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Monday, July 4, 2016

Our future is in low carbon energy, not just green (whatever that means) energy

Columbia Nuclear Generating Station in Washington State
 Cross-posted to Energy Trends Insider.

Robert McCullough has an Op-Ed in the Seattle Times titled "Our future is in green energy not aging, costly nuclear plants" that rebuts an earlier Op-Ed by James Moss supporting Washington State's single nuclear power station. McCullough:

"I read James Moss’ recent Op-Ed with interest and some amusement. The interest reflects whether Washington’s aging and very expensive nuclear plant is a good use for our energy dollars. Moss is doing a good job for his union constituents and takes a position I normally support. Sadly, we may not be on the same side regarding the costs."

I read Robert McCullogh's Op-Ed above with interest and some amusement.

Which got me to wondering who these Northwest clients might be? Neither the Times article nor the study he references says. But based on the Wikipedia article about this power station, I'm pretty sure I know who it is:

In December 2013, Robert McCullough, ... published an analysis of the economics of Columbia Generating Station commissioned by Physicians for Social Responsibility, a group that advocates eliminating the use of nuclear power.

Shouldn't the Times have divulged that information so readers would know he was being paid by a well-known antinuclear energy group? And don't let the group's name (Physicians for Social Responsibility), which is an argument from authority, fool you. It would be a big mistake to ask a physician to fix your brakes. I'm married to a physician. I know a lot of physicians. Physicians don't know any more about nuclear energy than any other lay person ...maybe less.

His antinuclear bias is further exposed by his repetition of old, dog-eared, antinuclear talking points. Below I will show you where he isn't being completely accurate with us using my tried and true (and mostly arbitrary) veracity score system with a rating of ten defined as a cold hard fact all the way down to one, which can be defined in any number of colorful ways.

"This is a relic of an energy plan begun in the 1960s and built with technology from the 1970s. It is an 8-track tape player in an iPad world. "

Snappy ...but there's something wrong with his metaphor. Analogously, that would make hydro electric dams, some built in the 1930s, phonographs in an iPad world ...yet together, this 8-track and phonograph continue to churn out 85% of Washington State's low carbon electricity. Natural gas certainly isn't new technology. That leaves wind and solar at 5.6 percent and some tiny fraction of a single percent respectively, and neither can produce the steady stream of energy through every night and day that is required of baseload energy suppliers. Wind and solar, being both intermittent and nondispatchable, are best described as fuel savings devices for natural gas power stations, which is fine, but their roles are limited to that. Veracity score = 2 for ignoring hydro when making that analogy.

"The prices of electric power have plummeted over the years as renewables have sharply declined in price, natural gas is facing a glut..."

He just told us that lower cost renewables are driving this nuclear power station out of business. Is he talking about solar? Washington State only gets a tiny fraction of a single percent of its power from solar. So, we can eliminate solar from the list of nuclear competitors.

Is he talking about hydro? Hydro has been around longer than nuclear. Because it is already tapped out, you can't really expand it any further to replace nuclear, so we can eliminate hydro from his list.

Is he talking about wind? Nuclear provides a steady flow of power 24 hours a day that other power sources jump on top of to meet extra demand as needed. Wind ramps up and down all day, and stops for days at a time. Wind cannot physically provide that steady flow called baseload, and because nuclear can't ramp up and down to chase wind around, an increase in the use of wind leads to an increase in natural gas (because it can chase wind around), with the downside being that natural gas is a source of greenhouse emissions. See graphic below:

 "...and new technologies from LED lighting to rooftop solar have arrived."
I hate to break the news to him but, new technologies like LEDs don't supply power (see The Death of the Fluorescent Shop Light). They save power, regardless of what made that power: wind, solar, hydro gas, or nuclear, so that's a moot point when it comes to nuclear energy. Veracity score = 0.

When he said that natural gas is facing a glut he really said it all. America is drowning in dirt cheap natural gas. Nuclear is being given a run for its money by a fossil fuel, not renewables. And this is relevant for two reasons, climate change and the fact that natural gas prices will one day go back up.

"Over the past four years, the market price of power that is produced from CGS has been only a bit more than half what it cost to produce it. We recently reviewed the cost and value data for our Northwest clients and found that ratepayers had paid more than $500 million more in cost than the energy was worth since 2012. We know that given the lower prices today, running the plant for the next four years will cost the region $800 million more than the value of the power it produces."

Keep in mind, he's an economist. Have you heard this joke?

A mathematician, an accountant and an economist apply for the same job.

The interviewer calls in the mathematician and asks "What do two plus two equal?" The mathematician replies "Four." The interviewer asks "Four, exactly?" The mathematician looks at the interviewer incredulously and says "Yes, four, exactly."

