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Atomic energy technology, politics, and perceptions from a nuclear energy insider who served as a US nuclear submarine engineer officer

Nucleating our carbon-managed future

Fri, 04/23/2021 - 02:00

If you’ve studied chemistry, you’ll know that the nucleation point describes the start of a change in physical state, such as from a solid to a liquid, or liquid to gas. Water starting to crystallize into ice nucleates where the first H2O molecules reorganize as a solid.

We’re seeing a similar transformation of human society—forced by the heat of planetary warming, costly extreme weather and the recognition that more catastrophic shifts are underway—compelling nations, provinces, states, cities and even remote villages to re-think their use of energy to reduce emissions.

This Earth Day, the level of concern and the degree of activity being directed towards slowing the additions of heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere has never been greater.  This would be encouraging except that decades of study, thousands of scientific reports and billions invested has yielded little progress. Prior to the economic slow-down caused by Covid-19, even the rate of growth of emissions had not been meaningfully reduced. Now, with economies starting to recover, global emissions are rising again, when what is needed is for these emissions to be dramatically declining.

We only have nine years left to achieve the goal of a 50% decrease in the level of global emissions by 2030, as set out by the IPCC back in 2018 as what is needed to keep global temperature rise to 1.5°C (which though the aspirational goal, will still mean the loss of 90% of all coral reefs). Whether or not you agree that this is the right goal for us to achieve, we’ve still failed to make even remotely appropriate progress. This despite a growing parade of nations, states, and entities announcing emissions reduction goals. What’s the basis for this failure? 

Lack of agreement on effective solutions. The Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) that became widespread has not worked. Instead, the RPS let us take our eye off the goal of emissions reductions to focus on increasing the penetration of renewables. Solar and wind, as intermittent energy sources, require backup generation for the majority of their nameplate capacity. Somehow, use of natural gas was back-doored, allowing gas generation to expand like a weed beneath the thin veneer of renewables, despite its huge emissions and ecologic footprint. What little emissions decline we got, was due to the offsetting decline in the emissions from even dirtier coal plants retired by increasingly cheap gas.

The world, to do better, needs an effective solution—not a politically popular one. Fortunately, legislatures in a few states are beginning to replace the RPS with the Clean Energy Standard (CES). These policies call for requiring set amounts of emissions reductions by certain dates—not prioritizing a particular technology solution. This is very promising for achieving real reductions and provides an opportunity for nuclear power to be utilized. Indeed, many utilities already knew they could not achieve ambitious reduction goals without nuclear, and now some utilities are even beginning to admit publicly that they will need nuclear in order to deliver on their emission reduction commitments.

Unfortunately, over the last decade, nuclear power, the only true source of carbon-free firm generation that is independent of weather or geography, has suffered declines. Nuclear energy has been excluded from the RPS standards passed in 30 states, hobbling the profitability of established businesses. Furthermore, nuclear’s wealth of grid reliability benefits, including long-term fuel availiability and storage, extreme weather resilience and transmission line voltage regulation, have all been devalued through a complex set of market functions within the deregulated energy markets, aimed apparently at serving the political goals of those in charge.

How so? Take the case of New York State.  In upstate New York where Republican voters dominate, Governor Cuomo passed Zero-Emissions Credit (ZEC) climate legislation to protect the region’s three nuclear power plants, which were quite popular with the voters there. The legislation reflects the evironmental value of the nuclear plants’ reduced carbon emissions and pays the plants “zero emission credits” in a fashion that protects the nuclear generation from the vagarities of low gas prices. 

Yet, Governor Cuomo, shrewdly excluded Indian Point, in downstate New York, where his political support consists largely of Democrats with well-conditioned antipathy for nuclear. Coincidentally, it also happened to be where natural gas lobbyists were desperately seeking to increase their market share and managed to get Cuomo to approve permits to build three new gas plants. In depriving Indian Point of the benefit of the Zero-Emission Credits, Cuomo was able to force this nuclear power plant to close—despite the passage of New York’s CES.  

