Archive for Nuclear Power

Another Cost Comparison For Renewable Electricity

I’m not a fan of nuclear power… I think it’s generally more expensive than solar, has very long lead times, and is simply playing with fire. Why would we invest in an expensive technology that, when it goes wrong, renders large geographic areas uninhabitable, as we saw with Chernobyl?

Everyone likes to be validated, so this study finding that nuclear loan guarantees are imprudent caught my attention.

In and of itself, I thought the included chart showing the levelized cost of various electricity generation technolgies accorging to three independent studies was very informative. Take a look at it here:

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Off topic: How Do the Candidates Stack up on Clean Energy?

A trip down to the local national party offices to participate in a press conference asking the presidential candidates to pledge their support for clean energy legislation got me thinking about the candidates… I wasn’t sure which candidate has the best clean energy platfom. So I spent a day reading thorough thier platforms, and came to a surprising (to me answer).2008 Election

You can read how I think the candidates’ platforms compare on clean energy here.

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CSP for Dictators

When I heard
France had offered to provide a nuclear reactor
to power a desalinization
plant in Libya, it knocked me for a loop.  I do believe in carrots to show
countries that we don’t always get along with that there is some reason to be on
our good side, but I fail to see any circumstances under which adding one more
batch of radioactive material (even if not bomb-making grade) in a troubled
region of the world is going to aid our long term security.

If we want to help Gaddafi (or
perhaps pay him off for returning hostages
,) wouldn’t it make more sense to
give him something just a little less dangerous?  Concentrating Solar Power
(CSP) is ideally suited for Libya’s hat and dry climate, and it works well for
desalinization… why not use this opportunity to advance CSP technology, and
not have to worry about proliferation to boot?

That’s the question I ask in my most recent Alternative
Energy Stocks
article.  And while I’m at it, I ask similar questions
about our relations with Iran and North Korea. 

Click
here to read the entire article.

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TXU goes Nuclear- (rant)

A Wall Street Journal article today reports that TXU is planning on using nuclear power to replace the coal plants which they shelved recently.

This drives me batty. I do think that nuclear power is better than coal, and even better than IGCC, but basically substituting nuclear power for coal power is just replacing one nasty externality (CO2 emissions) with another: adding to the risk of nuclear terrorism and waste disposal problems.

When expected costs of CO2 are factored in, the price of nuclear power does looks good. But I ask the same question people are finally asking about global warming: “What’s the business case for destroying the planet?”

Here’s what we should be thinking for our baseload energy needs:

  • Energy Efficiency…. 1-3 cents per kWh
  • Concentrating Solar Power with thermal storage…. 10-15 cents per kWh (and dropping)
  • Wind power, combined with pricing mechanisms to shift demand…. 4-6 cents per kWh
  • And for peaking power:

  • Demand Response
  • Time of Day Pricing
  • Concentrating Solar Power with large scale thermal storage and an oversized turbine
  • Eight steps forward… six steps back. Do we really need to dig up mountains for uranium instead of decapitating them for coal?

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    Visual Comparison of Electricity Generation Technologies

    I just put together a couple graphs for a talk I’m giving on Monday to give people a visual feel of the various technologies for generating electricity.  These come with a gigantic caveat: the numbers are far from precise.

    With changing technologies, it’s impossible to represent any of this with a single number anyway.  I’m trying to show how the technologies compare to each other, and I used four parameters:

    • Cost ($/MWh),
    • Availability (better the closer the profile of the technology matches a normal demand curve (wind is bad, baseload is okay, dispatchable is best, solar),
    • Emissions (and I count waste storage when it comes to nuclear),
    • Bubble sizes represent the size and durability of the resource (I’ve tried to combine in one number how much power we can get from the resource, but also how long supplies of fuel will last.) 

    In both charts, the “best” technologies are in the upper left (low cost, low emissions, and available when we need them.)

