Sunday, August 28, 2016

Nuclear Blogger Carnival #324: Here at Yes Vermont Yankee

Once again, we are proud to host the Carnival of Nuclear Energy Bloggers, right here at Yes Vermont Yankee. The Carnival is a compendium of nuclear blogs that rotates from blog site to blog site, and it is always a pleasure and an honor to host it.

Looking at the Future
(The future looks upbeat for nuclear energy.)

Another WISE Summer
At Nuke Power Talk, Gail Marcus describes how engineering societies have co-sponsored an internship program in Washington, DC. This program  introduces engineering majors to public policy considerations.  Some of the past participants have found that the program profoundly influenced their career directions. This blog post describes some of the topics in this year's program.  The program has been running since 1980, and Marcus has been involved with it, one way or another, since the beginning. Though next summer may seem far away, engineering students might make a note of this internship program as a possibility for next summer.

At Neutron Bytes, Dan Yurman describes an innovative partnership.  Tiny X-Energy, a start-up, has teamed with one of America’s biggest nuclear utilities, Southern Co., to collaborate on the development and commercialization of the design of a high temperature gas-cooled reactor.

Russia's sodium lead cooled fast nuclear reactors
At Next Big Future, Brian Wang describes how Russia has reached two more milestones in its endeavor to close the nuclear fuel cycle. First, Mashinostroitelny Zavod (MSZ) - part of Russian nuclear fuel manufacturer TVEL - has completed acceptance tests of components for its ETVS-14 and ETVS-15 experimental fuel assemblies for one type of reactor. In the second milestone, the company has begun work on the "absorbent element" of the core of the another type of reactor.

Until coal, oil and natural gas are eliminated from power and transportation usage any argument about solar versus nuclear is meaningless
At Next Big Future, Brian Wang describes how coal and oil continue to dominate world energy use. Therefore, plans and arguments about replacing nuclear with solar are--not very relevant.

At Yes Vermont Yankee, Meredith Angwin compares the costs of New York State's Clean Energy Standard program with Vermont's Efficiency Vermont program. Clean energy standards are cheaper per capita and more important than efficiency improvements. New York's surcharges are smaller and protect everyone's air.  Vermont's surcharges are bigger, and help only a few.

At Northwest Clean Energy, John Dobken announces that Energy Northwest will receive Washington State funding for an innovative solar project, including a technician training facility in Richland, WA.  
Energy Northwest is home to only clean-energy resources, the largest of which is Columbia Generating Station.  The company also has hydro, wind and solar projects.

Looking at Other Strategies, World-Wide
(Trigger warning.  Some of this is unpleasant.)

At Forbes, James Conca usually writes about energy issues. In this post, he notes that the Obama Administration is thinking about adopting a No First Use policy for nuclear weapons, in which the U.S. would declare that we will never be the first to use nuclear weapons in any conflict, under any circumstances. Our current, less restrictive policy, is known as calculated ambiguity.  This has worked for 60 years, and no one knows if changing this would be good or bad. 

At Forbes, Rod Adams writes about recent articles and documentaries from Al Jazeera.  The documentary basically attempts to convince its audience that fear of nuclear energy  is well-justified, and that keeping reactors closed is a proper response to the Japanese events of five years ago. Adams notes that Al Jazeera is a media empire that is owned by the government of Qatar, one of the world’s largest LNG exporters. During the five years since the Fukushima accident, Japan has been the world’s largest and most lucrative market for LNG. Japan has burning LNG to produce electricity, instead of operating the 50 nuclear power plants that were not damaged by the accident.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Clean Air versus Efficiency Charges. Clean Air Wins.

The Clean Energy Standard

New York State recently enacted the Clean Energy Standard, which has supportive subsidies for clean energy producers, including nuclear energy.

Yes, this was a huge change. The number of people who welcomed it was also huge.  You can see pictures of the rally in Albany at this blog post at Environmental Progress: Big New York Victory Shows How Far Nuclear Still Has to Go.  You can see Al Gore and Governor Cuomo congratulating the state in this Twitter stream, which was Storified by Nuclear Energy Institute.

August 1 Albany CES Rally
Michael Shellenberger at center
photograph by Stephen Whiting

 The Price of the Clean Energy Standard

In the Environmental Progress blog post, there's a graph of the amount of the clean energy subsidy for nuclear and renewables.

The current subsidy for New York state renewables is 4.6 cents per kWh.  This is the federal 2.2 cents  per kWh subsidy (the production tax credit), plus the Tier 10 subsidy by New York State of approximately 2.45 cents per kWh.   Over the various years, the New York Tier subsidy has varied between 1.5 and 3.5 cents per kWh, with most of the recent year New York subsidies being close to the current 2.45 cent subsidy.  These subsidies are set by an auction process.