The irony is that upstate Republicans, with much less articulated concern about climate, have almost 90% clean energy powering their grid, thanks to Canadian hydro and three nuclear power plants that Cuomo worked hard to preserve. Downstate Democrats, ostensibly more motivated to see Cuomo address climate, will see 94% dirty energy in a few weeks, once Indian Point’s last reactor closes on April 30th, eliminating all but a trickle of hydro, since there is scarse open space for wind or solar and lots of NIMBY. (See NYISO’s Power Trends Report, p. 29 for these charts.) Cuomo, in a masterful stroke, did good for the gas industry, pleased the Riverkeepers worried about fish fry, and will still earn political popularity points despite eliminating the single largest source of clean energy for Manhattan, adding to the region’s already poor air quality, and completing its dependence on fracked gas.

The situation in California, with the forced closures of its two nuclear power plants—San Onofre in 2012 and Diablo Canyon in 2024 and 2025—being the result of direct action by a politically-shrewd Governor—is frighteningly similar in how it impacts state emissions for the worse. Which is why there is a growing chorus of voices appealing to President Biden to protect the nation’s nuclear fleet—which provides 55% of all of the U.S.’s clean energy—from being the political football that it is wherever environmentalists and/or fossil fuel lobbyists have sway. 

Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, sent a letter to President Biden earlier this week specifically requesting action to protect America’s nuclear power, stating that “preventing the closure of existing nuclear power plants is critical to achieving emissions reduction goals while ensuring a reliable grid.” 

Similarly, the Climate Coalition, a non-profit group working to build a coalition of both nuclear and renewables supporters focused on emissions reductions, launched a campaign called Protect Nuclear Now which issued an appeal to Jennifer Granholm, the new Secretary of Energy, urging the use by President Biden of his emergency declaration power to prevent the premature closure of at-risk nuclear power plants. Biden could intervene to save Indian Point, the most imminently at-risk plant, and preserve these high-value clean energy assets so that Congress has time to resolve the problems of discriminatory state energy policies, lack of carbon pricing, and political patronage which together prevent nuclear from being properly valued and put at risk so competitors can benefit at the cost of rate payers.

President Biden hasn’t responded to these appeals on behalf of the nation’s existing fleet but he has shown that he is guided by science and seeks real solutions. Biden’s bold support of innovations in advanced nuclear generation has been widely hailed by climate scientists and energy experts. After all, the pressurized water reactor may be one of the few 1970s-era technologies that is still in active use today but there is a growing cadre of entrepreneurs and engineers who have been working hard to bring nuclear energy into the 21st century—making it safer, more efficient, more scalable, more flexible and better suited for tomorrow’s distributed clean energy grids. Biden has expressed his support for pursuing advanced nuclear innovation and development.

This is a really good thing. As we celebrate Earth Day in the midst of global crisis of carbon emissions, there are growing signs that nuclear’s time is finally coming. Congress has already laid the foundation, quietly passing the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Capabilities Act (NEICA) and the Nuclear Energy Innovation & Modernization Act (NEIMA) two pieces of legislation vital to modernizing nuclear power in the 21st century. The Energy Act of 2020 provides further support for US investments in advanced nuclear technologies. Clearly, the president and the Congress understand what too many environmentalists and investors do not: that deploying advanced nuclear will be critical to our ability to transition fully away from fossil fuels within the remaining carbon budge, while preserving grid reliability.

Seeing advanced nuclear roll out in a time frame that can make a difference for climate is a goal near and dear to Rod and me. We’ve been working since 2018 to develop an investment vehicle that can invest in the ventures developing advanced nuclear reactors, grid optimization and a wide range of compatible decarbonization technologies. Climate change may be the most serious environmental threat ever faced by humanity but it is also one of the biggest, foreseeable economic opportunities.  If we must transition away from fossil fuels, investing in the best alternative sources of clean generation just makes good sense.

With a few key milestones behind us—namely the certification of the NuScale modular design by the NRC and the submission of the first non-light water design for combined license by Oklo—those who follow trends can see that nuclear’s prospects are glowingly green. We are excited to place some early investments, follow the progress and participate in the exciting growth of this nascent sector.

