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Nuking Clean Energy: How Nuclear Power Makes Wind and Solar Harder

Ivy Main's picture
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Ivy Main is a writer, lawyer, and environmental advocate, and volunteers extensively with the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club. In addition to lobbying in the Virginia General Assembly for...

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Dominion Resources CEO Tom Farrell is famously bullish on nuclear energy as a clean solution in a carbon-constrained economy, but he’s got it wrong. Nuclear is a barrier to a clean-energy future, not a piece of it. That’s only partly because new nuclear is so expensive that there’s little room left in a utility budget to build wind and solar. A more fundamental problem is that when nuclear is part of the energy mix, high levels of wind and solar become harder to achieve.

To understand why, consider the typical demand curve for electricity in the Mid-Atlantic, including Virginia. Demand can be almost twice as high at 5 p.m. as it is at 5 a.m., especially on a hot summer day with air conditioners running.

Average hourly load over a one-week period in January, April and July 2009. Credit B. Posner.

Average hourly load over a one-week period in January, April and July 2009. Credit B. Posner.

The supply of electricity delivered by the grid at any moment has to exactly match the demand: no more and no less. More than any other kind of generating plant, though, the standard nuclear reactor is inflexible in its output. It generates the same amount of electricity day in and day out. This means nuclear can’t be used to supply more than the minimum demand level, known as baseload. In the absence of energy storage, other fuel sources that can be ramped up or down as needed have to fill in above baseload.

Wind and solar have the opposite problem: instead of producing the same amount of electricity 24/7, their output varies with the weather and time of day. If you build a lot of wind turbines and want to use all the electricity they generate (much of it at night), some of it will compete to supply the baseload. Although solar panels produce during daylight when demand is higher, if you build enough solar you will eventually have to cut back on your baseload sources, too.

With enough energy storage, of course, baseload generating sources can be made flexible, and wind and solar made firm. Storage adds to cost and environmental footprint, though, so it is not a panacea. That said, Virginia is lucky enough to have one of the largest pumped storage facilities in the country, located in Bath County. Currently Dominion uses its 1,800 MW share of the facility as a relatively low-cost way to meet some peak demand with baseload sources like coal and nuclear, but it could as easily be used to store electricity from wind and solar, at the same added cost.

Without a lot of storage, it’s much harder to keep wind and solar from competing with nuclear or other baseload sources. You could curtail production of your wind turbines or solar panels, but since these have no fuel cost, you’d be throwing away free energy. Once you’ve built wind farms and solar projects, it makes no sense not to use all the electricity they can produce.

But if nuclear hogs the baseload, by definition there will be times when there is no load left for other sources to meet. Those times will often be at night, when wind turbines produce the most electricity.

The problem of nuclear competing with wind and solar has gotten little or no attention in the U.S., where renewables still make up only a small fraction of most states’ energy mixes. However, at an October 27 workshop about Germany’s experience with large-scale integration of renewable energy into the grid, sponsored by the American Council on Renewable Energy, Patrick Graichen of the German firm Agora Energiewende pointed to this problem in explaining why his organization is not sorry the country is closing nuclear plants at the same time it pursues ambitious renewable energy targets. Nuclear, he said, just makes it harder.

How big a problem is this likely to be in the U.S.? Certainly there is not enough nuclear in the PJM Interconnection grid as a whole to hog all the baseload in the region, and PJM has concluded it can already integrate up to 30% renewable energy without affecting reliability. But the interplay of nuclear and renewables is already shaping utility strategies. Dominion Virginia Power is on a campaign to build out enough generation in Virginia to eliminate its imports of electricity from out of state. And in Virginia, nuclear makes up nearly 40% of Dominion’s generation portfolio.

Now Dominion wants to add a third nuclear reactor at its North Anna site, to bring the number of its reactors in Virginia to five. If the company also succeeds in extending the life of its existing reactors, the combination would leave precious little room for any other energy resource that produces power when demand is low.