The Clean Energy Standard price supports for nuclear are set depending on the price on the grid and the credit given by the Greenhouse Gas initiative, and so forth.    For Indian Point, the subsidy is zero. It sells into a high-price grid.  For the upstate plants, the subsidy is currently 1.7 cents per kWh.  If the price on the grid goes up, the nuclear subsidies go down.  In contrast, the 4.6 cents per kWh for renewables continue, no matter what the price on the grid might be.

The Price of Efficiency

A question I often get asked is:  why can't we just fund efficiency? Wouldn't that be better?

Well, no.  I will leave out the problem that you can only push efficiency so far, before we go back to candlelight.  Instead, I will look at Vermont's full-speed-ahead attempt to support efficiency.

Vermont has an entire agency, Efficiency Vermont, to promote efficiency. According to a government renewables and efficiency energy website, the funding for this agency has grown from $19 million in 2006 to over $35 million in 2010.

Efficiency Vermont is supported by a surcharge on everyone's electric bill, and that surcharge has been growing.  According to recent newspaper articles, linked below, the agency now has a budget of $50 million per year. There are 600,000 people in Vermont, so that is about $80 per person per year. Most households (one electricity bill) have more than one person, so their "fair share" could be hundreds of dollars a year (say, four times $80 or $320).  On the other hand, commercial and industrial users pay these charges, and this lowers the household cost.  I think the average residential bill for Efficiency Vermont is less than $200 a year.

As you can see, this per-person charge for Efficiency Vermont  dwarfs the charges expected from the New York State Clean Energy Standard.  The Governor's office in New York estimated the Clean Energy Standard cost at  $2 per household per month ($24 per year)   In contrast, Vermont efficiency costs approximately $80 per person per year.

Efficiency for Whom?

I spent a few years serving on my town's Energy Commission.   I am no longer on the commission, but I still appreciate energy efficiency.

Efficiency is getting a bad reputation, though.  In recent years in Vermont, there has been a rebellion against Efficiency Vermont charges,  A typical article from VPR is titled: House Brings Down Budget Axe on Efficiency Vermont.  Or in VTDigger: Amendment to H.40 freezes energy efficiency charge.  These articles state that Efficiency Vermont has a budget of about $50 million per year.

If you read the comments on these articles, you will read notes from people who wanted Efficiency Vermont to help them with the costs of energy improvements to their homes.  Many of them didn't get funded, and they were not happy about it. Many people did not qualify for the grants, for various reasons.  Some could not afford the blower-door tests that Efficiency Vermont required to start the efficiency process.  All in all, an efficiency grant helps me but not you, or you but not me.  If my neighbor has new insulation,  that helps him directly, but all I see of the insulation is a surcharge on my electricity bill.

It is no wonder that at $80 per person per year and only some people benefit--there was going to be pushback from Vermonters.

Clean Energy versus Efficiency

For some people, it's a no-brainer to fund efficiency instead of funding any kind of big nasty power plant.  However, when taxes and surcharges fund a clean energy source, everybody benefits from the clean air.  When efficiency is funded, only some people benefit.

Let's be honest. I  benefited.  I could afford a blower door test.  I could afford to work with a certified contractor.  Yes.  I have new insulation.  Every now and again, I want to thank my neighbors for donating the money (through their electricity bills) for my new insulation.  Well.  Maybe that "thank-you" would not be a good idea. ;-)

In contrast, clean energy benefits everyone. The benefits are as clean and clear as the air we breathe.

The New York State Clean Energy Standard is a great bargain for the people of New York.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Taking the High Road with Yankee Water: Guy Page Guest Post

It rains in Vermont. It rains a lot. And rain contributes to groundwater. Everywhere else in Vermont, groundwater moves subsurface into nearby rivers or lakes, usually with little or no treatment.

But Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon is not "everywhere else." After examining groundwater that had intruded into the lower basements of the facility, Vermont Yankee determined that it contained traces of tritium. Even though the extremely low radiation level of this tritiated groundwater is approved by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to be discharged into public waters, Vermont Yankee made the decision to ship this water to Tennessee for processing.

