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Nuclear Groundbreaking

A person responding to my recent skeptical post about the long-awaited nuclear renaissance took issue with my claim that ground has yet to broken for a new reactor in the United States. The counter-claim is that ground has already been broken for new nuclear power plants in Georgia and South Carolina. My reading of the facts is different, but I'm ready to stand corrected if my reading is wrong. The latest news I've seen for the proposed reactors for the Summer site in SC is that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission accepted a construction application in August 2008, and that action is still pending. As for the Vogtle site in Georgia, POWER magazine recently reported that while some work has been done at the site involving installation of sensors and the like, final construction approval also is pending for that project.

Perhaps we disagree about what's meant by breaking ground. I take that expression to mean that construction approval is final, a hole is being dug, and contractors are getting ready to pour concrete.

This is not to say that nothing is going on, in the United States or elsewhere in the world. A South Korean consortium has just emerged as the surprise winner in a global competition to build a nuclear power plant in the United Arab Emirates. An expert panel has advised China's government that Canada's Candu heavy-water reactor may be the best choice to burn alternative nuclear fuels such as thorium; China continues to pursue work on the pebble bed modular reactor concept, though just about everybody else seems to have given up on the PBMR. GE Hitachi and Detroit Edison are teaming up on a project anticipating construction of an Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor at the site of the Fermi 2 plant near Detroit.

GE Hitachi and Detroit Edison are teaming up on a project anticipating construction of an Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor at the site of the Fermi 2 plant near Detroit.

All that is interesting enough, not to mention the new small reactor concepts mentioned in my previous post. But scattered projects, however innovative or promising,do not make--to use the worst of all nuclear chiches--a critical mass. Ironically, perhaps the best news for nuclear is the accumulating evidence that it's become almost impossible to build a new coal generating plant in the United States. A month ago, for example, it was announced that Florida is cancelling its last planned new coal plant. Though the natural gas industry is still taking ads reminding the public that gas is an excellent substitute for coal, which it is, one may doubt whether gas and wind alone can fill the gap as coal plants are cancelled or decommissioned because of concerns about pollution and climate change.

Britain Reaffirms Big Commitment to Offshore Wind

Six years ago IEEE Spectrum reported about  the British stealing a march on the Danes and Germans, with very ambitious plans for offshore wind energy. Those plans have evolved somewhat more slowly than hoped, but this last week the UK reaffirmed its commitment to offshore wind with refurbished plans that are more ambitious than ever. If technological challenges can be surmounted and adequate financing secured, the additional offshore wind turbines installed in the coming decade will be equivalent to about half the country's total current capacity.

The contracts announced by Prime Minister Gordon Brown involve many of Europe's best-known energy companies and contractors, from Sweden's Vattenfall to Germany's Hochtief. Some of them such as Vestas, Siemens, Statkraft, and Statoil have considerable experience working in deep waters, but even so, the program will pose immense challenges. As the New York Times commented in a report, turbine towers are to be anchored and maintained in waters that are deeper, rougher, and further offshore than ever attempted before.

The total cost of installing as much as 32 GW in new offshore wind capacity is estimated at 75-100 billion British pounds--as much as $160 billion. But that may be conservative. Even the highest estimated costs are in the range of $5-6 per installed watt, which appears to be lower than the average global cost of installing wind today, both on land and offshore. Perhaps the estimates assume that with technology advances costs will come down, but that's not to be taken for granted. Costs may actually go up as wind is installed in less and less hospitable surroundings.

The Financial Times worries that the program will not be realized without adequate government guarantees for financing, especially with subsidies for wind scheduled to come down in 2014. But don't underestimate England's experience and resolve. Since 2004 it has installed 700 MW of wind offshore, which is between a third and a half of the global offshore total.

Waiting for the Nuclear Renaissance

The spotlight is on San Antonio, where a consortium led by Toshiba is set to build two new advanced boiling water reactors. Though the project is one of the most advanced in the United States in terms of approvals and planning, the Texas city is holding off on a $400 million bond issuance to support it because of sharply higher projected costs, and the city-owned utility CPS Energy may back out. Since 2007, the estimated construction bill has ballooned from $8.6 billion to $12.1 billion.

