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French Nuclear Model Called Into Question by French Expert

To a great extent U.S. nuclear energy policy in the last two decades has been driven by the premise that standardization of designs and construction procedures will bring down reactor costs. France's almost all-nuclear electricity sector, built basically by a single national company, is the model. But yesterday a French nuclear energy expert called that model into question. Speaking to reporters in an event sponsored by the Physicians for Social Responsibility, Yves Marignac pointed out that the country’s recent experiences with nuclear construction have not been exemplary. In a sense that's stating the obvious. Delays in building a nuclear power plant in Normandy and a similar one Finland, and a 75 percent cost overrun on the Finnish plant, have been widely reported. But Marignac says France's record building its four previous plants was not much better: They were connected to the grid only 12.5-15.5 years after construction began—a far cry from the four or five years in which Areva claims it can build new plants.

Asked what accounts for chronic construction delays, Marignac said it often is a matter of rather rudimentary problems such as failure to pour concrete or do welding to (admittedly exacting) standards. Why is pouring concrete harder for a reactor than, say, for a bank vault? For one thing, he said, because a containment's double walls have to be able to withstand hydrogen pressure and prevent hydrogen leakage in the event of an extreme meltdown accident.

Marignac, executive director of WISE-Paris, an information service, has contributed to blue-ribbon energy reports for the French government and European parliament. His views represent a significant challenge to the U.S. nuclear industry and its promoters because, if valid, they suggest the French model doesn't work well even in a country whose institutions favor it—a country with highly centralized planning, traditions of precise administrative procedure, a single administrative entity, and a single builder and single client,.


China's Grid-limited Wind Energy Potential

China's wind power industry barely noticed the international financing crisis, doubling installations in 2008  for the fifth year in a row. Readers of Spectrum shouldn't be surprised, as we documented the state and market share-driven industry's insensitivity to quaint financial targets such as profitability last May. What may ultimately check China's seemingly unstoppable wind power surge is the capacity of its power grids to absorb the resulting energy.

That conclusion emerges when one examines a report in Science last week by researchers at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and Beijing's Tsinghua University, which combines meteorological and engineering models to predict that wind farms could meet all new electricity demand in China through 2030 at reasonably low cost. My coverage of the report, published yesterday by MIT's Technology, concludes that China's grid is the key hurdle to realizing this bold prediction, noting hopefully that China is already leading the world in the development of high voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission technology -- the sort needed to share variable renewable energy sources such as wind power on a trans-continental scale, thereby minimizing the power supply's vulnerability to regional weather patterns.

Projected Capacity Factors for China. Credit: Michael McElroyAnalysts, however, doubt that China can build such renewables-ready supergrids fast enough to replace anticipated additions of coal and nuclear power, as projected by the Harvard-Tsinghua report. Caitlin Pollock, who prepares Asia wind market forecasts for Cambridge, MA-based consutancy Emerging Energy Research, says grid challenges make the growth level proposed "unfeasible and unlikely." She notes that grid integration already lags wind-farm installation: "While China’s wind market has indeed doubled for the past two years, approximately 30% of this new capacity remained unconnected to the grid at the end of each year."

Pollock says the Chinese government's ambitious Wind Power Base initiative, which calls for at least 10 GW of new wind capacity in seven provinces/regions through 2015, is actually "an effort to regulate wind growth." The projects involve grid operators at an early stage, thus aligning build-out of the wind farms with coordinated grid expansions.

And she points out that the government still perceives a need to balance new wind development with new baseload plants fed with coal and nuclear, to ensure there's a button to press when power demand is high. For example, western Gansu province's massive Wind Power Base project, whose 20-gigawatt proposed capacity for 2020 would exceed the entire country's current wind power base, is accompanied by an equally monstrous coal-fired power complex. The latter, which commenced construction last month, could be generating up to 13.6 gigawatts by 2020 -- the equivalent of 17 of the world-scale coal-fired power plants under construction in Germany.

The bottom line: Don't count coal out yet. And hope for climate's sake that carbon sequestration pans out.

Gigascale Solar

The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times report this week what could be another first for First Solar: a preliminary agreement with the Chinese government to build a 2-gigawatt photovoltaic farm in Inner Mongolia. If the plant is actually built, it will be in stages over a decade,  to cover eventually as much as 25 square miles. But "much of the deal hasn't been worked out yet," says the Journal with some understatement--minor details such as how  much First Solar might be paid have yet to be settled. The company's plan is to sell the plant to a Chinese operator upon its completion, but the plant's profitability will depend on the size of the subsidies it would be eligible for. That's another detail to be worked out, as China right now is trying to decide whether to adopt a feed-in tariff that would guarantee returns on investments in renewables.

If the plant were built today in the United States, it would cost $5-6 billion, according to First Solar. Costs may be lower in China, however, and they should decrease as the plant is built in increments. First  Solar will likely build a production plant in China to supply panels for the generating plant, which is to be part of much large renewables complex in Ordos City, Inner Mongolia. The whole complex is to have a generating capacity of nearly 12 GW, with 6,950 MW coming from wind, 3,900 from photovoltaics, 720 MW from thermal solar, and 310 MW from biomass. 

