Exploring a National Energy Plan
“Oh, What a tangled web we weave.”
The Clean Energy Plan set out by Obama has undergone a reversal in many ways. Trump’s policy is Libertarian in the sense that he follows their mantra “less government.” The idea of “energy dominance” and reduced restrictions on coal and other fossil fuels indicates how he views energy as an economic opportunity. Exporting coal and liquified natural gas are just two examples of how the strategy is unfolding. But support for nuclear energy seems even more pronounced than the lip service Obama’s energy plan preached. Trump’s policy is looking like a shift away from an “all-of-the-above” approach and away from renewable energy. The support for wind and solar under Obama had much more subsidized support.
It was starting to look like the kind of plan we saw happen in Germany that has gone backwards in their attempts to reduce emissions. But if Trump has his way the US will start to resemble China with a focus on economic growth at the expense of the environment. Where Germany and US policy Obama-style were a kind of deal that could only be made by naive environmentalists with a little help from deceptive business executives, Trump’s plan is openly a crass approach to the point of gross negligence. But where Obama’s plan had very little to encourage nuclear energy there is evidence that nuclear energy is beginning to be taken seriously. The importance of energy begins to reveal itself in relation to the economy, the environment and in politics when Trump states that he wants to make America great again or that he wants the U.S. to dominate in energy and when he chooses to spend so much on the military. It becomes clear that energy plays a vital role in prosperity, independence, the environment and geopolitically.
There have been a number of rebuttals as far back as 2010 from top scientists and analysts debunking the claims that we could move to 100 percent renewable energy. In addition nuclear plant closures have been reversed in New York and Illinois with the help of pronuclear environmental activists like Environmental Progress led by Michael Shellenberger and Generation Atomic led by Eric Meyer. A recent announcement by the Department of Energy under Secretary Rick Perry stated that the US needs to make Nuclear Energy “cool again” and that clean energy goals must include nuclear energy.
Developing a national energy policy for a country like the United States does have significant challenges. Obama’s Clean Energy Plan has been viewed by most as “comprehensive” but from a checks and balances perspective it has placed far too much emphasis on renewable energy and conservation. Whereas “renewable” wheels have been in motion for a few years, that trend is changing and coal plant closures are expected to slow down under Trump.
While some state moratoriums block new nuclear plants and Renewable Portfolio Standards require a minimum percentage of renewable energy, the current policies are making the outlook for nuclear energy less dim. The insanely lopsided American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 is a stimulus package, again, mostly ignoring nuclear energy.
“A massive $800 billion economic stimulus package aimed at job creation and the promotion of investment and consumer spending Included $4.3 billion in tax credits to homeowners for energy efficiency improvements in 2009-2010, $300 million for reducing diesel engine emissions, $21.5 billion for energy infrastructure, $27.2 billion for energy efficiency and renewable energy research and investment, $2 billion in research for DOE, $600 million in research for NOAA.”
This development was meant to be a stimulus package to assist in economic recovery from the crash of 2008. It defines several initiatives in a lot of detail but misses the point. Nuclear energy is not even mentioned. This one fact alone is the kind of fact that justifies the whole purpose for writing this book.
Our biggest challenge is that nuclear power is viewed negatively mostly from sensationalized media and outright propaganda. But, in reality it is an econòmy driver and environment saver. Nuclear plants provide more jobs than any other type of power plant and there are quite a number of related industry jobs too.
“The Brattle Group has determined that nuclear plants operating in Pennsylvania contribute approximately $2.36 billion to state gross domestic product (GDP) ($3.56 billion in gross output), account for 15,600 in-state full time jobs (direct and secondary), help keep electricity prices low, and are responsible for $81 million in net state tax revenues annually.”
Pennsylvania Nuclear Power Plants’ Contribution to the State Economy
(Nuclear Matters website)
The public needs to grow up about their fears; and not just about nuclear energy. The nuclear industry has been punished long enough. The blatant truth is that few people really get it. The biggest misconception is about the scope. Its about what we call energy density and energy capacity. Wind, solar, tidal, geothermal and biofuel are simply not able to contribute enough to make a big enough difference. They are comparatively wasteful economically and draw unsustainably on available resources of land and materials in order to meet the required demand. Investors need to understand this when making decisions to finance such energy sources. Investing in a company that is developing a new type of nuclear reactor is possibly the most important investment anybody could make not only financially but morally.
