Thursday, January 18, 2018

Nuclear Energy Study Group at Dartmouth OSHER

Black Swallowtail Butterfly
Dr. Robert Hargraves of Thorcon Power (the Do-able Molten Salt Reactor) and I  will begin leading a four-session study group this afternoon. The study group is a course at Dartmouth OSHER, and the title of the course is Nuclear Power: For Climate and for People.

The course is oversubscribed (has a waiting list).  I always have some butterflies in my stomach before starting something new.  Anything new, despite how familiar some parts of it might be.  Yes, I have taught other courses and been on many stages. Yes, that helps.

I remember an Aikido sensei who told my class: "If you have butterflies in your stomach, make them fly in formation."

I am starting a new course this afternoon, with Bob.  All right.  Get in formation, butterflies!

Nuclear Power:
For Climate and for People

MIT Prof Kerry Emanuel, in his 2017 OSHER@Dartmouth summer lecture, raised awareness of the potential for nuclear power to reduce CO2 emissions that force global warming. Building more nuclear power plants is opposed by many on the grounds of health, safety, and expense. Fission power plants can provide inexpensive, ample power, especially for developing nations desperate to advance prosperity of growing populations. In four sessions we’ll cover the arguments against and for nuclear energy.

We’ll  first have a tutorial on energy, power, sources, uses, value to civilization and prosperity, energy poverty, and civil unrest where there is little. Second, we’ll review Emanuel’s lecture and book on global warming, CO2 in the air and ocean, the solar/ wind bandwagon, and the politics of IPCC, Kyoto, and Paris.  Third, we’ll cover how nuclear power works, why it’s opposed, and the future potential of energy cheaper than coal. Finally, we’ll cover activities of social organizations fighting for/against nuclear power.

There are no required texts for this course.

Robert Hargraves has taught OSHER@ Dartmouth courses on energy, politicized science, and internet money.
Meredith Angwin led The Grid and other courses for OSHER@Dartmouth.

4 sessions, 2:30 PM – 4:30 PM January 18 through February 8, 2018 DOC House - Hanover, NH

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Vermont, "Hot Air," and Puerto Rico

Grid prices in the Northeast.  Running about 37c per kWh at 1 p.m.
You can double click to enlarge the graphics.
Graphics are screen shots from

Vermont remains in the deep freeze. It was minus 5 here when I wrote this at 8 p.m. Saturday, and it was about zero at 1 p.m. Saturday when I took these screen shots.

The weather is actually colder now, Sunday morning.  It is minus 15 at 9 a.m. Fuel oil is supplying 37% of the grid now, and the price is around $300/MWh.  I'm going to use the screen shots I took yesterday, because things have not changed very much.  As usual, all charts are from the ISO-NE  ISOExpress web page.

On Saturday, fuel oil supplied over 30% of the grid electricity, and the price of power was bouncing around like crazy between $200 and $400 per MWh (five minute LMP graph at left).

Fuel mix (34% oil) at lower right,
5 minute LMP graph at left totally schizoid:
20 cents to 40 cents per kWh and back, rapidly

Meanwhile, with significant wind chill out there, wind was about half of renewables, and renewables are 11% of the grid, so wind was contributing about 5% of the power. (Same today, Sunday, but wind is about 40% instead of 50% of renewables.)

Wind is about half of the renewables now

Meanwhile, the fuel supply for New England has been getting a bit dicey. (It seems to be hanging in there, for which I am grateful.) According to an article in Reuters, Frigid weather sends heating prices soaring as energy usage spikes, spot gas prices in New England soared to a record-breaking $82.75/mmBTU before falling back to a more normal $3.80/mmBTU. More tankers are heading to the U.S. These tankers are not on a mission of mercy. Right now, the East Coast is the most high-priced market in the world for oil. The tankers can get their best prices, right here.

Coast Guard icebreakers have been used (probably still being used)  to keep open the ports of Boston, New York and Philadelphia.  A Coast Guard icebreaker was even needed on the Hudson River. Overall, the grid is working okay and I am not very worried.

But I must say:
I appreciate the Coast Guard!

Hot Air and Puerto Rico

Meanwhile, some of my earlier posts got some play in bigger media.  Jazz Shaw is a major contributor to the widely read blog Hot Air. On Thursday, Shaw wrote New England Wanted to Use All Renewable Energy...Then It Got Cold. This is a very well-referenced and well-written post.  Shaw quotes my blog extensively, and he also puts the issues in New England together with Rick Perry's aim of rewarding reliable power plants.

I should also mention that Hot Air is a very widely-read blog. As soon as the Hot Air post referencing my blog appeared, email after email arrived: "Hey Meredith, you were on Hot Air!  Great going!" It was fun.

Most of these emails came from my friends, but one note was from someone new to me.  A man who writes the Dark Island Puerto Rico blog wrote to say that Vermont and Puerto Rico seemed to be having some similarities.  He also wrote a blog post about this, also: Weather and Wind Problems.

I have been enjoying reading his blog. Puerto Rico has pretty much disappeared from the main stream news, but there are still huge areas without power. I find it very interesting to hear from a person who is really there, thoughtful and critical of about the recovery effort.  He has posts on the fate of wind farms, the useful possibility of battery back up for solar (but you still need a source of reliable power), how small modular reactors could be used, how cogeneration could be a robust future for Puerto Rico.  I recommend his blog

They say there it is "an ill wind that blows nobody any good," which means that even bad situations can have some good in them.  The situation on the grid isn't great, to put it mildly.  However, my recent blog posts have introduced me to two new blogs: Hot Air and DarkIslandPR.  That is some good, and I appreciate it.

