Thursday, January 22, 2015

Google and Renewable Energy:

A Retreat?

One of the more intriguing items that crossed my desk a few weeks ago was an article saying that Google was terminating their R&D efforts on renewable energy.  Basically, their stated reason was that "trying to combat climate change exclusively with today’s renewable energy technologies simply won’t work; we need a fundamentally different approach."

To back up a bit, in 2007, Google undertook a major and well-publicized effort to conduct R&D to develop renewable energy technologies.  Their announcement said that they planned to invest tens of millions of dollars in emerging solar, wind and geothermal technologies in order to make them competitive with the economics of coal.  Later, they transformed their efforts from R&D to deployment of renewables and energy efficiency technologies.

Now, even though the cost of renewables has come down to the point where some claim it is getting competitive with coal, Google appears to have backed off.  They "came to the conclusion that even if Google and others had led the way toward a wholesale adoption of renewable energy, that switch would not have resulted in significant reductions of carbon dioxide emissions."

They appear to be backing off to a strategy where they are looking at a broader range of technologies and a greater mix of current and advanced options.  There are only hints to date of what some of these efforts might involve.

For those who are wondering if they might be considering nuclear power, they seem to be silent on that point.  They don't explicitly rule it out, but they appear to be focusing on ways of improving the penetration of the erratic generation from renewable technologies.  For example, one possibility they hint at is technologies that can control the grid efficiently, enabling higher penetrations of distributed generation.

Some might argue that, when companies change course, their publicly stated reasons are not always the whole story, and that may well be the case here.  Nevertheless, I find it interesting that their official explanation acknowledges that cheaper renewable systems to generate electricity are not enough. 

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Thursday, January 8, 2015

Carbon dioxide--Good or Bad?

The Danger of Narrow Viewpoints


I was surprised to see an article by Dana Milbank in the Washington Post a few weeks ago that reported that the fossil fuel industry has begun touting the benefits of carbon dioxide.  Two days later, I saw a pro-CO2 bumper sticker.  This got my attention.

According to the report, the industry is doing an about-face.  For years, they have been saying that reports of global warming are false.  Now, though, they are admitting that fossil fuels are causing an increase in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere--but they are contending that is a good thing!  The basis of their argument is that CO2 is required for plants to grow, so more CO2 in the air will boost agricultural productivity and help feed the world's growing population. 

The argument reminded me of the old adage, "It's an ill wind that blows no good."

The argument also reminds me of a point that has become a central theme of many of my blogs, as well as of some of my other activities--that energy supply is an extremely complex, multifaceted arena, and that it is a serious mistake to make decisions based on single measures, good or bad.

Every technology has pros and cons, and looking at any single measure presents a distorted reality.  This is as true of "renewable" advocates who tout the lack of emissions from wind and solar plants, but ignore issues of reliability, needs for limited rare earth supplies, land requirements, etc., as it is of "antis" of any stripe (fossil, nuclear, or other) who single out a concern without putting it in perspective based on the relative level of risk and possible mitigating strategies.  

Let's look at the CO2 argument as an example.  Yes, CO2 is essential for plants.  We all learned that in biology class.  If that were the only measure of importance, we would not have to think about the future at all.  We could continue to spew out as much CO2 as possible.

But that is not the only measure of importance.  That same CO2 is expected to have serious climatic effects.  OK, some would say that may not be all bad, either.  Siberia could become the new breadbasket of the world.  BUT, at the same time, current areas of high agricultural productivity could become deserts and cease to be productive.  And rising sea levels could devastate heavily populated coastal areas of many countries, and even wipe out some island nations. 

I could add many more potential effects--on wildlife, disease, etc.--as well as noting the health effects of other pollutants from fossil fuels.

I would fully agree with anyone who notes that some of these effects are speculative, or may not prove to be as devastating as we now think.  There may be factors we don't yet fully understand that counterbalance some of these effects, and there may be some effects that human engineering can mitigate or reverse.

And I would also agree that we need to continue the use of fossil fuels for the foreseeable future.

Nevertheless, it is pretty clear that some of the effects being postulated will be proved real, and that any mitigation is likely to be difficult and costly, and possibly to have other side effects.    

While I can understand the temptation of the fossil fuel industry to go on the offensive to counter what they believe to be the negative image of their industry, I don't think such a narrow and distorted presentation is either ethical or productive.     