Tidal has it’s predictability factor advantage so using tidal may eventually work better than wind and solar however to be effective requires a large coastal region at billions of dollars in construction costs.
What Factors Need to Be Considered Before Making a Policy?
1) The survival issue reminding people of the urgency before the irreversible happens triggering mass extinction.
2) The capacity issue of increasing nuclear power usage and it having a power density several orders of magnitude greater than any other available source.
3) the issue of good-for-the-environment, emissions-free nuclear plants (80% of America’s clean energy) being built despite people’s perceptions and fears
4) the issue of weaning people off of an unhealthy Amerocentric view that ignores the emerging economies like China and India who are not going to slow down just to meet carbon emissions limits.
5) the cost issue that prevents further nuclear expansion. Costs can be lowered if people’s perception viewed nuclear energy with a more rational point of view. They are a privilege not a burden.
Nuclear power is our best hope. The majority of people around the world fail to recognize the urgency of our current need to stop CO2 emissions and the U.S. government and all policy makers need to take a global perspective on CO2 emissions. While the U.S. is committed to gradually reducing coal (far too gradual) the growing economies in China and India have a rapid expansion of coal burning power plants taking place.
Clearing up the misconceptions and myths will help with making a set of guidelines for a diverse set of regions and jurisdictions. It is a challenge. Not every guideline will be a perfect fit. Energy policy in our case needs to make the case that nuclear energy has the most potential to do the most benefit. Windy regions should explore wind power and sunny regions should explore solar but all locations will benefit from nuclear power.
Keep in mind that current models of reactors are still feasible but that new sizes need to be considered to more effectively deal with making transitions more affordable and adaptable to less populated regions. The model we aim for would ideally be well-suited for anywhere in the world. The Small Modular Reactor (SMR) will play a role and it should be any leader’s priority to clear a path for the over regulated nuclear industry.
Currently there are 11 states that have a moratorium to stop new builds of nuclear power plants. As of 2010, 104 reactors at 65 nuclear power plants delivered 20 percent of the nation’s electricity. Since then three plants have been closed before the end of their useful lifetime partly due to public pressure over minor issues and the fact that under-regulated natural gas is cheaper to buy. Thankfully there are a few new reactors nearing completion.
The biggest reality check about wind and solar energy is that they cannot compete with what is called base load power. There is very little similarity between the commonly held “champions” of the green movement and base load power. Comparing the availability and reliability is the first dramatic difference.
Several nuclear plants have recorded performance times as lasting well over a year without a shutdown. Base load is also the fundamental type of energy that we have been running for over a century that has rarely disappointed us for extended periods of time. Much more reliable base load such as nuclear energy has not given us much grief for its steady performance over the long term. We have a fairly dependable grid infrastructure. Some aspects need upgrades and more challenges have been added such as severe weather.
The electricity system in the U.S. is a huge mass (mess?) of interconnected power cables mostly above ground. The combined regional grids make up the wide area synchronous grid. But “grid” can mean local or a widespread area. Even microgrids exist to support small communities. Four major regional grids exist across Canada and the United States. They are the Western Interconnection, Eastern Interconnection, Quebec Interconnection and Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). Some people refer to them generally as “the grid.”
Each regional grid consists of an Independent System Operator (ISO) (Ontario – Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO)) that run within each state or province and the larger organizations that encompass several states called a Regional Transmission Organization (RTO). Ontario has Hydro One Incorporated an electricity transmission and distribution utility. The remaining provinces have their own.
Transmission lines can have shared ownership that includes investor-owned utilities, rural cooperatives and government agencies.
The control of a national grid is dependent on what are a mix of utility companies including rural utility cooperatives as well as public utility companies. They all have regulators. The NERC is the widest regulator covering The US, Canada and Mexico. FERC is the US regulator that governs the US power providers. To deal with the reliability and availability of power a number of “power pools” have been formed that merge their resources to improve reliable distribution.
To get a better idea of performance factors let’s look at the three classifications of power transmission defined by function.
1) Base load power is provided by coal, hydro and nuclear power.
2) Intermittent power is provided by wind, solar, wave and tidal power.
