Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Renewable Energy Mandates Pose a Threat to Nuclear : Guest Post by Jeff Walther

Renewable Energy Mandates, and How They Threaten Nuclear Energy and the Grid

Guest post by Jeff Walther

I think the most immediate threat to clean nuclear electricity generation, right now, is not anti-nuke protests, nor corporate indifference, but state “Renewable” Energy Mandates. The clause in the states’ RE mandates which require that “RE” be taken on the grid in preference to other energy sources is the greatest danger to affordable base load generators, and to the whole institution of reliable, affordable electricity for the consumer.

This is how it works. When wind or solar generation start supplying 10% – 15% of total electricity, their theoretical generating capacity is much higher because they have capacity factors of about 20%. So wind installations which supply 15% of the energy needed in a year, have a name-place generating capacity of 75% of the power needed at any given time. They don’t generate 75% of the energy because the wind mostly doesn’t blow.

But, fairly frequently, for brief periods, those wind installations, which can only supply 15% of yearly energy needs, will all get good wind, and then, they’ll generate 75% of the power the grid needs. When that happens, for that brief period, the RE Mandate requires that steady, constant, reliable generators, such as nuclear shut down or otherwise stop generating.

The Base Load Generators Suffer

Shutting down and starting up again are expensive and even damaging for base load generators. Now, this might be an okay situation: why not drive the inflexible base load off the grid? But the grid cannot do without the base load. Because, most of the time, the wind isn’t supplying 75% of the power. A lot of the time, it’s not even supplying 15%. That’s just what it averages out to over the year.

So the grid cannot do without steady, reliable, affordable generators, but it could do quite nicely without expensive intermittent wind and solar.

Yet, state legislated RE Mandates are pushing the necessary and affordable base-load off the grid.

I cannot think of a single piece of legislation better designed to drive up the cost of electricity and drive away grid reliability, even if I was legislating from scratch. “RE” Mandates are the enemy of the consumer.

The problem is that the connection is subtle and the public still believes that RE Mandates exist to benefit them and the environment. The truth is, that RE Mandates, combined with the recent “privatizing” of grids and generating capacity, are designed to drive out grid reliability and drive up energy costs for all consumers.

Renewable Energy "Maturity"

Given public perception, the goal should be to modify RE Mandates, so that “RE” does not receive priority on the grid; sell this as “proving” RE maturity, and get nuclear electricity generation included in the definition of “Renewable Energy”. Repealing them entirely is probably impossible.

The true opponent in the near and short term is the requirement in RE Mandates that intermittent sources be given priority on the grid. Changing that should be the single most immediate target of pro-nuclear activists. Public opinion about nuclear, and the NRC regulatory framework matter almost not at all, when existing nuclear generation can be driven off the grid by this single point of legislation and a small percentage of Unreliables penetration.

Amateur Rocket Launch

Late last month, I wrote about my sorrow at Vermont Yankee closing in the post We are not Spock: Emotion and Nuclear Power, published at ANS Nuclear Cafe.  There were very insightful comments on that post. I obtained permission to use some of these comments as guest posts on my own blog.


Jeff Walther possesses two B.S. degrees in engineering: aerospace and electrical. He also holds a J.D. degree and is licensed to practice law in Texas. All his degrees are from the University of Texas at Austin.  He used to work as an aerospace engineer, and currently is an electrical engineer at a medium-size start-up.

Walther describes his leisure activities as follows: "On the weekends, when I'm not coaching one of my son's baseball games, I try to make it out to Hutto, TX for one of the Austin Area Rocketry Group's rocket launches."


Joris van Dorp said...

The thing is that RE priority is not actually relevant, because since RE are not dispatchable they will provide energy to the grid nomatter what the (spot) price is, thereby driving the price to zero during windy/sunny periods and thus endangering baseload power providers. Changing the priority rules will not change this.

The way to solve the problem of RE driving out baseload providers is to pay baseload providers for providing power capacity, rather than units of energy, and - importantly - passing on the costs of such a scheme to the RE owners, rather than the consumer. Moreover, such capacity payments should incorporate and reward the value of ultra-low co2 baseload capacity such as nuclear power and low-co2 capacity such a biomass, versus carbon intensive baseload such a natural gas, or else nuclear and biomass baseload will be driven out by natural gas. If that happens, even heroic efforts to achieve high penetrations of wind and solar will not reduce the average co2 intensity of the grid far enough to make for credible climate policy.

Of course, apart from the question of priority and baseload power the elephant in the room is RE subsidies such as FIT's, which are the single major cause of the damaging market distortions that concern us here.

Meredith Angwin said...


I completely agree with many of your comments, especially about capacity payments.

Our local ISO is making $75 million in capacity payments to oil-burners this coming winter, because the grid was so stressed in a cold-weather crunch last winter. During the crunch, in the Northeast:

-local demand went up, as twenty-below temps encouraged people turn on a space heater along with the oil-burning furnace
- electricity imports from Quebec fell to half, because many people in Quebec heat with electricity, and they needed the power in Quebec
- gas-fired plants couldn't be dispatched. No gas available because so much gas was being used for heating.

The answer, according to ISO, is to pay local oil-burning plants to keep oil on-hand! Imagine if part of that $75 million had gone to VY instead!

The steady capacity of the nuclear fleet is NOT appreciated.


Christopher said...

Hey, nuclear plants are maneuverable, they just don't like doing it.
Seems like we're all (all generation forms) going to have to get used to selling more power at "dispatched" rates instead of base load rates. If everyone priced in the extra cost they'd need in order for their plants to sell "dispatched", then it would be a fair marketplace. Until everybody is pricing their bids at auction using the same assumptions, it's a "prisoners dilemma" though.

Perhaps from now on, generators should submit two bids, one for base load, and one for dispatch. If the grid operator accepts my base load bid, then they are also accepting that they can't force me off the grid (or price me at negative $) when there is a glut (the glut is their problem, not mine). If they accept my "dispatched" bid, then I run when they call, and don't when they don't need it. The price per MW of those bids would be wildly different, because each bid has to somehow recoup the fixed costs of running the business.

Jim Van Zandt said...

Christopher - Shouldn't there also be a third "intermittent" type bid? Then presumably the prices would normally be ranked "intermittent" < "baseload" < "dispatchable", and a grid operator would have to accept enough "dispatchable" bids to make up for "intermittent" suppliers that were not able to deliver. He would accept some "baseload" bids to reduce his risk or (especially if there were a CO2 penalty) total cost.

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