    I know that I’m going to upset a lot of people because I was too harsh with their favorite technology, so feel free and comment on the numbers I’m using, but also please provide references for where you get your numbers.  Most of these are off the top of my head, so their accuracy is admittedly questionable.   Here are the numbers I used to make the graphs.

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    Conversation with a wind skeptic

    I’ve been having a long conversation with a wind skeptic who responded to my Gust Ceiling entry.    While the rest of us are thinking about ways to overcome the intermittentcy problem with wind, this Rucio is dismissing it out of hand because of that problem. 

     See the comments for our conversation.  We RE enthusiasts need people like this Rucio/Eric Rosenbloom to make sure that we’re not the ones in la-la land.  To paraphrase Paul Newman, if you look around and can’t tell who the lunatic fringe is, you’re it.

    I’d like to point out that I jumped to a couple of conclusions myself, which he points out… I left these comments in, even though they do not make me look great.  They are there because I want people who are trying to make up their mind to know that I have not just invented myself a straw man in order to look good.

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    Five minutes with Xcel’s Dick Kelley

    Richard C. Kelly

    Dick Kelley, the President, CEO, and Chairman of the Board of Xcel Energy spoke to the board and invited guests of Western Resource Advocates last Friday.  I was invited as a supporter of WRA.

     

    His speech was widely reported in the press because he called for national regulation of greenhouse gas emissions.  The AP story emphasized Kelly’s shift from being an environmental skeptic to calling for national Carbon emissions regulation.  This is a big shift, and a giant step for a utility, but Kelly is not so much of an environmental advocate as he might sound.

     

    I had a short conversation with him before dinner.  After we introduced ourselves, I told him I’d been making his life harder recently at the Colorado PUC.  Like anyone who’s been successful in business, he didn’t miss a beat, and told me that it was great, and the more people’s input we had, the better.

     

    He said that Xcel had been opposed to Amendment 37 because of the cost of the solar set-aside, a position I’m actually sympathetic with.   After all, is it better to have 1 MW of solar photovoltaics on people’s roofs, or 20 MW of Wind?  When you look at the subsidies needed to get people to install PV (which is an Amendment 37 requirement), we could probably get 20x as much wind energy onto the grid for the same cost.   It’s not that wind cost 1/20 as much as solar, but since the price of electricity from wind is comparable to the price of coal, it does not take much to get a lot of wind, while solar needs to be heavily subsidized.

     

    What I really would have liked in A37 was an allocation for Demand Side Management (DSM) and energy efficiency.  If the same incentives could have gotten us 20 MW of wind or 1 MW of solar, it could also have gotten us 40 MW of DSM and energy efficiency.  (none of these numbers are precise… it’s hard to tell what an incentive will accomplish until it is implemented, but we do know that DSM is cheaper than wind is cheaper than solar.)  But energy efficiency was not on the table when A37 was being written… polling data said that adding “energy efficiency” to the bill dropped popular support by so much that we couldn’t have gotten it passed.

     

    Dick Kelley also told me that Comanche 3 (a new 750 MW coal plant) would be the last conventional coal plant that Xcel would build.  I told him Comanche 3 would be fine with me, if they’d just shut down Comanche 1 and 2 (a couple old, less efficient plants at the same site.)  That was an option that’s clearly off the table, but he did say Xcel needed to find a way to clean up the emissions of those plants.  I suggested wood chips, like Aquila is doing at their  Clark Generating Station in Canon City.  By co-firing wood and pine needles from necessary forest thinning, Aquila is able to reduce net CO2 emissions, as wel as NOx, SOx, and Mercury.

    I mentioned the option of hybridizing concentrating solar thermal power (CSP) with existing coal plants.  He didn’t really understand the concept, and thought I was talking about photovoltaics.  I’m not sure I was able to explain myself well.  Put simply, when heat is available from the sun, it can be used to displace heat from coal (or natural gas) in an existing generator.

