the payback period?  18 years.  In 18 years, the system will have paid for itself.  Wow...I hope I live that long! 
Now let's look at this with a broader for view.  The $13,000 I INVESTED is giving me a fixed annual income return of 5.5%!!!!!!!!!  Is this significant?  I think so.  (See below for a discussion of investment percentages.) I recently asked a financial advisor if he could put some of my money in an income yielding investment that would give me 5% TAX FREE, and he laughed and said those days are long gone, and he could probably do around 3% taxable.  It's all Obama's fault; maybe after the election things might get better; blah, blah, blah!!!!  When I told him of my solar investment, he quickly changed the subject and blurted out "how 'bout them Giants...!"  He wouldn't even rationally discuss it because he probably didn’t understand the significance of it, or because it would strike at his heart having to realize his thinking has been wrong for so long.  He also can’t make any money advising it to his customers. So, according to him, if you have $10-15 thousand, put it in treasury bonds at 2%, or a money market for 0.8%?  You could put it into stocks that pay a dividend...PG&E is paying 3.5% (taxable), Exxon-Mobil 3.1% (taxable).  Payback period of about 30 years!  Even compounded interest, payback is about 20 years, and taxable.  With solar, and I'm not advocating investing in stocks of solar companies, you have a stable, fixed value investment that in my case gets better.  PG&E has raised the electricity rates three times since I put in my system, and filings with the PUC show that they will go up again in the future.  You don't have the worry of what the market will do, whether that stock price will go up or down, since the value and income is relatively fixed...as long as the sun shines.  And after it has paid for itself, it will still be there generating dollars for years to come.
Of course, there is a lot of old information still floating around. “The system won't last 18 years, it’s too expensive, and something cheaper, like new nuclear or fusion, will come along, etc.”  Today's PV panels are very dependable (mine have a 25 year warranty), and experience is showing they will perform for 40 years, if not forever.  There are no moving parts, and the current degradation in the glass coatings is less than 0.4% year. The system is virtually maintenance free, other than a hosing down a couple of times a year.  My panels are 18% efficient under ideal conditions (18% of something free ain't bad, considering steam-generated electricity is about 33% efficient, and automobiles are around 18%.)  As the technology improves, increasing efficiency means less surface area is needed.  The 4 new panels I recently put up are the same size and cost the same as those I bought a year and a half ago…yet they put out 25% more electricity.  The technology and manufacturing processes are bringing down the cost.  Also, as with most economies of scale, the balance of system...inverters, racks, and even installation time and labor costs are coming down.  Lot's of jobs...it beats working in a hole in the ground mining coal...now there's for a new bluegrass song!
I live in the heart of the Redwoods, three miles from one of the foggiest airports in the US.  My neighbor recently put a system on his house, and will soon install a 15KW system on his fish smoking business a few miles inland.  He said it was a no-brainier...after all the tax credits, business deductions, etc, it has an 8 year payback...12% return (tax free), and he has the satisfaction of doing the "right thing."  He is also getting an electric vehicle!
It's interesting how we don't really ask or talk about the “payback period” when we make other purchases.  You buy a new car, and of course you pay for what you want and can afford; and you hope that it will last X number of miles or for so many years.  You may even now be concerned with MPG or how much it might cost to operate.  And it depreciates in value the minute it leaves the dealer's floor.  Think about replacing your roof...you spend tens of thousands of dollars on a 20-30 year roof, which is basically worthless when the time comes to re-roof.  What’s the payback? Elan Musk recently said a lot of people spend money a on a new roof, then spend more money on a solar system to put over it...the solar system should be the roof, and the roof should not only pay for itself, but should make you money!  I saw several of these roofing systems in Northern Italy, but they haven’t caught on here in the US yet.  Just wait!
When the financial world finally realizes that solar, small and large, is an investment that makes money for the investor, things will really take off.  We already have opportunities to not only install on our own roof, but there are growing businesses that allow people who do no have an appropriate site, or are renters, to invest in systems on some roof somewhere when they want a safe, secure investment.  Companies now are "renting" your roof...paying for and installing systems, and reducing the homeowner's electricity bill.  If they can get 10-15% return, then they can afford to give you 3-4%.  Of course there will be scams, failures, and obstacles, but the bottom line is that the costs are coming down, clean electricity is being produced with free fuel, and individuals are allotted more personal freedoms.  A fiscal conservative’s dream!  A Koch brothers nightmare!  Power to the people!

Growth rates and Percentage

Things grow at various rates and percentages.  There are two main kinds of investments most of us make.  Here are some examples.
Simple percent rate, also called fixed income.  Let’s say you invest $1000 and get a rate of return of 5%.  That means at the end of the first year, you will receive $50, and you can go out and spend it however you want.  The same is true for the next year, and for each of the 20 years it will take to payback your original $1000 investment, $50 at a time.  That $1000 is working for you, and you can continue getting $50 a year as long as the % rate stays the same.
Compounded interest, or what most long-term investment vehicles offer.  Take the $50 you got from that $1000 investment, and instead of spending it, you leave it in the account.  Your investment is now worth $1050.  The next year the 5% pays you $52.50.  If you leave that in, your investment value is now $1102.50.  The next year, the value increases to $1157.63, and your money continues to grow at an exponential rate.  You’re getting 5% on your original investment plus all the interest it is accruing.  The time to double is a simple formula: T2=70/%, (in this case 70 divided by 5) so the value of the account will have doubled (will have paid for itself) in 14 years.  It will be worth $2000.
That is 6 years earlier than in the fixed income scenario; but you do not have access to the “interest” that it is making.  If you want your money to grow over a long period of time, ie, you’re saving for retirement, then this makes sense.  At a constant 5%, that $1000 will be worth $8000 in 42 years!  Put money in a money market account, and you might get 0.8%…better to put it in an account in the Caimans!
A solar system is a fixed income vehicle, giving you whatever percent the sun generates   from your investment, and once it has paid for itself, you still have the system making you money.  Hopefully you have spent the money you made each year wisely and have had a good time!