Monday, October 26, 2009

Energy Infrastructure and Energy Politics:

Energy and the Real World:
Views from an Insider

I recently attended a very interesting talk by Marvin Fertel, President and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute. The presentation was to an audience of Washington, DC-area local section members of the American Nuclear Society and covered a broad range of topics of interest to the nuclear community. Working in the world of politics as he does, he brings to his thinking a realistic, pragmatic perspective that is often missing elsewhere.

Perhaps his most important take-home messages to me were the difficulties of introducing any new energy technology on a large scale, and the fact that the "friends" and "enemies" in the nuclear business do not fall into neat slots. Both of these are observations I've made myself, but he had some facts that were new to me.

First, he pointed out that all new technologies require substantial changes in infrastructure to realize the often optimistic projections. The vision of an electric automobile in every garage, for example, is dampened by the reality that many more transformers would be needed on suburban electrical grids. Taking carbon emissions from coal plants and sequestering them somewhere requires pipelines. He made the sobering observation that it will take 30-40 years to make any large-scale changes in our energy sector. If we have only 10 years before we reach the tipping point for climate change, he observed, we out to be talking about adaptation strategies rather than about mitigation.

Taken in this light, it is not surprising that he also recognizes that there are limits to the rate at which we can build new nuclear power plants. He didn't go into detail on all the limitations, but we've heard them before--licensing, competing demands for commodities like steel (see my blog dated ...), manufacturing capability, skilled workers on site, etc. Nevertheless, he remains optimistic that we can ramp up reasonably quickly to create a substantial new-build program in the United States. He sees a ramp-up period in the next 8 years in which 4 to 7 new plants could be built, but by 2030, believes there could be 45 new plants on line in the United States, with at least an equal number in the pipeline.

Mr. Fertel also spoke about the perceived Democratic-Republican party split on the nuclear issue. He feels that the issue of climate change is not a partisan one, and he sees growing support for nuclear power in the public arena and in the Administration. He pointed out some recent positive actions by the Obama Administration, such as "fixing" the loan guarantee program, which the previous Administration had not done. And in fact, shortly after the meeting, the nuclear community saw further evidence of the Administration's views on this issue when Secretary of Energy Steven Chu announced that he will push for billions of dollars in new loan guarantee authority for new nuclear power plants.

Mr. Fertel's slides are available on the ANS Washington-DC Section website. They contain some other interesting background. He also made some other interesting observations, which I hope to bring into future posts.

No comments:

Post a Comment