Tag Archives: Rocky Mountain Institute

With a reliance on nuclear industry talking points, Carol Browner continues to embarrass herself

Carol Browner. Photo from wikimedia commons.

Carol Browner. Photo from wikimedia commons.

Former White House climate “czar” and now Nuclear Matters shill Carol Browner continues to embarrass herself with her ill-informed, although presumably lucrative, rants in support of nuclear power no matter its bevy of environmental, safety and economic failings.

One hopes that, if not Browner herself, at least the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), the nation’s most prominent organization supporting environmental candidates in elections, is embarrassed by Browner’s antics. After all, she is chair of the LCV Board, which always has been at least skeptical of nuclear power and certainly has never fallen to the level of uncritical support for the industry espoused by Browner.

Exhibit A is a speech Browner made Friday on Capitol Hill, in a Nuclear Matters-sponsored event for policymakers. Continue reading

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Nuclear industry wins short-term victories, but losing long-term battle

Three major decisions, in three different venues, made last week a good week for polluting utilities and thus a bad one for actual people. But the longer-term trends stayed on track,  with the nuclear/fossil fuel industry still in growing trouble and facing decline as the transition to a nuclear-free, carbon-free energy future continues on.

The bad news first:

*Under utility pressure, the EPA caved and “watered down” its proposed rule to prevent massive fish kills and other damage to marine life from power plants using once-through cooling systems. Environmentalists had wanted the proposed rule strengthened to require such power plants to close or at least build cooling towers but nuclear and coal plant owners successfully lobbied the agency and won weaker regulations.   Continue reading

The utility death spiral, stupid utilities and grid defection

Much has been written so far this year, including in these pages, about the “utility death spiral,” in which electric utilities that fail to adapt to changing technologies and electricity delivery systems like rooftop solar and distributed generation generally will gradually (or quickly, depending on one’s perspective) wither away and disappear. Warren Buffet thinks the “utility death spiral” is bullshit, so he’s on a utility buying spree--although he’s looking only at small, regulated utilities, not the Entergys and Exelons of the world that are at most risk of being unable to compete in a transformed utility sector. Buffett says “society will forever need massive investments in both transportation and energy,” which is undeniably true. But that doesn’t mean the traditional-minded, behemoth-plant baseload power-oriented utilities aren’t on the way out….

This article from SmartGridNews argues that utilities aren’t really “shockingly stupid” as NRG Energy CEO David Crane observed recently. Rather, the author argues that utilities respond rationally to existing regulations–some of which are decades old–and this prevents them from quickly adapting to new technologies like rooftop solar. But, the author says, the utilities could be faulted for not working to change those regulations. Still, the article concludes: “Jigar Shah, founder of solar company SunEdison, has a dimmer view of utility survivability.

“There are 300 public utilities in this country and six might be successful on the other side. By 2020, this whole market will be firmly disrupted.”

Shah said pension funds have started divesting shares of utilities because they are losing growth. With distributed generation and energy efficiency, the only way to prosper is by investing in those opportunities. But the utility mindset and business model was not designed to accommodate innovation.

“Hedge funds managers are calling me on whether they should be shorting utilities,” Shah said. “When we are having that conversation that means the end is near.”

If the survival of utilities requires changing regulations, it looks like utilities better get moving….We suspect most won’t.

Speaking of utility survival, as we noted here February 26, the Rocky Mountain Institute released a major report: The Economics of Grid Defection, in which it predicted that–sooner than most people have realized–it will be just as cheap or cheaper for consumers to leave the electric grid and power their own homes and businesses. But RMI has now posted a follow-up piece in which it points out a) that consumers economically can leave the grid doesn’t mean they will and b) that widespread grid defection would not necessarily be a good thing–in fact there are numerous drawbacks to the possibility. RMI says “We need not face an electricity future with an either/or dichotomy of two extremes: total utility/centralized dependence and total defection/independence. There exists another path, one in which central and distributed resources are complementary, connected and supported by a nimble grid.”

Michael Mariotte

March 14, 2014

Permalink: https://safeenergy.org/2014/03/14/the-utility-death-spiral-stupid-utilities/

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Why we’re writing so much about the changing nature of the electricity business–everybody else is. Oh, and because it’s important.

If how much is written about a topic is an indication of how important or perhaps timely the topic is, then the issues of distributed generation, the changing nature of how Americans will obtain their electricity, and the effects of both on electric utilities, are of both extreme importance and timeliness. We have been reporting on these issues almost daily, citing articles and adding to the conversation, but today the plethora of articles, opinions, predictions and information–and good ones at that–is almost overwhelming.