The global nuclear industry might take refuge in a declaration of “force majeure”—the standard commercial jargon for forces beyond a supplier’s control—inasmuch as construction costs have climbed generally in recent years and the decline of the dollar has driven up the price of any project that depends heavily on imported goods. In the case of the San Antonio plant, Japanese vendors are to supply up to $3 billion worth of equipment.

But no matter how you slice and dice recent developments, this is not the way things were supposed to be. Taking a cue from the way France churned out a standard reactor in the 1970s and 1980s, containing costs and controversy, the companies hoping to build reactors in the United States have been working for more than a decade on designs that were to be cheaper, safer, more reliable, and above all much easier and faster to build. Precertification of the new designs by  the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was supposed to eliminate the regulatory bottlenecks and local political controversy that had dogged projects in the past. But even after all that work, ground has yet to broken for construction of any new reactor in the United States, and banks are now declaring that they consider such projects too risky to finance without large public subsidies. Meanwhile, the two European reactors under construction--also based on a precertified evolutionary design--have been dogged by delays, new safety concerns, and escalating costs.

Congressional legislation promises up to $18.5 billion in loan guarantees for nuclear construction, which may sound like quite a lot, but Energy Secretary Chu has pointed out that this would be enough to secure financing for only two projects at current prices, which  might not be adequate to establish confidence in the new designs. Proposed cap-and-trade legislation that will be up for debate early this year may provide much more, but long-time critics like Congressman Markey of Massachusetts contend that just penalizing carbon emissions ought to give nuclear all the boost it needs. If nuclear can’t compete even when the cost of fossil-generated electricity is systematically driven higher as a matter of national policy,  maybe it is time to give up on nuclear, he suggests.

The inability of the nuclear manufacturers to get off the dime naturally has given heart to critics, who portray reactor technology as no more viable than ever, and not a suitable or effective means of achieving carbon reductions. Some of the leading U.S. environmental organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund have quietly or implicitly adopted a pro-nuclear position. (Several years ago Environmental Defense’s chief executive played a key role in brokering a deal that killed a Texas plan to vastly expand coal generation, and when the dust settled, it came to be understood that instead the state would rely much more heavily on nuclear power.) But many organizations that have been steadfastly opposed to nuclear—Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Union of Concerned Scientists, and Physicians for Social Responsibility—remain firmly opposed. At the Copenhagen climate conference last month, these forces were much in evidence, along with an ad hoc umbrella organization, Don’t Nuke the Climate.

What is one to make of this? Even if you ardently believe that sharp cuts in greenhouse gas emissions are urgently required, and you recognize that nuclear energy represents in principle a scalable low-carbon alternative to fossil fuel combustion, you have to admit that the critics have a point. Nuclear is scalable only if in fact the industry can deliver a reliable product quickly and efficiently. But even if all controversy were to evaporate, all the regulatory lights turned green, and costs came down, representatives of the U.S. industry admit that they now are in a position to initiate no more than two or three reactor construction projects per year. At that rate, they might be only replacing the aging reactors being decommissioned, without offering an alternative to current coal generation.

Maybe the supposedly streamlined designs for the traditional big reactor will turn out to be not the answer after all. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission lists a handful of innovative designs for reactors that are much smaller and could be significantly safer than the boiling water and pressurized water reactors that have  dominated the world market since 1973. Perhaps this is what we need--revolutionary innovation rather than just evolutionary advance. 

The Copenhagen Accord

Having returned from Copenhagen, rested, and taken a little time to digest the two-page statement of principles the Copenhagen climate conference adopted at the very last minute, I'm going to climb way out on a limb with two claims about it and the process that led to it: The admittedly anti-climatic Copenhagen Accord (available on the UNFCCC website) is better than it may look at first glance; and the undeniably chaotic process that accompanied its negotiation and adoption was not as bad as reported. Though the conference organizers did a terrible job of handling the non-governmental organizations that represent the natural constituency for a strong climate agreement, they pushed negotiators hard to come up with something meaningful and may have contributed at least one crucial idea.