It would be far more constructive if they would work to help understand the potential effects better, to contribute to strategies to deal with any effects, and to improve techniques for carbon capture and sequestration.

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Saturday, January 3, 2015

Nuclear Anniversaries-January:

The Nautilus and Other Launches

As promised last year, I am starting the year with a discussion of significant nuclear anniversaries that occur in January.  These are again drawn mainly from my book, Nuclear Firsts:  Milestones on the Road to Nuclear Power Development.  I noted last month that December looked like an unusually busy month for nuclear milestones.

Predictably, then, the number of firsts I cover this month is shorter: 

  • January 7, 1967:  First full-scale, pressurized heavy water reactor (Douglas Pt., Canada)
  • January 9, 1952:  First simultaneous separation of uranium and plutonium (S Plant, Hanford, Washington)
  • January 17, 1955:  First nuclear-powered cruise of a vehicle (USS Nautilus, Groton, Connecticut)
  • January 27, 1944:  First enrichment of uranium on a production scale (Y-12, Oak Ridge, Tennessee)
  • January 27, 1957:  First commercial high-temperature gas-cooled reactor (Peach Bottom 1, Delta, Pennsylvania)
Although the number of events is smaller, most of them are very significant.  They include the start of nuclear propulsion (the Nautilus), the commercial operation of two new reactor types (heavy water and gas-cooled), and the first production-scale enrichment.  In fact, this month marks the 60th anniversary of the first cruise of the Nautilus.  The Nautilus was launched in January of the previous year (January 21, 1954), which actually makes for two nuclear milestones for the Nautilus this month.

On a sad note, January also marks the anniversary of the first fatal accident at a nuclear reactor facility.  On January 3, 1961, the SL-1 (Stationary Low-Power Reactor #1), an Army boiling water reactor being tested at the National Reactor Testing Station in Idaho, experienced a steam explosion and partial meltdown due to the improper withdrawal of the main control rod of the reactor.  The incident resulted in the death of three operators in the control room at the time.  (Note:  this was the first accident at a reactor, but there had been fatalities at other types of nuclear facilities before.)

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Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Gas Leaks:

Is Natural Gas As Clean As We've Thought?

Just after I posted my previous post, which cited a study showing that nuclear power, hydroelectricity and natural gas were "better" than solar and wind power, I came across an interesting study that suggests that natural gas could result in greater global warming than coal plants!

Their argument is that methane leaks in natural gas systems may make actually put more carbon in the atmosphere than coal plants do.  I need to emphasize that this study appears to be based on hypothetical calculations.  Both the news article cited above and the abstract to the paper show what the emissions curves from natural gas plants look like compared to coal plants based on varying assumptions about leakage rates, but do not indicate what the actual leakage rates are or how hard it would be to control them.  Nor is it clear how they account for the different effects of methane and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere--specifically, the fact that methane is a more potent greenhouse gas, but has a shorter half-life in the atmosphere.

On the one hand, a problem identified may be a problem on its way to resolution, so it is not clear to me how serious this concern might be.  Maybe testing will show that there is little or no leakage.  Maybe any leaks in existing facilities can be plugged.  Maybe new designs and new materials, or better construction, can limit leaks in the future. 

On the other hand, we already have heard other reports of leakage from pipelines and oil wells, so we do know that leakage is a difficult problem, and with thousands and thousands of miles of pipelines, those leaks could be a difficult and costly problem to solve.  And sadly, even shutting those systems down is not necessarily sufficient, as studies also show that there is significant methane leakage from abandoned oil and gas wells.  And in this case, the results are based on tests of wells that have been shut down, so we know that it is a real problem.

Nevertheless, with this report coming to my attention hard on the heels of the report showing the benefits of nuclear, hydro and natural gas over wind and solar, the news that natural gas may have more emissions than we've been assuming made me start to wonder:  We already know that the potential for adding significant amounts of hydroelectric power are limited--and even where it is possible, that comes with other environmental impacts.  So...which energy technology will be the last one left standing?

It is way too soon to answer that, of course.  In the first place, we need to find out what the actual leakage rates are.  So I'm not writing off natural gas just yet.  In fact, I sincerely hope the calculations do not turn out to be true, because it is clear that we have a transition period ahead of us to reduce our use of coal, and we need a variety of options to make that transition.

