Thursday, November 24, 2011

Natural Gas and Nuclear: A Local View

The View from the Corner Office

This month, the CEO of Exelon and the CEO of Entergy both gave speeches about the future of nuclear power. As reported in Platts, John Rowe of Exelon spoke about the Exelon/Constellation merger and looked at the future of nuclear. These are his words:

The Calvert Cliffs-3 project is "utterly uneconomic," Rowe said after a speech at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington....

"At today's [natural] gas prices, a new nuclear power plant is out of the money by a factor of two," Rowe said, echoing one of the main points of his speech. ".... It's economically wrong. Gas trumps it," he said.

Well, okay, that's clear.

Meanwhile, Entergy President J. Wayne Leonard was honored by the National Wildlife Federation. National Wildlife Federation Honors J. Wayne Leonard with Achievement Award: Entergy CEO Honored for His Commitment to Gulf Coast Restoration, Addressing Climate Change. Some quotes from National Wildlife's description of that event:

With Leonard’s passion, leadership and strong points of view, Entergy has accomplished the following during his 10 years as CEO:

Entergy became the first US electric power company to establish a voluntary stabilization target for carbon pollution emissions and established a $30 million Environmental Initiatives Fund to support internal and external carbon pollution reduction projects. From 2001–2010, Entergy was 14% below its stabilization goals, achieving emission reductions which were 69 million tons below the goals.

The Time-Picayune reported the awards ceremony, partially reprinted by the National Wildlife Federation:

In an emotional speech to executives of the National Wildlife Federation on Friday night, Leonard said his controversial support for what would amount to a carbon tax stems from his attempt to face his own mortality...

"I can think of no time in history when the planet is in as much peril as it is today," he said. "We were not supposed to be facing the possibility of mass extinctions in anybody's lifetime ... but here we are."

These CEOs have very different views of the future of fossil fuel combustion! However, both Leonard and Rowe are CEOs, with CEO-type obligations. Rowe of Exelon faced building an expensive new nuclear plant, and he walked away from it. While he was walking away, he took the opportunity to lob a few cracks at nuclear. Meanwhile, Entergy is committed to low-carbon power, but Entergy recently announced it is going to buy a 550 MW natural gas plant in Rhode Island. Both Entergy and Exelon own fossil and nuclear units.

Such is the view from the corner office.

The View from the Peanut

My own office is a corner. It's a corner bedroom in my house. My view of fossil fuels and nuclear is more limited than the view of the CEOs, but it is also less constrained.

I have always admired George Washington Carver, a man who protected the soil of the South and prepared many products from peanuts, thereby partially weaning the South from cotton. Oh, and did I mention he was born a slave?

Carver said:“When I was young, I said to God, 'God, tell me the mystery of the universe.' But God answered, 'That knowledge is for me alone.' So I said, 'God, tell me the mystery of the peanut.' Then God said, 'Well George, that's more nearly your size.' And he told me.”

Inspired by Carver, I decided to look at two power plants as the examples of nuclear and natural gas: Vermont Yankee and a local combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) plant in New Hampshire. Not a Big Picture, just two plants.

My blog post comparing the plants is posted at ANS Nuclear Cafe: Gas and Nuclear: A Comparison of Two Local Plants. The post grows out of the Energy Safari course that just finished. Here's a link to the course blog post about the natural gas plant. The course blog post has many excellent pictures, taken by Bob Hargraves.

The Peanut Draws Her Conclusions

Here are some conclusions about the two plants. For a more complete picture, please see the ANS post and the Energy Safari post.
  • The natural gas plant is very new, clean and efficient.
  • It doesn't take many people to operate a natural gas plant. This is good (efficiency) but also bad (not a good source of employment, unlike a nuclear plant.)
  • The economic choice between natural gas and nuclear is not a slam-dunk, even if Mr. Rowe thinks it is.
  • Despite the historically low price of natural gas, and the high thermal efficiency of the CCGT plant, the local gas plant is still forced to shut down more often than it would prefer. Its power is among the most expensive power on the grid. Many times, its break-even price is too high for the grid, and the grid operators don't buy its power.
  • The CCGT is a good plant for load-following.
  • Choosing between natural gas and nuclear is a false choice, anyhow. They are both reliable sources of electricity.
  • Fossil fuels, including natural gas, contribute a lot more to global warming than nuclear does. Despite all the hoopla about global warming, this is not usually taken into account in power choices.
I encourage you to read the ANS blog post, and tell me what you think of my view-from-the peanut.

Think locally, act locally, perhaps?

Diagram of a turbo-electric COGAS power-plant. Such installations are used stationary and on some ships. 1. Electric generators. 2. Steam turbine. 3. Condensor. 4. Pump. 5. Boiler/heat exchanger. 6. Gas turbine. From Wikipedia article on combined cycle plants

George Washington Carver in his laboratory, photo from Wikipedia.


Joffan said...

My understanding is that combined-cycle plants are not that good at load-following, or at least they lose their efficiency advantage when operated like that.

Rowe may well be right about the economics of gas vs nuclear from his perspective. Gas plants cost much less to build, and the major operational cost is fuel, which is not used when the plant is not producing. So the gas plant can take the operational hit of less than 100% operating time much more easily than a nuclear plant could, and the lower build costs can be allocated accordingly. Then the flexibility of gas operation can be used to take high returns when the demand is up.

And, of course, the prospect of arbitrary blocking actions from various levels of government is seen as negligible at present for gas.

Anonymous said...

Interesting that the very real, proven (by tragic history) safety issues associated with NG use are not mentioned, even though in almost every discussion of nuclear, safety is almost always mentioned. We've had real, documented cases of thousands of deaths among the general public associated with natural gas, yet the Fukushima events, again almost always mentioned in discussions about nuclear, probably among the worst things you can imagine ever happening to a nuclear plant, have yet to register a single fatality among the public.

Nor are issues of waste disposal mentioned in the context of natural gas use, whereas they are almost always brought up when nuclear is mentioned. Ironic in that "waste disposal" for natural gas means unmanaged effluents released unabated into the environment and the lungs of every living, breathing creature. Waste disposal for nuclear means contained, manageable, trapped materials that do not reach the biosphere.

Anonymous said...


I have enjoyed reading this whole series of reports, plus Robert's trip reports, and found them very informative and enjoyable. Thanks for all your efforts.