That major changes are coming should be obvious to anyone without blinders on–or perhaps anyone who hasn’t overinvested in nuclear power and fossil fuels. The only questions now are how fast those changes will be implemented and how extensive they’ll be.

If you haven’t been following the issue, here’s the brief (and simplified) synopsis: Distributed generation–for the most part small-scale rooftop solar (from your local Wal-Mart to your own house) and wind farms, coupled with increased availability and affordability of electricity storage (primarily batteries) coupled with increased energy efficiency in both buildings and appliances and smart electric grids are completely changing the nature of the electric utility business.

In the 20th century, that business model–designed to bring reliable and relatively affordable (if not often safe or clean) electricity to the entire nation–achieved its goals. Utilities built large “baseload” power plants, typically fossil fuel or nuclear powered plants that run 24/7, and an accompanying transmission grid to take the power from those plants to cities and towns all across the country. Regulators ensured they earned a profit on every step of that process. And the nation was indeed electrified.

But as we entered the 21st century, that business model began to fall apart. Most states chose to deregulate their electric utilities, and separated the jobs of power production from electricity transmission. Instead of regulators setting rates and ensuring profits, utilities began to be forced to compete with each other to sell electricity at the lowest rates to consumers. Inefficient and overly costly power plants began to close–a process that accelerated in 2013 with the unexpected shutdown announcements of five nuclear reactors. More shutdowns–in many cases aided by anti-nuclear campaigns–are likely this year and next. And dozens of dirty coal plants have closed in the past few years as well.

Meanwhile, technological advances, especially the plummeting costs of small-scale solar power and the advent of leasing arrangements which mean that consumers–both businesses and homeowners–can get solar installed on their rooftops without the high upfront costs, have made it possible for millions to produce their own electric power and sometimes even more than they need, which policies called net metering allow for them to sell back to the grid at market, and sometimes above-market prices.

As energy efficiency programs have begun to work, the average household and business is using less electricity than they used to. It now looks like peak electricity use in the U.S. was reached in 2007, and even with population growth we may never again reach that peak.

Wind power costs also have fallen over the years, and in many parts of the country are cheaper than their older competition: nuclear and fossil fuel plants. Smart grids, which are still in their infancy, make it possible for grid operators to more efficiently move between the intermittent power sources like wind and solar farms as their power is produced and wanes, providing more reliable access to renewable energy.

That’s where we are now. Where we’re going, sometimes called Utility 2.0, is what’s really exciting. The “internet of things,” where our devices, soon to include our entire homes and places of work, are connected to the internet, are enabling the smart grid to become really smart–to provide power to where it’s actually needed when it’s actually needed (and not at other times) from where it’s being produced (and in a somewhat similar fashion to the local food movement, that will more often than not be locally).

Electricity storage means that those big baseload plants will become obsolete. At the household level, who needs them when your rooftop solar panels provide all your electricity when the sun is up, and when it’s down you just shift to the batteries that have stored the excess power. Solar power 24/7. On the macro level (after all, most big city downtowns don’t have enough rooftop space to power themselves), larger batteries and other types of storage now in the early stages of commercialization mean that the power from wind, offshore and onshore, and large solar plants such as those sprouting up in California and Nevada (and even New York City’s Fishkills landfill), will also become 24/7. Add in some geothermal power where available, even more increased energy efficiency, the ability for cars to not only run on electricity but to generate electricity, and other technological advances on the horizon, and that old utility model has bitten the dust.

As we noted here on Wednesday, February 26, Rocky Mountain Institute has just released a report on when it will be cost-effective for the average household to just completely leave the grid if it wants–it’s sooner than you think. But whether we will end up with millions of micro-grids or will keep some form of regional grids as we have now is one issue for discussion; the reality staring all in the face is that we won’t have the kind of electric system we have now, and that’s coming sooner than most people think as well.

Traditional utilities are fighting this, of course, the same way all obsolete industries fight to remain relevant until they no longer are. And the nuclear power industry is fighting this too–that’s behind what for it is the absolute necessity of rigging the power markets to favor nuclear power over cheaper (and cleaner) energy sources. Without a rigged market, it can’t survive even in the current reality, much less the one on the way. Clean energy advocates should be actively championing and working towards the future–because it is the pathway to a nuclear-free carbon-free energy system.

Everything that has been said here has been documented in the past two months of GreenWorld, thus I haven’t put up links to each sentence–although I could have. Just scroll through the last two months, as I did yesterday sitting in a hospital room after a minor procedure, and you’ll see that. Even I was amazed at how this has been documented here.

But here are a few more posts I found just this morning that provide some new context and perspective:

Among the most ardent champions of the new system are Tesla Motors’ Elon Musk and his cousin, Solar City’s Lyndon Rive, who appeared yesterday at the California Public Utilities Commission to talk about our energy future.

