Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Perils of an Energy Panacea in New England

Nuclear engineer Howard Shaffer may be an interested party, but he points out in an op-ed in the Concord (N.H.) Monitor that New England really needs to diversify its energy supply more. Why? Because cold New England winters are exposing fault lines in the energy supply.

At one point last winter, during the polar vortex, 75 percent of New England’s natural-gas generating capacity was not operating due to lack of supply or high prices. Public Service of New Hampshire resorted to burning costly jet fuel to meet the demand for electricity, while the price of oil rose to more than $400 per barrel.

Jet fuel! If that doesn’t speak to desperation, nothing does. Shaffer plumps for nuclear energy, as would be his wont:

Nuclear plants are a dependable source of electricity, because they produce “base-load” power about 90 percent of the time, underpinning the stability of the electricity grid. But currently, New England’s deregulated electricity market does not recognize nuclear power’s environmental value or its critically important role in maintaining power reliability.

And he’s absolutely right. I’m sure other kinds of engineers might make similar arguments for their favored energy sources, but natural gas in particular isn’t as stable for New England as it is for more temperate regions, and it’s really put a crimp in the energy profile down east. As we demonstrated earlier this week (see post below), nuclear energy in New England stood up exceptionally well, with many plants operating at 100 percent capacity.

Shaffer’s comments couldn’t come at a better time.

---

And what Shaffer is saying is getting broader play. Consider this editorial from the Bangor (Maine) Daily News:

The reactor’s shutdown [referring to Vermont Yankee] has implications for Maine’s electric ratepayers since it accelerates New England’s growing dependence on a single source — natural gas — for electricity, a phenomenon that has meant higher electricity prices this winter.

and

“Going forward, we are concerned about the impact of [losing] non-natural-gas-fired generation in the region,” ISO New England spokeswoman Marcia Blomberg told The Boston Globe.

As well they should be.

---

And not to gild the lily or anything, but from MassLive:

New England will see an upward trend in electricity prices until the region adds more energy infrastructure -- including power generators, transmission upgrades, natural gas pipeline capacity, and fuel storage -- ISO New England president and CEO Gordon van Welie told reporters in a "state of the grid" briefing Wednesday.

and:

When natural gas prices are low, the region's gas-fired generators are dispatched more often because ISO dispatches the lowest-cost generators first. During the coldest days of the winter, when the plants can't get enough natural gas, they turn to higher-priced alternatives such as oil or liquefied natural gas (LNG), driving up the price of electricity, said Van Welie. Older, dirtier plants that burn coal or oil are called into service during such periods of peak demand, he said.

Natural gas a panacea? Yes, well… – and we’re leaving carbon dioxide emissions to the side for this discussion.

If you think nuclear energy won’t be a major part of of the solution here, may I introduce you to Howard Shaffer. He – and we – cannot see another way out of this growing impasse. Jet fuel!

---

We should note, for those who don’t know, that ISO New England is “the federally-regulated, independent organization which dispatches power plants over six states, administers wholesale energy markets, and works to ensure grid reliability. ISO stands for ‘Independent System Operator.’” More about the ISO system here.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Nuclear Matters to Carol Browner in Chicago

Uh-oh:

Not too long ago Carol Browner would have sided with the activists clad in white hazmat suits protesting nuclear power outside the City Club's lunch Tuesday in downtown Chicago.

Or maybe not so uh-oh:

"I can't believe what I believe about climate change, about the dangers of carbon pollution and take off the table a carbon-free form of power," said Browner...

That’s an evolution that a lot of environmentalists have experienced in the last decade, as shown in the movie Pandora’s Promise. Browner speaks with great authority, as she is the former EPA administrator under President Clinton and director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy under President Obama. The Chicago Tribune turns over a lot of the article to anti-nuclear activists, so Browner does not get her full say.