If Vermont Yankee wanted to discharge groundwater into the Connecticut River, it almost certainly could have done so with the approval of the NRC. At the Seabrook plant in New Hampshire, stormwater and groundwater with harmless levels of tritium is sent right into the ocean. Many other nuclear plants do direct discharge, with the approval and oversight of the NRC. Instead, Vermont Yankee has taken the high road by transporting this groundwater to a water treatment plant in Tennessee. Shipping water over 1000 miles costs more time and money than routing it directly to approved discharge paths, and could cost as much as $1 million per year depending on success in eliminating the sources of intrusion water into the plant's Turbine Building.

This is just one more example of Vermont Yankee setting an example for high standards in decommissioning safety practices. The downside is that every dollar spent on shipping is a dollar no longer invested in the facility's decommissioning trust fund. Less money in the fund means more time must elapse before the site can be reused for in the future. The final work of decommissioning — including tearing down the reactor building and removing all radioactive material — cannot begin until the fund accumulates sufficient value, an estimated $1.2 billion. At present, the fund contains about half that amount.

Vermont Yankee is doing its part to be frugal by draining unnecessary systems, minimizing power consumption and reducing workforce. The plant finished its most recent fiscal year about $15 million under budget. VY took out a line of credit of more than $145 million to pay for spent fuel management. But the State of Vermont must also do its part. Officials for the state have suggested or announced a series of VY-related initiatives including "billing back" oversight and monitoring costs that are of dubious necessity to a non-operational nuclear plant, but are guaranteed to draw alarming amounts of money out of the decommissioning fund. Now would be a good time for the state to better prioritize its spending.


Guest post by Guy Page, Communications Director, Vermont Energy Partnership

Guy Page is a frequent guest blogger at this blog.  His most recent post was More Bad News for Vernon in April of this year.

Monday, August 1, 2016

The New York Clean Energy Standard

The victory

I was in Albany today, and the New York Department of Public Service passed the Clean Energy Standard.  It was a great day and a fabulous victory for clean air!  New York State officially acknowledged that nuclear energy is a low-carbon source, and it deserves to be supported, in a similar manner that renewables are supported.  (Nuclear will receive far less money per kWh than renewables, however.)

A victory like this cannot be ascribed to only one person or one organization.  Many people and many groups did a huge amount of work to make this happen.  That said, I have to give a huge amount of credit to the Environmental Progress organization, Michael Shellenberger and Eric Meyer, along with the Mothers for Nuclear organization, with Sarah Spath and others.  There will be much more written about this in future days, but I wanted to get a blog post about it up  today.

My day in Albany

I also wanted to give a first-hand idea of what it was like to be there.

My visit to Albany started last night with a dinner with nuclear activists from all over the country: California, Ohio, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Virginia.  Rod Adams includes pix of the dinner at his blog post: Fighting climate change with best available tools. 

The next morning, we gathered for a rally before the Department of Public Service meeting.  We met in a ground-floor corridor of the building in which the meeting took place. The meeting room was on the 19th floor.  Various people spoke. I spoke about the consequences of closing Vermont Yankee, and why we have to avoid closing nuclear plants. Eric Meyer led us in a rousing rendition of "The Battle Hymn of the Atom" (The Truth Goes Marching On). And then we went to the meeting rooms.  Tim Knauer's article in has a picture of part of the scene at the rally. Dozens of CNY residents flood Albany meeting on nuclear subsidies. 

We went into the meeting room. I had the good luck to get a seat and be able to stay in the meeting room itself: the department had to open three "overflow" rooms with video feeds because of the large crowd.  I heard the historical decision to support all kinds of clean energy: renewable AND nuclear.  I think the best post on this is Shellenberger's post at the Environmental Progress blog: Big New York Victory Shows How Far Nuclear Still Has to Go.  This post also has pictures of the celebration outside after the ruling.

It's good to have a victory.

Video: Here's a good nine-minute video about today's events, with Sarah Spath and Michael Shellenberger.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Monday: Rally for Nuclear at the New York State Capital

State House, Albany New York

The Standard and the Rally

New York State is considering a Clean Energy Standard that includes nuclear power plants. This is a big deal.  Many states have Renewable Portfolio Standards that give preference and subsidies to renewables, supposedly in the interest of preventing climate change, but give no value to the fact that nuclear plants do not emit carbon dioxide, any more than wind turbines do.

This coming Monday, there's an important hearing at the New York State Capital about the Clean Energy Standard.   Two organizations: Environmental Progress and Mothers for Nuclear,  are coordinating a rally in Albany for the standard.  After the rally,  we will attend the hearing. I say "we" because  I will be there, hopefully with some others from this area. I'm driving 140 miles to attend, and I am glad to do it!

 Hopefully, the Clean Energy Standard will be enacted, and nuclear plants will be given credit for their clean-air qualities!

