Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Jon Wellinghoff is Blind

Via Joe Romm, some comments from the Obama Administration's pick for head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Jon Wellinghoff:

“I think [new nuclear expansion] is kind of a theoretical question, because I don’t see anybody building these things, I don’t see anybody having one under construction,” Wellington said.

Building nuclear plants is cost-prohibitive, he said, adding that the last price he saw was more than $7,000 a kilowattmore expensive than solar energy. “Until costs get to some reasonable cost, I don’t think anybody’s going to [talk] that seriously,” he said. “Coal plants are sort of in the same boat, they’re not quite as expensive.”

I guess that Mr. Wellinghoff is blind, because anyone who has actually been paying attention knows that there's gonna be construction starting soon right here in the good ol' USA:
Southern Nuclear has given notice to its main contractors to proceed towards two new reactors at Vogtle. Permissions already in place allow some construction work to begin.
And as Dan Yurman reported here, Progress Energy in Florida and NRG in Texas are moving in the same direction. But this is symptomatic of much more serious problems with Mr. Wellinghoff: from all appearances, he has absolutely no idea what he's talking about.

This quotation gets at the heart of what I mean:

“I think baseload capacity is going to become an anachronism,” he said. “Baseload capacity really used to only mean in an economic dispatch, which you dispatch first, what would be the cheapest thing to do. Well, ultimately wind’s going to be the cheapest thing to do, so you’ll dispatch that first.”He added, “People talk about, ‘Oh, we need baseload.’ It’s like people saying we need more computing power, we need mainframes. We don’t need mainframes, we have distributed computing.”

The technology for renewable energies has come far enough to allow his vision to move forward, he said. For instance, there are systems now available for concentrated solar plants that can provide 15 hours of storage.

“What you have to do, is you have to be able to shape it,” he added. “And if you can shape wind and you can effectively get capacity available for you for all your loads.

“So if you can shape your renewables, you don’t need fossil fuel or nuclear plants to run all the time. And, in fact, most plants running all the time in your system are an impediment because they’re very inflexible. You can’t ramp up and ramp down a nuclear plant. And if you have instead the ability to ramp up and ramp down loads in ways that can shape the entire system, then the old concept of baseload becomes an anachronism.”

Wellinghoff is seriously confused, both in terms of the current status of renewable technology but also in that he's proposing technological frameworks that are currently wishful thinking. I'm not sure what he means by "shaping" wind, but he seems to be proposing making wind's serious inadequacies irrelevant by allowing energy providers to control end-use--an idea currently in vogue but whose popularity I am certain will disintegrate once it starts being implemented widely. The thing is, most (all?) qualified experts dispute the idea that "baseload is an anachronism." Intermittent generators just aren't dispatchable by definition, and once you get past the wishful thinking and do serious analysis, the barriers to making something like wind dispatchable prove much more forbidding than building new nuclear plants.

Here's a pertinent example of some people who don't share Welinghoff's vision: the authors of the DOE study that estimated that the US could generate 30% of its electricity from wind by 2030. As they concluded:
Wind power cannot replace the need for many “capacity resources,” which are generators and dispatchable load that are available to be used when needed to meet peak load. If wind has some capacity value for reliability planning purposes, that should be viewed as a bonus, but not a necessity. Wind is used when it is available, and system reliability planning is then conducted with knowledge of the ELCC of the wind plant. Nevertheless, in some areas of the nation where access to generation and markets that spans wide regions has not developed, the wind integration process could be more challenging.
However, Mr. Wellinghoff's position makes more sense when we consider his background:
Chairman Wellinghoff is an energy law specialist with more than 30 years experience in the field. Before joining FERC, he was in private practice and focused exclusively on client matters related to renewable energy, energy efficiency and distributed generation. While in the private sector, Chairman Wellinghoff represented an array of clients from federal agencies, renewable developers, and large consumers of power to energy efficient product manufacturers and clean energy advocacy organizations.

While in private practice, Chairman Wellinghoff was the primary author of the Nevada Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) Act. The Nevada RPS is one of the two states to receive an “A” rating by the Union of Concerned Scientists. In addition, he worked with clients to develop renewable portfolio standards in six other states. The Chairman is considered an expert on the state renewable portfolio process and has lectured extensively on the subject in numerous forums including the Vermont Law School.

