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Updated on July 29, 2010


As this country moves to address the various issues arising from our power generation systems no form of power generation is worth considering unless it is sustainable. Renewable, as a term of art, is overworked and fundamentally deceptive. For example, Massachusetts recently put a hold on already issued approvals to build five so-called renewable biomass electric plants. Originally the Commonwealth had approved seven plants, but an action brought by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a non-profit group formed by and for whistle blowers in public employ, resulted in a change of heart whereby regulators determined that there is a fundamental problem with applying the word renewable to biomass electric plants. Massachusetts is taking a hard look at both the technology of biomass and the claims by eager developers. This case is worth examining more closely as it cuts to the heart of the issue; what is clean energy?

Biomass plants are typically offered as renewable energy because they are fueled with wood waste from lumbering and manufacturing operations. Further, as the arguments goes, trees are renewable energy source because new trees to replace those harvested. And other biomass fuels, such as animal manure, can be better used as fuel than as additional toxins fouling our land and rivers. As for emissions, since pulpy biomass does emit toxins as a biproduct of combustion, the claim by biomass developers is that a biomass plant is carbon neutral. This claims rests on the rather shaky reasoning that the carbon emissions of coal or even natural gas or oil avoided by biomass combustion are far greater than the token amounts of CO2 emitted by a biomass plant itself and therefore these waste burners are neutral in their environmental effects. Further, as the hype goes, the residual ash from wood as fuel in biomass combustion will be spread over agricultural fields as fertilizer, completing the renewable cycle. Really? And at what point do these fields become simply ash dumps due to the vast amounts of ash requiring disposal? This Biomass fad is simply not sustainable.

Howewever, there are some inconvenient facts about biomass power generation that virtually all biomass developers and most approving agencies fail to mention. The first is the new generation of biomass plants, such as the three proposed by Boston based American Renewables, LLC (one in Austin Texas, and two in North Florida) at 100MW each are large enough to require new fuel...freshly cut trees harvested solely to provide fuel for the power plants. In Austin the head of the area's timber union praised the proposed plant as a savior for the forestry industry. So much for plant waste. The simple fact is that large scale biomass development will require tens of millions of tons of pulpy biomass per year.

Worst of all, biomass plants, as proposed recently in many parts of this nation, are designed and equiped in such a way as to make them very adaptable in terms of fuel. They can burn pulp wood waste, animal manure, lumber plant waste, construction debris, even municipal garbage and discarded furniture. When does a renewable power plant become a glorified incinerator? Suddenly the carbon neutrality claimed seems dubious. The developer's rosey claims of environmental benefits finally emerge as the scams they have always been. An unavoidable fact is that virtually every large-scale biomass plant proposed will have a fuel appetite not satisfied by burning only wood waste. And, even when buring only pulpy biomass these plants will result in the wholesale stripping of thousands of acres of forested land. Forests are themselves CO2 sinks. So much for the carbon neutrality claim.

Then there are solar and wind power. These two gleaming technologies are neither new nor particularly sophisticated. Both use natural energy sources; solar heat energy and wind. The mantra is that the fuel for both solar and wind is free. The problem is that the equipment and technology needed to convert these free forms of energy into useable power is heroically expensive. Land based wind power costs roughly $2.5 million per installed megawatt, more than twice what natural gas costs per megawatt and offshore is now over $5 million/MW while solar tops even these numbers. Further, both technologies are excrutiatingly site-specific. Wind is the darling of the green energy mob and commands huge government subsidies to reduce capital costs to developers. Offshore wind, as we now know from the recently announced Power Purchase Agreement between National Grid and Cape Wind Associates, developers of a proposed 130 unit offshore wind farm off the Massachusetts coast can cost as much as three times the conventional power mix. Solar is off the charts for cost in terms of utility scale facilities.

One of the more distinctive features of both wind and solar is that they are not base load power. Backup power will always be required to fill in the gaps when neither has a fuel source because there is too much cloud cover, night has fallen, or the wind is either too strong or not strong enough. Presently, this means at the very least a type of power plant known as a peaker: a small diesel powered facility capable of spooling up to full output ialmost instantly. How can we accept arguments for utility-scale deployment of either wind or solar when their costs are not sustainable in retail terms and when their power is intermittent at best? Touted as green energy both wind and solar refer more accurately to the color of the money they suck out of the economy than to anything in the natural world. While both wind and solar seem to fit the definition of renewable, they are far from sustainable. Denmark is constantly used as an example of a successful national policy resulting in large scal deployment of wind power. Denmark gets 20% of its national electric load from wind but has not shut down one of its old and very dirty coal-fired power plants. Denmark remains among the highest polluters in the world in terms of CO2 emissions from irs power plants.

