Archive for the ‘Energy’ Category

Why are nuclear plants so expensive? Safety’s only part of the story

November 21st, 2020
Image of two power plant cooling towers.

Enlarge (credit: US DOE)

Should any discussion of nuclear power go on for long enough, it becomes inevitable that someone will rant that the only reason they've become unaffordable is a proliferation of safety regulations. The argument is rarely (if ever) fleshed out—no specific regulation is ever identified as problematic, and there seems to be no consideration given to the fact that we might have learned something at, say, Fukushima that might merit addressing through regulations.

But there's now a paper out that provides some empirical evidence that safety changes have contributed to the cost of building new nuclear reactors. But the study also makes clear that they're only one of a number of factors, accounting for only a third of the soaring costs. The study also finds that, contrary to what those in the industry seem to expect, focusing on standardized designs doesn't really help matters, as costs continued to grow as more of a given reactor design was built.

More of the same

The analysis, done by a team of researchers at MIT, is remarkably comprehensive. For many nuclear plants, they have detailed construction records, broken out by which building different materials and labor went to, and how much each of them cost. There's also a detailed record of safety regulations and when they were instituted relative to construction. Finally, they've also brought in the patent applications filed by the companies who designed the reactors. The documents describe the motivations for design changes and the problems those changes were intended to solve.

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Posted in construction, Energy, nuclear power, science | Comments (0)

First major modular nuclear project having difficulty retaining backers

November 7th, 2020
NuScale's reactor-in-a-can.

Enlarge / NuScale's reactor-in-a-can. (credit: NuScale)

Earlier this year, the US took a major step that could potentially change the economics of nuclear power: it approved a design for a small, modular nuclear reactor from a company called NuScale. These small reactors are intended to overcome the economic problems that have ground the construction of large nuclear plants to a near halt. While each only produces a fraction of the power possible with a large plant, the modular design allows for mass production and a design that requires less external safety support.

But safety approval is just an early step in the process of building a plant. And the leading proposal for the first NuScale plant is running into the same problem as traditional designs: finances.

The proposal, called the Carbon Free Power Project, would be a cluster of a dozen NuScale reactors based at Idaho National Lab but run by Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, or UAMPS. With all 12 operating, the plant would produce 720 MW of power. But UAMPS is selling it as a way to offer the flexibility needed to complement variable renewable power. Typically, a nuclear plant is either producing or not, but the modular design allows the Carbon Free Power Project to shut individual reactors off if demand is low.

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Posted in Energy, nuclear energy, science, small modular reactors | Comments (0)

As renewable power prices drop, researchers tally up their added costs

November 3rd, 2020
A wind turbine is silhouetted against the sunset.

Enlarge (credit: TLPOSCHARSKY / Flickr)

Renewable energy prices have plunged to the point where, for much of the planet, wind and solar power is now cheaper than fossil fuel-generated electricity. But the variability of these power sources can make managing them on an electric grid challenging—a challenge that can exact costs beyond their apparent price. The exact cost, however, has been heavily debated, with estimates ranging from "minimal" up to "build an entire natural gas plant to match every megawatt of wind power."

Philip Heptonstall and Robert Gross of Imperial College London decided to try to figure out what the costs actually were. After wading through hundreds of studies, the answer they came up with is somewhere between "It's complicated" and "It depends." But the key conclusion is that, even at the high end of the estimates, the added costs of renewables still leave them fairly competitive with carbon-emitting sources.

Counting costs

Heptonstall and Gross start by breaking the potential for added costs down into three categories. The first is covering for the somewhat erratic nature of renewable power, which may incur expenses if their output doesn't match their forecasted output. The second is the ability of renewables to meet the predictable daily peaks in demand—late afternoon in hotter climates, overnight in colder ones. Finally, there's the costs of integrating renewables into an existing grid, as the best sites for generation may not match up with the existing transmission capacity.

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Posted in batteries, Energy, green, power, renewable energy, science, solar, Wind | Comments (0)

Here’s how DOE’s first crop of risky energy tech has done

September 20th, 2020
Two seated men in suits have a discussion on a stage.

Enlarge / Former Energy Secretary Ernst Moniz speaks at an ARPA-E event in 2016. (credit: DOE / Flickr)

In 2009, the US Department of Energy started funding energy research through the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (or ARPA-E) program. The goal was take more risks than traditional federal efforts and help new renewable energy technologies get off the ground. Private investment had been flagging due to slow returns, but the huge societal benefits of clean energy was deemed to justify government support. The hope was that the funding could accelerate the timeline for new technology to mature to the point that private investors would find the technology more attractive.

