Friday, December 02, 2016

A Clean Energy Consensus: Tough But Worth It

Matt Wald
The following is a guest post from Matt Wald, senior director of policy analysis and strategic planning at NEI. Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattLWald.

Building consensus is hard work, especially in energy policy. But when local governments, organized labor, environmental organizations and energy providers all come together, they can create a positive future for everyone. That’s what happened this week in the Illinois legislature in Springfield.

The legislature, in a special session, approved the Future Energy Jobs Bill, with strong bipartisan support. Governor Rauner pointed out in a statement that the bill will save thousands of jobs, and will protect ratepayers from large increases for years to come. With this law, Illinois follows New York in recognizing that like wind and sun, nuclear is a zero-carbon energy source and should be valued as such.

The bill went through many twists and turns over two years. Negotiations over its shape were long and hard partly because of the diverse list of parties involved. We hope it will be a model going forward, around the country.


Environmental Progress, led by Michael Shellenberger, rallied pro-nuclear environmentalists in Illinois and around the country in support of the bill. The Union of Concerned Scientists pointed out that the bill had the potential to improve the state’s efforts in efficiency and renewable energy. The Environmental Defense Fund listed similar reasons for joining the consensus behind the bill. The Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club also came on board.

And there was strong support from organized labor. Saving Clinton and Quad Cities protects over 4,000 employees, many of them represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, United Association of Plumbers and Pipe Fitters, Iron Workers, Sheet Metal Workers, Carpenters, Boilermakers, the Building Trades and the AFL-CIO.

As Governor Rauner put it, “This process shows that when all parties are willing to negotiate in good faith, we can find agreement and move our state forward." We hope that he is heard in other state capitols, and in Washington.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Nuclear: Energy for All Political Seasons

Maria Korsnick
The following is a guest post from NEI's Chief Operating Officer, Maria Korsnick. On January 1, 2017, Korsnick will become NEI's President and CEO.

The electoral college will soon confirm a surprise election result, Donald Trump. However, in the electricity world, there are fewer surprises – physics and economics will continue to apply, and Republicans and Democrats are going to find a lot to like about nuclear energy over the next four years. 

In a Trump administration, the carbon conversation is going to be less prominent. But the nuclear value proposition is still there. We bring steady jobs to rural areas, including in the Rust Belt, which put Donald Trump in office. Nuclear plants keep the surrounding communities vibrant.

We hold down electricity costs for the whole economy. We provide energy diversity, reducing the risk of disruption. We are a critical part of America’s industrial infrastructure, and the importance of infrastructure is something that President-Elect Trump has stressed.

One of our infrastructure challenges is natural gas pipelines, which have gotten more congested as extremely low gas prices have pulled more gas into the electricity marketplace.

At a nuclear plant, all that fuel that that the reactor needs is already on site for the 18 months or 24 months that that plant will run. That fuel firmness of the existing reactors is something that the marketplace needs to value. And there is progress to be made at the existing plants and for the advanced reactors of the future.

There is already Republican and Democratic support for R&D for advanced nuclear, new reactor concepts that will produce higher-quality heat and that take materials that some people think of as waste and consume them as fuel.

There are changes ahead. The new administration seems likely to step back from the Clean Power Plan and the Paris climate agreement.

Maria Korsnick spoke with Monica Trauzi of E&E TV on energy policy and the Trump Administration. Click the image to watch the interview. 
But the Clean Power Plan really didn't help the current fleet nearly that much, so losing it is not a huge impact. Many of the states, on the other hand, will still pursue a low-carbon strategy, even if it is not mandated by Washington, and they will value nuclear power.

And regardless of your opinion about carbon, nuclear power plants emit nothing, so they also cut the levels of nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide, and particulates. So there's other valuable propositions that nuclear brings to the marketplace.