3) Peaking Power is provided by natural gas. Also called load following reactors natural gas plants have flexibility to ramp up and down more quickly than nuclear or coal plants.
Most nuclear reactors in the U.S. do not load follow however Chicago’s Boiling Water Reactor (BWR) models do. France and Germany have LWRs that operate in constant load follow mode designed for that purpose. The CANDU reactors have some that can handle load following in urgent situations but they simply redirect the steam to the sky which is not an efficient way to handle it. They will need to be upgraded for better load following where power fluctuation is designed into the reactor. If Ontario continues to add intermittent wind and solar then this kind of engineering into a CANDU is not so difficult. It would involve a redesign of the control rod system. However new reactor designs will inevitably have load follow capability given that renewables are now contributing more of the energy mix.
Some of the other power sources not mentioned such as geothermal, biofuel, wood and liquid natural gas could theoretically provide base load power if their availability were in large enough quantities, reliable and affordable but so far they have none of these attributes.
Consideration for reliable power needs to be part of the decision process. Choosing to eliminate base load power sources to make room for subsidized renewable is a mistake. The only way governments can deal with removal of base load is to import base load from remote sources like neighboring regions or to extend the reach of dispatchable power. This requires more transmission lines and is prohibitively expensive.
Why We Pay Twice as Much For Wind and Solar
The subsidies needed for the otherwise unprofitable wind and solar business cause electric bills to climb out of control and to make matters worse the system becomes unreliable. When the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine natural gas plants kick in and attempt to do their job load following. The U.S. is happy about energy independence from Middle Eastern Oil but have been closing a blind eye to the fact that leakage of methane is being reported wherever fracking occurs. Varying levels have been recorded as low as 1.5% and as high as 2.5% which makes natural gas just as bad as coal regarding CO2.
As a result of the subsidies granted for wind and solar the consumer ends up paying twice: once for the subsidy that guarantees the wind or solar company payment as if they were run twenty-four-seven. And second when natural gas load follows. In fact wind and solar run only 20% to 30% of the time and natural gas must be running full time even when they are not needed. The need for load following is the handicap of “renewable” wind and solar. I am not opposed to wind and solar but spending becomes wasteful when redundant power is created simply to accommodate the overrated power sources of wind and solar.
In addition to a poor distribution network of natural gas pipelines the cold weather states have more complications when pipes freeze.
This forces businesses that need reliable steady power to relocate. Governments keep consulting the wrong people. If they attempt to eliminate nuclear power it will be the slow path to disillusionment when the hopes and dreams of replacing coal and nuclear will be impossible without ruining the economy. The idealists that make up the supporting fans of renewable energy could save themselves time by learning about energy density.
We have the failed experiment of Germany as a perfect example. When their government chose to close down their most reliable non-polluting power sources (nuclear power) they discovered that renewable power was disruptive. Many companies were forced to leave the country. Public utilities were unable to make a profit and nuclear power was imported from France. Ironically the riddled-with-green policy of Germany’s Energiewende discovered the hard way that it was necessary build coal plants to replace that precious base load nuclear power.
When Japan shut down its 52 nuclear reactors they were forced to import large quantities of liquified natural gas to replace the lost power.
How dense energy fits into the discussion has already been touched upon. One uranium pellet is the equivalent of 3 barrels of oil, 1 ton of coal, 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas.
Land Footprint by Type of Energy
1000 MWe (typical size) nuclear power plant is 0.8 square km
1000 MWe Wind Farm uses 572 square km
1000 MWe Biomass Farm uses 4002 square km
1000 MWe Solar farm uses 177 square km
Our energy policy includes educating people to draw their own conclusions based on comparing the options which I hope this book and, eventually, our website will provide.
But we need to make it clear why nuclear energy and nuclear science is so important to everyone. It’s true that we need more scientists and engineers to fill the jobs but we also need the general public to embrace nuclear so the jobs can be created and the remediation applied.
