Opinion

Felix Salmon

Nuclear power: Going fast

Felix Salmon
Jun 23, 2009 15:28 UTC

I was offline most of yesterday attending a high-intensity series of presentations hosted by Esquire magazine in the magnificent suite of rooms at the top of the new Hearst tower. GE’s Eric Loewen was there, talking about nuclear power, and specifically what he calls a PRISM reactor — a fourth-generation nuclear power station which runs on the nuclear waste generated by all the previous generations of nuclear power stations.

PRISM is GE’s name for an integral fast reactor, or IFR, and it’s a pretty great technology. The amount of fuel which already exists for such reactors would be enough to power the world for millennia — no new mining needed. Fast reactors also solve at a stroke the problem of what to do with the vast amounts of nuclear waste which are being stockpiled unhappily around the world. They’re super-safe: if they fail they just stop working, they don’t melt down. And they can even literally replace coal power stations:

One nice thing about the S-PRISM is that they’re modular units and of relatively low output (one power block of two will provide 760 MW). They could be emplaced in excavations at existing coal plants and utilize the same turbines, condensers (towers or others), and grid infrastructure as the coal plants currently use, and the proper number of reactor vessels could be used to match the capabilities of those facilities. Essentially all you’d be replacing is the burner (and you’d have to build a new control room, of course, or drastically modify the current one). Thus you avoid most of the stranded costs. If stranded costs can thus be kept to a minimum, both here and, more importantly, in China, we’ll be able to talk realistically not just about stopping to build new coal plants but replacing the existing ones, even the newest ones.

And best of all they’re eminently affordable: Loewen showed that they could be profitable selling energy at just 5 cents per KwH — which means that you don’t need to price carbon emissions at all to make these power stations economically attractive. With pricing on carbon emissions, of course, they become even economically compelling.

So what’s the problem? They’re untested, and the regulators in the US will take many years and many billions of dollars before they will approve such a project. And legislation is needed, too — including legislation allowing the use of nuclear waste as a fuel. But mainly all that’s needed is political will. It’s unclear the degree to which Steven Chu, the US energy secretary, supports this technology. But if he puts the weight of the Obama administration into supporting this technology and trying to make it a reality, then a lot of private capital will start flowing into the area. And it might be much, much easier to achieve ambitious carbon-emission reduction targets than many people currently think.

COMMENT

The biggest commercial problem with nuclear power, and especially from breeder reactors, is that it costs next to nothing to run.
If you count on the energy companies to embrace it, you’re asking them to put all their other businesses out of business.

Plus, for too many liberals, the distinction between nuclear weapons and nuclear power is emotionally too difficult. Any decent American knows that we should be ashamed of the bomb we dropped on Nagasaki, three days after the Hiroshima bomb for which we might have an excuse.

For my part, ascoss, I’d rather live next to (or downwind of) an Integral Fast Reactor power plant that’s got a few tens of tons of radioactive fuel, none of which can escape, than a comparable coal burner emitting millions of tons of poisonous gases, aye, and even radioactive thorium fly ash.

And I’d rather have a 1000 MW nuclear power plant at the bottom of my favorite range of mountains than 800 wind turbines, each 600 feet tall, over the same mountains, generating maybe the same total annual amount of energy, but without regard to the actual demand.

The crucial advantage of nuclear power is that chemical processes involve the atom’s electron energy, which is about a millionth of what holds the nucleus together.

So a very small amount of uranium, which produces an even smaller amount of waste products, gives you as much energy as millions of barrels of oil.
Or put it another way:
Uranium and Thorium are the product of the violent cataclysmic death of a huge star, an event that we call a supernova.
Fossil carbon was laid down during about 64 million years, by energy from our quiet little sun.
Our rate of consumption of fossil carbon could use it up, and all of the oxygen in our atmosphere, in a few hundred thousand years.

It’s not likely that we can find ways to use solar energy to keep up with that rate.

Posted by AuldLochinvar | Report as abusive

How transit investments pay for themselves

Felix Salmon
Jun 22, 2009 14:44 UTC

Kaid Benfield has a great wonky post on the connection between carbon emission reductions and land-use regulations. It turns out that the latter can have an enormous effect on the former: in a number of cities and states, the cost of implementing things like transit-oriented development and growth boundaries can actually be negative, thanks to the resulting reduction in vehicle miles driven. (And that’s not even including the fact that household carbon emissions, as opposed to vehicle emissions, are much lower in high-density developments.)

The problem of course is one of political will. The state of Georgia, for instance, could save more than $400 billion over 30 years if it started getting strategic about infrastructure investment, while saving 18 million metric tons of CO2. But will it? I very much doubt it.

