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On Examining Nuclear Power as Climate Option, Part II

I won't argue that the risks have often been exaggerated, but if any NGO deserves credit for first recognizing that the fundamental problem with nuclear energy is costs, making the risks just not worth it, it's Friends of the Earth, in 1976:

http://m.foreignaffairs.com/articles/26604/amory-b-lovins/energy-strategy-the-road-not-taken

 

November 14, 2014    View Comment    

On Will LEDs Trigger Rebound Effects? Examining the Key Evidence

Jesse,

I appreciate your willingness to engage Rob Day on these issues. To me, a lot of the "evidence" on rebound seems to assume causation from correlation.  This is especially the case with the long-term effects.

There are so many confounding factors in the switch from, say, kerosene to electric lighting. Light quality: switching from a low-level, flickering, shadowy light that cannot be targeted at a task area to a steady, brighter, directable light.  Smell: how many kerosene lights would one want to light in a confined space? Health effects from breathing the fumes.  The inconvenience of procuring fuel and pouring it into each lamp vs. the convenience of flicking a switch and lighting multiple lamps. The intangible, and likely class identification "benefit" of using the latest, most "modern" technology.  

Any one of these factors may well have driven 100%+ conversion from kerosene to electric at the same or even at a higher, premium price.  How does one tease price elasticity out of the confounding of all these factors?  I just don't see it. 

That's not to say that there is no rebound, or that it wouldn't be higher in developing countries than in developed countries where there is likely to be a high degree of saturation.  But I think those postulating high levels of rebound or backfire need to be more careful in considering the many confounding factors that could be causing higher usage rather than just price.

 

 

 

 

November 4, 2014    View Comment    

On Can Nuclear Power and Renewable Energy Learn to Get Along?

If natural gas is 20% or less of the system, and the rest is renewables and/or nuclear, system emissions would be dramatically reduced. Renewable Elecricity Futures shows we could do it with 80% renewables, but I wouldn't rule out say, something like 60% renewables, 20% nukes and 20% gas making economic sense in the US. 

At that point, which will take decades, storage and/or gas/CCS, and/or smart grid would hopefully be well enough along to squeeze out remaining gas emissions.

It also seems possible to me, that SMRs could enable nukes to play a larger role, though I think they face serious challenges. I have many times expressed support for their continued R&D, as the best hope for economic new nukes. 

As for your hypothetical, I do not much appreciate your presuming what my position would be. As it is a hypothetical, it is hard to judge. If it had not shown much potential to reduce costs with scale, and had other significant impacts, like say, a tidal barrage or large-scale hydro, I would have similar concern. If showed potential for reduced costs, like offshore wind, I would support cautious expansion. If I lived in Germany, instead of being a beneficiary, I'd have the same reservations you've expressed about relative investment in solar vs wind. 

And if I were as anti-nuclear as you suggest, I would not support continued operation of existing nukes. But where they are economic and don't have specific safety issues--as is generally the case--I do. 



April 15, 2014    View Comment    

On Can Nuclear Power and Renewable Energy Learn to Get Along?

Math oversimplified, perhaps, but the bottom line is the economics of the proposed change to the system. If one is looking at retiring a typically inexpensive existing nuclear plant, then I agree, doesn't make economic sense.

If you're looking at adding a new nuclear plant, though, where many analysts, including me, think they are uneconomic even at full capacity factors, and are at best marginal, and where you're locking in a large resource for presumably 40-60 years, then the added inflexibility equals reduced future optionality. 

Bottom line: They don't really play well together, except in small doses. 

April 15, 2014    View Comment    

On Can Nuclear Power and Renewable Energy Learn to Get Along?

I think this is broadly well-explained, but misses some important points.

The problem with cycling nuclear plants is not only technical, but economic. As capital-intensive plants, where construction costs dominate fuel costs--and particularly where new nuclear plants and some older plants are marginally economic at best--they have to be run at very high capacity factors to be economic. 

Similarly, renewables have to operate at clise to their design capacity factor, and can't be dumping power, to be economic. 