Nevertheless, seeing this report reminded me once again how complex the energy situation is.  It seems that, just when we think we have found "the" solution, we always discover a factor we didn't consider.  Methane leakage from natural gas plants could become such a factor.  Stay tuned!

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Brookings Energy Study:

Comparing the Net Benefits of Low-Carbon Energy Technologies

I just stumbled across a paper that came out in May.  However, I don't recall seeing anything about it earlier, so I hope this is also new to most readers.  If it is old news to some, I apologize.

The paper, entitled "The Net Benefits of Low and No-Carbon Electricity Technologies" was produced by the Global Economy and Development program of Brookings Institution.  It takes a slightly different approach to comparing energy technologies than most others have done.

First, rather than comparing all electricity-producing technologies, they focus only on a comparison of low- and no-carbon emitting technologies.  Thus, the study doesn't consider coal at all.  Rather, it looks at the full menu of options that could replace coal--including solar, wind, nuclear, hydroelectric, and gas combined cycle. 

Second, instead of using levelized costs, they compare the annual costs and benefits of each technology, arguing that a plant that produces electricity with a relatively high levelized cost may be more valuable than a plant with a lower levelized cost if it delivers electricity more cheaply and reliably during periods of peak demand when the price of electricity is high.

Based on the assumptions they make, they conclude that "the net benefits of new nuclear, hydro, and natural gas combined cycle plants far [emphasis added] outweigh the net benefits of new wind or solar plants. Wind and solar power are very costly from a social perspective because of their very high capacity cost, their very low capacity factors, and their lack of reliability."

There is a lot more in this study than I can cover in a blog, but I encourage interested readers to take a look at it.  I should add that I find this a particularly meaningful report, given that it comes from the Brookings Institution, an organization that generally receives high marks for its work.  If anything, it is normally considered "left-of-center" which in my view makes the conclusions even more meaningful. 

I have a slight quarrel with claims that anything is no-carbon, given the fact that all these technologies require materials to be mined and processed, components to be manufactured, and facilities to be built.  Maybe one day all these activities will be powered by non-fossil sources, and I don't think this observation affects the net conclusions of the study, but I have become careful about saying anything is "no carbon," and I prefer to see studies address the full life-cycle emissions.

Perhaps that is the next step.  In the meantime, this looks like a potentially important study in looking at the decisions we face ahead in moving to less emitting technologies.

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Monday, December 22, 2014

Views on the EPA Carbon Rule:

Support from Outside the Nuclear Industry

The comment period for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed rule to reduce carbon emissions closed December 1, and since then news reports on the comments filed by various groups have continued to trickle in.  Although the next step now is for the EPA to review the comments and respond to them, two reports on filings caught my attention--those from the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) and those from the Edison Electric Institute (EEI).

The reason I feel that these comments are very important is that both groups represent a broad range of interests, and are not in any way "beholden" to the nuclear industry.  NARUC is a non-profit organization that represents all 50 State public service commissions, plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands and cover not only the area of energy supply, but also telecommunications, water, and transportation.  EEI represents all U.S. investor-owned electric utilities.  This includes, of course, utilities with nuclear power plants, but it also includes utilities without nuclear assets.  Therefore, their comments should reflect a perspective that balances all the potentially competing interests, and perhaps more important, should be judged by the EPA and the public to be unbiased with respect to any one technology.

Therefore, I was very interested to read that NARUC called for better recognition of nuclear power in EPA's carbon plan.  They stated in a resolution that they "jointly recognize the need to maintain the existing, baseload nuclear generation fleet" and urge the EPA to assure that carbon reduction regulations encourage states to "preserve, life-extend and expand" reliable and affordable nuclear generation.  They specifically take aim at a provision in the draft rule that would require incorporating 5.8 percent of existing nuclear generating capacity when calculating a state's target emissions, and they advocate removal of output from nuclear energy facilities still under construction from state rate-setting goals.  These are two provisions that have been the target of criticism from the nuclear industry. 

EEI took a somewhat broader view.  They particularly criticized the EPA plan for potentially putting reliable power sources at risk, saying that EPA’s framework would require new facilities, including transmission networks, gas pipelines and generation facilities.  These could take as long as 10 years to build [I would guess even longer].  Therefore, it will be difficult for states to reach their preliminary goals by 2020.  EPA recommends giving states the ability to phase-in changes as they like between implementation of the rule and the the 2030 final deadline, rather than mandating that cuts the begin immediately in 2020.

