Sunday, October 12, 2008

Pickens Plan - Wind + Nuclear = Success

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There is an awful lot going on in the world today that will have a big impact on all of our lives and those of future generations for decades to come. The growing financial turmoil around the globe, increasing use of fossil fuels to power the economies of the world, unrest in regions with vast petroleum and gas reserves, and of course climate change.

Tight Credit Markets May Delay Nuclear Build

The current tight-fisted grip on financing by investors and the world’s banks may have an impact on plans to build large infrastructure projects around the world, and nuclear plants certainly fall into that category. Nuclear plants can generate very competitively priced electricity because the price of fuel is but a small fraction of the overall cost. A larger percentage of the cost of nuclear generated electricity is in the costs associated with building the plant and financing the construction. Large coal plants are in the same situation, and with uncertainly around the impacts of probable greenhouse gas regulations virtually no one in the USA is building new coal plants. So what will happen if utilities can’t build new nuclear or coal plants? How will they keep ahead of electricity demand?

Natural gas is the big winner here; there is already an excess capacity of gas-fired plants on the US grid. They are normally only run as “peaking units.” But we’ll see them running more and more if new coal and nuclear plants experience long delays in coming online. It’s a sad situation for consumers and business, though, because gas is a very costly form of electricity and those cost will be passed on to all of us as higher rates for electricity and higher prices for goods and services. In the global economy, goods manufactured in regions of the world with low energy costs will have an increasing price advantage. THAT may result in loss of manufacturing jobs in the US, Canada, and Europe.

What about wind energy? I’ll cover about that later.

Myth Busting – Nuclear Plants Take Too Long to Build

There’s a commonly held myth that nuclear plants take too long to build. This myth perpetuated by the anti-nuclear crowd in an attempt to diminish the role nuclear energy will have in meeting the world’s energy demands and in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. People like Helen Caldicot, Paul Gunter, Greenpeace, and the Rocky Mountain Institute – all want the public and our policy makers to believe a “trifecta” of myths – that nuclear energy is too dangerous, too expensive, and too time-consuming to build.

Their argument something goes like this: “It takes 10 or 20 years to build a nuclear plant, and we need to stop greenhouse gas emissions NOW! If we wait 20 years to reduce global warming it will be too late!”

To put the facts in perspective, I researched data available on line from the US Energy Information Administration. Here’s what I discovered:

14 of the currently operating US reactors were build in five years or less, and a total of 28 nuclear plants were built in under six years.

All these plants were built without modern construction techniques, computer-aided design and scheduling, and the global supply chains that exist today. It’s not hard to imagine shaving one or two years off those times when you take these advances into consideration.

Here’s another fact: There are 104 nuclear plants in the USA. 102 of those reactors were built between 1965 and 1990; a 25 year period.

The USA has done it before – we built 102 nuclear plants in 25 years! With today’s modular construction techniques, mechanized welding, and simpler plant designs there is absolutely no reason to doubt we could do it again. In fact, I’ll argue that with modern construction techniques we could build double that number if we put our mind to it!

All this data is consistent with the 48 to 52 month construction schedules that have been talked about recently, and modern nuclear plants in Asia have already been built in about four years.

The positive impact of that kind of nuclear expansion would be huge. Today’s new plants have greater power outputs on average than the existing ones, so if we built 102 new reactors in the next 25 years we could add 168 GW to the grid. At a 90% capacity factor, that amount of new energy on the grid would be equal to about one-third of the USA’s current electricity consumption. Think about all we could do with that amount of reasonably priced, clean, emission-free energy! If we chose to use that new energy capacity to reduce the amount of coal being burned, we could cut GHG emissions from electricity production by more than 40% of today’s values. On the other hand, if we chose to use that capacity to power electric vehicles we could significantly reduce the amount of petroleum we import.

There IS one area that still takes far too long – the nuclear plant licensing and approval process. It takes the NRC three to four years to review and approve a construction and operating license, and that is for plants for which there is already a certified design and at sites that have already have “early site permits”! That is just insane, and it adds to unnecessary costs! Being fair to the NRC, this is a new process and they have a lot of new people involved. In the future the American people and congress need to hold them accountable to make sure that they improve their performance quickly as they gain experience. It’s important to note, though, that wind and coal plant projects are taking just as long or longer to get approved through their respective approval processes. Plus, because of supply shortages, the waiting period for new wind turbines is about two years. If you add it all up, nuclear energy could make a greater impact in a shorter time than any other power source.

(Pickens Plan – Wind) + Nuclear = Success

There’s been a lot of talk recently about using natural gas as an energy source. If you live in the United States, you’ve probably heard of the “Pickens Plan” for energy independence. In summary, Texas billionaire T. Boone Pickens is advocating a gigantic expansion of wind power for electricity generation across the central US. His plan is to use increased wind generation to replace natural gas use for electricity production, then he proposes diverting that gas to replace petroleum as a transportation fuel.

First of all: I am very impressed with the genius of the Pickens public relations engine. His team, financed by a $58 million advertising budget, is doing an incredible job of getting their message out! It is a well thought out and executed PR campaign that will definitely get people talking about alternatives to burning oil. The nuclear industry would do well by following his lead on creating an effective message and in reaching out to the audience using multiple avenues. The Pickens Plan is on television, the Internet, radio, and in the traditional print media. T. Boone has been appearing on talk shows, and is traveling around the USA doing “town hall” meetings. They are even using Internet-based social networks like Linked In, Facebook, and Twitter.