That affects coal, which is primarily a baseload resource. It would also impact combined-cycle natural gas plants, which are more flexible than coal or nuclear but still run most efficiently as baseload. But the greatest impact is on our potential for renewables.

This desire to keep high levels of nuclear in its mix explains Dominion’s lack of interest in land-based wind power, which produces mostly at night and therefore competes with nuclear as a baseload source. Dominion’s latest Integrated Resource Plan pretty much dismisses wind, assigning it a low value and a strangely high price tag in an effort to make it look like an unappealing option.

Dominion shows more interest in solar as a daytime source that fills in some of the demand curve above baseload. But given Dominion’s commitment to nuclear, its appetite for Virginia solar is likely to be limited. Already it insists that every bit of solar must be backed up with new natural gas combustion turbines, which are highly flexible but less efficient, more expensive and more polluting than combined-cycle gas, and add both cost and fuel-price risk.

Dominion’s seeming insistence that solar must be paired with gas to turn it into something akin to a baseload source is plainly absurd. It seems to be an effort to increase the cost of solar, part of an attempt to improve the company’s prospects of getting the North Anna 3 nuclear reactor approved in the face of its dismal economics.

Good resource planning would consider all existing and potential sources together, including using the existing pumped storage capacity in the way that makes most sense. We already know that North Anna 3 would be breathtakingly expensive. Evaluating it in the full context of other supply options will show it is even worse than Dominion acknowledges.

Dominion’s campaign to isolate Virginia’s power supply from the larger PJM grid also does a disservice to ratepayers. Keeping generation local benefits grid security when the generation is small-scale and distributed, but not when it’s a huge nuclear reactor sited on a fault line right next to two others. Otherwise, there is nothing wrong with importing power from other states. These are not hostile foreign nations. Pennsylvania is not going to cut us off if we don’t release their political prisoners.

In truth, it seems to be Tom Farrell’s plan to secure Dominion’s profitability for decades to come by walling off Virginia into a corporate fiefdom and controlling the means of production within it, like some retrograde Soviet republic. Utility customers, on the other hand, benefit much more from having our grid interconnected with PJM and the thousands of other power sources that help balance load and ensure reliability. One can only hope that Dominion’s regulators at the State Corporation Commission will see that.

Over the course of the next couple of decades, Virginia, like the rest of the U.S.—and indeed, the rest of the world—has to transition to an electricity supply that is almost entirely emissions-free. Very little planning has gone into making this happen, but several studies have shown it can be done. The Solutions Project offers a broad-brush look at how Virginia can combine onshore wind, offshore wind, solar and small amounts of other sources to reach a 100% clean energy future. Other researchers have done the same for PJM as a whole.

No doubt this will be a long and challenging journey, but the path we start out on should be the one most likely to get us to our goal. Nuclear seems likely to prove a stumbling block along the way, and an expensive one at that. Certainly, we shouldn’t make the problem worse.

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Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on Dec 7, 2015

“That is,  transmission and wind capacity in each region must be equal to a large fraction of expected wind-share in all.  I suspect this result explains the statement towards the end of Fertig et al’s abstract:

“First-order analysis indicates that balancing wind and providing firm power with local natural gas turbines would be more cost-effective than with transmission interconnection”

which is rather blatant negative answer to the question posed in the title, i.e. “effect of long-distance” ISO aggregation.”

You may suspect that it means some abstract concept, but since the first order analysis is performed with respect to commercial costs rather than economic costs, what it actually means it that natural gas is not charged its full economic cost, and so the economic least cost solution is not necessarily the commercial least cost solution.

“See even in Fertig’s figure 3, where the best case aggregate output wind power can still fall to 5%, meaning that 95% of the traditional thermal power fleet, along with its own localized transmission and fuel supplies, must all remain in place essentially forever.  Emissions consequences aside, such a plan (large wind share plus all of the existing thermal fleet) is not economic.”