The very notion of renewable energy is curious. The commonly accepted defintion of renewable energy is power generation using as a fuel source natural or renewable material/energy in a non-polluting technology. Solar uses the sun's light to produce heat and/or electricity while wind power uses naturally occurring wind to drive a turbine/generator set to produce electricty. In both cases there is no mining of fuel, no transporting of fuel hazardous to the environment if released in to the air or water and no emissions of any sort from plant operations. Clearly wind and solar are cleaner than gas, oil or coal power generation but the manufacturing operations that produce their components is a different story and they remain intermittent sources of fantastcally expensive electricty. Is there a form of power generation that is clean, affordable and constant?

Nuclear power in its new iterations offers the best hope of clean and sustainable power generation. The incident at three Mile Island was hyped by an ever hungry media into a forecast of global self-destruction. Chernoble propelled anti nuclear arguments to even greater heights and one Hollywood movie, the China Syndrome, was the death knell for nuclear energy, at least in the United States. But what were the facts in these three blows to the nuclear industry? Three Mile Island experienced a plant malfunction and shut down as it was designed to do without any harm to anything or anyone outside the plant. Chernoble was a single containment vessel plant (as opposed to the U.S. standard double containment), poorly built and manned by a crew some of whom were drunk on duty. It failed, disintegrated and caused substantial harm and injury....because it was designed to fail. China Syndrome used a progession of events which were and remain simply not possible according to the laws of physics and chemistry. But, it was more important to Hollywood to be sensationalist and rich than to be correct and factual. The American nuclear power industry did not just die; it was murdered.

Consider, the American nuclear navy has never had a reactor incident which caused injury, death or the release of nuclear material into either the water or atmosphere. There have been occasional reactor shutdowns, as per design, but never an incident resulting in nuclear release. France generates 80% of its national electric load using nuclear power and has never had an incident of plant failure which caused death or injury or atmospheric catastrophe. Propererly designed, corectly built and carefully operated nuclear plants are safe. Fifty years of their service has proven this to be true. In fact, the safety record is excellent for nuclear power, with the notable exceptions of poorly managed Soviet reactors on land and in its navy. Properly designed plants, maintained and operated correctly simply do not pose a risk to safety and public health. They are, in fact, clean.

While new nuclear power plants, generally 100MW or 1600MW in size take ten years to run through the federal regulatory permit process and cost upwards of $10 billion to build, there is an entirely new generation of nuclear power plants now edging into the real world market. They are baby nukes, modular reactors referred to in the industry as SNRs (small nuclear reactors) or SMRs (small and medium nuclear reactors).

While the size of these new nuclear designs is what catches attention first, it is the operating features that matter the most. First, they are small enough to be transportable. In fact, they are small enough to be transported from factory to site by train or truck. They range in size from 25MW to 125MW and presently there are five or six main contenders for the market. The leading small nuclear developer appears to be an ambitious American start-up. Theirs is also the smallest of the SNRs.

Imagine an entire power plant built on four acres of land with no smokestack, zero emissions. This typr of plant would have a sealed nuclear reactor mounted in a concrete vault entirely below ground with no mechanical controls, lashed to a steam turbine that drives a generator. Its sealed loop eliminates the requirement for using and then wasting hundreds of thousands of gallons of fresh water daily for plant cooling. This little plant can power up to twenty-thousand typical American houses, or a a small town or a large hospital or factory or university. It can be used far from the grid, well beyond the end of the road to power operations in remote areas. It can also be used to provide clean, reliable and cost-effective power for military bases, off the grid and therefore much more securely than the power sources outside the base.

As for safety, the most advanced SMRs are internally self regulating and require no control rods or mechanical control systems. If they are ever ruptured or ripped open the core nuclear material will cool, not melt down or explode. No spread of radio active material will occur.

At the end of each module's useful fuel cycle there will be a softball sized hunk of waste, reusable for other purposes, such as medical applications. This brings up the matter of nuclear waste, but that will have to wait until a subsequent post. Suffice tit o say here that the principle issues in the debate over nuclear waste are political, not technical.

As the development of these small nuclear plants matures, the day comes closer when an old coal fired plant, typically 250MW to 350MW can be replaced by a series of SMRs. The result will be clean, affordable energy - the kind of energy we can sustain. In terms of commercial scale energy generation wind and solar are better suited to drying clothes. Properly designed, manufactured and operated small and medium nuclear power plants are in every sense sustainable. But, will they find approval where it is most needed, among regulators and the public?

