Friday, August 07, 2009

The Inner Limits of Debate: STP and Its Critics

STP Environmentalist groups do a lot of good work, so we’re happy to help them raise money, if being against nuclear energy helps them do that, but we would suggest that such groups freshen up their messages a bit. Or maybe take the financial hit and allow that maybe nuclear energy isn’t all that ghastly. But one or the other, please.


So here’s the deal.

CPS Energy wants to add units to the South Texas Project, which it co-owns with NRG Energy and Austin Energy:

The recommendation to the CPS Energy Board of Trustees comes after three years of detailed study of various energy options.  It also aligns with the Strategic Energy Plan, CPS Energy’s four-objective roadmap for satisfying future energy requirements.

In CPS’s view, electricity demand will outstrip supply in its area of Texas (including San Antonio) soon enough, and CPS has already invested heavily in solar, wind and hydro power. So now, it’s time for more nuclear energy.

We like the idea (big surprise), but there could certainly be arguments to make against it:

“We are targeting no more than 5 percent bill increases every other year or roughly half that amount annually,” [Interim General Manager Steve Bartley] said.  “We’re well aware of the current economic downtown, so we’re trying our best to make this project affordable for our customers.  Even if we decide not to participate in STP expansion, we will still need customer bill increases to meet the demands of growth on our system.”  

We suspect CPS could charge less without the nuclear units, so a viable argument may be that Texans can’t afford the rate hike. One could also say that CPS’ do-or-die approach to this project is unproductive energy brinksmanship. And that’s just off the top of our heads. We don’t necessarily believe any of it, but they’re valid points of contention.


So we now bring you Energia Mia, a group opposed to any such expansion. South Texas Project has been so- so- well, to be honest, it’s been a safe, reliable neighbor for 20 years. But you have to start somewhere:

CPS has said that 5-8% rate hikes would be needed every two years for the next ten years to pay for more nuclear power. Electric rates could increase nearly 50% as a result.

Ah, there’s our argument. That 50% figure at the end of 10 years seems to come out of thin air and even 25% seems high. But STP let itself in for this one.

"CPS wants to use old, outdated technology. Nuclear power is a thing of the past, a dinosaur, and we want San Antonio to instead look toward new technologies and today's energy solutions," said Mariana Ornelas, an active member of AGUA, Aquifer Guardians of Urban Areas.

By all means, throw mature (but we should note, continually developing) technology overboard. Newer and shinier objects await.

“Exposure to radiation can lead to cancer and genetic damage, and nuclear reactors create radioactive waste for which there is no safe storage solution," said community leader and former city council member Patti Radle.

Safe storage is kind of a non-starter – at least for now, used fuel doesn’t leave the plant – but it’s a debate worth having – the rest not so much.

"CPS will not have any incentive to pursue efficiency if nuclear power is the goal," said David Wells, with the Alamo Group of the Sierra Club. "Vast financial resources would go into nuclear power, and then instead of conserving, CPS would be trying to find buyers for the excess power generated."

What? They’d make money to share with ratepayers and stock holders? The horror of it. This one doesn’t make sense. CPS can presumably pursue nuclear energy and energy efficiency – and solar – and wind – and – you get the idea.

Update (August 12): see the comments. The Sierra Club’s David Wells writes that he wasn’t correctly quoted in the original article and provides his full quote, which belies our “doesn’t make sense” jibe. Our apologies to Mr. Wells if we only intensified his distress. Newspapers can be awful manglers of quotes.


Now, we should note that nuclear energy is pretty small beans in terms of advocacy intensity. Most arguments pro and con stay at least within hailing distance of the same fact set and the amount of out and out lying about it is vanishingly small. (See the current health care debate for arguments that are, um, counterfactual and prone to emotional overkill.) That said, we could use a hardier debate – STP is winning this one in a walk.

The South Texas Project. “STP has the lowest production cost reported by nuclear power plants nationwide, at 1.356 cents per kilowatt-hour in 2006. STPS’s combined operating, maintenance and fuel expenses were the lowest among plants that report those costs to federal regulators.” And that’s lower than just about any plant of any kind – running costs of nuclear units is what makes them appealing despite their admittedly breathtaking construction costs – hey, Energia Mia should use that one!