There’s one aspect of the “Pickens Plan” that I agree completely with: Regardless of your national reference point, every nation should strive to become as energy independent as possible. Keeping energy production at home creates jobs and keeps investment in the communities rather than sending money out of the country. This also reduces the political leverage that other nations have on your foreign policies. In the USA this means reducing oil imports.

As much as I respect the goals of the Pickens Plan, there are some very real technical issues that will challenge success. T. Boone refers to the technical challenges as “details that need to be worked out.” Unfortunately, some of these are pretty significant, and are virtually “show-stoppers.”

For example:

The wind corridor where the Pickens wind turbines would be built are in the middle of the continent in predominately lightly populated desert and plains regions thousands of miles from concentrated electrical energy demand. Every mile that electricity travels over power lines results in a measurable power loss, and by the time the electricity travels several hundred miles there would be little left for the customer. Why do you think large power plants tend to be built within about 100 miles of cities? The cost of transmitting electricity over these great distances is astronomical and makes the proposal impractical.

The cost of building thousands of miles of roads to build and maintain the turbines, and new power lines to connect the wind turbines to the load centers would more than double the already high cost of the project.

Wind energy is intermittent and unreliable. Europe has discovered that as you increase the percentage of wind generation you also have to increase the amount of fast starting back-up generation. If you don’t, the electricity grid becomes highly unstable when the wind suddenly stops or starts. Europe has experienced blackouts caused by sudden changes in the wind that exceeded the ability of the other power plants to react to the changes. In today’s world this means you need to increase the amount of natural gas powered plants. In a nutshell, increasing the amount of wind generation would INCREASE the amount of gas generation, not reduce it!

There are a few other facts in the Pickens Plan that I believe are misrepresented.

Pickens says electric cars are “a joke.” That is not the case. Automakers are ramping up production of hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and electric vehicles, and consumers have proven they are ready to buy them. In the next ten years these technologies will fundamentally change how we power our transportation system. An improvement in US fleet mileage by just 1/3 achieved by these technologies we can reduce oil imports by ~ 3 million barrels per day (1/3 of 8.9 MB/d for light vehicle petr. use per EIA). That’s almost a quarter of the oil currently imported into the USA!

Pickens also says nuclear plants can’t be built in time. We’ll I’ve just put that myth to rest. In my earlier analysis, those same 102 new reactors that we could build in the next 25 years could completely eliminate the need to burn natural gas for electricity production. In addition, few changes in the transmission system would be needed because nuclear plants would take advantage of the system already in place.

Finally, natural gas is already so expensive that utilities use it for electricity generation only as a last resort. The price has risen more than 400% in the last few years, and there is no sign that it will decline. If we start burning natural gas for transportation, the price will go even higher. That will really hurt the millions of people who use gas for heating their homes in the winter.

Wind energy is not “free” to operate as the proponents would lead you to believe. According to wind energy publications, each ten turbines require two full time operator mechanics to keep them running. If each turbine is 1.8 MW and operates at 28% capacity factor, each 5 MW of generation will require two people. That scales to 600 people for 1500 MW of true capacity. By the way, that is DOUBLE the number of technicians required to operate and maintain a nuclear plant of comparable size. Then, each two-person crew needs a truck and maintenance equipment – that means 300 specialized vehicles, plus fuel and vehicle maintenance costs. There will also be electricians to maintain the thousands of miles of power cables, transformers, and circuit breakers that connect the turbines to the grid. Then there is the management, administrative, and support organization associated with any such organization. The list goes on and on and I’ve not even begun to consider the cost of spare parts! This is great for the communities because of the number of jobs that would be created, but this adds to the high construction costs. All of a sudden you begin to get a realistic picture of what it will cost to build and operate large wind energy projects. If the wind is off-shore then it gets even more interesting. You need special maintenance service vessels, crews for the boats, and even more fuel.

Texas overbuilt natural gas electricity production when gas was cheap. Now that prices have risen Texans are paying the price. This is one reason that Texas is such an attractive market for companies considering new nuclear plants; the alternative is expensive natural gas. There are six or eight new reactors being considered for Texas, and two of them at South Texas Project are a virtual certainty.

I have an alternative for Mr. Pickens to consider: Nuclear energy would be a far better choice than wind as a method of reducing natural gas usage. As I mentioned before, when the wind is not blowing you’d be burning gas, and that pretty much defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?

T. Boone says his plan to expand wind is a stop-gap measure, a “bridge technology” to use until something better comes along. I would argue that we already have a proven solution that can be deployed faster and more cheaply than thousands of wind turbines scattered over many thousands of square miles.

I am not opposed to wind energy, but I believe that we need to use our limited financial resources as wisely as possible. Nuclear energy is simply a better investment than wind or gas generation. You get more energy per dollar spent, it is more reliable, has less impact on the environment, and the costs are lower and more certain.

That’s it for this show. As a reminder, you can find “This Week in Nuclear” at the iTunes Music Store – it is a free download. You can also listen to the show on Internet at At the web site you can listen to prior episodes and you can read show notes and transcripts.

“Go Green, Go Nuke”!

John Wheeler