Skip to main content

The Value of Energy Diversity, Nuclear Energy Division

On the one hand, people jabber about energy diversity – simply, the practice of not betting the megawatts on one energy source – but if the price is right, there is a rush for, say, natural gas. Now, that’s still within the context, in this country, of a pretty broad energy mix. And natural gas isn’t exactly a villain, as utilities have embraced it as a means of reducing carbon emissions and shuttering coal plants.

But what about France? It gets between 75 and 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear energy. That’s not very diverse, though it doesn’t seem to have caused a lot of problems. Yet.

I ran into this little story at Autoblog Green, about Renault’s warning that the grid may not be able to handle a big influx of electric cars:

The culprit is a combination of France's extensive use of nuclear power, which lacks the flexibility to cope with power-demand surges, and the widespread use of electric heaters during France's cold spells, which already strains the country's power supply.

I seem to recall that France encouraged electrically generated heat as a means to soak up excess electricity. It may be that France just needs to make more electricity if it now needs to accommodate cars. But the story, while not dishonest, seems to want to have nuclear energy as the problem rather than the grid. Since this was picked up out of the Reuters news service, it seemed a good idea to look there for more details.

And voila! The grid does seem to be struggling:

France's power grid, already under strain at peak periods, could struggle to cope if growing numbers of electric car owners all recharge their batteries when they sit down for dinner, power sector executives say.

But, um, Zut alors! Nuclear energy is not completely off the hook:

The heavy reliance on electrical heating in France was instigated by successive governments to absorb surplus nuclear power. Its 19 nuclear power plants make France Europe's biggest electricity exporter and ensure generally steady power supplies.

However, it lacks flexible capacity - usually generated by gas, coal or oil-fired plants - to meet peak evening demand during cold snaps.

So I was right about electric heating, but its use appears to have led the country inadvertently into a kind of cul-de-sac. Would coal or natural gas (let’s let oil slip away) help? Sure – because both can ramp up and down relatively quickly and relieve peak demand – if the grid can absorb more electricity and transmit it where its needed. (France has not done much with a “smart” grid yet that has more routing flexibility.)

Logically, trying to add more nuclear energy will produce more excess electricity when cars are not being charged – presumed to be at night – which may cause the government to encourage – what? – more exports? More electric cars?

A lot of this, according the article, is speculative on the part of Renault, which provides time to cook up ideas to deal with it.

Electric cars' batteries could smooth the variability of wind and solar energy by storing wind power produced at night and injecting it back to the grid when it needs help, he [RTE's Oliveier Grabette] said. Such vehicle-to-grid systems are already being tested in the United States and Japan.

RTE is Reseau de Transport d’Electricite, essentially the manager of the grid. Reseau means grid or network.

In any event, one could reasonably argue that lack of energy diversity might catch up with the French. The decision to go all-in on nuclear energy has allowed the country to have the lowest cost electricity in Europe, to act as a net exporter, and to be exceedingly well-positioned as the issue of carbon emissions rose to the fore. France chose energy security (access to uranium, a recycling regime) over energy diversity to suit its own national interests.

But the lack of diversity also – along with a wobbly grid – might be finding its limit – and ironically, with electric cars, which we’ve found a natural match for nuclear energy. It still might be in France and certainly is here. That said, some renewable energy or natural gas where they can be most effective wouldn’t go amiss.

For more on the subject of energy diversity, you may find this Congressional testimony by William Mohl, the president of Entergy Wholesale Commodities, interesting.

Comments

If the world is to finally stop adding to the CO2 in the atmosphere, nuclear energy is going to have to diversify by-- finally-- starting to produce carbon neutral synfuels for peak load electricity production. Producing carbon neutral methanol could replace the use of natural gas in the US for peak load electricity.

Since peak load power plants usually operate at very low annual load factors ranging from 5 percent to 15 percent, the significantly higher cost of electricity generated from nuclear synfuels could be substantially mitigated by the dominance of cheap base load nuclear electricity.