Part of the problem is that most people feel that it is too complicated to understand nuclear. We can change that perception. It is not so esoteric. It can be made into a more easy to digest subject by starting with the numerous non-energy benefits of nuclear. For this point to be understood simply look at the wide range of benefits nuclear science has given us beyond energy and weapons. See YouTube video The Future of Nuclear Technology … After Fukushima with Alan E. Waltar ( http://youtu.be/NQ_7-BNgBew )
Times have changed. We used to be able to ignore what science and industry were doing. We could get on with our lives in particular areas of self indulgence. It was a lesson of democracy, freedom of choice and laissez-faire. But what has changed is that now the balance has been tipped. The paradise is sick. The responsibility to correct the problem needs to be shared by all of us, from our grandparents to our grand children.
The chances of a nuclear accident in North America any time soon are very, very remote. Yet after the Fukushima accident of 2011 the agencies assigned to the job of making sure we stay as safe as possible are at it again.
In Canada where restrictions are not as rigid the introduction of a mandatory supply of iodine pills has been suggested for the areas near the nuclear plants in Ontario. This ruling should not be a deterrent and cause for fear. But it is. (See: Toronto Star: Article) It is important to be prepared but the thinking behind such decisions need to be understood in the larger context. We know how this vital technology can help a society progress. We need to advocate that we should learn to accept the hidden world of nuclear, make it a part of education and general knowledge and being prepared for a very low probability of an accident is responsible and not cause for alarm.
There is going to be that time when observing such rules as making a full stop at a stop sign will seem relatively insignificant when chaos surrounds us and scenes of local street signs being washed away by floods and storms will not surprise us. Let’s hope not.
Acceptance of nuclear would also allow its cost to come down. Politicians listen to the voters. When politicians realize there is more acceptance and support they can push for reforms. Replacing coal won’t happen until it becomes acceptable to use nuclear and when the costs come down again. We must question the framework of a democracy when smart decisions are so needed and profit motive becomes the deterrent from success but if we can persuade public opinion through education and promotion then we must. Only then, can we begin to reverse the momentum of increased CO2 and consequently global warming and growing ocean acidity which will kill the oceans and bring about many calamities.
The biggest obstacles to nuclear energy acceptance are irrational fear and the energy competitors know this and play it up. Our focus in delivering an energy policy is to make sure the majority of the people understand why nuclear is the best energy choice. Although explaining and comparing the various energy sources is beneficial it is not so beneficial to stress one kind of reactor over another. All nuclear reactors are better in the sense that a car is better than a bicycle. Striving to reduce CO2 should be a priority commitment for us all.
The product we already believe in, is great in all current commercial reactor configurations. What’s left to explain are the limits, the margins, the deceptions, the misconceptions, the probabilities and therefore whether current policies are problematic and need changing. In North America we would not welcome a leader who believed the Earth was flat. Why should we welcome leaders who view nuclear energy as too dangerous. We could also impose limits on car emissions that would entirely eliminate combustion engines but we don’t for practical reasons. The same should be true for nuclear energy. Practical reasons suggests we should not impose such extreme safeguards on nuclear plants the one power source we know is emission-free.
Nuclear Power Plants
We want to keep all, or most, of the current operating reactors running as long as their useful lives last. It is wise to keep these power horses going. Nuclear energy is dense, carbon free, and affordable with many economic and environmental advantages. Upgrades to reactors every 20 years or so essentially make the old reactors into new reactors.
There are huge savings made keeping the original infrastructure in place. We know new nuclear plants are currently very expensive but if upgrades can be made at a fraction of the price of building a new one then it should be done. That’s why it has it is tragic when a useful power plant is forced to shut down for economic reasons because the “free” market allows competition from unregulated natural gas.
We have witnessed one plant in particular who could not compete with natural gas. That is the Kewaunee Nuclear Power
The Molten Salt Reactor (MSR) technology is available now but some legal regulatory obstacles still remain. There is no doubt, the NRC and the EPA has been antagonistic toward the nuclear industry and have made reversing rules and regulations a long drawn out process called ratcheting. But an informed public is what is needed to begin to reverse the process. In this case rather than “trickle down” economically it would be a “trickle up” effect intellectually that would motivate the leadership to make sweeping decisions that would bring about the reform and new policy-making that is so desperately needed.
For example the coal plants which have given China it’s much needed power at a rate of one coal plant a week are being delayed in India for political and corrupt business reasons. The way I would play that “civilization game” would be to add nuclear R & D to the local schools, promote nuclear energy with a focus on Molten Salt Reactors. I know India is creating ads that promote nuclear energy. Good first steps.