Under Republicans and Democrats, Washington looks for solutions that have something for everybody. Nuclear is still zero carbon, which appeals to a substantial segment of America no matter who is in the White House, and it reduces smog and haze, which appeals to others. It provides jobs and is an underpinning of national prosperity, which should appeal to almost everyone.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Why Nuclear Energy is Common Ground in Clean Energy Policy

Matt Wald
The following is a guest post from Matt Wald, senior director of policy analysis and strategic planning at NEI. Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattLWald.

Taking action to slow climate change was a contentious idea before the election, and if the voting on November 8 created a consensus on any issue, it wasn’t this one. President-elect Trump has called for withdrawing from the COP-21 agreement made a year ago in Paris, but as COP-22 got underway Marrakesh, Morocco, more than 300 American companies sent a letter to Mr. Trump affirming their “deep commitment” to adhering to the climate accord.

But there is more common ground here than meets the eye. There are reasons why the march toward cleaner energy will continue, advancing some of the goals in Mr. Trump’s campaign platform, including energy independence, an electric system that helps a strong economy, creation or maintenance of good jobs, a sound national infrastructure, and improvement of America’s export potential. And clean air is a goal that everyone shares, regardless of position on whether climate change is caused by human activity: air with less smog, less acid rain and fewer particulates.

And yes, there will be less carbon dioxide, which some will see as a goal and others can view as a benefit of a no-regrets energy policy. Whatever the reason for taking steps that reduce air emissions, the result will be to smooth our relationship with countries that stick with the climate deal.

The companies that signed the letter (including DuPont, the Gap, eBay, and General Mills) argued that “the right action now will create jobs and boost US competitiveness.”

Among the strongest actions that can be taken along those lines is to preserve the existing U.S. reactor fleet, and to build new plants, including designs that will fit in well with an emerging energy world of intermittent renewable energy sources. New reactors can also tackle new jobs beyond electricity, including providing, carbon-free, the heat needed to run refineries, chemical plants and other industries.

Any form of clean energy, including ours, requires appropriate government policy. Wind and solar are flourishing now because they get generous support (for solar, the investors get a 30 percent tax credit, and some states chip in more, and for wind, a 2.3 cent-per-kilowatt-hour production tax credit.) Wind and solar also benefit from state-level mandates, called renewable energy portfolio standards. The Federal subsidies are scheduled to begin a phase-down soon but most of the state help will remain in place.

Nuclear power, new and existing, meets the same zero-emission goal and adds many other advantages, including tremendous economic benefits, plus grid reliability and resiliency. Yet over 10 percent of the reactor fleet has prematurely shut down, or will do so, because none of these benefits are compensated in the electricity market. Preservation of these benefits requires appropriate policies.

And the best power system is a diverse one. IHS found in a recent study that if the grid moved to a less diverse generating mix, “power price impacts would reduce US GDP by nearly $200 billion, lead to roughly one million fewer jobs, and reduce the typical household’s annual disposable income by around $2,100.’’

Strong support for nuclear power addresses priorities that everyone shares. We should not shy away from preserving and expanding these benefits.

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Why Saving New York's Nuclear Reactors is Good for Consumers & The Environment

Matt Wald
The following is a guest post from Matt Wald, senior director of policy analysis and strategic planning at NEI. Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattLWald.

Saving the reactors is good for consumers and good for the environment.

Independent analyses show that the modest payments needed to keep nuclear reactors in the state’s supply mix will mean sharply lower electricity prices, and are the cheapest way to hold down carbon emissions.

The Brattle Group, a consulting firm that specializes in energy, found that electricity in New York would cost $1.7 billion a year extra if the reactors closed. The reason is that the reactors’ output would be replaced by more expensive power.

This is inherent in the method that New York uses to set prices: a computer totals up all the available resources, ranked by price, and the level of demand. The computer, which belongs to the New York State Independent System Operator, determines which generators are needed to satisfy demand, and whatever price is asked by the most expensive generator to make the cut, that’s what all generators get.

Nuclear plants bid in very low, because their fuel costs are low. Remove a low-cost generator from the bottom of the stack, and the last plant to make the cut is sure to be more expensive.