Marcel F. Williams
Rasmus said…
Unconventional idea: use excess electricity to make sodium hydroxide and dump it into the oceans (de-acidification). The oceans are then able to take up more CO2. Not sure if this is eligible for income from carbon credit. Stop this electric heating nonsense already and just insulate homes better or install district heating from small modular reactors.
SteveK9 said…
Vehicle-to-grid is a ridiculously bad idea and will never happen. Nuclear plus EV's is a perfect match. Charging at night. France already does load-following with its nuclear fleet and newer reactors (Atmea) tout even stronger capabilities in this regard. France's grid may need some maintenance/upgrading, but this story is just more, albeit subtle, anti-nuke nonsense.
Engineer-Poet said…
This is too easy.  If France is having difficulty serving demand peaks during cold snaps, the solution is to off-load heating onto other fuels.  For instance, electric resistance heat could fall back to LPG burners when the utility triggers the DSM systems.

Other methods include using electric blankets instead of heating entire dwellings or rooms, using dehumidifiers to recover sensible heat from air and make it feel warmer due to lower moisture, etc.
Anonymous said…
SteveK9 is exactly right.

The ideal duty cycle for electric vehicle batteries is to charge late at night every 24 hours, and be available for driving the next day. The suggestion that EV batteries are a suitable storage sink for weather-dependent electricity sources like wind, where the duty cycle can involve days of calm weather followed by a few days of high winds, is really stupid.

By the second or third day of calm weather, the car will not work. Conversely, it will have a full charge every morning if the grid has nuclear.

Popular posts from this blog

Knowing What You’ve Got Before It’s Gone in Nuclear Energy

The following is a guest post from Matt Wald, senior director of policy analysis and strategic planning at NEI. Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattLWald.

Nuclear energy is by far the largest source of carbon prevention in the United States, but this is a rough time to be in the business of selling electricity due to cheap natural gas and a flood of subsidized renewable energy. Some nuclear plants have closed prematurely, and others likely will follow.
In recent weeks, Exelon and the Omaha Public Power District said that they might close the Clinton, Quad Cities and Fort Calhoun nuclear reactors. As Joni Mitchell’s famous song says, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”
More than 100 energy and policy experts will gather in a U.S. Senate meeting room on May 19 to talk about how to improve the viability of existing nuclear plants. The event will be webcast, and a link will be available here.
Unlike other energy sources, nuclear power plants get no specia…

Making Clouds for a Living

Donell Banks works at Southern Nuclear’s Plant Vogtle units 3 and 4 as a shift supervisor in Operations, but is in the process of transitioning to his newly appointed role as the daily work controls manager. He has been in the nuclear energy industry for about 11 years.

I love what I do because I have the unique opportunity to help shape the direction and influence the culture for the future of nuclear power in the United States. Every single day presents a new challenge, but I wouldn't have it any other way. As a shift supervisor, I was primarily responsible for managing the development of procedures and programs to support operation of the first new nuclear units in the United States in more than 30 years. As the daily work controls manager, I will be responsible for oversight of the execution and scheduling of daily work to ensure organizational readiness to operate the new units.

I envision a nuclear energy industry that leverages the technology of today to improve efficiency…

Nuclear: Energy for All Political Seasons

The electoral college will soon confirm a surprise election result, Donald Trump. However, in the electricity world, there are fewer surprises – physics and economics will continue to apply, and Republicans and Democrats are going to find a lot to like about nuclear energy over the next four years.

In a Trump administration, the carbon conversation is going to be less prominent. But the nuclear value proposition is still there. We bring steady jobs to rural areas, including in the Rust Belt, which put Donald Trump in office. Nuclear plants keep the surrounding communities vibrant.

We hold down electricity costs for the whole economy. We provide energy diversity, reducing the risk of disruption. We are a critical part of America’s industrial infrastructure, and the importance of infrastructure is something that President-Elect Trump has stressed.

One of our infrastructure challenges is natural gas pipelines, which have gotten more congested as extremely low gas prices have pulled m…