COMMENT

Ahem,

Dubious numbers Felix. Are you truly trying to say that people should be forced into highrises, squashed together like sardines? Are you saying that we should all ride choo-choo trains to our green jobs in the new urban nirvana? Felix, the last time I saw statistics for who liked this mode of living, only young pups like you with no small children and empty nesters one step from The Home thought this was a good idea. Would you and your socialist friends force us to live a lifestyle that we don’t choose? Apparently so. Thanks comrade Felix.

Posted by Guy Thompto | Report as abusive

Cap-and-trade datapoint of the day

Felix Salmon
Jun 22, 2009 04:05 UTC

I am very happy that the CBO has finally gotten around to costing out Waxman-Markey, so that we don’t have to put up with pseudoscientific scaremongering any more.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that the net annual economywide cost of the cap-and-trade program in 2020 would be $22 billion—or about $175 per household… households in the lowest income quintile would see an average net benefit of about $40 in 2020, while households in the highest income quintile would see a net cost of $245… Overall net costs would average 0.2 percent of households’ after-tax income.

A reasonable price to pay, I think, for massively reducing the economy’s reliance on oil imports and working to curtail the potentially catastrophic tail risk associated with global climate change. Note that ancillary benefits, such as economic and competitiveness advantages which flow from the private sector making significant investment in clean-energy technologies, are not included in this calculation; it doesn’t even include $22 billion a year in energy savings which will result from the act.

Note also that if there’s a faster-than-expected move from giving permits away to auctioning them, the scheme could in and of itself generate significant net benefits: the CBO assumes that only 17% of allowances would be sold in 2020, while fully 83% would be given away.

So yes, the ideal cap-and-trade bill would be much better than Waxman-Markey. But Waxman-Markey is vastly better than what we’ve got right now, which is nothing.

(HT: Avent)

COMMENT

$175 Don’t make me laugh.
Everything we purchase would increase in price.
And $40 credit to do what. Buy toilet paper?
CAP and TRADE is ENRON forced onto everyone.
CAP and TRADE is not about emissions it’s all about
the government creating a hugh slush fund for world government expansion.
CAP and TRADE places the entire U.S. economy on the shoulders of speculation, manipulation within the Chicago Climate Exchange(CCX)
CAp and TRADE is the most damaging plan for America changing our freedom in a very bad way.

Posted by Les Horn | Report as abusive

The inverse-floater gasoline tax

Felix Salmon
Jun 15, 2009 14:32 UTC

How to structure a gas tax? You could make it a flat X cents per gallon; alternatively (and this is essentially what a cap-and-trade system does, too) you could make it Y%, with the tax increasing with the price of gasoline.

Today, Jim Surowiecki comes up with a third option, where the tax decreases when the price of gasoline goes up:

Rather than leave so much of our fate to chance, we’d be better off doing what politicians always say they want to do: lessen the U.S. economy’s dependence on oil. One step toward that would be to phase in a gas tax designed to smooth out oil’s spikes and plunges by keeping the price of gasoline fixed (the tax would rise when the price of gas fell, and vice versa).

Surowiecki makes a strong case that consumer behavior, when it comes to reducing gasoline consumption, only really changes when there’s a spike in gas prices. As a result, his proposal would seem designed to have the least possible effect on gasoline consumption, and on our dependence on oil. Sure, it’s a sensible way of raising government revenues and reducing the fiscal deficit.

Either you want to effect consumer behavior and reduce gasoline consumption — in which case you actually welcome price spikes. Or else you want to smooth out price spikes, in which case you slowly boil the frog (to use one of the stupidest metaphors ever) and keep consumption high. But you can’t have it both ways. Which is it to be, Jim?

COMMENT

@ KenG:

I had assumed that Surowiecki didn’t mean “fixed” literally, since it’s so clearly a bad idea for the reasons you mentioned above. Maybe I was wrong. Anyhow, it seems like we agree on substance.

My point still stands about local (or short-term) pressures, though: if the tax is calibrated to an index of gas prices across the country (rather than case-by-case), there would still be downward price pressure on individual suppliers.

Posted by Benquo | Report as abusive

Whither cap-and-trade? An IM exchange

Felix Salmon
Jun 12, 2009 18:52 UTC

One of the great things about working for Reuters is that I get to pester journalists who actually know what they’re talking about. So after reading Timothy Gardner’s story on the cap-and-trade bill today, I got him on IM, and learned a lot — not least that Waxman-Markey is being considered more of an all-encompassing energy bill, as opposed to simply a way of creating a cap-and-trade scheme. Which on the one hand means that it can be loaded up with enough pork to make it pass, but on the other hand makes everything much more complicated:

Felix Salmon: Your headline says that a cap-and-trade bill is “more likely” in 2010 than in 2009, is that right? And is this a new development?