So is there a fuller way to hear Browner’s views on nuclear energy? Happily, local radio station WBEZ interviewed her and, as expected, she is bullish on nuclear but still exceptionally judicious. She pushes for green energy diversity and balances concerns about nuclear safety (and acknowledges that the industry’s record is very good) and proliferation (ditto) against the threat of climate change (dire). The solution presents itself, is in fact inevitable – you can’t solve the emissions puzzle without nuclear energy.

You can listen to the 10 minute interview, which ranges over a number of environmental issues, at Soundcloud. Browner represented the Nuclear Matters campaign in Chicago along with former Sen. (and current Nuclear Matter co-chair) Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and others in a panel discussion on the future of nuclear energy in Illinois. This is a large topic we’ll address more fully another time. In the meantime, if you want a primer on just how important nuclear energy is to Illinois’ emission reduction goals, this story fills the bill and provides some pointers to more information. You can also pick up some of the conversation at the Chicago panel from Nuclear Matters’ Twitter feed, which is well worth subscribing to.

---

I was surprised to see an anti-nuclear energy screed at The New Republic. The writer, Zoe Loftus-Farren, is a contributing editor at Earth Island Journal, not a very friendly nuclear outlet. Even aside from that, I’d say the articles there are not really to my taste – they’re a bit dreamy, which is at least an interesting approach:

The poet, novelist, essayist and farmer [Wendell Berry] discusses organic foods, his frustrations with the environmental movement, and his love of his horses.

Brower Youth Award Winner Doorae Shin writes that being a progressive activist has fulfilled her childhood fantasy to attend Hogwarts.

Is altruism possible across species borders? And – the crucial question – can an entire species learn to shape its behavior, to its own cost, for the good of other species?

But I like the New Republic. So disappointing.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A Northwest Passage to Nuclear Energy

Interesting doings in Washington state:

The bills by Republican Sen. Sharon Brown go to a public hearing before the Senate Environment, Energy & Telecommunications Committee on Tuesday. Four committee members also belong to a House-Senate task force studying whether nuclear power should be expanded in Washington.

Not only are there four members of the committee but three bills under consideration.

One of Brown's bills calls for providing a sales tax exemption for small modular reactors that some Tri-Cities interests hope to eventually build and ship elsewhere. Another of Brown's bills would add nuclear power to the list of alternative power sources that certain utilities are required to use to meet state targets for having "green" energy sources as part of their electrical-generation mix. Brown's third bill would create a nuclear energy education program that would include classroom sessions and science teachers' workshops on teaching nuclear science to eighth through 12th graders.

The tri-cities refers to Kennewick, Pasco and Richland in the southeastern part of the state. The last is the interesting one, as it is closest to Washington’s nuclear facility, the Columbia Generating Station, and I assume Sen. Brown has in mind for the area the kind of nuclear hub that North Carolina has developed. And Brown definitely wants to encourage small reactor development at the Hanford site, also in sight of the tri-cities.

However, the ultimate goal of Tri-City economic leaders is to become a site to assemble small modular reactors for shipment around the world, including to Asia.

“Is Washington going to be a leader or a follower when it comes to supporting emerging technologies?” Brown asked. “We have the resources available to us right here in our state. However, other states are quickly working to develop their assets.”

One of those states is neighboring Oregon.

The task force met twice in Olympia and also traveled to Pasco for a hearing and toured NuScale Power in Corvallis, Ore., this year. NuScale is developing a 50-megawatt nuclear reactor that that could be transported and set up for operation at sites where one or more are needed.

There’s no hint that the idea here is to attract NuScale to Washington; the potential of small reactors, well represented by NuScale, is an attraction in itself, and Brown clearly does not want her state to be out of the running.

I have no idea how Brown’s bills will fare in the Washington legislature – the one about education is certainly intriguing and the other ones seem judicious. Nuclear energy certainly should be part of any green portfolio and encouraging small reactors is smart economic development. They would put Washington in an interesting position by leveraging nuclear energy to the state’s benefit. We can’t wait to see how this goes.