    Kelly also said he’d like to raise wind to 20-25% of generation, but after that they’d have to see what the effect on reliability of the grid would be.  I brought up the idea of Pumped hydro or CAES.  He didn’t seem familiar with the fact that Colorado’s Big Thompson Project could be adapted for pumped hydro fairly easily.  As he said, new big hydro is not going to happen.  Which is all the more reason for adapting out existing reservoirs for energy storage with pumped hydro.

    I was encouraged that he has recognized that Carbon Emissions are a massive problem, and that the utilites, who are the biggest emitters of carbon, are going to have a big part in the solution, but discouraged that he knew so little about several pieces of the solution that have great potential to be quickly viable.

    Xcel likes wind, but is not looking at new ways to increase how much they can put on their system… they’ll just go to 20-25% and see what happens.  They’re pursuing IGCC (Internal Gasification Combined Cycle a.ka. “Clean Coal”) with carbon sequestration in a pilot plant, which many environmentalists feel is just a distraction from renewable energy, pointing out that no one has ever done any sort of sequestration on a large scale.  To me, that is an argument for IGCC with Carbon Sequestration, on a small scale: let’s give it a try and see if we can make it work or not.

    IGCC is a lot better than one of the other ideas that Kelly brought up in his speech: he thinks that part of the solution will be nuclear power.  Nuclear power is indeed carbon neutral, but it requires diminishing uranium supplies, or the use of breeder reactors which make plutonium, an element which is not only extrememly toxic, but also an excellent material for making nuclear bombs.  We still haven’t figured out what we’re going to do with the waste from our existing reactors… until we do that, I think it’s crazy to look into building more.  And considering the real threat of terrorism, a nuclear reactor or wastepile makes a much better target than a solar array or wind farm.

    When it comes to Kelly’s call for national regulation of carbon emissions, it’s a great step in the right direction, but it was a far cry from calling for a carbon tax (which economists think would be the most effective method of carbon regulation.)  Kelly knows global warming is real, and he knows that our politicians are going to do something about it.  By calling for national mandatory regualtion (but not a tax) he’s trying to shape the debate to come out in a way that Xcel will find easier to deal with. 

    With a little more education about alternatives such as CSP, and ways to make the grid able to accept more intermentent resources (Time of use pricing, DSM, and energy storage), he may come to realize that Xcel has lots of ways to live in a carbon taxed or carbon limited world.  And he seems willing to listen; so if you get his ear for five minutes, try to make the most of it.

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    Water and energy

    Last month, several nuclear power stations in Europe had to shut down during a heat wave (and consequent period of extreme electricity demand) to avoid releasing overheated water back into the environment.  As many other astute observers have pointed out, this pokes another big hole in the arguments that nuclear is our best choice of carbon-neutral generating technology.  A power plant that goes down precisely when you need the most power is almost useless for the current grid.

    It also brings up the broader point of the role of water in electricity generation.  Nuclear is not the only technology that uses water for cooling.  Coal plants, including “next generation” IGCC plants mostly use water for cooling (air cooling can be used, but it makes them less efficient, and hence more expensive to run, and is seldom used in practice.)

    This is a problem because water, in most countries is under-priced.  Resources that are under-priced tend to be overused, since the user does not have to bear the full cost of supply.  This is the cause of a large number of ills, such as the drying up of the Aral sea due to irrigation for cotton farming.  It is not only poor countries who don’t have enough water.  In the US, mispricing means that almost every aquifer is being pumped at much faster than sustainable levels.  In this context, it seems certain that power plants are also paying too little for the water they use for cooling.

     With a looming need to increase farming to supply biofuels, it is more important than ever that water be priced appropriately, especially in planning scenarios for power plants.  When water is under-priced, generation technologies which use more water are likely to be inappropriately favored in comparison to technologies which use little or no water for generation.