Timothy Gardner: Well I think a lot of people who are watching Congress closely believe the stars are aligned like never before for action from the U.S. on climate. The EPA has proposed that greenhouse gases are a danger to human health, Obama has set new CAFE standards for vehicles and he also supports a cap and trade market.

TG: But I think too that NGOs, and carbon market developers like the International Emissions Trading Assocation, are beginning to realize that in a lot of ways the compromises have just begun. It’s not new that many people think the bill wont be completed unitl sometime next year. But the complexity of the many of the issues including what to do about nuclear, which is not addressed very much in the bill, and reframing the costs of putting a price on carbon during the recession, are new. The head of the IETA office in Washington, who worked on the Hill for 9 years on climate, said today “there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell” that the bill will pass this year.

FS: Yikes.

TG: There’s still a lot of optimism out there especially because now the White House supports forming a carbon market.

FS: But that was the other thing I wanted to ask you about — this nuclear thing

FS: Obvs nuclear energy has zero carbon emissions, right? So it will benefit from any cap-and-trade bill?

FS: But your story seems to imply that there might be something in the bill to scale back nuclear energy?

TG: Well, it’s close to zero emissions because you would have to build new plants and mine the uranium and dispose the waste. But yes it could benefit from a cap and trade bill but so far it has mostly left out of the process.

TG: I didn’t mean to imply that it would be scaled back. It’s just that any benefit it would get from cap and trade would have to be balanced with a program on what to do with the waste since storing it at Yucca Mountain has run into so many problems.

FS: I’m confused about this. Surely questions about what to do with nuclear waste are questions about what to do with nuclear waste whether or not there’s a cap-and-trade scheme, right? Why should those questions be addressed in a cap-and-trade bill?

TG: Nuclear doesnt necessarily have to be addressed in the Waxman bill, it could be addressed in another bill in parallell, but that could take time

TG: But the bill is first and foremost an energy bill, not just a cap and trade bill. So from what I’m hearing some Senators are looking for funds and loan guarantees to build new nuclear plants. If they get that there would probably have to be some kind of deal or plan on what to do with nuclear waste as well.

TG: It costs $3 to $5 billion to build a nuclear plant, so to build one will take time

FS: Hobbling carbon-derived energy isn’t enough for these guys? They need extra pork for nuclear energy on top?

TG: If the Senate wants to gain a few votes to get to the required 60, particularly if Al Franken doesn’t make it in. There are still more than 20 iffy Democrat Senators and quite a few Republicans that could go either way

FS: Wow, sounds like this is going to end up with more pork than David Chang festival. Thanks for your time!

COMMENT

California CalEPA Secretary Linda Adams, signed a MOU with the UN in China on earth day. China gets about 50% of the world carbon tax and the China government gets a 50% tax of the credits.

** China goods and services may increase

** We pay the carbon tax and Pew Business Environmental Leadership Council (BELC) Member Companies: ABB, Air Products, Alcoa Inc., American Electric Power, Bank of America, BASF, Baxter International Inc., The Boeing Company, BP, California Portland Cement, CH2M HILL, Citi, Cummins Inc., Deere & Company, Deutsche Telekom, The Dow Chemical Company, DTE Energy, Duke Energy, DuPont, Entergy, Exelon, GE, Hewlett-Packard Company, Holcim (US) Inc., IBM, Intel, Interface Inc., Johnson Controls, Inc., Lockheed Martin, Marsh, Inc., Novartis, Ontario Power Generation, PG&E Corporation, PNM Resources, Rio Tinto, Rohm and Haas, Royal Dutch/Shell, SC Johnson, Toyota, TransAlta, United Technologies, Weyerhaeuser, Whirlpool Corporation, Wisconsin Energy Corporation and friends may all share in the public/private partnership of corporate and NGO welfare

Posted by Charlie Peters | Report as abusive

The fiscal cost of Waxman-Markey

Felix Salmon
Jun 8, 2009 04:33 UTC

Couldn’t they have left themselves any leeway at all? The CBO has now costed out the Waxman-Markey act, and has come to the conclusion that over the 10 years from 2010 to 2019, it would raise $846 billion, spend $821 billion, and cost another $50 billion or so in discretionary spending. In other words, it’s at best fiscally flat, and quite possibly will actually cost the government money.

The good news, however, is that fully $693 billion of the $821 billion in direct costs is accounted for by “Outlays Associated with Emission Allowances Freely Allocated”. In other words, if and when there’s a fiscal crunch, any future government can significantly reduce the budget deficit at a stroke just by ceasing to give away carbon allowances. Which of all the different ways to raise taxes is probably likely to be one of the least politically damaging.

COMMENT

That’s a pretty interesting point, and almost makes me wonder if this is deliberate. After all one of the biggest criticisms of the bill from an environmental point of view is the fact that it gives away too many of the allowances for free, since that won’t change behaviour. Perhaps the idea is that if they can get the framework right, then the ongoing fiscal deficits will do the heavy work in terms of steadily forcing the proportion of free credits down and down.