At least, that was the idea. A team led by University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Anna Goldstein figured that ARPA-E’s first class is now old enough to check in on. She and her colleagues looked at a limited sample of 25 startups and found some interesting ways in which these companies seem to have beaten out the competition—and some in which they haven’t.

Best in class

The 25 startups selected in ARPA-E’s first round were compared to several other groups of companies that were born around the same time. The first group consists of the 39 companies that applied for ARPA-E funding and didn’t get it but still received an “encouraged” runner-up rating. In the next group are the 70 companies that received funding from the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) with related government stimulus spending. And finally, there are almost 1,200 other clean energy startups that found their funding elsewhere.

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Posted in ARPA-E, Energy, green, green energy, renewable energy, science | Comments (0)

Climate change may wreck economy unless we act soon, federal report warns

September 9th, 2020
A deep orange sky covers an automobile bridge across a lake.

Enlarge / A boat motors by as the Bidwell Bar Bridge is surrounded by fire in Lake Oroville during the Bear fire in Oroville, California, on September 9, 2020. (credit: Josh Edelson | AFP | Getty Images)

The ever-worsening climate crisis is already causing waves of human suffering—both internationally and here in the United States. And now, a new report from a US financial regulator finds that climate change is also poised to do major damage to some of the institutions with the most power to help mitigate it: Wall Street banks and investors.

Climate change "poses a major risk to the stability of the US financial system and to its ability to sustain the American economy," the report (196-page PDF) from the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) begins. Regulators "must recognize that climate change poses serious emerging risks to the US financial system, and they should move urgently and decisively to measure, understand, and address these risks."

The report, called "Managing Climate Risk in the US Financial System," was written by a group of 35 advisors from major banks such as Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan Chase, environmental groups such as The Nature Conservancy and Ceres, energy firms such as BP and ConocoPhillips, several investment firms, and experts from several universities. It is the first analysis of climate change to come from a US financial regulator looking specifically at how change, already underway, will affect trading of agricultural commodities and futures, the real estate and insurance markets, and all the complex financial instruments that are built on multiple industries taken together.

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Posted in climate change, climate crisis, Energy, Finance, Policy, social costs, sustainability, Wall Street | Comments (0)

EPA issues new rules on coal plant pollution

September 1st, 2020
Coal truck at a mine.

Enlarge / A truck loaded with coal is viewed at the Eagle Butte Coal Mine, which is operated by Alpha Coal, on Monday May 08, 2017, in Gillette, Wyoming. (credit: Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

On Monday, the EPA issued updated rules on pollution limits that haven't been updated in over 30 years. The rules cover water pollution that results from burning coal for power, pollution that can place a variety of toxic metals into the nation's waterways. The 2020 regulations replace an Obama-era attempt to set more stringent rules to limit pollution, with the changes motivated in part by the EPA's decision to avoid having the added costs of control measures push any coal plants out of business.

From fossil fuels to water

Coal is the dirtiest form of electricity generation, with a lot of its problems caused by the release into the air of particulates, toxic metals like mercury, and harmful environmental chemicals like sulfates. But, somewhat ironically, controlling these pollutants creates its own set of problems. Many of processes that remove these chemicals from coal plant exhaust end up with some of the exhaust components dissolved in water.

In addition, the byproduct of coal production, the coal ash, is often cooled and moved out of the plant using water, producing even more contaminated material. The list of toxic materials in this water is extensive—arsenic, lead, mercury, selenium, chromium, and cadmium. These materials have a variety of health effects, and many can persist in the environment for decades or longer. The EPA has estimated that this contaminated water accounts for about 30 percent of all of the toxic pollutants releases in the United States.

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Posted in coal, Energy, EPA, fossil fuels, Policy, pollution, science, Trump | Comments (0)

Trump admin. finally kills off Obama-era rule limiting methane emissions

August 14th, 2020
A natural gas flare from an offshore oil drilling rig in Cook Inlet, Alaska.

Enlarge / A natural gas flare from an offshore oil drilling rig in Cook Inlet, Alaska. (credit: Paul Souders | Getty Images)

The Environmental Protection Agency this week finalized a rule that kills off Obama-era limitations on how much methane, a potent greenhouse gas, oil and natural gas producers are allowed to emit into the atmosphere—even though industry leaders didn't want the changes.