Said Rive: Storage is a game-changing product. Those in the game don’t want to change the game. Utilities are trying to delay the game from changing.

Musk added that Tesla is working to create stationary battery packs that will last long, be safe and compact enough for houses. In other words, Musk’s vision is not just for Tesla to eventually become one of the world’s major auto manufacturers, it’s larger that that: it’s to bring Tesla into every household.

Musk also endorsed a carbon tax: The right move is a broad carbon tax. Our taxes for gas are very low compared to the EU. We should tax the things that are bad over the things that are good. Like we tax cigarettes and alcohol more than bread. It seems like common sense. It’s time for us to get serious on a carbon tax on a national basis. It’s economics 101. It’s so obviously the right move, but politicians are afraid of it.

commercial_installed_solar_pv_costsStephen Lacey is one of the better-informed writers on energy issues. He too sees solar power coupled with battery storage as an existential threat to utilities and in this article explains more about that, while also explaining in greater detail the Rocky Mountain Institute report mentioned above.

John Farrell at the Institute for Local Self Reliance is another who has been writing extensively on these issues. In this article, he asks: Is utility 2.0 a forecast or a post-mortem? And he concludes that for many utilities, it’s the latter–it may already be too late for them to jump on board–although some commenters disagree. Snippet:

Look at Georgia Power. They’re struggling to complete new reactors at their Vogtle nuclear power plant, and costs are rising despite over $8 billion in federal loan guarantees. But thanks to a coalition of environmentalists and the Georgia Tea Party, the state’s public utilities commission has required the utility to invest in distributed solar power. The utility will get 525 MW of new clean power generation, years before either new reactor will generate a single kilowatt-hour. And by 2017, the earliest the reactors could come online, it will cost less for Georgia Power customers to get solar energy from their own rooftop than to buy it from the utility.

Finally, David Crane, CEO of NRG Energy, which owns 53,000 MW of power plants, most of it fossil fuels, but also some nuclear and some renewables, has been outspoken on the need for utilities to adapt to the new model. In this article, he says it is “shockingly stupid…to build a 21st-century electric system based on 120 million wooden poles….” Crane has famously said he believes the new system will take about as long as it has taken smartphones to supplant landlines (though obviously that remains a work-in-progress), and that rooftop solar is the future. Here he even admits that NRG’s own power plants could become a liability for the company in the not-so-distant future. Crane is no anti-nuclear advocate, in fact he remains a supporter of nuclear power, but adds that there is no support in either the political arena nor private sector for traditional reactors or small modular reactors. The article goes on: Beyond nuclear, Crane said that the public’s perception of renewable energy technologies is vastly more positive than it was even a few years ago. “Green doesn’t mean a compromise of capability and price,” he said, adding that consumer products like Tesla S are “kicking ass.”

Michael Mariotte

Permalink: https://safeenergy.org/2014/02/28/why-were-writing-so-much-about-the-changing-nature-of-the-electricity-business-everybody-else-is-oh-and-because-its-important/ ‎

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Nuclear Newsreel, Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Nuclear Power

Yesterday’s revelations in the Tampa Bay Times about extensive degradation of steam generator tubes at Florida’s St. Lucie reactors have sparked calls for investigations and a new effort to repeal Florida’s early cost recovery law. In this article, the Times’ Ivan Penn follows up on yesterday’s story and quotes a former NRC official, Joe Hopenfeld, who is clearly concerned about the degradation.

“The guidelines the NRC and FPL are using to assess the severity of the tube damage are the same ones used to measure a different type of wear, he said. The current inspection criteria are for wear caused by stress corrosion cracking, he said. St. Lucie’s tube wear comes from the tubes vibrating too much, which caused them to rub and bang against the antivibration bars.

Those are different problems, Hopenfeld said, which call for different types of evaluations.

‘This is not black and white as being presented by the NRC,” Hopenfeld said. “There’s some sickness. I don’t know the degree, but there is some sickness. It’s getting sicker, sicker and sicker.'”

And in this article, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy calls for full repeal of the early cost recovery law, which has allowed Florida utilities to collect millions of dollars from ratepayers for a failed steam generator replacement project at the now-shuttered Crystal River reactor and costs for the now-cancelled Levy County reactors. Last year, an attempt to repeal the law fell short in the Florida legislature, although some reforms were accomplished. The problems at St. Lucie, previously regarded as a relatively solid performer, are likely to add new impetus to the repeal effort.