And preserving the reactors is the least expensive way to hold down carbon emissions, according to another independent assessment, by the New York Independent System Operator’s market monitor. (A market monitor is a consulting firm hired by an independent system operator to report on how well the system is working.)

New Yorkers protested in favor of saving Upstate nuclear plants.
The 2015 report of New York’s market monitor found that saving a ton of carbon dioxide emissions by retaining a nuclear plant would cost $20 to $43 a ton; using utility-scale solar (the least expensive type) would cost $115 a ton. A new on-shore wind farm would cost $41 per ton saved.

Solar and wind have their place but they do not stabilize the system as nuclear power does, and they do not provide the tax revenue and highly-paid jobs that reactors do. They also provide electricity at times of nature’s choosing, out of sync with demand.

In addition, preserving the nuclear capacity is a hedge against interruptions in fuel supply, like frozen coal piles, or the Aliso Canyon gas storage leak, or the pipeline squeezes that have hit the northeast during polar vortices. The value of that diversity is harder to express in dollars and cents but is certainly a factor.

And one other consideration: $482 million is a lot of money, and it would certainly pay our MasterCard bill many times over. But as a share of the statewide electric bill it is small. According to the Energy Department’s Energy Information Administration, New York’s electric bill in 2013 (the last year for which complete numbers are available) was fifty times larger, $24 billion.

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

To Give Developing Nations Clean Air, Give Them Nuclear Energy

Matt Wald
The following is a guest post from Matt Wald, senior director of policy analysis and strategic planning at NEI. Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattLWald.

On Halloween, millions of American kids carried little orange UNICEF boxes from door to door, collecting coins to help provide poor children with food and medicine. But children in the developing world need more. A UNICEF report issued Oct. 31 shows that in addition to the money, the clean air in the boxes would have helped, too. Bad air now rivals malaria and unsafe water as a cause of premature deaths.
UNICEF is shedding a light on air quality in the developing world.*
The problem cries out for nuclear energy.

The authors of the report estimate that 300 million children live in areas with outdoor air pollution at least six times higher than United Nations standards. That research is based on satellite imagery of outdoor air; millions more live in households where the indoor air is heavy with smoke from cookstoves.

Diseases that are caused by air pollution or made worse by it kill nearly 600,000 children under age 5 every year, the report said. Much of the developing world suffers from air problems that citizens in advanced economies have mostly forgotten, like indoor air pollution from burning wood, straw, coal, garbage or dung for cooking and heating. The UNICEF report cites a study from Zimbabwe that found that children living in households that burn those fuels were more than twice as likely to have acute lower respiratory infections, and more than 3,000 children 4 and under die from that disease every year. The problem is concentrated in Asia, India and Africa.

And projections are that the air will get worse, with more cars and factories. Ironically, another cause of bad air is electrification. As third world countries electrify, they are burning a lot more coal, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

The solution is more electricity, not less. Electricity will replace dung used for cooking and kerosene used for indoor lighting. It will supply clean water and allow proper sanitation. It allows refrigeration, which improves nutrition. It can replace motor scooters and motorcycles, which are often far more polluting than cars, and which are a major part of transportation in third-world cities. And it will increase productivity and create healthy economies that lift people out of poverty.

In big countries with big pollution problems, like India and China, nuclear is already playing a role and the plans are for many more big reactors. In small countries with big pollution problems, a new class of reactors is coming to the fore, small modular reactors. These can be factory-built by specialists and then shipped all over the world, to places that do not have construction expertise in nuclear projects but that need electricity. Small reactors are good for power grids that are small and cannot accept power from giant generators. And in places where demand is growing each year, the modular design makes it possible to bring on more capacity in small increments.

Chongqing, China.*
This clean air benefit is independent of another crying need: meeting energy demands without contributing to the threat of global warming. Over its whole lifecycle, including construction and fuel production, nuclear power produces only tiny amounts of carbon dioxide, less than half as much as solar power, and a few percentage points more than wind. Unlike the cleanest fossil sources, they do not emit any particulates, smog precursors or sulfur that causes acid rain.