The changes to the rules, known as the New Source Performance Standards (NSPS), remove some segments of the industry from being covered under the existing standards at all, and these changes also lift the methane caps on other segments, the EPA announced on Thursday.

The oil and gas industry basically splits into three big buckets of activity: upstream, meaning the actual drilling for oil or gas; midstream, which is the world of storage and pipelines; and downstream, that last mile where products are refined and sold. The current changes apply to the downstream and midstream segments, as the EPA broke down in a graphic (PDF).

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Posted in climate change, climate crisis, emissions, Energy, Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, methane, methane emissions, Policy, science | Comments (0)

How to change US housing to hit Paris Agreement goals

July 24th, 2020
How to change US housing to hit Paris Agreement goals

Enlarge (credit: US DOE)

So far, the focus on cutting the US's carbon emissions has fallen on two obvious targets: electrical production and transportation. But to engage in the sort of deep decarbonization we'll need to address climate change, we can't really ignore any significant source of emissions. And the places we live are significant sources—even before the pandemic kept many of us from leaving the house, US households accounted for about 20 percent of the country's energy-related carbon emissions.

On its own, the authors of a new analysis say, US housing would be the world's sixth largest emitter of greenhouse gases, placing it ahead of Germany. How do we get that down in order to address climate change? To find out, some researchers from the University of Michigan did an incredibly detailed analysis of the US's housing stock, figuring out the factors that influenced its carbon emissions. They then calculated which options might bring those emissions down to where they'd be compatible with the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement.

Emissions at home

To understand US housing's energy use, the researchers started with average samples of the housing in each state, with the number of buildings ranging from 100,000 to 10 million. This data included information on the building's age, how much space it enclosed, how it's heated, and so on. Their model also incorporated details of things like power use, housing density, details of the electric grid, and so on.

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Posted in carbon emissions, climate change, Energy, green, housing, science | Comments (0)

Jail time for polluters in Biden’s $2T climate plan

July 14th, 2020
Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden arrives to speak at a  "Build Back Better" Clean Energy event on July 14, 2020 at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Delaware.

Enlarge / Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden arrives to speak at a "Build Back Better" Clean Energy event on July 14, 2020 at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Delaware. (credit: Olivier Douliery | AFP | Getty Images)

Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden today unveiled a $2 trillion policy platform that seeks to address both the climate crisis and the worsening pandemic-driven economic crisis by drastically expanding investments in infrastructure improvements and clean energy.

The proposals in the Biden plan are in line with a policy package released earlier this month by the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. The House Democrats' plan (a 550-page PDF), at a very high level, calls first for bringing the United States to net-zero emissions by 2050, then for using the back half of the century to get to negative emissions. That ambitious goal would be reached by adopting new regulations and incentives in energy, transportation, housing, construction, manufacturing, agriculture, telecommunications, and infrastructure, among other sectors.

Biden's plans, as outlined on his campaign website, go much less in-depth than the Congressional proposal package but are perhaps even more aggressive.

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Posted in climate change, climate crisis, coronavirus, COVID-19, economy, Energy, environmental justice, Policy | Comments (0)

Electrifying West Africa with a renewable grid

May 31st, 2020
Image of a dam and generating building.

Enlarge / A new hydroelectric power station in the Ivory Coast. (credit: Xinhua News Agency)

There's been a lot of discussion about how areas that are seeing explosive renewable growth can manage the large amount of intermittent electricity sources. But these mostly focus on regions with mature electric grids and a relatively static growth in demand. What would happen if you tried to grow renewables at the same time you're trying to grow a grid?

A EU-US team of researchers decided to find out what a good renewable policy might look like in West Africa, an area similar in size to the 48 contiguous US states but comprised of 16 different countries. Some of these nations already get a sizable chunk of their power from renewables in the form of hydropower, but they are expected to see demand roughly double in the next decade. Although renewables like solar and wind are likely to play a role purely based on their price, the researchers' analysis suggests that a smart, international grid can balance hydro, wind, and solar to produce a far greener grid.

Hydro as a giant battery

The new work has a mix of focuses. It's run against the backdrop of the expectation that West Africa's demand for electricity will explode over the next decade. Right now, the region has nearly 400 million inhabitants who consume a bit over 100 terawatt-hours a year (compared to the United States' 4,000TW-hr). By 2030, that demand is expected to be more than 200TW-hr—a fourfold increase from where demand was in 2015.

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Posted in Energy, green, hydroelectric, renewable energy, science, solar, west africa, Wind | Comments (0)