Why exciting? It is the scale of the transition that needs to happen.  If we just needed to supplant the fossil fuel generation that is used around the world, we would be shifting some 70% of total grid generation to a few source. That’s a huge market in itself but that’s not all we need to do. Decarbonizing the electric grid is just the first step. We also need to decarbonize transportation, industry and the built environment. This will involve the electrification of nearly all of the energy uses involved which shifts energy demand from oil, coal and gas over to electric grids—estimated to easily double or triple the amount of grid power needed today. Now combine that incremental grid growoth with increased grid demand for video conferencing—think how much Zooming you’ve done this year—online shopping, tele-medicine, online banking, Netflix, videogames, online education and cryptocurriencies, and you can really begin to imagine that our grids are going to have to bear the load of being the primary power source in the 21st century—and this doesn’t jive with any vision for a all-renewables solution.

But there is even more. We have yet to come to terms with the energy demand of decarbonization. If we want to restore our climate, we need to reduce the amount of free CO2 by capturing, processing or sequestering CO2 out of the atmosphere (CCUS). Experts estimate that we need an industry of the size as the fossil fuel industry devoted entirely to reversing the direction of CO2. This requires yet another massive increment of clean energy to power. But, without investing in CCUS, all of our efforts to transition to clean energy will only stop things from getting worse. It will not stop the baked in heating of our atmosphere, which scientists predict will continue to cause forced heating of the planet for decades to come, making things much worse than they even are now.

Can solar and wind power keep up? At present, despite seeing their costs decline due to Chinese mass production, solar and wind installation are not even keeping up with global energy growth. It is hard to imagine that they could ever succeed in replacing a large capacity coal or gas power plants entirely—but nuclear has a long history of doing just that—and cleaning up polluted American skies in the process. Clearly, if we are to replace all fossil fuel power and double or triple the size of our grids to fully decarbonize and draw down carbon, all clean energy sources—solar, wind, nuclear, hydro, geothermal, wave and all future technologies such as fusion—will be needed. The faster these players learn to work together, the more efficient and cost-effective our transition will be.

It can be disheartening to hear renewable advocates arguing that nuclear power is not needed, because it is not “dispatchable” will result in excess power when renewables are generating. When taken in light of the array of ventures working to develop CCUS solutions, all of which need reliable sources of clean energy, this argument makes no sense. In fact, we need an entire industry’s worth of decarbonization to get busy, so if and when the grid doesn’t require power from nuclear, advanced plants operators will be able to route their power to revenue-generating climate services such as hydrogen or synthetic fuel production, water desalination or other industrial heat applications. Utilities are already beginning to test these applications and explore the prospect of alternative revenue streams.

Clearly, solving climate will cause enormous shifts in how we generate and use energy. There will be major winners and losers as new clean technologies are deployed and old technologies are wound down.  Energy is so central to our modern-day existence and the elimination of emission is so critical to our long-term survival, it is no wonder these are extraordinarily controversial and high-stakes issues. The only certainty is that this transition must happen. No one can predict the future but those who know and appreciate the power of nuclear technology have an opportunity to invest in the innovations happening today, ahead of those who choose to ignore nuclear power.

Back about a decade ago, I went through the exercise—as a partner in an investment management firm—of trying to figure out where our clean energy would come from. As easy as it was to know what stocks to divest, as an indexing investment manager, the hard part was seeing what would replace fossil fuels.  So I took a hard look at our overall energy sector to see where our clean energy came from. The answer surprised me: about 65%  of our clean energy a decade ago was nuclear power.

I’ve now spent much of the last decade exploring nuclear energy and the nuclear industry as an investor. This appears to be where my investment process diverged from that of many other investors. Others bought the hype about solar and wind: I preferred to look realistically at the data. But delving into the nuclear industry has been both a fascinating and a dismaying process. There is a strong, passionate and articulate pronuclear community but a very weakened and cowed industry that is largely unable to stand up for itself.