The Copenhagen Accord opens with a statement that climate change is to be combatted on the basis of "common but differentiated responsibilities"—the accepted formula for accommodating developing countries that are not yet ready to commit to a program of greenhouse gas reductions—"recognizing the scientific view that the increase in global temperature [in this century] should be below 2 degrees Celsius."

The next paragraph says, more specifically, that the nations of the world "should cooperate in achieving the peaking of global and national emissions as soon as possible, recognizing that the time frame for peaking will be longer in developing countries." Successive paragraphs call for a global climate adaptation program, with emphasis on the least developed countries, island states, and Africa, and mitigation aid for such countries coming to $100 billion a year by 2020. Countries classified in the Kyoto Protocol as Annex 1 (those required to make emissions reductions) are to submit 2020 targets to the climate secretariat by the end of January next year. Non-Annex-1 countries (those not required as yet to make emissions reductions) are to submit statements of what mitigation actions they propose to take.

The notion of peaking that is enunciated prominently in the accord's key second paragragh first came to my attention in a talk given at Columbia University early in the fall by Denmark's Connie Hedegaard, the conference chair. She said that even if fast-developing countries like China, India, and Brazil are not ready to commit to a schedule of emissions reductions, they should at least say when they expect and plan for their emissions to peak. Though she came under a lot of fire from developing countries at Copenhagen and got bad press, only to be replaced by Denmark's prime minister in the middle of the second week when push was coming to shove, Hedegaard may have contributed the idea that enabled China and the United States to bridge their radical differences—the U.S. demand that China commit to reductions, and China's for sharper U.S. reductions and generous aid for low-carbon technology. The implicit idea behind the appendix to the accord, in which advanced industrial countries have to state (and, by implication, be ready to defend) emissions targets and developing countries state (and defend) mitigation strategies, is that everybody will be required to say when their emissions will peak and then start declining.

Of course that is a far cry from what climate intellectuals and activists around the world had hoped for. But it may be the most that could reasonably be expected.

Perhaps the most stirring event to take place in Copenhagen during the two week conference was a downtown church service, with celebrities like South Africa's Bishop Tutu and climate activist Bill McKibbon participating. McKibbon has become closely associated with a global grassroots crusade called 350.org, which seeks to mobilize the world around the idea of reducing carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million (versus 390 today and 270 pre-industrial); at the end of the service, the church bells tolled 350 times. Needless to say, what comes out of the Copenhagen Accord even on the most optimistic estimates will come nowhere close to getting us back to 350, and only if everybody joins in its implementation in the most sincere spirit will it keep us below 450--roughly the level scientists say is required to prevent this century's temperature rise from exceeding 2 degrees Celsius. Following release of the agreement, the Huffington Post published reactions from Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and McKibbon denouncing the Copenhagen outcome. Greenpeace called Copenhagen "a crime scene," while Friends of the Earth said the accord was "a sham."  

The New York Times, in an excellent wrap-up written by two correspondents with contributions from four other reporters, characterized the agreement as a "grudging accord," and so it is. Nobody is satisfied with it. But consider the obstacles: the United States came in facing a world hostile because, for ten years, it has done so little to reduce its emissions and resentful that the Johnnie-Come-Lately now want to seize leadership and set conditions; the whole industrial world encountered the wrath of the developing nations, which suddenly have taken to blaming all their intractable problems on climate change; China and India knew they would come under huge pressure from the United States, Europe, and Japan to make emissions reduction pledges that they feel unready for. None of these differences could be immediately reconciled without some country's leadership being accused by its constituents of giving in to extortionist demands from somebody else.

Under the circumstances it was perhaps a clever ploy that Obama made a big deal out of emissions verification by countries like China. Naturally China was insulted and so there was a big fuss. The more that fuss goes on the less attention will be  paid to the costly and risky compromises the countries will have to make on really serious issues to move forward.

