The hardest part of being an activist on almost all issues is that you have to tell people bad news and then you have to get them to feel motivated to do something. “Nuclear meltdowns are not a 1 in 10 thousand year tsunami problem that are half the world away, they are a 1 in 20 year problem in a state where you might well have relatives” or “If you don’t want your grandchildren to hate you, you need to learn to share” and the like.
So whenever i get a chance to point at good news, i try to do this. Over the past few weeks, three increasingly important clean energy stories have caught my eye and i want to hype them.
The first hails from Bloomberg and describes wind’s bright future, specifically noting:
- Wind power costs have dropped 43% in the last 4 years
- Almost 5% of the US’s electricity comes from wind and it is rapidly increasing its share
- US natural gas can now be exported, which will increase US prices and thus favor wind solutions
- Even without the wind tax credit, there are lots of approved projects in the pipeline for years of construction
The second article from Quartz Magazine about decreasing solar energy costs including:
- Solar just beat out natural gas and coal solutions in oil rich Dubai
- Dramatic price decreases around new thin film solar technology will be coming soon
- Onshore wind energy and energy from natural gas had parity pricing in the US last year.
But the most important article is not about wind or solar, it is about batteries. This article is complex and it takes the form of a tutorial in energy economics. It includes the following gems:
- Solar need not be cheaper than gas to get implemented. It is already cheaper than gas turbines in handling peaking power (times of peak demand)–a time which is a major headache for utility companies
- Three states are going to buy 6GW of battery storage, about 6 full size reactors worth
- Grid deployed giant batteries already make sense in natural gas rich and cheap Texas (and California)
- Retail customer grid defection is coming soon (first in the West, Southwest and mid-Atlantic regions)
So there is good news. We are still in trouble, but don’t be blinded by it. And when people tell you that “renewables can’t compete,” try not to laugh. Politely inform them that they are living in a past which was going to kill us.
Were there any justice in the world, April Fools day would be the annual nuclear power holiday. The industry started by fooling us from its very inception.
Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace has been the vehicle for the development on nuclear weapons around the world. The Price Anderson nuclear insurance act fools you into thinking there is liability protection from nuclear accidents, there is not. Pundits from Fox News to the NY Times claim reactors are a solution to climate change, but they aren’t. Nuclear proponents claim they produce inexpensive power, but they don’t. One of the biggest jokes on us is the idea that renewables with constantly decreasing generation prices are not going to eventually beat out extraction based technologies like fossil fuels and nuclear. In fact, we are well past this point.
Were we to embrace this obvious fact, we would not be building 5 reactors in the US right now. In the spirit of this nuclear foolery holiday a small handful of British activists blocked the road going into operating UK reactor Hinkley B. Their basic complaint is that this reactor is operating past its design life and endangering the locals and money is being wasted on upgrading it, especially given the fact that the price of renewables is markedly down in the UK. But the real joke this year is Hinkley C. The proposed total cost for this new giant Anglo-French reactor complex is over US$ 50 billion. This project is often billed as “the most expensive energy project ever.” It is also being attacked for its massive subsidies by anti-nuclear Austria. With a government negotiated contract guaranteeing $137/MWH which is twice the current UK wholesale price and over 5 times the current US price.
Don’t be fooled.
Peter Weish was a graduate student at the prestigious University of Vienna. He was supposed to be studying molecular biology but got pulled into the national referendum to stop the Zwentendorf reactor. It was Austria, it was 1978, and it would prove to be a defining moment in the nation’s political history, and it happened on a train.
Austria is a tiny country, currently with a mere 8.5 million people and a geographic size about that of South Carolina. It is also a country with tremendous self pride, especially in feats of engineering. In the early 1970s the Germans had jumped onto reactors in a big way, and Austria was doing what it could to catch up.
The Zwentendorf ground breaking was in 1972, immediately after construction began an earthquake destroyed the initial foundation which had to be laid again. And after 4 years and about a billion Euros (or the equivalent in Austrian Schillings at the time) the reactor was completed.