This has contributed to nuclear’s bumpy ride. Despite generating about 20% of U.S. electricity and 55% of clean energy, nuclear remains subect to ongoing campaigns to vilify it.  One must look beyond the propaganda coming from both fossil and renewable competitors know seek the truth. We’ve seen what nuclear has done in the past: but we don’t know where it is going. Still, extrapolating from the available technology and manufacturing learning curves, if advanced nuclear can benefit from mass-production, digitization, AI, automation, advanced materials and other well-understood 20th century technologies, from an energy density and material-efficiency basis, it is hard to see any other energy technology performing better than nuclear for human society over the long term.

In 2018, when I finally reached out to Rod about my interest in investing in advanced nuclear, we agreed that it seemed like the right time. It has taken time to figure out how best to structure a fund but, in the interim, support for both addressing climate and including advanced nuclear has only grown stronger. Thanks to the introduction in 2020 of the AngelList Rolling Fund, Rod and I now have our answer:  Nucleation Capital, a subscription-based venture fund that uses technology to enable individual investors to participate at lower, more affordable capital levels. We plan to invest broadly, to participate in the overall growth of the sector, and we plan to go deep with those particular ventures that are crushing their development milestones. If this interests you and you’d like to learn more, please let us know through the form on our website and we will be happy to follow up with you.

With a new, science-respecting president in the White House and with growing global support for effective climate action, evidence is emerging that we are seeing the nucleation of our carbon-managed economy. Under Biden, America has its best and possibly last chance to coordinate a global response to the climate crisis. Advanced nuclear entrepreneurs now have an opportunity to show the world how the next generation of nuclear power can not only end our reliance on fossil energy but also begin to restore our climate without causing massive ecosystem impacts. Against this backdrop, investing in these technological innovations and providing some of the capital that is needed to get to commercialization, even with all of the uncertainty and risks that these ventures face, seems like not just the right thing to do but a darn good investment in the future as well.

Five Myths about the Lone Star Blackout

Wed, 03/10/2021 - 11:11

By Meredith Angwin

Meredith Angwin, Author and Energy Analyst

When we hear something terrible has happened to someone we know, we are concerned for them. We are worried.  We want to help. 

And let’s face it, we are also concerned that something like that might happen to US.  

Our self-concern often takes the form of a list: “All the reasons this won’t happen to me.” 

  • I don’t smoke.  
  • I’m not overweight.  
  • I have a very new car with safety sensors.

While this self-talk is not a huge deal, the same thing becomes a huge deal when people begin explaining that the Texas blackout was because…well, Texas is Unique.  Something like that would never happen to us!   And then…. here comes the list.

Five Ways Texas is Supposedly Unique

The usual list of “why it won’t happen here” is because Texas is Unique, and here are the ways it is unique and how it brought about it’s own problems.  
The thesis is simple: Texas is not a warning to us. Texas can merely serve as a bad example of bad choices. 

(This section is abstracted from an assortment of pundits in other states.)

These are supposedly the problems unique to Texas.

  1. Texas isn’t attached strongly to other grids, so the neighbors couldn’t help it.
  2. Texas didn’t want to be ruled by FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission), so it had all sorts of problems that obeying FERC would have solved.
  3. Texas doesn’t have a capacity market: such a market would have saved it from blackouts
  4. Texas didn’t bother to winterize anything on its grid.
  5. Texas built its market around total freedom for prices to rise.  Other markets are more orderly.

As in everything, there is SOME truth in many of these statements, but overall….sorry.  I wish Texas was unique.  The fundamental problem is the way RTOs (Regional Transmission Organizations) are designed and managed.  Two-thirds of the country is in an RTO area.  The way things happened in Texas can be the way they happen…in any place that has restructured its electricity markets.

Five Ways Texas is Just Like the Rest of the RTOS

Let’s go through these myths, one by one

1) Texas goes it alone.  Indeed, the ERCOT (Electricity Reliability Council of Texas) area of Texas did choose not to be strongly connected to neighboring grids.  However, connection to neighboring grids would not have helped. As I have pointed out in my book, the neighbors are having the same weather you are having.  In the case of Texas, several nearby states were also having rollling blackouts due to cold weather.  None was as extreme as Texas (where the whole grid almost collapsed) but none would have “shed load” to their own people to ship help to Texas, even if they were completely connected.

