Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Is Joe Romm a "Delayer-1000"?

I'm rapidly losing patience with Joe Romm, whose self-righteous arrogance is, if anything, actually harming the cause of addressing global climate change. Today, Romm published two posts on his blog illustrating the shortcomings of his methods and outlook.

The first, Memo to James Hansen: Your opposition to Waxman-Markey is ill-conceived and unhelpful, is the latest in Romm's series of critiques of James Hansen, the world's most prominent authority on climate change. Romm opines that:
"Why oh why do even smart people like NASA’s James Hansen think that there is such a thing as “simple carbon tax”? Have you folks ever looked at the friggin’ tax code?"
Besides denigrating Hansen, Romm apparently considers it obvious that there is only one credible solution to climate change--socialism: "There is only one way. That is a WWII-style and WWII-scale government-led mobilization." Despite this rather ambitious goal, Romm dismisses a carbon tax as "a political dead end." Are you kidding me? A carbon tax is infinitely more politically acceptable to the American electorate than state control of most of the economy (and that was what state-led WWII economic mobilization consisted of.) Furthermore, Hansen is right that the courts are really the best (and probably only) hope for substantial action on carbon reduction. Perhaps Romm is blind, but the Senate is never going to pass a bill that will reduce emissions substantially anytime soon, much less socialize the economy.

On the bright side, however, Romm's inane critiques of Hansen only serve to undermine his credibility. Anyone with sense can tell the difference between a brilliant, world-renowned scientist and an insufferable, politically intolerant and self-righteous blogger.

In another post Romm used Progress Energy's recent announcement that it will delay its new reactor builds by two years to crow about the supposed uselessness of nuclear power to combat climate change:
I’ll cast an even more positive light on the project delay. Maybe it will give Florida regulators or utility executives time to figure out that other options would be superior.
Well, I've got news for you, Joe. Turns out that those executives and regulators are way ahead of you. And you're dead wrong. Your three proposed alternatives: efficiency, biomass, and CSP, are no alternative to the new nuclear units.

Despite the fact that Amory Lovins' sophistry has deluded many into believing that "efficiency" is baseload power, this is nonsense. Efficiency does not generate electricity: it merely uses it more efficiently. When faced with the challenge of decarbonizing their electrical generation over the next few decades, Florida utilities have to address the prospect of how they will provide reliable, around the clock power even under adverse conditions to a growing population in a carbon-constrained world. Efficiency is important and worthwhile, but because it conserves energy rather than produces it, it does not allow FPL and Progress to avoid the sticky question of how they will generate electricity 25 years from now.

Last year the Florida Public Service Commission issued a study examining the feasibility of implementing a Renewable Portfolio Standard in the state. This study is the most complete comparison of the costs and possibilities of renewable and conventional energy I have ever seen. It compares the costs of different forms of generation across a spectrum of scenarios, using the Florida utilities' actual capital cost projections for these technologies. The results are sobering, as they show that renewables, particularly solar and wind, are not going to be cheaper than new nuclear plants in Florida except with large government subsidies. Biomass is another story, as it is projected to be cheaper than nuclear. However, biomass potential is limited by the availability of sustainable biomass feedstock. Furthermore, several form of "biomass" included in the analysis are not carbon-neutral, such as municipal solid waste burning. As nearly half of the 13,750MW of solid biomass feedstock available per year is from devoting existing farmland to energy crops, it should be readily apparent that biomass is not really an easy, "renewable" alternative to new nuclear plants for Florida. There just isn't enough feedstock for biomass to provide the entirety of Florida's baseload generation needs in coming decades.

Finally, the Florida PSC's study clearly shows that concentrating solar power (CSP, or "solar baseload" in Romm's insufferable newspeak) is an absolute loser in Florida. It is projected to cost more than nuclear power, and indeed more than anything, including all other forms of renewable energy. With generous subsidies the study found that CSP might come in at a little over 16 cents/kW-hr, but under pessimistic assumptions it would cost well over 30 cents/kW-hr.

The Navigant study, significantly, was actually made to support the Florida PSC's Renewable Portfolio Standard proposal, which was actually approved a few months ago. The PSC has definitely done its homework, as have Progress and FPL. Anti-nuclear types like Romm like to pretend as if huge utilities are so stupid that they would make multi-billion dollar investments in nuclear plants--investments that will restrict their near term profitability and severely impact their cashflow--without actually investigating alternatives. The fact of the matter is, these new nuclear plants are being built because the utilities see no good intermediate-term alternative. If coal or gas was acceptable, or if renewables were cost-effective, available, and non-intermittent, FPL and Progress would not be pursuing new LWRs. The very same Florida PSC that sent a RPS proposal to the state legislature also approved rate-recovery to build the nuclear plants. Somehow, I doubt that the PSC is confused about the necessity of nuclear power for Florida.

Furthermore, Romm and his certified accountant (and 70s-era coal apologist) associate Craig Severance are playing fast and loose with the nuclear cost estimates. Severance's so-called "analysis" that Romm "published" on his blog is both mendacious and irrelevant to estimating the costs of the new plants in Florida. Firstly, Severance simply chose to ignore the real reason that FPL's and Progress' cost estimates rose so rapidly in 2007-8--that the utilities were prudently and conservatively extending the ongoing increases in construction costs into the 2010s. Severance assumed that costs would continue to escalate beyond these estimates at a similar rate, but due to the global economic downturn and increasing competition in the production of nuclear components such as pressure vessels, construction cost escalation should soon drop precipitously. But the fundamental problem with the Severance "study" is that it uses capital cost assumptions that are in spectacular excess of the way FPL and Progress are actually financing the new builds. Severance assumed a 15% cost of equity, which was in keeping with the 2003 MIT study but is greatly in excess of the 11.85% rate set by the Florida PSC. Over a multi-year period, the difference between 15% and 11.85% interest is enormous. Furthermore, Severance added hugely inflated figures for decommissioning and waste-disposal costs which he essentially fabricated out of whole cloth. Romm's enthusiastic endorsement of this travesty is a testament to both his own pitifully low intellectual standards as well as his desperate desire to avoid owning up to being spectacularly wrong on the nuclear issue.

Romm claims that "The only thing that would decrease risk is not pursuing this nuclear power plant until all of the lower-cost efficiency and renewable options were exhausted." But if Florida pursued this course (which on close inspection isn't actually available), it would be too late. Such a short-sighted approach would leave Florida in the 2020s with a dwindling base of firm generation. Only decisive action now can forestall the likely challenges of the 2020s, and FPL and Progress are taking the most prudent course open to them. Joe Romm is too proud to admit that addressing climate change will probably require some measures that he doesn't care for. That's his right, but in his own way he's as much of a "delayer-1000" as the figures he decries on his blog.