Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Energy Plants: An Open and Closed Case

800px-Boardman_Oregon_coal_plant_pano1

Oregon's Boardman Coal Plant

Our friends over at Coal Power have done a real service, taking a look at energy generation plants set to close over the next few decades. While the U.S. grapples with issues of infrastructure, notably roads and bridges, energy infrastructure is mostly the business of utilities.

Anyway, since this is originating from Coal Power, let’s hear that part first:
Coal-fired generation units across the U.S. are an average age of 37 years old, while the average retirement age since 1999 is 48 years. Coal units are not the only fuel type approaching typical retirement age, with natural gas steam turbine (NGST) units possessing the second-oldest weighted average age.
That’s surprisingly more like nuclear plants than one might expect, though it looks like a fair number of coal plants are being kept operational. Utilities are jittery about proposed Environmental Protection Agency rules that may cause some coal facilities to retire early. I think this could even be called the point of the article.
A variety of factors could impact fossil fuel unit retirements. Although the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR) was vacated by a federal appeals court in August, many coal-fired units have already installed costly emission controls due to the EPA’s looming Mercury and Air Toxic Standards (MATS), which will come into effect in 2015.
Here’s the takeaway on nuclear energy, which I found a bit contentious:
Nuclear units across the United States are nearing the end of 40-year operating licenses, with an average unit age of 32 years. Licensees are able to apply for a renewal of up to 20 years, subject to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC’s) approval. Although the NRC has readily extended licenses for units, a bill introduced in the House of Representatives in September 2012 looks to curb how nuclear owners apply for renewals. The Nuclear Reactor Safety First Act would limit the advance time period in which a licensee could apply for a renewal to within 10 years of the license expiration date.
The bill referenced here, sponsored by Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), died in committee. The description is basically the entire text of the bill, an addendum to the Atomic Energy Act. I’m not sure why Coal Power felt the need to refer to it here – maybe writer Neil Powell just wanted to fill out his nuclear coverage or make the nuclear profile a litter dimmer to fit his thesis.

In any event, NEI keeps track of license extensions: currently 73 reactors have been granted 20 year extensions – 13 have applications in at the NRC – and 17 expect to apply. That’s the fleet – presumably, Markey’s bill would apply only to that final 17. (And to be honest, I’m not sure how the bill would trip up the extension process, if at all.)

So, let’s say nuclear energy is pretty well covered – there’s a few new reactors in progress this decade and likely a few more next decade and onward. In Powell’s favor, he does point out that newer forms of generation are still making baby plants.
Several generation technologies largely developed over the past 10 to 15 years are not at significant risk of potential retirement over the decade. Those include natural gas combined-cycle (CCGT), wind, and solar technologies.
Though still nascent, small nuclear reactors have a lot of potential to flesh out the energy fleet, though the main growth may be in the 2020s. Powell does not mention these, but they are still new and not in service yet. The idea, though, is that the industry is not standing still.

So, electricity generation is not in any great danger of disappearing. It may seem as though the sky is preparing to fall to our coal friends, though I wouldn’t underestimate their ingenuity in keeping the sky aloft.

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