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!