As for the mistreatment the NGOs suffered, it didn't feel as bad as it sounded. As I stood in line with a handful of people I got to know rather well in five or six hours, it became apparent that even though some had come half-way around the world to do something that they now couldn't get into the convention hall to do, most didn't really care all that much. (If they had, there would have been a riot.) If you were there, by definition you cared about climate, and the real reason you were there was simply that you wanted to be.

Copenhagen and the UN's NGO Problem

During the Copenhagen climate conference a local newspaper, the Copenhagen Post, has been putting out a surprisingly good daily newspaper devoted to the meeting, The COP15 Post. Yesterday, December 1, its lead story had the headline, NGO Fury Directed at COP15 Organisers. It described the difficulties accredited NGOs have had in getting access to the conference center, and an open letter 50 of them addressed to Yvo de Boer protesting the treatment they were getting. The well-regarded de Boer is executive secretary of the secretariat, based in Bonn, Germany, of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, or, as it's more popularly known, the Rio treaty).

That brought to mind not only the difficulties I personally had getting into the conference center this week but also problems I ran into immediately with the UNFCCC's secretariat when I tried to obtain press accreditation as IEEE Spectrum magazine's editor for energy and the environment. When proper press credentials failed to arrive on request, and I sent an e-mail message of inquiry, the secretariat told me that they did not issue press credentials to publications of "non-governmental organizations" and only accredited press organizations somehow recognized by member governments.

It sounded positively Soviet! The United Nations does not recognize independent press organizations and only accredits government-approved press??

When I calmed down a little, a respected colleague suggested to me that perhaps what the UNFCCC secretariat meant to be saying was that they did not recognize publications of professional or membership organizations, or of non-governmental institutions. This sounded plausible, and so I sent another message to the secretariat, asking whether it was indeed the case that they accredited--say--Rupert Murdoch's publications but not the AAAS's Science magazine, MIT's Technology Review, or IEEE's Spectrum. That query went unanswered.

On closer reading of the secretariat's mail to me, as my colleague pointed out, it seemed that perhaps I could get admitted to the conference as part of an NGO delegation, though that meant I would not have proper press credentials and would not be admitted to press-only events So, rather than keep harping on the press issue,  I instead obtained accreditation as a member of an NGO group--a Dutch one as it happened--and went to Copenhagen planning to participate in a couple of Holland Climate House panels. That said and done, I couldn't help but wonder whether, when I arrived, I would find reporters working for magazines like Science or National Geographic, a membership publication of the National Geographic Society, working with press credentials after all, contrary to the UNFCCC's supposed principles.

When I finally arrived at Holland Climate House at 6 pm on Tuesday this week, after being turned away my first day by the conference and having had to stand in line for seven hours the second day to get in, I found my Dutch host being interviewed right at that very moment by a press-accredited reporter for National Geographic magazine.

So does the UNFCCC have some kind of problem in how it handles non-governmental organizations? It sure seems to. But don't ask me what exactly the problem is. I frankly have no idea.

Copenhagen Crunch

For a window into the climate conference in its critical last 48 hours, go to oneclimate.net's Copenhagen Live 24/7--Your Pass to the UN Conference, which is broadcasting the proceedings but also comment and commentary. The UN's own official webcasts of the conference show everything that official participants say in public, but bear in mind that nobody is seeing the really important conversations and negotiations taking place in private.

And speaking of passes, for video showing a clash between Danish police and would-be frustrated conference participants, along with a sound account of what led to thousands of accredited participants getting turned back at the conference center's doors, go to the New York Times's Dot Earth blog.

Having been turned away on Monday this week myself, I found myself standing in line for seven hours the next day next to a young woman who has worked on climate issues in the White House who had waited at the very front of the line on Monday for nine hours without being able to get in.

There were people in the line who had come from half-way around the world, spending 48 hours on planes and in airports, who now found access to the convention denied, even though their accreditation documents were perfectly in order.