The newest US reactors, the AP-1000, most limiting factor to growth is the expense but still we need to encourage awareness of the long term benefits and the eventual return on investment. This is a good example of economies of scale. There is no other energy source other than hydro that gives back so much and for so long. Reactors that cost up to 20 Billion dollars or more are still a safe long term investment.
We also support North American initiatives such as Molten Salt Reactors and Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) with commercial roll-outs in 7-10 years.
SMRs we encourage especially the designs that are passively safe and will help allay the common fears about reactors. Non-pressurized reactors in particular are the safest for future reactors. All current reactors have aspects that, although engineered very well, still scare people. Pressurized water explosions (or even nuclear detonations – tell them not possible) and the potential for subsequent widespread contamination are likely the biggest fears.
The word “renewable” is an over-used and inappropriate term that has won the hearts of too many. What good is renewable energy if they are only available twenty percent of the time as is the case for wind. ( see article: Wind Farms Generate Below 20 Percent of Their Supposed Output…2014 Nuclear Issues Vol 37 No 7 September ) It is not yet a feasible technology. Wind, waves and solar may have their place but not as a grid source for dependable electricity. The wind and solar farms are not ready for prime time. In fact they are harmful to industry and existing full time energy sources. It’s called resonance or sub-synchronous power that because of their intermittent, unreliable supply actually cause wear and tear on the system. Keep in mind that the politicians are the ones who put pressure on the utilities for what energy mix to make. So just as misconceptions affect the outcome for nuclear they also affect the outcome for renewables.
The economics of renewables is tied in with the load following energy sources of power that replace wind and solar for during their downtime, which is most of the time. They are referred to by utility people as negative load sources. Here’s the catch 22. Add renewables to the mix and you are automatically going to need backup. No city can survive with intermittent power. So more than half (the inconvenient truth) of wind and solar are not producing so the void is filled with natural gas, coal or nuclear.
Renewables are also land-intensive. Trying to compare them to nuclear is futile. They lose on so many levels that it’s just plain silly to compare. Again it is like a car compared to a bicycle. Simply not a fair comparison. But it is the farms we mostly are against because they can have sudden spikes of power that traditional grids are not designed to handle.
Wind has the most money spent for electrical power gained disrupting smooth grid transmissions. The economics of renewables are such that the consumer pays more for electricity because of the subsidies that guarantee rates whether there is wind or sunlight available. The impact is that the consumer is paying twice. Once for the gas and once for the stalled wind and solar.
Solar can be less disruptive if spread out and installed & used by local home rooftops, schools, or businesses because they have not yet reached saturation where they can be disruptive. The personal rooftop’s output is buffered by immediate use of the owner. One proposal to dealing with intermittent unreliable sources is to create an independent grid of their own letting the cities prime functions alone.
But more importantly Wind and Solar and other intermittent energy sources need to be rethought and the separation of baseload dependent electrical use and less critical electrical use, so that renewable energy sources can be applied locally and coupled with storage and not a part of the same grid that carries baseload. One such beneficial example is using solar power to keep batteries for low wattage voltage heat pumps that are part of a geothermal installation.
If energy policy includes making responsible decisions about how we spend and the environmental impact from the development to the final installation, then a whole range of factors that go beyond merely delegating what power sources to use but also considering what materials from rare earths that come from China are part of the wind mill’s and solar panel’s design. They are long term hazards. Other unfriendly hidden factors such as desert solar farms require preparation that kills any wildlife or vegetation near the solar farm that could possibly allow growth or interference with the unmanned panels. How much thought has gone into disposal of end-of-life panels and wind turbines. There is indeed an inversely proportional amount for how much land and construction materials are needed and how much energy is produced when comparing small footprint nuclear energy to renewables.
Fossil Fuels – Coal
The worst offenders by far are Coal Plants! Coal generates 40% of Earth’s electricity and about 25% of its carbon dioxide emissions. London’s Great Smog of ’52 is a perfect example. Read about it here:
There are states that still have over 50% of their power from coal. But it is true that the US burns less coal than they once did but that is a deception. The coal they mine is still being burned but just not in the US. We need to consider creating more coal gasification plants to keep the coal business alive which means less exporting and more developing. But the long term goal should be to phase out coal mining for fuel. Again energy awareness needs to take the big picture into account. We can’t ignore that China is building a new coal plant every week to meet their expanding economic needs. We export coal but we used to export knowledge too. Somehow we fell behind. Catching up to our once proud position as the most technologically advanced country will begin when we accept nuclear science as part of our reality.