There are less expensive ways to generate electricity, if cost is measured only by the monthly bill we all receive. One small nuclear manufacturer has targeted 10 cents per kilowatt ($.10/KW) as their cost of energy at retail, and while this particular company is the apparent front runner in the race to bring SMRs to market, we know that coal in particular generates electricity for less. Natural gas is cheaper now than it was a little over one year ago....cheaper by 50%. Oil still accounts for a substantial portion of the fuel budget for electric generation and is currently at price levels that appear stable. So, how does nuclear compete in terms of cost?

First, there will be more large nuclear plants built in the United States. There are some in the pipleline now, at various stages of the permitting process. The actual, not the Hollywood version, of the safey record for nuclear power plants is interesting. Virtually no resistance or public oppistion is found when a new nuke is proposed for a community which already has one located within its boundaries. Towns seem to like their nukes. They like the jobs and the overall economic benefit the plants provide and they find them safe and good neighbors. James Lovelock, the renowned British ecologist and scientist who crafted the theory of earth as Gaia makes the factual observation in his latest books that the natural environment surrounding nuclear power plants is thriving. Ocassionally problems do occur, but overall the nuclear industry can claim a superb safety record. Government oversight and industry ethics must be policed constantly as the greatest issue facing nuclear energy as far as safety is concerned is not the technology itself, but human nature. Nuclear costs are competitive but more importantly they are stable, sustainable.

Contrast this with not only the visble harm done by other forms of power generation - smokestacks belching toxins into the air, discharged cooling water disrupting river systems and the Orwellian destruction of land and water coal mining causes and we see quickly that none of this is sutainable. That cheap electricity is, in the long run, fanatastically expensive when we factor in its true costs to our nation, our health and our future. One aspect of power generation seldom incorporated in industry and government cost analysis of energy is the disruption and pollution caused by the transportation of fuels nationally and worldwide. Pipelines laced across wilderness, ocean going tankers, coastal fuel barges, mile long coal trains, huge over the road tank trucks...all of these things escape notice on the monthly electric bill, but they all have costs. These might be the air pollution and spills they cause, or the traffic they cause that pounds our roads into dust, or the use of good land for paved staging areas, and tank farms and ribbons of rail. What is the true cost of conventional power generation?

The interval between deliveries of fuel to a nuclear plant is measured in years, not days or weeks. For some small plants the interval is eight - to - ten years. And, there has never been a major incident involving the transporting of nuclear fuel to or waste material from a nuclear plant. Even if the new generation of nuclear plant produces electricity at a somewhat higher cost than what we now pay, its cost will be stable, predictable, and its related costs will be virtually eliminated, freeing vast amounts of capital and material resources for infrastructure rebuilding and a commericial/industrial revival of this once powerful industrial nation. One of the best ways to assure cost effective nuclear power generation is to shorten the approval process and make it less onerous, more sensible financially while still maintaining the highest standards of plant and environmental safety. While middlemen and shadowy foreign power brokers play roulette with our energy supplies, almost certainly raising energy prices dramtically in the near term, domestic nuclear power would quietly chug along satisfying our needs at a sustainable price.

If existing plant sites, sites occupied by coal plants in particular, are used for SMR development, the need for massively expensive grid upgrades will be reduced. New inputs of power from such facilities as utility scale wind farms, because they inject their power into the grid at new locations and usually far from load centers, will cause us to spend billions of dollars for grid upgrades. In Texas the estimated cost of grid upgrades to transmit wind power from west Texas to the load centers of the major cities in east Texas (think Houston) has been pegged by the Texas legislature at roughly $5 billion. A report recently prepared for the New England Governors Association states that a $2 billion grid upgrade is needed to assure reliable transmission of hydropower from Quebec into New England. This is in addition to an estimated $10 billion upgrade needed throughout the six state region just to upgrade the grid to acceptable standards. Our share of this fortune in Massachusetts will be 40% - $4 Billion.

Is spending tens of billions of dollars on grid upgrades to accomodate intermittant so-called green energy and/or to import power from new sources wise or prudent? Re-use of many existing sites where emvironmentally harmful power generation has been in place for decades, converting these sites to clean nuclear seems to this layman the ultimate no-brainer --- this is a sustainable energy strategy.

Copyright 2010 by Peter A. Kenney


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