The ceiling penetration for renewables may be approximately the capacity factor before needing storage or other system flexibility--it varies by system. But whatever thst level, it is higher if there are more flexible resources on the system, like gas, and lower if there are more inflexible resources, like nuclear (coal is in between, probably closer to nuclear.)

So while it is true that at very high levels of either, you need storage, the ceiling is really determined by the combined nuclear and renewables total. You will hit the ceiling earlier in nuclear-heavy systems, and need more (expensive) storage than you would need at lower nuclear levels. Otherwise, one or the other wouldn't be profitable, depending on the market rules. 

On the other hand, at current levels of nuclear and renewables, there aren't likely to be conflict in many places. The idea that you have to phase out nuclear now to make room for renewables later seems also exaggerated. 

But going forward, adding new nukes would start decreasing system flexibility and make it less economic to add renewables, or vice versa. And the added storage needed to make them play together would also undermine the economics of both. 

 

 

 

April 15, 2014    View Comment    

On Texas: The Most Remarkable Republican Energy State in the US

Texas had a special combination of a) great wind resources b) wide open spaces with little land-use competition c) a strong pro-development (including energy) culture, d) very effective energy/environmental advocates e) pioneering wind entrepreneurs f) some key business and political leaders with strong personal motivation  and g) a political establishment that had prioritized deregulation of electricity generation, creating space for a deal with environmental advocates. 

The first place to turn to understand Texas and renewable energy is the entertaining and enlightening book, "The Great Texas Wind Rush," by Kate Galbraith and Asher Price, although the role of strong environmental advocates is somewhat underplayed there, in my opinion. 

 

February 23, 2014    View Comment    

On Can the American Wind Energy Industry Survive Without the PTC?

Given that it's the only federal low-carbon electricity policy, the question ought to be, can the wind industry thrive, not just survive, without the PTC.

With today's ridiculously low prices, every utility should be maxing orders for wind, but orders are still down from what the industry has delivered in the past.

While the wind industry would survive the loss of the PTC, with continuing orders from smart utilities in low cost regions, wind energy would not come close to its potential to deliver low, or even negative-cost, carbon reductions.

No climate hawk should favor expiration of the PTC my guess is that the transfer if taxpayer revenues to wind farms that would be built anyway pales in comparison to other taxpayer costs for reducing pollution (never mind taxpayer subsidies to fossil fuel and other polluters).

That said, if the industry can negotiate a long-term slow phaseout of the PTC, that would obviously be a sound strategy, given the political volatility of the PTC and the negative pact of boom-bust cycles. 

Meanwhile, climate hawks should be doing everything possible to strengthen the industry's hand in such negotiations, not undermine it. 

 

 

 

December 18, 2013    View Comment    

On Efforts to Promote Energy Storage Should Look to the States

Interesting. This article would be much more helpful, though,  if the author gave some specific examples of how local regulation was in appropriately blocking storage. I wouldn't immediately dismiss the viability of federal legislation. While the title and popular belief is that storage primarily benefits renewables, it also benefits inflexible baseload capacity--especially coal and nuclear--which might otherwise have to ramp down in low load conditions, and may even provide higher economic benefits to them. Successful efforts to harmonize state and local regulations on electricity issues, on the other hand, are few and far between. 

Alan Nogee

@alannogee

March 3, 2012    View Comment    

On The Future of Global Climate Policy: Clean Energy Innovation Imperative

Matthew,

And thank you for the original series and the response. Glad we're debating this as relative priorities and not absolutes.  Have you seen the recent Kennedy School Belfer Center paper on innovation by a team of serious innovation geeks? They also recommend increases in the range of 3-10x for specific technologies, with an overall increase of about 4x (which would basically mean continuation at the level of funding under the ARRA stimulus bill).  Interestingly, their survey of experts in each of a range of technologies also found, though that:

[E]xperts also expressed the opinion that there are points of diminishing returns for investments in each technology—that increasing funds well beyond this particular amount in the short term may not result in significant benefits.