(Note to my readers: the Hot Air blog is mostly political, and DarkIslandPR is mostly about energy.  I don't want people to get the impression that I think the two blogs are very similar: they aren't. )

Thursday, January 4, 2018

A Hole in the Community: When a Nuclear Plant Shuts Down

A hole in the community

What happens when a nuclear plant shuts down

Vermont Yankee

At its peak, the Vermont Yankee plant generated more than 70 percent of the electricity made in Vermont. It was the largest, most reliable source of clean energy in the state and one of the largest plants in the New England grid.

But like many other nuclear plants around the U.S., Vermont Yankee was no longer economically competitive and was losing money for its owners. Its closure would cause harm across many states – and for many years.

The environmental and economic effects of closing Vermont Yankee were severe, and they were completely predictable: air pollution increased, as carbon-free nuclear energy was replaced by natural gas; energy costs increased throughout New England, with utilities warning that customer bills could rise 50 percent or more during the winter; and the region’s economy slowed as 1,000 jobs and $500 million in annual spending dried up.

Most painful, though, was the human toll on the Vernon VT, community as nuclear workers were forced to leave behind loved ones and neighbors in search of work.

In the two and a half years since Vermont Yankee closed, many good people had moved on. Someday, the community might recover. But it will never be the same.

Economic Lessons

When he made his political case that Vermont Yankee should be “retired,” then-Gov. Peter Shumlin promised a “billion-dollar bonanza” for the state. Shumlin argued that, in the short-term, decommissioning a nuclear plant would provide employment, income and spending on par with a functioning power station. While Vermont Yankee was operating, it employed more than 600 people with salaries averaging more than $100,000 a year. Those dollars cycled through the local economy, creating hundreds more indirect jobs.

But closing the plant was not a jobs bonanza – it was a jobs cliff. Hundreds of people lost their jobs, and nowhere near that many jobs were created or likely to be created. To contradict Shumlin’s assertions, I looked at the history of other nuclear plants that closed. What I saw wasn’t pretty. One of the lessons learned about decommissioning was that a closing plant must downsize its staff quickly and aggressively, in order to decommission within the budget of the decommissioning fund.

Lessons learned were everywhere, but they weren’t happy lessons. Wherever a nuclear plant closes, the pattern repeats itself: employment and average incomes fall, which means that tax revenues that fund schools, government services, roads and communities fall, too. To make up the losses, tax rates must rise. In general, the first tax rate to rise is the local property tax.

At the same time, the departure of nuclear workers increases the number of houses on the market, and lowers property values. Local businesses also suffer as temporary workers hired for periodic refueling outages no longer come to town: the outage contractors no longer rent rooms, eat at restaurants, buy groceries or fill their cars with gas. They no longer give the area economy a cheerful boost of workers making good money, with money to spend.

Emissions of carbon and other pollutants rise as clean nuclear energy is replaced by plants that burn fossil fuels. And when a nuclear plant’s around-the-clock supply of electricity is turned off, the law of supply and demand dictates that energy prices must inevitably rise. Even though natural gas prices are low now, when a nuclear plant closes, it creates more competition for the natural gas and the price of gas rises. As natural gas prices rise, so do electricity prices.

About the people

NJ Needs Nuclear: Patty from PSEG on Vimeo.

Nuclear workers are highly skilled, highly trained and highly sought-after. There are jobs to be found at other nuclear plants – for someone who is willing to uproot and leave their friends, their kids’ schools, their churches, their doctors, their favorite restaurants, their church choirs or their poker buddies.

I believe these quotes, left by anonymous commenters on my blog, Yes Vermont Yankee, help illustrate the human side of the story:
Yes, I relocated. No, it was not easy. Selling a house, buying another one, moving, finding a new house with the right schools. Moving away from grown kids. Moving away from grandkids. My wife had to leave a job that she loved …”
“There is no way I will come close to breaking even on selling my house, not with the housing market the way it is … We have elderly parents and we don't know how we are going to manage ...”
In some cases, families were split as one spouse moved to take a new job at a faraway nuclear plant, while the other stayed behind to allow children to stay in school. A plant closure could break up a family for months or years.

Change will never be easy, and it will be harder for some than for others. But plant employees will move on, and they will live well.

For younger people, living well probably means getting out of town, taking their lumps on the declining local housing market and starting anew. Older people may see the loss of a job and community as a betrayal of their lifelong work and plans, and may be less able to start over or go somewhere new.

Today, Vermont Yankee is closed, and the region is forever the worse for it: More carbon in the air, fewer jobs, higher taxes and rising electric bills for those who stay. At one low point, during town meeting, the town of Vernon decided to disband its police force and sell off the cruisers. They could no longer afford their small police force. Hard decisions had to be made.

The Bottom Line

For a plant closure, it is comparatively easy to assess the bottom line in monetary costs.

Economic input to the area down severely, taxes no longer collected, energy prices going up. The human cost – people losing their jobs, becoming discouraged and displaced as they are forced to move to new areas – cannot be calculated.

I believe the nuclear industry will survive. Nuclear workers are smart and resilient. I think the future will work out well for all of them.

I’m less certain about the communities left behind.
The above column is sponsor-generated content from New Jersey Needs Nuclear.
Note: This article is reblogged. It was first printed as sponsored-content in Politico.

 I wrote this article a while ago. It is partially an update to my earlier article Circles of Pain Around Vermont Yankee closing