Posted by duncan | Report as abusive

A closer look at the Waxman-Markey allocations

Felix Salmon
May 26, 2009 19:03 UTC

John Kemp has a very handy summary of exactly how emissions allowances are going to be allocated under the Waxman bill. And it turns out that while only 15% of the allowances are certainly going to be auctioned — at least in the first instance — another 14% or so are going to go towards pushing clean-energy objectives. As Kemp notes, this is

in effect granting valuable, saleable rights to companies promoting new technologies such as carbon sequestration and storage, energy efficiency and renewables, and clean vehicle technologies.

We’re talking a lot of money here: the “clean vehicle technology” line item gets 139 million tons of emissions allowances in 2012 alone, on top of 440 million tons slated to go to “energy efficiency and renewables”. Your guess is as good as mine when it comes to the secondary-market value of emissions rights in 2012, but we’re talking billions of dollars annually here.

I like the way that this clean-technology subsidy rises is essentially tied to the successful passage of Waxman-Markey — that’s a good way of aligning incentives. But isn’t the whole point of a cap-and-trade bill that it provides a way to monetize clean energy even without dedicated subsidies? And if we go down this road, aren’t we going to get even more sillybuggery surrounding the reclassification of various forms of energy as “clean” or “renewable”?

COMMENT

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Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

The reality of Google PowerMeter

Felix Salmon
May 22, 2009 14:21 UTC

Blog_Google_Powermeter.jpg

Kevin Drum is getting a bit ahead of himself, I fear, in his embrace of Google PowerMeter. He reproduces this chart, and says that the

PowerMeter app can be embedded on your iGoogle home page. Open it up and you can see exactly how much power you’re using every time you turn an appliance on or off. Neat.

In reality, however, we’re not remotely there yet. You see all those nice smooth lines and little wiggles in the Google chart? That’s not what you’re going to see when you combine PowerMeter with San Diego Gas & Electric’s smart meters. Instead, you’re going to see something much blockier: it’ll only show you total energy consumption on an hour-by-hour basis. So you’ll know how much energy use there was in the hour between 7am and 8am, say, but you won’t be able to see obvious spikes like the one for the dryer in the chart above.

And what’s more, if you turn on your dryer and then run to iGoogle to see what’s going on, you’ll see no change: the data on iGoogle will be for yesterday, not today.

More generally, the information you get from PowerMeter will be a subset, not a superset, of the information you can get directly from SDG&E. PowerMeter, at least in this case, is no more than an information delivery device: there’s no inside-the-home hardware involved, or anything like that. And if you get the information directly from SDG&E rather than from Google, you’ll be able to see not only how much electricity you’re using but also how much that electricity is costing you.

So the dream is great, and the reality is cool, but let’s not confuse the two.

COMMENT

Well this is a contractual requirement that SDG&E (and all other California investor owned utilities (IOUs)) own & control the data.

Customer data is jealously guarded by the IOU’s in California, you should see the contract language they have.

Normal damages are insufficient to compensate them from damages of customers owning and posting their use profiles, blah, blah, blah.

Posted by sunsetbeachguy | Report as abusive

Smart power meters start to arrive

Felix Salmon
May 20, 2009 21:00 UTC

Google PowerMeter announced its first partnerships today, with energy companies from Kentucky to Canada participating in the program. I spoke to Hal Snyder, who works for one of them, San Diego Gas & Electric, which has recently started installing what it calls “smart meters” in 1.4 million homes in southern California. It’s up to 10,000 now, hopes to get more than 200,000 by the end of the year, and have everybody installed by 2011.

Any of SDG&E’s customers can get their electricity-usage information from the utility’s own website, but now they’ll have the option of getting it straight from Google instead, embedding it on their iGoogle home page, that kind of thing. And the more they see how much energy they’re using, the less they’ll use — a 5%-10% reduction up-front, with more down the road when they start replacing appliances and light bulbs and the like.

None of this comes cheap: SDG&E is spending $500 million on this scheme, or about $350 per installed meter, but reckons it’s worth it in terms of hitting conservation goals, improving system reliability (they don’t need to wait for phone calls any more to know that power’s down in a certain area), and even obviating the need for new sources of power if and when variable pricing is introduced and moves consumption away from peak time and into the night time and evening.

The question is what happens for those of us who don’t have such an enlightened energy utility. Will we pay $350 to Google for a gizmo which does something similar? Since it’s Google.org, the philanthropic arm of the company, will they subsidize it somehow? Or should we just start lobbying our legislators to make smart metering happen nationwide? (I’m unclear on the degree to which such things are part of the stimulus plan.) In any event, the quicker this happens, and the more people that get this information, the better off we’ll all be.

COMMENT

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