Only those who are members of state delegations or who have press credentials get right in. I personally had to obtain accreditation not as press but as an NGO member, but that's another story. . . .

Kyoto and Copenhagen

As I sat waiting for climate point man John Kerry to begin his talk yesterday, a member of the Swiss delegation to the Copenhagen climate talks reminded me of something very basic: even as negotiators frantically try to reach agreement on a new framework to succeed the Kyoto Protocol, parties are negotiating in parallel reduction targets for the second Kyoto implementation period, roughly 2012-20. The first phase of Kyoto called on the industrial countries--the so-called Annex ! countries--to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 5 percent by 2012 by comparison with 1990. Except for the United States, which declined to ratify Kyoto and has been saying here in Copenhagen that it will not "do Kyoto" in any way, shape or form, all the advanced industrial countries have at least promised to cut emissions in line with Kyoto targets.

There are now two possibilities, as the Swiss woman explained. Kyoto will be retained--the overwhelming preference by the way of the Group of 77 developing countries--and new reduction targets will be adopted for 2020 in light of what the United States and major non-annex 1 countries like China and India agree to do in parallel. Or Kyoto will be ditched, as such, and Kyoto-like commitments will be folded into a new framework agreement . The poorest developing countries much prefer to keep Kyoto so as to retain their non-Annex 1 status, and unless the United States brings something substantial to the table in the next 48 hours, the rest of the world may end up coming around to their position.

Remember: under Kyoto, which the United States not only signed but virtually wrote, it was to cut its emissions by 7 percent by 2012 versus 1990. Instead, by 2005 its emissions were about 17 percent higher than they were in 1990. So when Obama promises to now cut U.S. emissions by 17 percent by 2020, he's only promising to get us back to 1990--in other words, to the point where Americans were supposed to start cutting their emissions in 1997, twelve years ago.

Tracking Carbon Pledges

As the week wears on here in Copenhagen, attention will keep focusing on who is promising to do what and when, and whether the aggregate results can possibly keep the earth's 21st-century warming from exceeding 2 degrees Celsius, the stated goal of the COP15 conference.

Yesterday, standing in a seven-hour line to get into the Bella Center, I found myself by happy coincidence standing next to Tom Fiddaman, who created the global pledge thermometer or barometer that I recommended in an earlier post. Fiddaman, who obtained a doctorate in systems dynamics at MIT's Sloan School and now lives in Montana where he telecommutes for Ventana Systems, turned me on to a carbon pledge inventory maintained by UNEP, the United Nations Environment Programme. While you're there, check out the daily Copenhagen news feed that UNEP maintains on its homepage.

For another user-friendly indicator of Copenhagen progress or regress, check out the World Wildlife Fund's Climate Deal Barometer. And while you're there, you might as well take a glance at WWF's useful COP15 newsfeed.

China's Copenhagen Presence

As I write this, I happen to be sitting in Holland house, where the Dutch have been presenting a two-week-long round-the-clock program of climate-related panels, many of them about water, naturally. The scope and physical scale of what they're doing is almost unique at the Copenhagen climate conference, though just across the corridor Brazil has a similar presence, much of it devoted to agribusiness and cane ethanol production. That focus is not so surprising either. But what's really a little startling is China's nearby setup, a climate information center that in terms of physical scope and programmatic ambition is the equal of Holland's and Brazil's, and by the same token more impressive than anything any other country is doing here as part of the parallel or "side" meetings.

The COP15 climate conference basically has two parts, the negotiations among the nearly 200 countries that are party to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and a parallel exhibition and program of activities sponsored by non-governmental organizations. Physically, the two parts are co-located and inter-penetrate, though participants who obtained accreditation as members of NGOs are not invited to negotiations and cannot attend many of the events staged by or for state delegations. (The difficulties many NGO participants had obtaining access to the conference complex have been widely reported in the world press; as a person with NGO accreditation, I personally was unable to get into the conference complex on Monday, even though I was scheduled to participate in a panel that afternoon; and I got in on Tuesday only after standing in line for seven hours with many hundreds of other NGO people. Today I got right in as I now have the required badge, but the conference has stopped issuing any new NGO badges, whether one is pre-accredited or not, evidently because the numbers attached to state party delegations are greater than expected.)