If you are interested in coming to the rally, but not me offline at mjangwin at gmail.

This is very exciting, and I am happy about it.

New York and Vermont

This possibility/ probability in New York shows that nuclear can make progress and get support.  I am very pleased with this development, and happy that nuclear supporters who have been in Albany will go to the plant area for an extension of their rally. The people of Oswego have every reason to be proud of themselves for their work in gaining support for nuclear plants.  Shellenberger gives them abundant credit in his article on How to Save a Nuclear Plant.

However, the contrast with Vermont makes me sad.

In New York, the Governor was in favor of keeping the upstate plants operating. (He wanted to shut Indian Point, however.)  In Vermont, when Peter Shumlin ran for governor the first time, I swear Shumlin was running against Vermont Yankee more than he was running against Brian Dubie.  As a matter of fact, he told Brian Dubie that Dubie  cared more the shareholders of  "Entergy Louisiana"  than he cared about the people of Vermont.  Here's my blog post on that: Taking It Personal: Shumlin Accuses Dubie of Serving the Interests of "Entergy Louisiana."

All politics is local, and local politics in Vermont can be painful.

Relevant Links:

Here's Environmental Progress's review of the history of the standard: How to Save a Nuclear Plant, by Michael Shellenberger.

Here's the schedule and sign-up link for the rally. It starts at 8:30 a.m. in Albany, and then moves on to the plant area (Oswego) later in the afternoon. Save the Climate rally information.  I personally will not be going to Oswego, but I expect that many people in that area will be glad to see people who went to Albany to defend their plants!

Here is my July 17 blog post on writing in support of the Clean Energy Standard. It  includes a link to the standard itself. Write a Comment! Support New York Nuclear Plants.

And if you can't come to the rally, you can donate to Environmental Progress with the Donate button on this page. 

Monday, July 25, 2016

No Country for Old Nukes? Mike Twomey Guest post

Vermont Yankee

In a scene from Cormac McCarthy's novel, No Country for Old Men, a professional assassin taunts his rival (who is cornered, defenseless, and about to meet his maker) with the following query:

"If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?"

It is a profound question intended to raise doubts about the decisions we make, the principles we follow, and the assumptions that guide our behaviors.  A version of this concept is applicable to a wide range of situations:  If the road you traveled brought you to a negative outcome, was it the right road? (Where could you have made different or better decisions?)  Or, in the positive:  If the road you traveled brought you to a positive outcome, it was the right road. (Do not waste your time or energy second-guessing the seemingly unhelpful detours along the way.)

I work for one of the largest nuclear operators in the U.S. and my responsibilities over the last several years have included advocacy on behalf of the continued operation of nuclear plants in New York and New England.  Working with a large team, this effort has involved complex, technical presentations to state and federal agencies with jurisdiction over the related matters that affect the licenses under which the nuclear plants operate, as well as extensive stakeholder outreach to educate the public, the media, elected officials, and others about the important benefits of nuclear power, from an electric reliability perspective, from an economic perspective, and from an environmental perspective.

Over the last six or seven years, the wholesale market for electricity has dramatically changed due to persistent low natural gas prices.  In most "organized" markets (New York, New England, Mid-Atlantic, for example), the price for power typically follows the price for natural gas.  Therefore, as the price for natural gas has plunged, wholesale power prices have also plunged to historic lows.

While wholesale power prices have plunged, the cost to run a nuclear power plant has increased, for a variety of reasons.  You do not have to be a finance professional to conclude that increasing costs and decreasing revenues will eventually lead to unprofitability.  Faced with these grim economic prospects, in 2013, Entergy announced the retirement of the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station in Vernon, VT.  Vermont Yankee delivered electricity to the New England electric grid for the last time on December 29, 2014, ending a more than 42-year run of providing clean, reliable energy, employing more than 600 nuclear professionals, and paying millions annually in state and local taxes.

Due to the same economic forces that led to Vermont Yankee's closure, Entergy also announced the retirement of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth, MA in May 2019.  Pilgrim produces more than 80% of the carbon-free energy generated in Massachusetts.  In addition to inflicting the same type of economic harm in and around Plymouth that Vermont Yankee's retirement inflicted on southern Vermont, Pilgrim's retirement will make it very difficult for the Commonwealth to meet its legal obligation to reduce greenhouse gases.