---

We know that the Northwest Passage is considerably north of Washington, but it is an irresistible title. Let’s consider it a northwest passage, not the Northwest Passage.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Cold Winds May Howl, Nuclear Energy Abides

blizzardThe uptick in public interest in the weather would seem to focus attention on the potential impacts of climate change – if you think outlandishly big storms are a symptom of it, that is – but what remains of primary importance is that people keep the heat and lights on.

Obviously, the big Nor’easter now bearing down on New York, Boston and all the way to Philadelphia is the news of the day, so we thought we’d check in on the 24 reactors that cover the region. The news is good – 23 are operating at 100 percent capacity and the 24th is at 88 percent. Let’s let the coal and natural gas folks tout their own capacity factor, but I’ll wager this tops them by a margin. Bragging rights doesn’t trump the need for people to keep safe, of course, but a reliable system of power generators enhances that effort considerably.

We’ll check in tomorrow and see how things are going as
(and if) the storm really wallops the region.

---

Tropical storms and hurricanes are named by the World Meteorological Organization because “appending names to storms makes it easier for the media to report on tropical cyclones, heightens interest in warnings and increases community preparedness.” Winter storms are named by the Weather Channel if there is a commercial value to the Weather Channel:

The process of evaluating the potential to name a storm is a continual process that includes a daily hemispheric map briefing among the Global Forecast Center’s team of meteorologists at The Weather Channel.

During the map briefing, candidate weather systems are identified as potential winter storms up to a week out. As the certainty for an impactful storm increases, a storm naming committee schedules a conference call to discuss the potential named storm.

In other words, not every winter storm is named, just the ones that are likely to fill considerable air time. That makes its use patchy at best. Perhaps the Weather Channel can consider having the WMO do this naming if it can be determined that the value is the same as for tropical storms – there’s certainly an argument for it.

---

From the annals of science:

Researchers lament the fact that the U.S. hasn't articulated a date for when it hopes to have fusion go online, while China and South Korea have set timetables to put fusion online in the 2040s.

This is from a story about the state of fusion in the Huffington Post. It’s interesting in itself, but this bit stuck out. if researchers really think setting a date certain for the launch of fusion is a desirable thing, they haven’t been involved in the world of fusion for very long. We’ll check back in 2040 and see how China is doing.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The State of the Union: What Nuclear Wonks Will Be Looking For

Alex Flint
The following post was submitted by Alex Flint, NEI's Senior Vice President of Governmental Affairs.

It’s an age-old parlor game in Washington, hoping for a shout-out in the State of the Union and then acting all nonchalant if you get one, or like the State of the Union doesn't matter if you don’t.

President Obama has devoted some nice lines to nuclear energy in previous States of the Union. The best line (from my point of view, of course) was in 2010 when he said:
But to create more of these clean energy jobs, we need more production, more efficiency, more incentives. And that means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country.
I’m delighted to report that five nuclear reactors are under construction today. Peak employment at each of those during construction will be about 3,500 people and, when they are completed (the first one is scheduled to come on line later this year), each will provide 400-700 permanent jobs.

Of course, it would be wonderful to get another shout-out this year. Fingers crossed, here’s what we might hear:
  • Today, about 15,000 Americans are building five new nuclear reactors to produce clean, reliable electricity, and unemployment has fallen to the lowest level since I've been in office.
But, more seriously, how about:
  • We are going to build a 21st century electricity system that is resilient, brings clean-energy to consumers across our country, and utilizes advanced clean energy technologies, including nuclear energy.
  • We are transitioning to a new transportation system that will feature electric vehicles at a scale unimaginable just a few years ago. To meet that increased demand for electricity, we will lead a major expansion of clean electricity sources including wind, solar and nuclear.
The White House knows, because the U.S. Commerce Department told it, that the overseas market for nuclear products and services is valued at nearly $750 billion over the next decade. As such, we are even hoping to hear something about trade and overseas markets. Maybe something like:
  • The market for clean energy technologies around the world is expanding rapidly, and we want U.S. wind, solar, and nuclear companies to lead the way in those markets. More overseas trade results in more jobs here at home in engineering, manufacturing and consulting.
Statements like these would help reinforce a continuing commitment to develop the full portfolio of clean energy technologies this country needs.