First, it does not mean that arithmetically, since the maximum yield in Figure 3 is not 100%, it is about 55%, and 5% of nameplate is not 5% of maximum yield, it is 9%.

Second, it only means 9% of maximum in practice if there is no harvest of any other variable renewables that are negatively correlated with wind.

Thirdly, even if there are no other variable renewables available that are negatively correlated with wind, it only means 9% in practice if there are reservoir hydro sources available, since the constraint on annual reservoir hydro supply is substantially below the constraint on reservoir hydro capacity. Consider the 100% supply at 5% of nameplate, and the two “firm power” levels of 17% of nameplate available 79% of the time and 12% available 92% of the time. Assuming about 36% average yield, a straight-line approximation is that firming from 79% to 100% would require 12% of nameplate capacity, or capacity for roughly 33% of average yield, and an energy supply of roughly 3% of average yield.

Fourthly, it only means 9% in practice if the decision of what design of wind turbines to install ignores the greater economic value of power at marginal wind speeds over power at high wind speeds … those are legacy production curves, and represent wind turbines built to produce at an existing low wind integration, and are within the current design envlope and generally built to optimize on cost per kWh rather than value per kWh at high wind penetration.

And fifthly, it only means 9% in practice if you do not spill at high wind speeds. For an energy source with zero fuel cost, spilling energy when it has the lowest marginal value in order to have more available when it is the highest marginal value is a perfectly reasonable management tool. And the more interconnected the wind resource regions are, the lower the ratio of maximum to average yield can be made by a modest amount of spilling: for instance, on that duration curve, energy production in excess of 40% of nameplate capacity occurs 10% of the time, and the maximum yield is roughly 55%, so on a straightline approximation, would involve spilling 5.6% of total energy supply … and as the duration curve is convex to the origin in that region, the actual area between the duration curve and 40% would be less than that.

In other words, instead of analyzing those duration curves with the use of over-simplified policy slogans, in the way that the original piece “analyzes” the economic of nuclear energy, actually analyze them. They do not imply anything with any close resemblence to what you claim they imply (in the same way that the facts of the matter do not imply anything with any close resemblence to what the author of the original piece claims).

Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on Dec 7, 2015

“Aggregating load duration curves has no meaning. Only lay people would be fooled by such nonsense.

One has to take the SIMULTANEOUS hour by hour, or 15 minute by 15 minute outputs of many areas and SUM them to determine what happens during wind lulls. Some lulls last quite long!!!”

You contradict yourself, when you say that aggregating load duration curves have no meaning, and then saying that it is meaningful to do exactly what is done to find an aggregate load duration curve.

An aggregate load duration curve is found by summing the simultaneous output and then sorting the result into a power duration curve.

Otherwise adding negatively correlated supplies would not yield a flatter curve and adding positively correlated supplies would not yield a steeper curve.

 

Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on Dec 7, 2015

“Aggregating load duration curves has no meaning. Only lay people would be fooled by such nonsense.

One has to take the SIMULTANEOUS hour by hour, or 15 minute by 15 minute outputs of many areas and SUM them to determine what happens during wind lulls. Some lulls last quite long!!!”

You contradict yourself, when you say that aggregating load duration curves have no meaning, and then saying that it is meaningful to do exactly what is done to find an aggregate load duration curve.

An aggregate load duration curve is found by summing the simultaneous output and then sorting the result into a power duration curve.

Otherwise adding negatively correlated supplies would not yield a flatter curve and adding positively correlated supplies would not yield a steeper curve.

 

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Dec 8, 2015

Once again Bas (aka Som), you’ve found a group a like-minded radio-phobes who’ve put together a website dedicated to telling us how to get rid of nuclear power (no doubt with the help of fossil fuel money).  Once again, I remind you that the “legitimate” scientists of the world are essentially united in telling us that it is fossil fuels, not nuclear power that are creating problems that we must solve to protect the environment and human health (see Nuclear part of climate-energy solution, says IAEA).