Fossil Fuel – “Natural” Gas
Because of what appears to be some bad apples, fracking has got a bad name. There is satellite evidence that shows more methane escape than is being reported from the wells. This under-regulated industry has examples of abusing, disfigurinand despoiling the land and water tables but there are sources that indicate it has had a positive impact on reducing CO2. On the one hand America is thankful for natural gas for helping the US to become more independent of Arab countries but on the other it is a threat to the environment in several ways. Water, wildlife and landscape have all suffered from the invasion of once pristine and relatively untouched countryside. The economics of natural gas is strongly connected to big business and the deep pockets give those companies more leverage to artificially keep prices low to make nuclear less able to profit. The utilities are forced to buy the cheapest energy sources.
What about labeling methane as “natural gas”? Does calling it “natural” accurately describe it’s function and properties? Methane is a much stronger greenhouse gas than CO2. It will stay in the atmosphere for 29 years before converting to CO2 which still remains. In addition, methane is explosive and has killed far more people than nuclear. So if explosions are natural then the name works but the intent of labeling it “natural” implies that it is unspoiled by human intervention. We know now that human intervention in the fracking sense is very un-natural. In an article titled “Hydrofracked: One man’s quest for answers about natural gas drilling” the author Abrahm Lustgarten states:
“…Between 200,000 and 6 million gallons of water are mixed with a cocktail of solvents, surfactants and acids — about 1 percent by volume — and pumped into the well under thousands of pounds of pressure per square inch. The intense pressure cracks open the deep rocks, releasing the gas. Sand or other particles mixed with the fluids prop open the artificially created fractures so that gas and fluids can flow freely. Sometimes the drilling is turned to run horizontally — deliberately angled to reach across thin layers of gas- and oil-bearing rock. When horizontal wells are fracked, they use vastly more fluid and chemicals…”
“In a typical fracked gas well, vertical or horizontal, it’s unclear exactly how far these man-made cracks extend, or whether they connect with natural faults and fissures to create rogue pathways for gas and chemicals. The oil and gas industry has long insisted that fracking is harmless…”
“Politicians who supported the industry had tried for years to exempt fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act, the 1974 law that regulates the injection of waste and chemicals underground. The EPA’s 2004 study was used to justify that effort. With the help of then-Vice President Dick Cheney — the former head of Halliburton — President George W. Bush’s landmark energy legislation, the 2005 Energy Policy Act, included a provision that prohibited the EPA from regulating fracking under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Regulation would be left to the states, many of which had underfunded agencies, looser standards and less manpower than the federal government…”
“Fracking works like this: First, a well is drilled thousands of feet into the earth, passing through layers of rock and water until it reaches the place where the gas is trapped — in shale, tight sands or some other geological formation. The well bore, which narrows as it gets deeper, is partially encased in steel pipe, and concrete is pumped into the space surrounding it, extending deep enough to seal off the drinking water aquifers. The concrete and steel are supposed to separate the well from everything except the target zone at the bottom.”
The Misinformed Green’s Are Unwitting Accomplices in Slowing Economic Recovery and Preventing Ecological Recovery
There have been a few cases where antinuclear protests and lobbyist efforts have forced the closing of nuclear plants such as Vermont Yankee and San Onofre plants and successful efforts to cancel nuclear projects. Lawyers, who belong to the profession we most love to hate, really take advantage of the under-educated green movement by working with nuance and counting on the fact that the judges and jury are not well informed on nuclear energy and they help bring about the closings of perfectly good productive nuclear power plants.
The outcome is almost always an increase in use of fossil fuel to replace this energy. The pollution affects the air and ocean acidity and the utility bills go sky high. We must continue to give examples of how much carbon dioxide is being added by removing nuclear energy from the equation. If the “greens” want to pretend to be concerned about the quality of life as a so-called “environmentalist” it is a must to know the facts. You can’t play it both ways. It is tantamount to superstition. Have we really regressed that far as a civilization?