Then the interviewer calls in the accountant and asks the same question "What do two plus two equal?" The accountant says "On average, four - give or take ten percent, but on average, four."

Then the interviewer calls in the economist and poses the same question "What do two plus two equal?" The economist gets up, locks the door, closes the shade, sits down next to the interviewer and says, "What do you want it to equal"?
This reminds me of the corn ethanol debate where various economists estimated it was costing billions or saving billions. Read this piece about the cost of wind in Washington State.

And to make things worse for McCullogh, here is what else that Wikipedia article said:

In late 2012 the Bonneville Power Administration and Energy Northwest came together to analyze the financial value of Columbia in light of low energy prices in the wholesale electricity market and historic low fuel costs for natural gas-fired power plants. The agencies studied three scenarios and concluded, in April 2013, that Columbia’s continued operation was the most cost-effective option for consumers.

In April 2013, Energy Northwest commissioned a third-party study by IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates, a firm with a 75-year reputation for independent expertise in the fields of energy, economics, market conditions and business risk. IHS CERA came to the same conclusion as the April 2013 joint BPA-EN study.

In 2013 the Columbia Generating Station set a record for electricity generation during a refueling outage year – 8.4 million megawatt hours of electricity sent to the regional power grid. In 2012 – a non-refueling outage year – Columbia generated a record 9.3 million megawatt hours of electricity for the regional power grid.

In January 2014, the Public Power Council, representing Northwest consumer-owned utilities, examined the competing market assessments and said they found no compelling evidence that ceasing operation of Columbia is economically advisable for the region. The PPC assessment supported public statements by BPA affirming Columbia’s provision of unique, firm, baseload, non-carbon emitting generation with predictable costs for the region’s ratepayers.

The Public Power Council observed in February 2014 that the variable cost of Columbia operations in recent years were slightly above spot market energy prices. However, the council stated that a single unanticipated shift in the markets “can easily wipe out years of anticipated benefits” gained from replacement power.

The council referenced the Western Energy Crisis of 2000-2001. During that relatively short energy crisis, according to the council, the cost benefit of Columbia’s power “dwarf[ed] the modest benefits that would have been achieved” through replacement power. “In 2001 alone the operation of Columbia Generating Station compared to the market saved Bonneville Power Administration ratepayers $1.4 billion,” according to the council.

As I've said many times before, I'm a big fan of solar, and also a big fan of tax rebates ($3,000 for first Prius, $1,800 for high efficiency furnace, $7,500 for electric car).

Solar gets the 30% Federal Income Tax Credit, which for my home would put about $18 thousand dollars of my fellow ratepayers money into my pocket if I chose to replace all of my electricity generation with solar.

If I chose to install equipment made in Washington state, I get the state Production Incentive, which would put roughly $5 thousand dollars of my fellow ratepayers money into my pocket.

The sales tax exemption would put roughly another $6 thousand dollars of my fellow ratepayers money into my pocket.

Net metering, which is included in Washington State's list of solar incentives, would pay me a retail rate for energy produced by my solar power station as opposed to what a commercial solar power station would get wholesale, putting roughly $500 dollars of my fellow ratepayers money into my pocket every year, so for a 25 year panel life span, that would be 25 x $500 = $12,500. 

$18,000 + $5,000 + $6,000 + $12,500 = $41,000.

He gets a veracity score of 3 because he makes no mention of the subsidized cost of renewables.

"Put another way, we could pay each employee of the nuclear plant a $500,000 severance and still have money left over for wind generators and solar panels.

Put yet another way, and assuming his study is accurate (and the quotes from Wikipedia above strongly suggest why it isn't), $800,000,000/4 years/7 million people = $28.5  In theory, and based on the calculations of an antinuclear economist, it's costing Washington State citizens $28.5  a year, $2.38 a month,  to prevent the emissions from the natural gas and coal that would replace it if it were shut down. Veracity score = 2 for the biased way he chose to put the costs into perspective.

"Why is the plant so expensive? It is in a poor location — competing with far less costly renewable resources like wind and hydroelectricity"

It isn't and expensive relative to solar, it most certainly is not. I used the NREL solar cost estimator to see if I would save money or lose money by replacing my grid power with solar. When excluding subsidies, I found that I would lose $30,000 over the life of the panels. It's expensive relative to natural gas and hydro, of which one is a greenhouse gas emitting fossil fuel and the other can't expand to replace nuclear respectively. Wind is, in reality, a hybrid component of a natural gas grid serving to reduce gas bills (or water flows with hydro) when it is blowing.