The fact that you and your friends don’t have what it takes (technical background? open-mindedness? objectivity?) to understand that you’re working on the wrong problem, provides good reason to believe none of your prognostications should be trusted.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Dec 8, 2015

While I agree that high temperature nuclear power with thermal energy storage would likely provide the lowest cost means to integrate variable renewables into a low carbon electric grid, I would still maintain that poor countries will not deploy such a system, because coal and nuclear dominated grids are lower cost solutions.  Whenever renewables are added to a coal-dominated grid (whether they are in Wyoming, India, or Germany), it’s a pretty sure bet that the people in charge have no intention of achieving deep-decarbonization.

It’s quite misleading of you to compare the small supply-demand-mismatch of the high-nuclear scenario with the large mis-match produced by variable renewables.  Nuclear is completely compatible with every low carbon scenario, and makes them all better: big hydro, baseload run-of-river hydro*, desert solar, geothermal, electric vehicles w/ night-time charging, any of these can be added in any combination to nuclear.  You’ve often claimed that renewables should not be considered in isolation:  I claim that the lowest carbon portfolio which is affordable would combine nuclear, hydro, and warm-climate solar (which should achieve >90% non-fossil in each of the lower 48 states of the US).  

The problematic (and also the most scalable) technologies are wind-power and cloudy-town solar; using these to replace nuclear in a low carbon portfolio always makes it harder to achieve low fossil fuel use, as they demand use with “flexible generation” (I’ve never seen a shread of evidence to refute this).  Adding biomass burning always produces unacceptable land use and needless air pollution.

Anti-nuclearism is an enormous barrier to decarbonization, no amount of appeal to complextity can change that.

* I saw a surprising study that California’s unique climate offers run-of-river hydro which has rather low variability from day to day and season to season (at least during non-drought years).  This is unusually, as most such small reservoir hydro generates most annual output during the spring snow melts, when electricity demand is lowest.

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Dec 8, 2015

Som/Bas/Darius appears to be a member of the catastrophist antinuclear ‘green’ movement. That movement believes humanity is doomed. They promise us that nuclear power is unnecessary: that renewable energy can do it all, but secretly, they don’t believe their own words.

http://jmkorhonen.net/2015/12/04/the-gamble-gamblers-wont-take/

They aim to lead humanity to its destruction, and intend to profit from that destruction on the way down, by collecting ‘green’ subsidies and other benefits. They don’t have children and don’t intend to get any, and they certainly don’t care about other people’s children.

What we need to do is realise that this catastrophist movement is in full control of our energy policy and politics. We need to get these monsters out of positions of power and influence. We can do that by exposing their apocalyptic agenda and their hatred of humanity.


Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Dec 8, 2015

But the author doesn’t see it that way. For her and for her employer, the Sierra Club, the big goal is not reducing our CO2 emissions quickly and affordably, the big goal is rather “achieving high levels of wind and solar”.”

Have you considered the possibility that the aim of the Sierra Club and other antinuclear ‘green’ movements is apocalypse, regarding that as being inevitable, necessary and beneficial?

http://jmkorhonen.net/2015/12/04/the-gamble-gamblers-wont-take/

Willem Post's picture
Willem Post on Dec 8, 2015

Som,

This article debunks the Jacobson Report regarding the US having 100% RE (wind 50, solar 45, other 5) by 2050 for ALL of its energy, not just electrical energy.

http://www.theenergycollective.com/willem-post/2264202/reducing-us-primary-energy-wind-and-solar-energy-and-energy-efficiency

I have compared their approach with two alternatives with wind, solar, and nuclear (55%) and wind, solar, and nuclear (68%).

Their capital costs would be up to 5.5 times less and roof/land/sea area requirements would be up to 9 times less, and LCOEs likely would be equal or less than of the Jacobson Plan. See below table.