Opponents of the the widely popular reactor challenged it and the then Chancellor (like President) Bruno Kreisky decided to bet his political future on the project. He agreed to a referendum of the reactor complex which was nearly finished. Kreisky was a socialist. The labor unions were backing him and the project. Austrian heavy industry was backing the project. The technocrats, which the country has an abundance of, thought this was a lovely plan. What could go wrong?
Turned out it was the train from Salzburg to Vienna that changed history. On his train was the industrious Peter Weish, grad student at U of Vienna. He knew Austria’s only Nobel Prize winner, Konrad Lorenz, because he had taken a class from him. Lorenz was riding in first class, Weish walked through on his way to the dining car. Lorenz recognized him and asked what he was up to in Salzburg. An animated Weish told of the organizing work he was doing around stopping Zwentendorf. Lorenz and his wife were fascinated by Weiss’s thinking and critique. The story has it Lorenz paid for an upgrade to Weiss’s ticket so he could ride first class and continue his story.
At the end of story Weish mentioned that there would be a big rally in Vienna on Sunday. “We should go.” Konrad said to his wife. “And you should speak.” His wife advised.
Turns out in some things technocrats are the same the world over. Often when justifying their fantastically expensive adventures they turn to lines like “Oh it is too complex, you would not understand it, you should trust the experts, they will do the right thing.” Lorenz found this reasoning infuriating.
“If a scientist tells you something is too complex to explain they are either incompetent or lying. ” Lorenz boomed at the rally. It was a turning point for the country. If the most respected scientist in the land was saying the technocrats were misleading the public, then clearly the reactor should not be build.
The referendum was very tight. Over 60% of the country voted and 50.5% voted to stop the reactor. Within months of this vote, the Three Mile Island accident in the US occurred and many Austrians felt vindicated in their “no” vote.
But the amazing thing is that the country having been so divided, quickly became the most powerful and unified voice in the EU parliament for nuclear safety and blocking other reactor initiatives. It is thought the referendum woke up the whole country and gave it unified direction.
There has been a long history of state and rate payer handouts which have built the nuclear industry in the US. By one analysis, the total value of the nuclear subsidies is in excess of the wholesale value of the all the electricity which these reactors have produced. When states deregulated electricity production and distribution, the utilities requested and mostly received many billions in bail outs from rate payers or tax payers to pay for what were called its stranded assets. Nuclear subsides started much earlier than this with the Price Anderson act which requires mostly the state or rate payers to pay for insurance claims in the event of a serious nuclear accident.
With the recent decommissioning of Vermont Yankee (which ran for more than 40 years, and thus its full design life) we discovered the decommissioning funds collected from the sale of electricity do not cover the decommissioning bill. They actually don’t even come close to covering them. The current estimated cost of decommission performed by the operating utility for this closed reactor is US$ 1.24 billion. The problem is the amount raised is only US$665 million.
This problem is not unique to Vermont. When the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) looked at decommissioning funds in 2009, it found that 27 of the nations reactors did not have sufficient funding for decommissioning (this is about 1/4 of the entire US reactor fleet). Then when the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reviewed the NRC’s work in 2012, it found the NRC’s decommissioning formulas were 30 years old and underestimated decommissioning costs in 3/4ths of the reactors studied.
The latest proposed boondoggle bailout comes from deep in the heart of reactor country. Exelon is the largest nuclear utility in the country, with 22 reactors – almost 1/4 of the total US fleet. With increased renewables investment, declining solar panel costs and cheap natural gas from fracking, nuclear economics are looking pretty grim. When Exelon’s home state of Illinois announced last year what it was willing to pay for electricity, Exelon panicked because a number of their reactors can’t operate profitably at anything like these low costs per kWh.
Large utilities are powerful political players. Exelon pushed on the state government to investigate how to keep these uneconomic reactors open, claiming that they were needed for reliability, tax revenue, local jobs and climate friendliness. The Illinois state legislature sent instructions to 4 state agencies to investigate these claims and they have just reported back. Exelon was very unhappy with their report. What they found was:
- Illinois does not need these reactors for grid reliability
- Providing huge bail outs in the name of increasing tax revenue is silly
- Closing the reactors would cost 2,500 jobs and it would likely create 10K new jobs in renewables and efficiency
- Less expensive wind power is better for the climate than these reactors
The reason this is so important is that if Exelon with it’s tremendous political power can not get Illinois to bailout reactors, it might well be the case that no one can, with the likely exception of Virginia, where the legislature does everything Dominion wants, even when it makes no economic sense.