     Like nuclear, thermal electric systems are usually water cooled.  Fossil-fueled power plants account for approximately 39 percent of the water used in the United States, second only to agriculture. For coal plants, this typically amounts to 3 gallons of water (Texas study) or 0.5 gallons (NREL study) for every kWh produced (25 gallons are used for cooling, but only 3 evaporate in the process).  Nuclear, Biomass, and Oil fired plants also require large amounts of water lost as steam in the cooling process.   Some Solar thermal technologies also require significant water for cooling.

    Water use by large hydropower projects is more complex, since water in reservoirs is more useful for some purposes (recreation) but often less useful for wildlife.  However, there is no question that reservoirs increase evaporative losses.  An NREL study quantifies these losses in the US.  Overall, in the US evaporative losses average over 18.2 gallons per kWh of hydroelectric power generated.  These numbers vary widely depending on the reservoir, from 2-3 gallons per kWh in cool northern states, up to over 100 gallons per kWh in KY, OK, SD, and WY.  Keep in mind that a lot of these reservoirs have other uses besides power generation, such as storing water for dry seasons, but the numbers can be mind-boggling.

    Technologies which use little water include gas turbines (both natural gas and gas from renewable sources such as landfill gas), and geothermal (the water is typically re-injected into the ground).

    Wind, photovoltaic, and wave power require no water to generate electricity. 

    Energy efficiency, by its nature, uses no water.  Readers will recognize that as an ongoing theme: Given the choice, it is better to avoid using a kWh than it is to generate a kWh (regardless of source… even renewables have environmental impact.)

    Renewable energy advocates should also be advocating for more rational water pricing, especially in planning scenarios.  Water use in generation will eventually come to be recognized as a significant cost (and source of uncertainty, as France found out last month).  The sooner this happens, the better for everyone.  Pricing water properly will not only save water, it will help move us to renewable energy technologies.

    Investors may do well by concentrating their investments on low water use technologies, especially in parts of the world where water is (or will soon be) scarce.

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    Energy security worries – a two-edged sword

    The best thing to happen to renewable energy and energy efficiency this century is without a doubt the relentless rise in all forms of energy.  Gasoline going from $1 to $3 in just a couple years, higher utility bills, and worries about terrorism have defense hawks worried about “energy security” and environmentalists together for the first time.

    Having a Republican president talking about renewable energy has certainly been nice for investors in renewables, but I know I’m not the only long term clean energy advocate whom this makes more than a little nervous.

    I’m happy to have Bush, et al on board and paddling, but I’m worried that they’re also grabbing for the rudder with their emphasis on energy security rather than environmental degradation and efficient use of resources.

    Here are the directions the energy security types are pursuing I think are misguided:

    1. Coal.  Because of rising energy prices, and the threat of future caps on carbon emissions, utilities all over the country are rushing to build coal plants (read the excellent press release from Environment Colorado) while they still can: they justify this because coal is a domestic resource, and it is “cheaper” than other sources of electricity (this is not true, when compared to wind, but it was true so recently that most people still believe it.)  Energy efficiency measures are much cheaper than any type of new generation.
    2. Nuclear.  Energy security hawks tend to be big fans for nuclear energy.  How having more sources of plutonium and hazardous waste around that could be attacked or used by terrorists increases our security, I don’t know.  Not to mention the fact that nuclear power is quite expensive.  I can only attribute the energy security hawk’s attachment to nuclear to their love of big solutions to big problems.
    3. Ethanol.  Cellulostic Ethanol will be a wonderful thing, when it emerges from the lab and becomes a commercially viable technology, but all the subsidies for corn Ethanol do very little to improve our energy security or reduce the amount of carbon we emit.  I see them mainly as a subsidy for farmers, cloaked as a move for energy security.  I do like the push for more flex-fuel vehicles, because it only costs $150 to make a vehicle flex fuel in the factory, over the cost of the gasoline version, and when and if cellulostic technology comes of age, the vehicle fleet will be ready for it.

    In short, I’m glad to have the energy security hawks on board, but I’m hoping we can get them to listen a little more carefully to those of us who have been rowing this boat all along.

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