…………Capital Cost*…Added Capacities….Additional Area

…………….$billion………….MW………………acres…….sq. mile

Jacobson..23,164……..6,288,911….175,850,940….274,767

Alt 1 ……….6,291……..1,578,048…….40,981,875….. 64,034

Alt 2………..4,147……….951,595…….21,914,182…….34,241

*Capital costs are based on present, real-world costs, $million/MW. These costs/MW were applied to the capacities, MW, as stated in the Jacobson report. Any capital costs associated with below NOTE No. 1, which may exceed $10 to $20 thousand billion, are additional to those in the above table.

Russia and China are selling turnkey nuclear power plants to many countries at about $5.0 to $5.5 million/MW. Russia has an order book of $300 billion.

China and India burn about 60% of the world’s coal. There is no hope unless THEY stop it. Whatever France does is not material.

Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on Dec 8, 2015

“”The French law which seeks to reduce use of nuclear power was passed without consideration of cost or how the missing energy will be provided.”

That is highly unlikely:
Ségolène Royal the French responsible minister, is not only intelligent. She also is highly experienced.”

Neither of those make it particularly unlikely that some particular law was passed without consideration of cost or how the missing energy will be provided. Politicians do things for purely crass political reasons all the time. If something is done because the political calculation is that it is necessary in order to gain some valued outcome, it could well be the intention to go ahead and do it irrespective of its own merits, other than the fact that somebody wants it who is in a position to give you what you want/need …

… in which case an analysis of its merits is at best a waste of time and at worst is going to leave something embarassing lying around to get picked up by the press.

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Dec 8, 2015

Moderators, please observe that “Som Negert” AKA Darius Bentvels AKA Bas Gresnigt is lying again. He is advancing the same falsehood about Spanish solar rooftop energy policy which he has advanced before on TEC, and which has been disarmed before on TEC.

http://www.theenergycollective.com/stephenlacey/2249831/understanding-political-turmoil-surrounding-renewables-australia-and-spain#comment-212238

Please help keep TEC free from chronic liars like Bas Gresnigt.

Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on Dec 8, 2015

The difference I am referring to here is the difference in the physical geography of the US and the EU.

Human laws can be changed a lot more readily than physical geography.

 

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Dec 8, 2015

There is an excellent reference on the Malthusian/catastrophist cult.  The well known Mars/space author Robert Zubrin wrote a 2013 thorough study of the Mathusian/catastrophist cult and its horrific effects over time, Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism”

Interestingly, Zubrin also has a background in nuclear engineering. 

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Dec 8, 2015

The opportunity cost of using existing coal does not depend on whether or not the operator of a coal plant is able to impose a charge to recover capital costs.

We do know the following about existing thermal installation.  Setting it part time idle only saves a couple cents/kWh of fuel costs over the cost of devlivering full capacity kWhs. 

“Now, that could result in the owner of the power generation going bankrupt, but that is what is supposed to happen when a company has legacy fixed costs that it can no longer afford under current market conditions..”

 

Bankrupt?  I see that notion as fantasy given the evidence.   In which of the world’s grids has one ever found any signifcant share of net thermal+hydro capacity going bankrupt, or permanently closing for any reason of replacement.   See for instance Germany, with its ~80 GW nameplate of wind and solar, or ~130% of average load.  Yet in 2015 Germany’s thermal+hydro capacity is ~102 GW, amost exactly what it was in 2002. 

The vast majority of thermal+hydro power capacity in a grid must be net immune to bankruptcy because it (capacity, not generation hours) is no more replaceable than the food or water supply by current technology.    Well worn statements about the lack external cost imposition on fossil fuels don’t change that fact. 

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Dec 8, 2015

Yes, we might first tend to our own: the authors that post articles on TEC, like those affiliated with Siera.  Also see, for example, Gail Tverberg who can’t manage an article without the use of “collapse” or a catastrophic synonym.  High oil prices indicate societal collapse.  Low oil prices indicate societal collapse.  Both equally unvoidable. 

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