Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Trojan Cows and Grid Facts: Op-Ed

Non-Trojan Cow
The Cow

On July 1, a group of people opposed to the continued operation of Vermont Yankee protested at the nuclear power plant’s gates. One prop they used to dramatize their belief that there are better energy options than nuclear power was a hollow “Trojan Cow” they pulled to the demonstration. Some protesters pulled mock solar panels out of the cow, while others held whirligigs representing wind turbines. The cow sculpture even included a representation of manure, representing “cow power” energy produced from farm methane. The theme was clear: Vermont Yankee will be replaced with renewables.

Well, that is simply not true, at least in the foreseeable future. Closing Vermont Yankee will not bring a burst of renewables to market to replace its power.

Grid Power

Closing Vermont Yankee would mean buying more power from the New England grid to make up for Vermont Yankee’s supply. Grid power is approximately 58 percent fossil fuel, 28 percent nuclear and 12 percent hydro plus renewables. Wind, solar and farm methane together account for less than 1 percent of the power generated in New England.

What would closing Vermont Yankee mean? More solar power on the grid? No. With or without Vermont Yankee, renewables are expensive, and they are not coming on line quickly.

On the other hand, fossil fuel plants are abundant suppliers to the New England grid, supplying the majority of grid power. Many fossil fuel plants operate only part-time. The part-time plants run when they are needed to satisfy the power requirements on hot summer days or cold winter evenings. They also operate when nuclear plants are down for refueling.
The New England Grid responds to nuclear refueling
From Vermont Dept Public Service  presentation

If Vermont Yankee closed, existing fossil fuel plants would compensate by running longer hours and making more power. If the Vermont Yankee protesters had wanted to stage a more accurate dramatization, they would have pulled a model of a gas or coal plant from their Trojan Cow’s belly, not a cardboard solar panel.

Renewables: Too Slow, and Too Expensive

Or perhaps the demonstrators were claiming that shutting down nuclear plants will bring more rapid development of renewable energy, even if we’re forced to use more fossil fuels for a “short while.”

Well, a “short while” is likely to be very long.

For example, the Vermont state energy plan calls for the state to meet 90 percent of its total energy needs from renewable sources by 2050. That’s an ambitious goal considering that Vermont does not meet its current renewable energy goals and has no prospects of meeting them in the near future. The Vermont energy plan established a goal of having the state use 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2017. Even using optimistic assumptions about project completion, the state will attain only the 16 percent mark in by that date. In 2009, the state had 13 percent of its electricity from renewables (mostly in-state hydro). A growth of 3 percentage points over eight years ( 13 to 16%, 2009 to 2017) is not very impressive.

Perhaps the rate of growth of renewables is accelerating? Not really. Last year, the Vermont Legislature voted against having an aggressive Renewable Portfolio Standard for Vermont. Such a standard might raise the percentage of renewables in Vermont, but it would also raise Vermont electricity rates to unacceptable levels. Renewable growth is slow in neighboring states for similar reasons. In short, closing Vermont Yankee would have the regional result of requiring more fossil fuel to supply the New England grid.

Vermont Is An Island?

Within Vermont, many anti-nuclear activists don’t seem to care much about the regional issue. They often say that the power from Vermont Yankee doesn’t matter to Vermont, because “Vermont is no longer using any Vermont Yankee power.”

Not true. In March of this year, the power contracts between Vermont utilities and Vermont Yankee ended. Vermont utilities no longer buy Vermont Yankee power. However people in Vermont are still using Vermont Yankee power.

That sounds weird, but realize that buying power and using power are different, because power from different sources blends together on the grid. The supply on the grid depends on the power plants, transmission lines and end-users. These don’t change when contracts change.

Buying and Paying

Who pays for the power is a different matter altogether: Payment depends on agreements made between plants and utilities and regulators. The day after Vermont Yankee stopped selling power to Vermont utilities, Vermont consumers used the same actual power mix as they had used the day before. However, on that day, Vermont consumers began paying for power in a different manner. Among other changes, Vermont consumers began paying for Seabrook power, according to a contract between Green Mountain Power and Seabrook. This did not mean that Seabrook power suddenly began streaming into local power lines.

Once again, we have to take into account the regional nature of the grid. Power contracts determine payment methods, but contracts don’t determine power routing and use — that is determined by plant availability and geography.

Power blends together on the grid. If a plant goes off-line, other plants take up the slack. When nuclear plants go off-line, fossil fuel plants step up and produce replacement power.

(Note: Howard Shaffer wrote an excellent description of the grid at his recent guest post: Where's the Magic Switch?)


Protesters used a Trojan Cow to suggest that if Vermont Yankee closed, renewables would take its place. Perhaps the use of a Trojan animal was more apt than the demonstrators intended. After all, the original Trojan horse was designed to deceive. In this case, the people that the demonstrators are deceiving about the consequences of closing Vermont Yankee start with...themselves.

This is a slightly edited version of an op-ed I wrote for my local paper, the Valley  News.  I wrote this op-ed about the July 1 "Trojan Cow" protest at Vermont Yankee. It appeared in the Valley News on Sunday, July 29, but the Valley News puts very little of its content on-line.   I felt this op-ed fit in well with Howard Shaffer's recent blog post about the grid: Where's the Magic Switch.

You can watch a three-minute video of the demonstration on YouTube.


Howard Shaffer said...

Another great post!

There are many exagerations spread around at political conventions, and in discussion of political issues. Nuclear power and energy are a political issue with many myths.

The view has been expressed that feelings and beliefs about an issue are enough basis for a policy. Another view is that the facts of science and economics are vital too.

In Washington I learned that decisions are are a two stage process. First, science, economics and other realities. Second, value judgements of right or wrong, influenced by emotions. Without both steps,folly results.

Alternative energies feel good to just about everyone. As this post points out, they work scientifically, but the economics aren't there yet.

Nuclear power works scientifically and economically. Proponents still have to address the emotions of those who have not accepted the science and are afraid of nuclear power.

Comparing anything to perfection, nuclear power or alternatives, is not a realistic way to reach policy decisions.

donb said...

I propose a different 'Trojan Cow'. My Trojan Cow contains models of a nuke plant, a coal-fired plant, and a mix of wind and solar capable of providing the same amount of energy. Since the wind and solar plant must be able to provide power 24/7, like the nuke and coal plants, the model must also include whatever mix of pumped hydro and batteries needed to make the power available 24/7.

Build all the models at the same scale. Include the fuel necessary to run the nuke and coal plants for say 25 to 40 years. Perhaps include in the models stacks of gold coins representing the cost of the alternatives over the 25 to 40 years.

Now put these inside the Trojan Cow. Make sure the cow is really big, or make the modeling scale ratio really large, because the wind/solar model is going to take up a lot of space, and the coal plant model with the fuel won't be small either.

Mike Mulligan said...

Well, I think an impropriate ideology drives the nuclear industry…

Most new power sources have been brought onto the grid to drastically boost prices to the consumers. Our grid is aligned to the rich elites rather than the good people of the USA…our grid serves the rich and not us.

We retrogressed into the Joseph Stalin era with knowing how our all of energy works as a democratic institution.

Do you think Entergy’s CEO Wayne Leonard was forced to retire…will that bring changes to its nuclear fleet…

The bottom half don’t have enough income to support a 21st century electric system based on the cutting edge of technological innovation, science and engineering…

Most of the business interest in the USA sabotages the best that money can buy electric system... science and technology.