Japan still hasn’t learned: the conservative government of Prime Minister Abe’s new energy plan calls for resumption of nuclear power. But the document is vague about how that will be accomplished, and acknowledges that reliance on nuclear will have to be reduced. Still, local officials in Japan may be able to block many, if not all, attempted reactor restarts.

DOE says more airborne radiation has been detected from the leak at the WIPP (Waste Isolation Pilot Project) transuranic radioactive waste site in New Mexico, but provides little real data. The DOE press release announcing the new information is available here. At a public meeting last night in Carlsbad near the WIPP site attended by 250+ concerned citizens, DOE conceded that the leaks are very serious, but told area residents that, as all nuclear officials are apparently pre-programmed to say, there is no threat to public health and safety.

The experts (mostly) agree: government shouldn’t be supporting the nuclear power industry. In the wake of the approval of the taxpayer loan for construction of the Vogtle reactors, the National Journal asked several energy experts to weigh in on whether the government should be investing in nuclear power and whether the Obama Administration is doing too much or too little to back the nuclear industry. Most of the experts agree that nuclear power is not worthy of additional taxpayer support, although their reasons differ.

Clean Energy

Roadmap to a 100% renewables-powered California.

Roadmap to a 100% renewables-powered California.

Powering the US with renewables, a state-by-state roadmap. Good article on the recent work by Stanford’s Mark Jacobson that provides a clear roadmap on how the US can meet the target of 100% renewable electricity by 2050. Each state has different pathways to achieving that goal. In California, for example, his model projects “55 percent solar (both distributed and large-scale, including a lot of CSP), 35 percent wind (both on- and offshore), 5 percent geothermal, and 4 percent hydroelectric, plus a big contribution from energy efficiency.” Washington state, by contrast, would rely more heavily on hydropower and wind with a model of “43 percent wind, 28 percent solar PV, 26 percent hydro, 2 percent geothermal, and half a percent each of wave and tidal.”

But Jacobson and his colleagues have done more than simply provide sample ways to meet the 100% renewable goal. They also have looked at other benefits from implementation of the goals and project that their policies would “create a net 178,000 permanent jobs, avoid $131 billion in annual healthcare costs, and pay off the 631 GW of new installed power within six years”–in California alone. The issue of avoided healthcare costs, due largely to air pollution from fossil fuels, but also potentially from health effects from nuclear radiation, is one that too often is overlooked in the debates over our energy future.

New report from Rocky Mountain Institute: The Economics of Grid Defection. By “grid defection,” RMI means that the combination of affordable rooftop solar power along with battery storage will allow, by mid-century, virtually anyone in the U.S. to be electricity self-sufficient, i.e., to disconnect from the electrical grid for about the same costs as they are currently paying for electricity (although, in reality, many will remain connected to the grid and will be selling back excess power to the grid). Hawaii is already there, according to the report. But other states will be following soon: within a decade, for example, both New York and California residents could achieve this type of grid parity. And, as we have been saying in these pages, that reality presents profound challenges for electric utilities and will change the entire nature of the electric power industry. Nuclear power, of course, has no role in this new 21st century energy model.

Electricity use is declining and energy efficiency may be a factor says ACEEE. Actually, ACEEE is being rather conservative here. Their own findings show that state-level energy efficiency programs and federal efficiency standards are doing exactly what they’re supposed to: reducing electricity demand. If that trend continues, and there is little reason to believe it won’t, that means fewer power plants of all kinds, but especially fewer expensive old-line “baseload” power plants and greater opportunity for distributed generation.

Inside Washington

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission expects that in 2017 U.S. utilities will begin applying for new license extensions that would allow them to operate reactors for up to 80 years. Most reactors already have received extensions allowing operations up to 60 years, although a couple dozen applications remain in the pipeline or are expected relatively soon–some of which, like Indian Point, are highly controversial. The NRC staff has told the Commissioners that the license renewal rule needs to be changed to accommodate the expected applications and has asked for permission to issue a rulemaking proposal soon. Of course, no one knows if reactors will even last the 60 years they have been re-licensed for, much less 80 years. A license is a piece of paper–not a guarantee of ability to operate.

In a sign that the Obama administration still doesn’t understand the nuances of nuclear non-proliferation policy, nor the notion that the U.S. nuclear power industry does not merit U.S. government support anywhere, President Obama has signed off on a controversial civilian nuclear power agreement with Vietnam. The agreement would encourage Vietnam to buy enriched uranium from the U.S., although it would not require the country to forego installation of its own enrichment capability. And it would encourage the sale of nuclear technology to Vietnam–a country that certainly has ample renewable resources and no need of nuclear reactors.

Michael Mariotte

Permalink: https://safeenergy.org/2014/02/06/nuclear-newsreel-tuesday-february-25-2014/

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