Let's not make any assumptions about the destiny of the deal sketched out in this week's memorandum of understanding with First Solar. Note, however, that the Ordos plant is not the only nuclear-scale solar facility on the books. The Clinton Climate Initiative is considering a project in India that could be even bigger, and BrightSourceEnergy has power-purchase agreements with California utilities for solar plants with a combined capacity of 2.6 GW, the Journal reports. First Solar’s Topaz plant in California is to be 550 MW, notes the Times.

Normally our practice would be to contact First Solar to confirm the various details of the Journal and Times accounts. But the company has a long-standing and deeply ingrained policy of not talking directly with the press, as discussed last year in a Spectrum magazine feature.


Boulder SmartGridCity Claims to Be Fully Functional

Xcel Energy issued a press statement this week saying that its pioneering smart grid experiment in Boulder, Colorado, is now complete--that SmartGridCity is the "first fully functioning smart city in the world." What that turns out to mean is that the aspects of the experiment bearing on electric reliability and more effective and economical maintenance are up and running: fully automated substations, the ability to re-route power around overloaded or blocked lines, fast detection of localized outages, and early detection of blackout risks. What it does not mean is that customers can now closely monitor home or business usage, find ways to use electricity more frugally, and seek greener sources of power. That will happen only in the fourth quarter of this year, when "Xcel Energy plans to launch an in-home energy management Web portal provided by GridPoint that will  give all Boulder customers with a smart meter the ability to review their in-home energy usage."

Xcel "will soon be seeking customers for testing of in-home energy management devices," the press release continues. So don't bother staying tuned. Rather, tune back in, say, six months from now.

The Perils of Climate Initiative

France’s Nicolas Sarkozy proposed this week that the country impose a 17 euro/tonne tax on carbon emissions, in order to further its stated objective of cutting the country’s emissions 25 percent by 2050. Considering that France’s carbon emissions are already relatively low because of its strong reliance on nuclear power and low auto usage, you'd think that environmentalists would be hailing his initiative. But to judge from local and international reports, most of the country’s environmental leaders have denounced the proposed tax as too limited and too low--while everybody else considers it an annoying addition to what is already a very heavy tax burden.

The tax would not apply to the electricity sector, because four-fifths of the country’s power is generated by zero-carbon nuclear reactors already. It would mainly affect industrial use and, for consumers, home heating and automotive fuel. Set initially at a level that is roughly equivalent to where carbon is currently selling in the European cap-and-trade system, the tax translates to about five or six cents per liter of gasoline. Sarkozy argues, quite reasonably one would think, that consumers should not expected to pay a higher fee for carbon emissions than big industrial emitters pay.

Why does that argument not satisfy Sarkozy's critics? Probably, it seems, because the initiative is widely considered a political ploy. In the most recent elections, France’s environmentalists have been making gains, while the country’s democratic socialists--despite the recession--have been squeezed. So Sarkozy's move is dismissed as a transparent effort to outflank the socialists and build bridges to environmentalists, who normally tend to be allied with the socialists.

President Obama may be finding cap-and-trade a tough sell in the United States, but at least he can take comfort that he is not accused of being insincere and Machiavellian. If, despite the opposition, Sarkozy gets the French parliament to approve the tax, France will be the first major power to adopt a carbon tax. Finland has had one since 1990 and Sweden since 1991; Switzerland has taxed all imports of fossil fuel since the beginning of last year. One thing that's clear from such experience: very successful economies can put a pretty stiff fee on carbon without suffering unduly. Sweden's carbon tax is more than five times as high as what Sarkozy is proposing--and Sweden, with an electriicity sector that is virtually carbon free, also has relatively low national emisions.

Agreement Imminent on Gigantic Australian Gas Project

Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Royal Dutch Shell will finalize agreement next week on development of an enormous Australian natural gas field, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times reported today, The Gorgon field is thought to contain on the order of 40 billion cubic feet of natural gas, the equivalent of 6.7 billion barrels of oil, and will cost in excess of $40 billion to exploit. Together with about a dozen other major gas projects in Australia, Gorgon may soon make the country the world’s leading exporter of LNG—and its exports will help a number of major Asian economies somewhat lesson their dependence on dirty, carbon-intense coal. According to Chevron, leader of the Gorgon project, long-term contracts already have been secured with customers in China, Japan, South Korea, and India, and more such contracts are in the works.

Royal Society Assesses Climate Modification

A blue-ribbon panel convened by England's Royal Society issued a report earlier this week that considers engineering methods to counteract the warming effects of increased greenhouse gas emissions. Though it advocates closer attention and much more research on such techniques, the report’s attitude is decidedly cautious: "Far more detailed study would be needed before any method could even be seriously considered for deployment” on a large scale, writes  Cambridge University physicist and Royal Society President Martin Rees, in introductory comments. Moreover, says Rees, "none offers a 'silver bullet' "

The rationale for exploring ways of counteracting the effects of greenhouse gases is forcefully stated at the outset. "Climate change is happening. Its impact an cost will be large, serious, and unevenly spread. The impacts may be reduced by adaptation, and moderated by mitigation, especially by reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. However, global efforts to reduce emissions have not yet been sufficiently successful to provide confidence that the reductions needed to avoid dangerous climate change will be achieved."