But there’s no way of telling what will happen until we hear the speech.

So, I’ll be tuning in Tuesday night to listen, to parse and to react just like everyone else. And I will be hoping, just maybe, to hear a little something positive about nuclear energy along the way. At the very least, it could give me something to talk about—nonchalantly or not—Wednesday morning.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Join Us For a Twitter Chat on Blackhat and Nuclear Energy January 16 at 3:15 P.M.

A pensive Hemsworth.
Last week we first took note of the television ad blitz around Blackhat, the new cyber crime thriller directed starring Chris Hemsworth that premieres tomorrow all around the USA.

Obviously, the timing for the movie could hardly be better, coming off the recent hacking of the Twitter feed for U.S. Central Command and word that cyber security will be front and center in next Tuesday's State of the Union.

Why are we interested? As we mentioned last week, there's an early plot point that involves the hacking of control systems at a nuclear power plant - an eventuality that the industry has taken safeguards against.

Thanks to bad timing, we weren't able to get a seat to a press screening on Tuesday night (props to NBC Universal for making a good faith effort to get us inside, we appreciate it), but we'll be paying for a ticket and seeing the film tomorrow afternoon at a theater in Washington a few blocks from the White House. Bill Gross, NEI's cyber security expert, will be part of our delegation. After watching the film, we'll return to the office to host a Twitter chat with Bill on the movie and how cyber security is conducted at U.S. nuclear facilities. Please join us at 3:15 p.m. for the chat. In the meantime, please submit your questions to us using #aboutblackhat.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Blue Crabs, Exelon, and the Chesapeake Bay

bcrabjuly08 From the department of unintentional irony:

Chestertown resident Hope Clark said Exelon has a history of being against clean energy generation and policies. She cited the company’s use of nuclear power as an example.

This is from a Bay Times (Maryland) story about a public meeting concerning the proposed merger of Exelon and Maryland’s Pepco electric utility, specifically in this gathering Pepco’s Delmarva subsidiary. (Exelon’s Calvert Cliffs facility roosts on the western shore of the Chesapeake and might be what Ms. Clark is concerned about locally.)

As you may know, everything in Maryland has always been (and will always be) about the Chesapeake Bay if the bay is in any way involved in an issue. Partisan politics has no role here and is non-functional – the bay must be kept as pristine as possible by any human being that interacts with it. There is no higher purpose than that. It would be cynical to call this absolutism a blue crab thing, but even if it were, so what? The outcome is the same as far as the bay is concerned and that’s an unalloyed good. Would that such determined environmental stewardship were copied wherever it would be useful.

Local attorney Charles “Chip” MacLeod, representing the Clean Chesapeake Coalition, said the coalition intervened because of its concern with Exelon’s environmental track record and what that means for the Conowingo Dam.

He said the dam is the largest source of renewable energy in Maryland and needs to be properly taken care of. He said the counties involved in the coalition are worried about the future of the Chesapeake Bay if the merger were to go through, because Exelon seems not to care about maintaining the Conowingo Pond, the reservoir above the dam that is nearly filled to capacity.

“Environmental stewardship is important to consider and the coalition thinks Exelon has not done what it could to help the Bay,” MacLeod said.

This line - “Exelon has not done what it could to help the Bay” - would be said by someone in a group like this if Exelon were the World Wildlife Foundation. Still, this is where you express these concerns and that’s fine. This is how it goes in Maryland. May it always be thus.

In a conference call Wednesday, Jan. 7, Exelon’s Senior Vice President of Corporate Strategy Chris Gould said the company is committed to sustainability in an environmental, social and economic sense. He said anyone can find a report about the company’s success with that commitment online.

The Bay Times doesn’t tell you where to find that. We will.