During the last ten years, while we have been seeking federal (and, in some cases, state) approvals to continue to operate our existing nuclear plants, many federal and state officials have separately been pursuing efforts to reduce carbon emissions.  These efforts have included federal agency actions (most notably, the EPA's Clean Power Plan) and various state actions, including legislation, agency actions, and "encouragement" provided to utilities to take steps to reduce electric sector carbon emissions (e.g., the recent multi-state "clean energy" RFP issued by utilities in several New England states).

In general, these federal and state carbon reduction efforts have focused on providing significant subsidies and/or long term contracts to renewable energy sources, primarily wind and solar.  But, these carbon reduction efforts have not included any proposals to support the continued operation of existing nuclear facilities.  For example, the Clean Power Plan provides no incentives to states to maintain their existing nuclear plants.  And, the multi-state "clean energy" RFP issued by several New England utilities in 2015 excluded existing nuclear facilities from participating.  In short, carbon reduction advocates have tended to be single-minded in their objective: Increase the use of renewable energy.

According to data from ISO-New England, reliance on natural gas for electricity production in New England more than tripled from 2000 to 2015 (15% to 49%).  During that same period, contributions from hydro resources and renewable energy resources remained essentially flat (7% and 8-9%, respectively).  Nuclear also remained essentially flat (31% to 30%), with uprates and increased availability offset by Vermont Yankee's retirement.  The big declines have come in the use of oil-fired (22% down to 2%) and coal-fired (18% to 4%) generation.  And, from 2000 to 2014, New England saw steady reductions in CO2 emissions as natural gas-fired plants replaced oil- and coal-fired plants.

In 2015, however, Vermont Yankee's retirement increased New England's CO2 emissions by 5 percent, or more than two million metric tons.  The reason? Natural gas-fired generation replaced Vermont Yankee's output.  A similar outcome followed the retirement of the San Onofre Nuclear Generation Station in California, which resulted in meaningful increases in CO2 emissions.  Future nuclear plant retirements can be expected to produce the same results.  This means that we can expect increased CO2 emissions.

The takeaway for New England, therefore, is this:  The mix of federal and state actions (and inaction), combined with market forces, has led to (1) substantially increased reliance on natural gas-fired generation, (2) nuclear plant retirements followed by increased CO2 emissions, and (3) no meaningful increase in renewable energy's contribution to the grid. ISO-New England, the non-profit, independent entity responsible for maintaining the reliability of the region's electric grid, identified the following challenges in its most recent report:
  • Inadequate natural gas pipeline infrastructure is at times limiting the availability of gas-fired resources or causing them to switch to oil, which is creating reliability concerns and price volatility, and contributing to air emission increases in winter.
  • Substantial nongas generating capacity is retiring, limiting the options for reliable grid operation when natural gas infrastructure is constrained.
  • The weather-dependent output from wind and solar resources and the increase in [distributed generation] adds complexity to how the ISO must operate the power system to maintain reliability.
  • Expensive transmission infrastructure upgrades are needed to connect more wind and hydro resources.
  • Efforts to meet state policy goals to inject more clean energy into the system through long-term contracts may undermine confidence in the markets and inhibit future investment in competitive power resources.
We are left to ponder the consequences of a single-minded focus on supporting renewable energy and a lack of support for the existing nuclear fleet.  Even if you disagree about the relative merits of carbon reduction efforts, it is inarguable that additional nuclear plant retirements will lead to increased CO2 emissions.  Moreover, the increased dependence on natural gas-fired resources reduces fuel diversity and exposes customers to potential price volatility.  An important additional fact to recognize is that, once a nuclear plant retires, there is no opportunity to bring that plant back into service (it is not technically impossible, but it is infeasible from a regulatory standpoint and an economic perspective).

If we are, through application of a "renewable energy is the only future" rule, moving toward an electric future of increased carbon emissions, less grid reliability, insufficient fuel diversity, and increased consumer prices, then stakeholders (customers, elected officials, businesses, etc.) will be entitled to ask:  If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?

There is another path to follow.  In New York, the Public Service Commission is considering the adoption of a program that would compensate nuclear facilities for their non-carbon emitting attributes.   It would be the first in the U.S. to explicitly -- and financially -- acknowledge the importance of the existing nuclear facilities to carbon reduction goals.  All who desire a future electric grid that is clean, reliable, and affordable should applaud New York's efforts.  And, we should decline the pitch of renewable energy advocates who peddle the fantasy that wind and solar alone can power the grid.

About the author:

Mike Twomey is Vice President for External Affairs at Entergy. He is involved in many areas of negotiation and outreach concerning the nuclear plants.  His most recent guest post at this blog was The Replacement for Vermont Yankee Was...Natural Gas.

This post first appeared on LinkedIn and is republished by permission.