The activists who fought this reactor did an amazing job, ultimately forcing the state of Vermont to vote against it’s continued operations and the Governor to demand it be closed. An act which had no direct effect, because the utility which owned Vermont Yankee hid behind the pro-industry Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which granted the plant a license extension. But the political waters for the continued operation of this lie and error plagued reactor had been set. And ultimately the will of the people prevailed over the power of the nuclear establishment.
Vermont governor, Peter Shumlin, said: “Today, thanks to investments in renewable energy such as solar, Vermont’s energy future is on a different, more sustainable path that is creating jobs, reducing energy costs for Vermonters and slowing climate change.” Shumlin was a strong advocate for the closure of the reactor once its license expired.
The New Orleans based Entergy Corporation bought this reactor in 2002, hoping this trouble plagued reactor would turn out to be a cash cow. They admit they were wrong. “This has been a bad investment for us,” said Barrett Green, an Entergy finance executive who recommended both that Entergy buy the plant and later that it be closed. But bad economics are not enough to close reactors any more. Were it not for the political organizers in Vermont, Entergy would be seeking the same kind of non-market solutions which Exelon is looking for in Illinois.
Literally thousands of activists and hundreds of thousands of people across the small state of Vermont are responsible for this win. But i feel like i need to name some names.
Deb Katz herded the cats that is the Citizen Action Network and ran some of the most fun action camps i have ever been to, and i have been to a lot of action camps.
Jim Riccio kept Greenpeace honest (a very tricky task) and focused on the one we could win.
The whole lovely staff at Beyond Nuclear wrote reports, educated the press, supported activists and helped in innumerable other ways to shut this plant down.
And a special thanks to the guy who got me up to Vermont Yankee in the first place, who was behind the scenes and occasionally quite out in front. My friend and mentor Michael Marriote from NIRS.
The science is not in on fracking. There is lots of anecdotal evidence that fracking causes all manner of problems, including contaminated water supplies and possibly even earthquakes. But especially when compared to other conventional energy generation techniques, including tar sands and nuclear power, it is unclear if banning fracking should be an environmentalist’s top priority.
There is, for example, no evidence at all the fracking leads to breast cancer (contrary to the borrowed graphics in my Pinkwash post). Yes, there are lots of nasty chemicals in fracking fluids, and certainly lots of them are toxic. But as my toxicologist and environmentalist friend Will Forest is fond of reminding me, “The first rule of toxicology is that the dose makes the poison.” Volumetrically, the amount of these chemicals being put into the water supply may well be so tiny as to not be a huge problem.
We can still unhesitatingly celebrate the New York ban anyway, for several reasons. At the top of the list is that fracking technology in the US has been promoted by the oil industry with a principal focus on profits. Dick Cheney famously exempted fracking companies from the Clean Water Act, creating what is oft referred to as the Halliburton Loophole, after the company he once ran. Fracking companies have successfully avoided even listing all the chemicals they use in the process, siting the importance of their “trade secrets,” again prioritizing profits over public health, while also impeding the investigation of health science. The EPA has been a tool of the oil industry, and not just under Bush/Cheney, revising their critical findings almost whenever the industry complains.
Gasoline prices in the US are low, largely because of fracking. The US enjoys a significant competitive advantage over both Europe and Japan, with natural gas prices of 1/3 to 1/4 respectively. The oil industry estimates that unconventional oil and gas production will more than double the current 1.7 million jobs it provides by 2035. But none of this economic “good news” should change our mind about the NY fracking ban, or any other state’s effort to ban this controversial process.
What is the absolute worst case here? Let’s assume the industry is right. If it turns out that there are no or only minimal environmental effects due to fracking, the science comes in and proves that this fear-based campaign to stop fracking in New York was a complete mistake. Then the fantastically powerful oil industry will simply get the next governor of NY to reverse the ban (which they’ll likely attempt anyway) and all that will have been lost is next quarters profits.
We can afford to wait.