Most developing countries are also pursuing wind and solar power. Those work especially well in remote places, off the national grid. When they are available, they can augment the output of diesel generators, which are particularly dirty and costly to run. For larger systems, wind and sun can also help save fossil fuels but because they are intermittent, they need conventional capacity back them up. And most Third World countries are already short of capacity. Wind and sun provide clean energy, but nuclear provides both clean energy and reliable capacity, and reliability is essential for economic growth.

PS: nuclear energy accomplishes many of the same goals in this country as well. U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) points out that air pollution here is linked to childhood asthma and other ills. Nuclear energy reduces the size of that problem.

*UNICEF photo by Antonio Zugaldia through the Creative Commons license. Picture of Chongqing, China by Leo Fung also through Creative Commons license.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Why There Is No Silver Bullet in Energy Policy

Matt L. Wald
At 4:00 p.m. US EDT, Matt Wald, senior director of policy analysis and strategic planning at NEI, will deliver a speech in Kennewick, Washington at Energy Northwest’s 2016 Public Power Forum. 

The speech will be streamed live on the company's Facebook page. We're sharing an excerpt below. As always, please follow Matt on Twitter at @MattLWald.

The energy business is sometimes prone to the silver bullet syndrome, the belief that there’s a single solution in hand if only we’d embrace it. Back when Spencer Abraham was secretary of energy, in the beginning of the Bush administration, he called it the “flavor of the month” club. He said that at various times, methanol, low temperature fuel cells, high temperature fuel cells, superconductors, thin film pv, ethanol from non-food sources, etc, etc, were going to save us.

Today we’ve got new silver bullets, new flavors of the month. Well, I’d like to be unfashionable here. (Actually my wife assures me that I don’t have to try very hard, that I am unfashionable.) But I’d like to say some things about electricity that go against the popular view lately.

First of all, there is no silver bullet. There is no tooth fairy. Or if there is, she doesn’t work in the energy business. There are technical problems that don’t go away when you wave a magic wand. A good energy system is diverse. Ethanol is still with us, and it has a role to play. So are fuel cells and a lot of other things.

But we need some balance and some systematic thinking. Good planners hedge their bets. Natural gas is cheap and plentiful and easy to use, and may be that way for a few years to come. Historically, we aren’t very good at predicting the cost of gas. If I could do it, I wouldn’t be here talking you; I’d be out trading futures contracts.

But the only thing we can say for sure is that it has a role to play, not that it should take over the world. Nobody here knows what the next round of carbon rules will be. Nobody knows when we have the next Aliso Canyon leak, the next pipeline failure, or other supply interruption.

It's a figment of your imagination.*
Wind is wonderful stuff, and new turbines are impressive machines that show the fruits of patient, smart innovation and evolution. They have a place too. If they are deployed properly, they not only supply carbon-free energy, but they may even provide a bit of capacity value. But it’s possible to overdose. If you live in a place where they flood the market and push the price down to zero or below, you may begin to wonder why it’s sensible to add more to the surplus. A market-based business entity wouldn’t do that but a company with strong government subsidies would, and it ends up pushing other valuable energy sources out of the market.

Earlier this month the Washington Post carried a front-page story from Scotland, saying that the country had briefly met all its electricity needs with wind and that this was a milestone, on the way to meeting a goal of 100 percent renewable power.

But the has both positive and negative dimensions.  Wind power gets harder to add when you already have a lot. If such places add just one more wind farm, and record the same electricity demand on a similar windy day next year, then the electricity will have nowhere to go. The problem is that in most of the world, wind production varies by season, and demand varies by season, and the two are not in sync. Thus each new wind turbine produces less and less useful energy.

Solar is nice stuff too. Properly applied, it can shave some peaks and ease some distribution problems.

But that’s not always how we apply it.  In some places, in the shoulder months the mid-day price of electricity is zero. In that case, adding more solar doesn’t lower costs for consumers,  because the price has already been driven down to zero. It doesn’t help taxpayers, either, if their tax dollars are subsidizing the addition of more solar.