We’re only discussing CPS here, but presumably NRG and Austin will weigh in here too. We’ll poke around and see what we see.


Anonymous said...

South Texas drought may be the big downer for nuclear anyway. Having to go offline because of triple-digit temperatures and a dwindling water supply hits that reliability argument nuclear proponents like to toss out there. Can't run a APWBR without water.

Anonymous said...

If you define nuclear as a safe neighbor, please remember to take into account the financial and other costs of the entire process from uranium extraction to long term storage.

Can you tell me if that entire cycle is more polluting to humans and the environment than the production cycle of solar cells, geo-thermal energy, and wind turbines combined?

CPS says they use and heavily invest in solar, wind and efficiency, but the numbers do not reflect such adjectives as "heavily". It is difficult to trust an agency that has been dishonest for likely more than a generation and does not adhere to TCEQ's "slaps on the wrist".


Anonymous said...

"CPS will not have any incentive to pursue efficiency if nuclear power is the goal," said David Wells, with the Alamo Group of the Sierra Club. "Vast financial resources would go into nuclear power,
The following phrase attributed to me, was never part of my statement.
(and then instead of conserving, CPS would be trying to find buyers for the excess power enerated.")

Here's what I actually said:

"The South Texas Nuclear Project expansion will mean no sustainable alternatives for San Antonio. There will be no mone or incentive left for Mission Verde, for weatherization of homes, cogeneration or other efficiency measures, or for renewables like solar and geothermal, as CPS seeks to fabricate a need for the nuclear monster it wants to be the farm on. The business community as well as residents will suffer from this poorly thought out, short-sighted CPS decision to go ahead with nuclear expansion.
We hope the Council will bring a saner mind to thsi debate. I urge you to speak out at the district meetings that are being held and to call your council person, asking them to say no to new nuclear."

Dave Wells
Sierra Club member, Alamo Group of the Lone Star Chapter

DocForesight said...

kat: Do you include the cost of mining the raw materials to construct the 300 foot-tall wind turbines, the concrete for the pads and footings, the rare metals that compose the turbines and the natural gas peaker units that must be constructed to provide back-up power when the solar and wind generators don't produce due to lack of wind and sun?

As someone in the solar industry, the energy storage problem we face during off-hours is significant and expensive. Lead-acid batteries present a multitude of problems and newer Lithium-Iron-Phosphate batteries are cost-prohibitive.

Plus, the land-use footprint of wind and solar are orders of magnitude larger than the equivalent output from a nuclear plant. Spent nuclear fuel (SNF) is stored on-site, on land dedicated to that purpose, where there has yet to be a problem - either to ground-water or proliferation threat - in over 40 years.

Go to (Aug 3. 2009 post)for an excellent comparison of the land-use between comparable outputs from nuclear, solar and wind generators. A picture is worth a thousand words!

perdajz said...

To anonymous:

The reliability argument that like to toss around is a simple one based on annual capacity factor. You are cherry picking one bad day and extrapolating to the wrong conclusion. Capacity factors for the nuclear power industry in the U.S. as a whole are well above 90%. Individual plants can sometimes have capacity factors nearing 100% if they have a good run in a given year. You should check out Palo Verde's performance. Other generating sources don't even come close to this kind of performance.

kat: externe study. In euros/kw-hr terms, the overall effects of the nuclear fuel cycle are comparable to that of solar or wind, and of course much less than that of burning coal or natural gas. I happen to think that this study was actually biased against nuclear power, by exaggerating the effects of severe accidents or radionuclide releases, but no matter.

Mr. Wells has inadvertently made a case for nuclear power. Once the regulatory playing field is even, there will of course be no reason to consider fossil fuels, or diffuse sources like wind or solar, to produce electricity. He is indirectly admitting that other sources can't compete with nuclear power. Of course, Mr. Wells and his organization will never actually be responsible for producing megawatts on demand, so it's easy for them to talk. He just feels some divine right to tell others how to do so.

One thing I always find amusing is when anyone says that nuclear power is a "dinosaur". It is the only true energy innovation in the last hundred years, and its potential has not even been fully explored or bounded. The idea of extracting power from the wind or solar insolation has been around many centuries. The photovoltaic effect was discovered long before the discovery of fission. Modern PV technology came into being at about the same time the light water reactor did, yet the LWR far and away outproduces PV. I don't need to say much about fossil fuels - a crude and nefarious way to generate power, by comparison to burning uranium.