I also agree that our current policies can be improved. A few years ago, I tried to persuade an industry association to propose a long-term tax credit that would phase out if natural gas prices exceeded a certain level.  At the time, gas was above $10/mmBTU, and they would have received nothing. The Congressional Budget Office would have scored it as having no cost. But they were confident that they could get a renewal under the status quo.  Now, of course....

Depite this hopeful convergence, I do want to point out that deployment at the rate and scale needed to reduce costs quickly and reduce emissions rapidly will require multiples this amount of funding--likely far more than can be expected from government sources, as opposed to internalized in energy prices through a renewable or clean energy standard, cap and trade, taxes, or something else. I hope that ITIF and the BTI increase efforts to emphasize the commonalities with groups promoting deployment.  

Thanks. 

Alan

 

 

January 27, 2012    View Comment    

On The Future of Global Climate Policy: Clean Energy Innovation Imperative

Excellent series.  I'm in strong agreement with the bulk of it.  I continue to think, though, that you are overstating the role of R&D relative to deployment.  I reviewed the key Nemet reference you cite for the proposition that cost declines are the result of "equal parts ongoing R&D and economies of scale" and do not believe it supports that conclusion. 

Rather, Nemet concludes that 30 percent of the total price decline of PV is from improving cell efficiencies, of which R&D is the primary driver, although learning by doing is credited with "some" contribution to increasing cell efficiency as well. So R&D contributes roughly one-quarter of the overall price decline, rather than half.

More than half the decline is directly attributed to factors related to growth in the market for PV cells, especially larger manufacturing plant sizes (43%), but also learning by doing, standardization, market predictability, competition, etc. These are all factors that deployment policies, such as renewable standards and incentives, aim to effect. 

Nemet attributes 12-15% of the price decline to spillover effects from the IT industry in reducing silicon price and usage.  But it is interesting to note that around the time the paper was written (2005) was when PV price decreases halted as a result of a silicon shortage.  Up to that time, the PV industry largely utilized silicon waste from the IT industry. The huge decline in PV price since the paper was written has been largely driven by the creation of large dedicated silicon plants to serve the PV industry. Those plants, of course, were enabled by the large expansion of the PV market--driven by deployment policies. 

Even within the R&D contribution, Nemet finds that industry was responsible for 6 of 16 key breakthroughs. The other 10 breakthroughs were from universities and government research. The increasing scale of the industry likely contributed to industry's ability to conduct such R&D, and I would expect industry to play an ever larger R&D role as its scale increases. 

While Nemet looks only at PV, he also cites a paper (Madson et. al.) that found that scale made an even larger direct contribution (60%) to price reductions for wind energy, vs. 43% in direct scale effects Nemet found for PV.

Finally, the specific example you provide to illustrate the high cost of deploying with yesterday's technology makes no sense. It is not meaningful in any way to multiply 30 year old costs times a target penetration rate to calculate the cost of deployment. Every technology has to be ramped up over time, and in that process of ramping up costs will decline due to scale, learning, etc. That is the whole point. 

Bottom line: yes, government and university R&D has a very important role to play in the innovation process. I strongly agree with the many recommendations that it should be at least doubled. But it is significantly overstating the case to assign it an equal or dominant role in the policy portfolio. 

Alan Nogee,

Clean Energy Consulting

@alannogee

 

 

 

January 26, 2012    View Comment    

On Wind Energy Does Little to Reduce CO2 Emissions

I haven't yet reviewed the referenced articles, so this is a very preliminary response.  

The article repeatedly cites studies on increased emissions/kWh, but is ambiguous about whether the studies refer to emissions/kWh of the balancing generators--which would not be at all surprising--or whether they refer to emissions/kWh of the overall electricity system. The article implies the latter--that wind is making the system dirtier--to the casual reader, but never shows it.

The critical question is whether the increased emissions/kWh of the balancing generators more than offset the emission reductions from wind substitution for the fossil generators. I would be surprised if this were the case, since that finding would contradict many previous studies. At a minimum, the author and editorial board should make sure that the article is clear on what is being claimed. Thanks. 

@alannogee

 

September 8, 2011    View Comment