The best approach to a low-carbon system is a diversified mix of emissions-free generators.

The electricity system needs to be a combination of bottom-up and top-down. Bottom up in that we take advantage of new technologies to optimize at the grass roots level. And top down to assure that we have some central intelligence brought to bear on the problem, to view the system as a whole.

Otherwise, some of us see problems ahead. Do you?

*Photo by Graeme Clark used courtesy of a Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

As Hurricane Matthew Approaches Florida, Nuclear Plants Prepare (Bumped with Update)

Matt Wald
The following is a guest post from Matt Wald, senior director of policy analysis and strategic planning at NEI. Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattLWald.

When hurricanes approach, experts tell people to stock up on drinking water and on food that doesn’t require refrigeration, top off their car gas tanks and batten down the hatches. Nuclear reactors also make preparations, with a more formal procedure. With Hurricane Matthew approaching Florida's coast, those procedures are already well advanced.

Plant operators make sure their fuel tanks are topped off too. In this case, it’s diesel fuel, for the emergency generators that would start up and provide electricity for on-site needs if the high-voltage grid went down. The diesels are tested at regular intervals, in foul weather or fair, to assure a reliable back-up supply of electricity.

Plant workers secure anything that could blow away.

The plants are prepared to house and feed a full complement of workers, who would stay at the sites if the roads became impassable.

If the winds are anticipated to reach hurricane force, typically 70 to 75 miles per hour, operators will shut the reactors down, two hours in advance. They may also shut down if exceptionally high tides or other water levels are expected.

And the plants are in constant contact with the a round-the-clock operations center at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. If landlines and cell phones are knocked out, they have satellite phones. In addition, NRC inspectors will be present in case of severe weather.


The plants themselves are designed with hurricanes in mind, as well as tornadoes, earthquakes and other potential threats. All the safety-related equipment is set up to withstand the worst that nature can throw at it.

In addition, each site has a building filled with portable generators and pumps, couplings and hoses, designed to allow a flexible response to unexpected problems. Similar equipment is stored at emergency response centers in Phoenix and Memphis, each near an airport, for quick delivery anywhere in the country if needed.

In the course of a hurricane, some plants will use the official government classification system to declare “unusual events” or “alerts,” and will notify local and federal officials that they have done so. The procedure provides a structure for alerting relevant officials to unexpected events at a plant, but in this case the activities are responses to very obvious external developments.

Shutting down a generating station, whether nuclear or fossil, does not create shortages of power on the grid, because so much of the distribution system is lost in a hurricane anyway, as falling trees tear down power lines and utility poles.

The preparations at nuclear plants are part of the larger effort by electric companies in affected regions. The utilities have a highly-developed system of mutual assistance, in which they loan each other crews and equipment for post-storm clean-up. Exactly who will loan and who will borrow is ad-hoc, depending on the path of the storm, but the crews are on standby, ready to roll.

Historically, nuclear plants returning to service after catastrophic hurricanes have provided energy essential for recovery efforts.

MONDAY UPDATE: Matthew clobbered roofs, roads and utility poles. But, as expected, nuclear power plants in the region performed as they were designed and came through the storm ready to resume production of electricity, which is a vital component of regional recovery. Some plants ran all the way through the storm, and others are awaiting the OK to re-start, which they will do as soon as Federal officials have checked that the areas surrounding the plants, the roads are passable and the emergency sirens are still in place.

Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas saw a lot of damage to infrastructure, but the nuclear infrastructure was designed and built with weather more severe than Matthew in mind. According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, U.S. plants have protected public health and safety through numerous weather challenges. They operate reliably year round. The U.S. nuclear infrastructure provides the strong backbone to get areas that are damaged by such storms back on their feet and focused on recovery.

Throughout the region, the need to generate electricity was sharply reduced because so many power lines were knocked down by wind or falling trees.

Matthew killed more than a dozen people in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas, and caused yet-uncounted billions of dollars in damage, to private property and public buildings and infrastructure. Recovery will be difficult but electricity from the regions’ nuclear reactors will help lay the groundwork for that.