Hydro has always been here. It cannot be expanded. It has always existed along with other energy suppliers like gas, coal, and nuclear, simply because it can't do it all, ergo, claiming it should replace nuclear is a deception. It can't expand any further. We do not want to dam anymore rivers, and in fact, we have been tearing dams down. Veracity score = 0.

Look at the following pie chart. Assuming hydro is already being fully utilized, you cannot expand the use of wind unless you also expand the use of natural gas because natural gas power plants take over when the wind dies. The wind and gas wedges have to expand which will reduce emissions as long as the coal wedge shrinks instead of the nuclear wedge. If the nuclear wedge is replaced instead of coal you will get a huge increase in emissions. Veracity score =2.

"When the wind blows and the rivers surge, we have to turn off these resources, since the nuclear plant can’t adjust its output like alternative-energy resources. "

Except utilities can simply reduce hydro output. On some occasions, utilities have been known to reduce wind instead of hydro. Get rid of the coal if you want to expand gas, but getting rid of nuclear will simply increase emissions for the reasons stated above. Veracity score = 2.

"We have no storage solution for the nuclear waste that is being stored in its elevated spent fuel pool and in dry casks outside the plant.

This is one of those dog-eared antinuclear talking points that expose his antinuclear bias that I mentioned earlier. The nuclear waste issue has been blown way out of proportion by antinuclear energy organizations. It is, in reality, trivial. Read Making Mountains Out of MoleHills. Veracity score = 2.

"The plant is a singleton, rather than having twin units — there are strong economies of scale for twin plants that share repair and operating resources. "

The above argument is irrelevant if emissions reductions take precedence over expansion of natural gas at the expense of a lower carbon source to support wind. Veracity score = 4 because the argument has chosen to downplay the importance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

"However, even more efficient, better-located nuclear plants are closing across the U.S. — recent announcements indicate plants closing in Illinois, New York, California, Massachusetts, and Nebraska. These plants are not closing because they are ailing. They are closing because the costs of aging nuclear is simply much higher than cleaner and simpler technologies."

He is insinuating that these much simpler technologies are wind and solar. But they are not what's giving nuclear a run for its money. It's natural gas, which is a simpler technology, so at least he got that part right, but it's also a greenhouse gas emitting fossil fuel. Veracity score = 3.

"The Nebraska closure is a case in point. Last week, the Omaha Public Power District, a public power entity comparable to Energy Northwest, announced the closure of the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station on economic grounds. This was a thoughtful, well-considered opinion that weighed the costs over the rhetoric."

Riiiight ...weighed the costs over the "rhetoric"  What rhetoric would that be? Climate change? This is another example of his antinuclear bias that I mentioned earlier.  Everywhere nuclear has closed, emissions have spiked because natural gas (a greenhouse gas emitting fossil fuel) has taken over. Veracity score = 3.

"At the top of this piece, I indicated that Moss’ Op-Ed had some amusement value. Energy Northwest several years ago purchased a multiyear supply of the dirtiest, most expensive and most carbon-intensive nuclear fuel in the world. The fuel is from the now closed, bankrupt and decaying facility in Paducah, Ky., which was one of the largest emitters of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) — hundreds of times more harmful than carbon — and was powered by two very dirty coal stations."

...and another of those dog-eared antinuclear talking points that expose his antinuclear bias that I mentioned earlier. The Paducah plant ceased operations three years ago. The emissions created making that fuel is a drop in the bucket compared to the emissions saved by the nuclear power station, and he knows that. Solar panels, mostly made in China, are not created using very dirty coal power? Where is the power used to make wind turbines and the concrete pads they sit on coming from?  Veracity score = 2.

"This is a case of selective accounting by Energy Northwest — the plant emits no carbon using the nuclear fuel, but emits a great deal by using carbon-intensive fuel."

...says the zen master of selective accounting. Yet another dog-eared antinuclear talking point. All energy sources emit a great deal of emissions by using carbon-intensive fuel to make, install, and maintain their parts. That's what life-cycle analysis is for. And nuclear power produces less lifecycle emissions than solar. Veracity score = 1.

"The bottom line is that we can afford a much better mix of resources — at lower cost — than this aging nuclear station. As the Omaha Public Power District put it, it is time to rebalance our generating portfolio for a less expensive and less risky future."

Omaha is about to have a spike in greenhouse gas emissions. As for that risky part? It's another dog-eared antinuclear talking point. Nuclear is one of the safest sources of energy we have.

Veracity score =2.


Average veracity score = 1.8 out of 10.

Now look back over this post and compare it to the short piece allowed in a newspaper. Newspapers really should stick to news, or go out of business. They are not doing the world any favors with these Op-Ed pieces.

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