Chairman Wellinghoff’s priorities at FERC include opening wholesale electric markets to renewable resources, providing a platform for participation of demand response and other distributed resources in wholesale electric markets including energy efficiency and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), and promoting greater efficiency in our nation’s energy infrastructure through the institution of advanced technologies and system integration.
So the head of FERC is not merely ignorant (not knowing that the new nuclear projects are breaking ground is totally inexcusable for someone in his position), but he's a technological fantasist who's determined to pick energy winners before they've been tested in the real world. It's rather akin to trying to pick the winning racehorse before it has been born. It makes me glad that FERC isn't powerful enough to actually implement most of this; at this rate, let's hope it stays that way.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

"Solar-Powered City of Tomorrow" Will Probably Be More Nuclear Than Solar

From Time:
An NFL lineman turned visionary developer today is unveiling startlingly ambitious plans for a solar-powered city of tomorrow in southwest Florida's outback, featuring the world's largest photovoltaic solar plant, a truly smart power grid, recharging stations for electric vehicles and a variety of other green innovations. The community of Babcock Ranch is designed to break new frontiers in sustainable development, quite a shift for a state that has never been sustainable and lately hasn't had much development.
Where will the power for this "green" city come from?
Kitson has been promising unprecedented sustainability all along, but today's shocker was the announcement of Florida Power & Light's plan to provide electricity for Babcock Ranch with a 75-megawatt photovoltaic plant nearly twice as big as the current record holder in Germany. Solar power has been slow to catch on in the gas-powered Sunshine State, but FPL hopes to start construction on the 400-acre, $300 million plant by year's end. The utility expects it will provide enough power for Babcock Ranch and beyond.
Furthermore, Time writer Michael Grunwald claims that:
At $4 million per megawatt — FPL estimates the cost to its customers at about 31� per month over the life of the project — it should be more than four times as cost-effective as the nuclear reactors FPL is trying to build near the Florida Keys.
This statement raises the obvious question of why FPL is trying to expand its nuclear capacity if solar photovoltaics are already four times as cost effective. The answer, in fact, is elegantly simple: Grunwald's math is way off. Not only will the solar plant produce power at least twice as costly as that from FPL's new reactors, but thanks to its likely <25% capacity factor and a lack of energy storage, this "solar-powered city of tomorrow" will likely end up consuming more nuclear-generated electricity than solar-generated electricity.

A quick Google search reveals that Grunwald's numbers are simply inaccurate to begin with:
The Babcock Ranch project will cost between $350 million and $400 million, FP&L officials said. Three other solar projects now being built by FP&L will add 31 cents to the average monthly bill of the utility's 4.5 million customers.
Instead of the $4000/kW given by Grunwald, that's $4667-$5333/kW. This is still considerably lower than the estimates that I had seen in studies commissioned by Florida PSC, for instance this one. This study expected ground-mounted single-axis tracking solar PV installations to reach this price point in approximately 2014. Still, even at that point using favorable assumptions electricity from these facilities was projected to cost over $0.20/kW-hr, with government subsidies reducing that price to $0.136-$0.15/kW-hr. Meanwhile, the same study concluded on the basis of equivalent methodology that the new nuclear plants currently being planned in Florida will produce power at a cost of approximately $0.12-$0.13/kW-hr, beginning in 2016. This was assuming the relatively high figure of $7700/kW capital cost for the nuclear plants. The Navigant study does, however, make it absolutely clear why the Florida PSC has adopted the particular set of policies it has by endorsing aggressive pursuit of both nuclear power and some renewables. However, in ALL scenarios it studies nuclear power is cheaper than all forms of solar electricity after 2016, even with government subsidies. Far from being "more than four times as cost-effective as the nuclear reactors FPL is trying to build near the Florida Keys," this plant will ultimately be considerably more expensive.

Furthermore, it will not actually power Babcock Ranch most of the time. As reported by the Miami Herald:
Though researchers are working to create storage capability for sunlight-generated power, solar electricity at present only is available during daytime hours. The concept is FPL's 75-megawatt solar generator will produce more power for the state's electric while the sun shines than the city will use in 24 hours.

''We're going to generate more renewable energy than the city consumes,'' said Kitson spokeswoman Lisa Hall. ``It will be a leader in solar. It's a great opportunity to overcome that storage thing. The carbon footprint is going to be net zero.''

Basically, the solar plant will produce four times as much electricity as is used by the development one-quarter of the time. The majority of the electricity generated by the plant will go out into the grid and be used throughout Florida. At night and when the sun isn't shining brightly enough to produce much power, the city will receive its electricity from the rest of FPL's generation base... including the reactors at Turkey Point. Currently about 19% of FPL's electricity in Florida is generated at Turkey Point and St. Lucie, but with the ongoing uprates and the two new units at Turkey Point this should increase to 30%+. Furthermore, as solar insolation varies considerably between summer and winter, most of the electricity from the solar plant will be produced in the summer. This means that the PV arrays will produce far more electricity than the city will use in the daytime in June, and far less than it needs in the winter and, of course, none whatsoever at night. So it is unavoidable that most of the energy consumed by Babcock Ranch will come from elsewhere on FPL's grid, and given the probable makeup of their generation mix one decade from now, it will use more electricity generated by nuclear reactors than by its own solar plant.

Isn't that just deliciously ironic?