2) No FERC oversight. Nobody ever tells me what FERC ruling would have solved Texas’s problems.  FERC does not require large reserve margins. FERC does not care whether plants have fuel stored on site.  FERC does not require winterization.  I am willing to be corrected on this, but if someone would send me a link to  me the FERC order or FERC ruling that would have saved the Texas grid, that would be great.  I also think it would be a miracle, since the order or ruling does not exist.

3) Capacity market!  Capacity market!  ISO-NE (Independent System Operator – New England) has a capacity market, the total size of which is annually almost as large as the realtime energy market. On page 100 of Shorting the Grid, I show an ISO-NE chart which shows that the energy market in 2018 was 6 billion dollars, and the capacity market was 3.6 billion. Yes, we have a capacity market in New England. 

And quite a few chapters in Shorting the Grid are stories of watching ISO-NE try to get plants to live up to their capacity obligations in bad weather.  The Winter Reliability chapter, the Jump Ball chapters, the chapter on “harder than it has to be—planning for winter.”  

A capacity market would not have helped Texas.

4) Winterize the grid.  This was a failure of Texas planning. Sort of.  I mean, if they had spent some money on winterization, people would not have died, the grid would have been in much better shape without multi-day power outages, and so forth.  I think they should have winterized the grid.

However, this is not a situation unique to Texas. Right here in New England, with our own RTO system, we have lots of drama on the grid in winter.  We can look backwards (bridges being raised at rush hour to let oil tankers through) or forward (to many ISO-NE scenarios that include rolling blackouts in the winter of 2025-26. 

In short, everyone should winterize their grids.  But each grid will encounter winter conditions that are extreme compared to the usual winters.  For that, what you need is a robust grid with (for example) some nuclear plants with fuel stored on site, so the problems of winter do not become grid-wide catastrophes.  Just-in-time renewables plus Just-in-Time natural gas is a recipe for the kind of disaster Texas had, and the kind that is embedded in many of ISO-NE’s future scenarios. (As well as California’s oft-repeated summer experiences of rollling blackouts). Texas is not unique

5) Total freedom on the Texas market. Okay, I am not an economist.  I think that one advantage of energy-only markets is that the markets basically pay for what the customers pay for (kWh) without the complex MOPR, CASPR, Pay for Performance rules that capacity markets grow. That said, once you have an RTO system, putting caps on how much customers have to pay (California did that in 2001) or not putting much of a cap on what customers have to pay ($9 per kWh in Texas) leads to the same results.

The RTO leads to high prices and rolling blackouts.

As Professor William Hogan of Harvard, one of the architects of the Texas system, said in a recent interview with the Harvard Crimson, the state’s electricity market had “worked as designed.” 

Others were upset that rolling blackouts still happened when the auction price was below $9 per kWh.  I am not an economist, it is clear to me that market caps or not, RTOs lead to expensive, fragile grids. It’s not about those crazy people in the Lone State.  It’s about the RTO structure.

We defend ourselves

We defend ourselves from the fear that harm can come to us by describing all the ways that we are different from the people (or states) to whom harm has come.  This is very human, but not always very useful.

To protect ourselves from future harm, we would be better off looking at how we are similar to people (or states) to whom harm has come, and trying to understand what brought the harm, whether it was a similarity or a difference with our own way of doing things.

Texas didn’t have blackouts because it was unique.  It had blackouts because its grid was built on the RTO system.  The sooner people understand that fact, the sooner we can do something about the growing fragility of our grids.

Meredith Angwin has invested much of the past ten years developing expertise in grid oversight and governance. For four years, she served on the Coordinating Committee for the Consumer Liaison Group associated with ISO-NE, her local grid operator. She teaches courses and presents workshops on the electric grid.

She is the author of Shorting the Grid: The Hidden Fragility of Our Electric Grid.