Anonymous said...

The reason other energy sources won't be funded if nuclear is chosen is because of its huge cost, not because it competes the pants off the others. If our city spends $5.2 billion on one energy source, there will be no money left over. It is such a huge monster of a megaproject, it will suck dry all the money that ratepayers contribute. Even Jerry Taylor of the conservative Cato Institute think tank says nuclear is a bloated, subsidy-dependent anachronism.
It's time to stop thinking the old way: expensive mega-projects that run 24/7 at 90%. Yes, we need 24/7 electricity, but it does not have to come from one source, or one place, or come all at the same time. You don't need 90% of an energy source if it's excess.
If you look at the American Wind Energy Association site you will find a comparison of land used by nuclear to wind that shows how little land wind takes up. More importantly, it isn't land lost forever due to radiation. This land can be reused, unlike land that has been contaminated with radionuclides.
Finally, there is waste from almost every source, but much less from renewables and almost none from geothermal, a baseload source. Comparing nuclear pollution to wind and solar is specious.

another anon said...

I almost didn't post this because I think you are, in general, alot closer to the truth than most of the other commenters, but in the interest of fairness, lets note this: First you quote this

"CPS has said that 5-8% rate hikes would be needed every two years for the next ten years to pay for more nuclear power. Electric rates could increase nearly 50% as a result.

then you say this "Ah, there’s our argument. That 50% figure at the end of 10 years seems to come out of thin air ..."

Well if there's an eight percent bump every other year for ten years, calculate (1.08)^5 = 1.47 or essentially a 50% increase. Or take the low end (1.05)^5 = 1.28. Sounds like 25 to 50% over ten years...

Anonymous said...

The real "dinosaurs" out there are things like wind and solar energy, not nuclear. Nuclear has been in use on a commercial scale in this country going back to the late 1960s, or about 40 years. Wind energy goes back to the Middle Ages, so maybe 500-600 years old. Burning wood and other biomass traces it's origins back to prehistoric times, maybe a couple of million years. Solar? Even older. Our ancestors were making use of passive solar energy when they were scurrying around in trees. So, I find it amusing when the anti-nooks start calling nuclear a "dinosaur" when in fact their own dinosaurs are much, much more ancient technologies (even you can even call them that).

D. Kosloff said...

There is no land lost forever to radiation.

another anonymous said...

"Dinosaur" - the epithet directed towards nuke units generally is referring to the huge lumbering beast aspect, not so much the vintage of the technology. Tho that aspect does creep in when I hear statements like "well look what happened with computers when we replaced the mainframes with little PCs and Macs..." Yes, there are people out there who use this sophomoric "logic" in defense of their notions as to what the electric power grid should look like. All in all, the people I've seen espousing this view are electricity users, not anyone whose job it is to provide the juice to the users. What these people lack is an understanding of scale, what "order of magnitude" means, and what it takes to deliver 8 million megawatt-hours per year.

Brian Mays said...

And yet, here this blog is hosted on the vast array of servers owned by Google. We haven't replaced mainframes with "little PCs and Macs"; we've replaced mainframes with even larger mega-data centers.

Anyone who compares power generation to computers in that way displays his ignorance of both power generation and modern computer technology.

Anonymous said...

""Dinosaur" - the epithet directed towards nuke units generally is referring to the huge lumbering beast aspect, not so much the vintage of the technology."

Well, if size is the qualifier for the "dinosaur" epithet, and nuclear fits the bill on that count, then the ultimate mega-dinosaur would have to be wind, followed by perhaps solar. A wind farm equivalent in nameplate capacity (much less actual output) to a nuclear unit would by comparison make the nuclear unit look like a pygmy in terms of size. We're talking about hundreds of square miles of territory covered by ugly monstrosities, compared to a few tens of acres covered by a nuclear plant. There has been talk of covering tens or maybe hundreds of square miles of the Mojave Desert with solar panels and most people just accept that. Can you imagine the outrage if someone proposed even one nuclear unit covering a fraction of a square mile for the Mojave Desert?

Sems to me, whether you're talking about size or vintage, the windies and sunnies are the true "dinosuars", not the nukes.