But I digress. Here at the far back side of the conference complex, where state delegations have their offices and semi-official groupings such as Holland's and Brazil's have their set-ups as well, China has one of the most impressive exhibitions. At this moment, as I listen to Europeans talk about trans-boundary water cooperation, next door Mr. Ding Zhongli is delivering his "Presentation  on Critical Evaluation for Long-term Carbon Emissions Reduction by IPCC, G8, OECD, etc." On the racks outside the room where he's talking are glossy official publications with titles like "China's Fiscal Policy on Climate Change" and "Addressing Climate Change: China in Action," as well as an impressive packet from the Laboratory of Low Carbon Energy at Tsinghua University, the Beijing institution that's routinely described as the country's MIT.

Most pertinent of the publications on display, at a time when the U.S. and Chinese delegations are trading public jibes about who will be most to blame if this conference fails, is a one pager called "Developing the Energy and Climate Registry in China." The United States has been pressing China to accept international verification of their greenhouse gas emissions, but to judge from what China is showing and telling here, they're already doing that verification and don't need or want outside help.

 

The U.S. Copenhagen Presence

Speaking at 1:15 this afternoon in an open meeting, Senator John Kerry delivered what was billed as a report on the prospects for enactment of a U.S. bill limiting the country’s carbon emissions and establishing a carbon trading system. Because Kerry is well known to be the Obama administration's designated point man on climate, both domestically and internationally, the large meeting room slated for his talk--the Hans Christian Anderson room, as it happens--was filled to capacity well in advance of his remarks.

Kerry's speech turned out to be two-parts stemwinder, in which he forcefully preached to the converted about the absolute necessity of taking historic action on climate, two-parts an equally forceful re-statement of the administration's position on emissions verification and targets—and just one part about the prospects for U.S climate change legislation.

The stemwinder need not long detain us: Kerry remarked that difficult climate talks have been taking place for 17 years, with many ups and downs in domestic politics. He gently reminded his audience that the process began in Rio with the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which Bush 1 signed on behalf of the United States, and less gently of the unfortunate years of "delay, divide, deny" that ensued under Bush 2. Etc.

By way of putting the issues facing diplomats here in Copenhagen in context, Kerry pointed out that the United States has just adopted the most ambitious and expensive green energy development program in its history, that half the states in the country already are participating in regional greenhouse gas trading programs, and that some 1,000 U.S. cities have promised to bring their carbon emissions down in keeping with Kyoto (the 1997 protocol to the framework convention that the United States signed but then declined to ratify or implement). The EPA has just issued a finding that carbon dioxide is a pollutant, sending a message to Congress "that if it doesn't legislate, then we'll regulate." A climate and energy bill adopted by the House earlier this year for the first time sets an emissions target for the United States, and Kerry confidently expects the Senate to follow suit early next year.

However, Kerry said pointedly: he will not be able to persuade an Ohio legislator to enact a climate bill if that person's constituents worry about losing their jobs because countries like China and India refuse to make commitments that are independently verifiable. Thus, transparency is a "core issue" for the United States at Copenhagen. Further, he said, "every country that contributes significantly to the climate problem must commit to emissions targets." Admittedly, he continued, this will require developing countries to adopt growth paths that are different from those that brought the world's present-day advanced industrial countries from rags to riches. But having the luxury of "following our mistakes will be cold comfort if it leads to climate catastrophe," Kerry exhorted.

As for the advertised subject of his talk, Kerry conceded that the Senate battle will be tough. But he took comfort from the support that strong climate action is now getting-or so he claimed--from senators like South Carolina's Lindsay Graham and West Virginia's Robert Byrd, the Senate's senior member by far. Byrd, elected in 1959, was cosponsor with Chuck Hagel of the Senate resolution that forever killed any prospect of the United States' ratifying Kyoto. 

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