On Tuesday, the Obama administration released the results of a major review of the nation’s electric grid, concluding that billions of dollars of investment is needed to modernize the grid, replace aging power lines and prepare for more renewables entering the electricity marketplace. The Department of Energy’s FY 2016 budget already includes a funding request from Congress to begin this task.
When billions of dollars are at stake, there can always be disagreement about the exact amount that should be spent, and how the upgrades are prioritized. But you wouldn’t think that anyone could deny that the grid needs upgrading, nor that it needs to be able to accommodate the rapidly growing deployment of renewables, both utility-scale and rooftop.
You wouldn’t think that unless, of course, you’re with the nuclear power industry and your response to every energy issue and initiative is to hold out your hat for more subsidies, while trying to kick your cheaper competitors aside.
So the Nuclear Energy Institute quickly put out a statement arguing that “…taking steps to preserve America’s operating nuclear plants and create favorable market conditions to ensure new ones are built is at least as important as the grid infrastructure and transmission issues….”
Yes, the nuclear industry says, apparently with a straight face, that more government subsidies to nuclear power are “at least as important” as upgrading the electric grid to bring it into the 21st century.
Here’s a clue, NEI: No it isn’t. We can get by–quite easily really, and, in fact, preferably–without nuclear power. We can’t get by without an electric grid that works. And all those clean renewable sources of electricity are coming whether the nuclear industry likes it or not, and the grid has to be ready for them.
After 30+ years in this field, the greed and gall of this industry are still able to amaze me. But you can be sure that the NEI and its partner utilities won’t be content with issuing a statement; they will be actively pressing for their priorities. It’s not a real visible issue, and won’t be publicly, but it’s part of their ongoing war on renewables being conducted in statehouses across the country and offices of obscure government agencies like the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).
Another relatively obscure federal agency is the U.S. Export-Import Bank, which provides loans and other support to encourage the export of American goods. In theory, that would seem to be a reasonable mission for the government to undertake. It helps American companies, helps create jobs, helps with the balance of trade.
In practice, the lion’s share of ExIm money has benefited two industries: aviation and nuclear power.
I’m always a little nervous about the “strange bedfellows” approach to politics, where people from opposite ends of the political spectrum join together, from very different starting points, to achieve a mutual goal.
In this case, the right-wing in Congress, especially Tea Party types, wants to shut down the ExIm bank entirely, calling it an example of crony capitalism and corporate welfare. Actually, can’t disagree with that. And there is a very good possibility that, perhaps with some support from the Congressional left, they will succeed.
That will be to the great dismay of the U.S. nuclear power industry, which knows it can’t compete internationally without more subsidies (or, at least, doesn’t want to compete internationally without subsidies). So it’s the Nuclear Energy Institute that is leading the charge to keep the ExIm Bank open.
If the ExIm Bank actually followed its charter and supported only U.S. companies, we might be more inclined to support its continued existence. Because if it did that, there would be no eligible nuclear power companies–they’re all foreign-owned. Westinghouse Nuclear is owned by Toshiba. And while General Electric is a U.S. company, its reactors are manufactured by Hitachi (not that anyone outside the U.S. wants to build GE reactors anyway). And, there’s really nobody else, unless one believes that NuScale or some other “small modular reactor” company will actually produce an SMR someday that receives NRC design certification and that is economical enough that someone abroad will want to buy it. By the time that happens, if ever, Congress will have a dozen more opportunities to re-establish an ExIm Bank if it wants.
But since ExIm insists on propping up those foreign nuclear companies with branches in the U.S. (a $5 Billion loan in the case of Westinghouse AP-1000 construction in China, which worked out to more than $1 million per U.S. job created), perhaps the Tea Party is right in this case. ExIm has probably outlived its usefulness.
Continuing with the theme of the nuclear industry’s insatiable appetite for taxpayer and/or ratepayer subsidies, a new study shows that Exelon’s nuclear bailout plan in Illinois would cost the state’s ratepayers $1.6 Billion over five years. This is the bailout plan that would provide no new benefit for Illinois whatsoever; it simply would transfer money from personal wallets to Exelon to keep its nuclear reactors open–just because they are nuclear. As Illinois state government studies have shown, there is no need for their power, and moving faster to clean energy (which a competing bill in the state legislature would do) would bring large benefits to the state.
Ameren Illinois ratepayers, who are in the southern part of the state, will be paying more to bail out Exelon’s Clinton reactor, even without legislation. That’s because Exelon struck it big in a recent capacity auction for that reactor, which will lead to higher electric rates in the area–about $150/year per household, even though Ameren has no stake in the reactor.
That’s not enough for Exelon, of course, and it continues to lobby hard for its nuclear bailout bill in the state legislature. Other utilities that operate in Illinois, like NRG Energy and Dynegy–which operates a lot of dirty coal plants–are lobbying just as hard against Exelon’s plan. Dynegy recently warned that it would have to lay off workers if Exelon’s bailout is implemented.
An Exelon spokesperson replied that Dynegy is “getting a bailout in the sense that they’re not paying for their pollution. They’re able to use the sky as a carbon sink without the cost. They should never expect to be treated equally because the technologies have completely different societal values.”
Exelon is right in that of course. But, as Dave Kraft of Chicago’s Nuclear Energy Information Service (NEIS) points out, “it should be noted that Exelon has been using our air and waterways as radioactive waste dumps for the past 40+ years as well, while not paying the total societal cost. Just how much will it cost society to keep dangerous, high-level radioactive wastes out of the environment for several hundred-thousand years? And ‘one bad day at the office’ at Clinton or Quad Cities could turn the Illinois environment and economy into Fukushima-East.”
The answer, of course, is neither nuclear nor coal. And that’s the plan being pushed by clean energy and environmental groups, AARP, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and many more. The outcome of this battle before the Illinois legislature will reverberate and set precedent across the country.
If you’re in Illinois, take action here to support clean energy and stop Exelon’s nuclear bailout. Then send the action page to every single person you know. If you know anyone in Illinois, send them to this page: http://org2.salsalabs.com/o/5502/p/dia/action3/common/public/?action_KEY=19803 More outreach is critical if we are to win this fight.
Finally on this Friday, this is cool: An Indiana high school has installed the world’s first public floor that generates electricity when it’s walked upon. Imagine a future when walking around the house generates the electricity your house needs, and driving your electric car on electricity-generating streets provides the power to run your town. Science fiction becomes reality.
We actually have no idea whether such floors are cost-effective or generate any significant amount of power. Although whatever their cost and output may be now, we can be sure the cost will drop and output will grow in coming years.
Meanwhile, another happy note for your weekend: as we have been saying since we began GreenWorld in January 2014, the age of renewables is closer than you think. But this time, that’s not just us talking, it’s Scientific American.
April 24, 2015
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