The rulemaking is now back in the hands of the EPA, which has something on the order of 1.6 million comments to evaluate.  (Mine was one of them.)  Just handling the comments will be a gargantuan task, as comments like those from NARUC, EEI, NEI, and people like me are countered by comments from so-called environmental individuals and groups, saying that the EPA's rules should have been tougher and should have required changes faster.  

The final EPA rule is due in June.  In the meantime, though, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a challenge to EPA's rules on mercury emissions.  The issue is whether the EPA is overstepping its authority under the Clean Air Act by issuing such regulations.  The Supreme Court's decision on the mercury case may give some clue to how the carbon regulation and other EPA actions may be treated.  In addition, the new Republican majority in both Houses of Congress could  introduce legislative measures designed to reign in some of the EPA's actions.

In the meantime, the process continues.  It should be noted that NARUC and EEI didn't oppose the rule overall, but rather, objected to provisions that other sources have said could actually end up undercutting the goals of the EPA rule.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Nuclear Anniversaries:

Some Events to Remember

Early this month, a friend and I were discussing the fact that it was the 72nd anniversary of CP-1 on December 2, yet we'd seen no coverage of that milestone, even in the nuclear press.  I promised him that I'd see if I could address the problem in this blog.

However, as I thought about it, I wondered what I'd gotten myself into.  It seemed to me that trying to think of something new and fresh to say about CP-1 every year might be a daunting task.  I could write something this year, but what else could I say next year?  Or the year after that? 

Further, it occurred to me that, aside from our personal birthdays and wedding anniversaries, other anniversaries are institutional (for lack of a better word) and most institutional anniversaries do not get much attention on an annual basis.  School reunions are held at 5- or 10-year intervals.  Yes, we do celebrate our national Independence Day each year, but--quick (and without calculating it!)--which anniversary did we celebrate last July 4?  In reality, we only make a big deal of that event on "round-number" anniversaries. 

And also, there may be too many events in the history of nuclear power that we could potentially celebrate.  True, CP-1 holds a very special place in that history, but there are many, many other events of note as well.  Trying to recognize all of them on an annual basis would be overwhelming. 

So instead, I told him I'd try to make note of various nuclear anniversaries periodically in this blog.  For starters, I will draw from my book, Nuclear Firsts:  Milestones on the Road to Nuclear Power Development.  Granted, the book focuses only on firsts of a kind, and there are more anniversaries that we could acknowledge.  But there are enough of the "firsts," so I will start with them.  I would certainly welcome any suggestions of other anniversaries we should acknowledge on these pages.

It turns out that December was a prolific month for nuclear firsts.  I was trying to figure out why this might have been--an end-of-year push, or just the luck of the draw.  Given that there are so many, I will just list them below.  They are all covered in the book, as well as in other sources, for anyone who is interested in learning more about any of them.  Since we are just focusing on one month here, I will put them in order of the day of the month, and not in order of the year they occurred:

  • December 2, 1942:  First self-sustained fission reaction (CP-1, Chicago, Illinois)
  • December 3, 1956:  First production of measurable quantities of U233 (BORAX-IV, Arco, Idaho)
  • December 17, 1967:  First pebble-bed reactor to provide electricity to the grid (AVR, Julich, Germany)
  • December 18, 1957:  First full-scale reactor for peaceful purposes only (Shippingport, Pennsylvania)
  • December 19, 1943:  First separation of usable quantities of plutonium from irradiated fuel (Building 3019, Pilot Plant, Oak Ridge, Tennessee)
  • December 20/21, 1951:  First practical generation of electricity from a reactor (EBR-I, Arco, Idaho)
  • December 20, 1957:  First multinational agreement for research cooperation for peaceful purposes signed (Eurochemic, Mol-Dessel, Belgium) 
  • December 23, 1956:  First purpose-built reactor to provide electricity for a site (EBWR, Argonne, Illinois)
  • December 26, 1944:  First reprocessing on an industrial scale (T Plant, Hanford, Washington) 
  • December 1950:  First swimming pool reactor (BSR, Oak Ridge, Tennessee) (exact date unknown)

While all of these are not of equal importance, several of them are among the events we discuss most frequently when we talk about the origins of nuclear power.  Certainly, CP-1, EBR-I, EBWR, and Shippingport stand out in my mind.  And all were significant steps in one way or another.  So, happy anniversary to all these nuclear firsts!

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