The report distinguishes between methods that remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and techniques that modify solar irradiation of the earth's surface and atmosphere. In principle, it says, carbon dioxide removal is the preferable approach because it is much less risky, in effect taking earth back to its "natural" state--that is to say, the state it would be in if it were unaffected by man-made carbon emissions. But such techniques are slow-acting and, as yet, "none has yet been demonstrated to be effective at an affordable cost, with acceptable side effects."

Radiation management techniques--seeding the atmosphere with reflective aerosols, for example--are by comparison cheaper and faster. But they would require striking a delicate and subtle balance between the effects of increased carbon concentrations and counter-acting measures, a balance moreover that would have to be maintained and sustained over centuries, stretching global governance well beyond what we are able to do today. Because of their riskiness and the immense political challenges they pose, "solar radiation management methods should not be applied unless there is a need to rapidly limit or reduce global average temperatures."

The Royal Society recommends that the United Kingdom inaugurate a research program into geoengineering techniques, but it's takeaway message really is this: if you've been thinking that carbon counter-action could be easier than carbon reduction, you have another think coming. 


BP Announces Huge Oil Find in Gulf Coast

BP announced yesterday, Sept. 2, a huge deep-sea oil and gas discovery in the Gulf of Mexico. According to the company’s press release, the field is located about 400 kilometers southeast of Houston, where water is at a depth of 1,259 meters. The Tiber test well was drilled to a depth of 10,685 meters (35,055 feet), which makes it deeper than Mount Everest is high and one of the deepest or the very deepest ever. BP, the largest oil and gas producer in the Gulf, is developing the Tiber field in partnership with Petrobras and ConocoPhilips. The company produces at present 400,000 barrels per day oil equivalent —most of that at its Thunder Horse platform, which cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build and took a decade to get operating to BP’s satisfaction.

BP is not making any claims about the size of what it calls its "giant discovery," but according to accounts in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, the Tiber field could contain as much as 3 billion barrels of oil equivalent. Analysts consider BP well positioned with the new find to remain the Gulf's dominant producer, and the Gulf to be in a position to keep U.S. oil production from declining in the short and medium run. The Journal cites an estimate by the U.S. Minerals Management Service that Gulf production will increase to 1.88 million bpd by 2013, versus 1.14 million in 2008.

U.S. Wind and Solar Grants Go Heavily to European Firms

This week the United States announced grants for wind and solar projects totaling more than $500 million. The bulk of the money will go to a handful of big wind projects and programs, most of them being developed by European companies: $284 to Spain’s Iberdrola; $47.4 million to Energias de Portugal; $42.2 million to EverPowerWindHoldings, in which Britain’s TerraFirma Capital Partners has the controlling stake. Germans have been fretting that their extraordinarily generous solar subsidies—put in place partly to foster development of a German photovoltaics industry— have been going of late largely to Chinese startups. Should Americans have similar concerns? I don't know the answer. Just asking.

Local Qualms Kill Ohio Carbon Capture Plan

Columbus-based sci-tech research group Battelle is pulling out of a $92.8 million project to test carbon capture and storage (CCS) in Ohio -- one of seven regional sequestration tests underpinning the U.S. Department of Energy's program to kick the wheels on CCS. A Battelle spokeswoman cited "business considerations" in a terse statement on Friday announcing the decision, but Ohio newspapers highlighted local fears that injecting CO2 underground would spark seismic tremors, disrupt underground water supplies, and depress property values.

The setback offers further evidence of the strong Not Under My Back Yard backlash elicited by CCS proposals. Earlier this month Energywise reported that similar concerns are blocking European power giant Vattenfall's plan to sequester CO2 from its innovative oxyfuel coal-fired power plant in Schwarze Pumpe, Germany. Burial of the CO2 is on hold until at least next spring.

Battelle's six-year-old effort, the Midwest Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnership, proposed to capture 1 million tons of CO2 from an ethanol plant in Greenville in western Ohio's Darke County and store it 3,000 feet below ground, starting next year. Columbus-based utility American Electric Power and Ohio State University figured among the consortium's members, and DOE planned to two-thirds of the cost.

Until recently the project seemed on track, despite early concerns raised by a citizen's group that the injection would cause tremors. Last summer Mike Bowers, then the newly-elected mayor of Greenville, told the Dayton Daily News that the proposal had "generated little rumbling" among Greenville residents: "Not being proficient in the geology of what's right under our area, if there would be any adverse effects, I would trust in what Battelle looks into," Bowers said.

Bowers' attitude, and that of his constituents, clearly shifted. The Columbus Dispatch, reporting last week on a separate CCS project by AEP and Battelle in West Virginia, counted Bowers among political leaders who had united to block the Ohio plan. Bowers cited fears that drilling the injection wells or escaping CO2 could disrupt the aquifer that underpins the county's agricultural economy. "Messing with the natural resources of our area didn't seem to be a wise thing from an experimental standpoint.," Bowers told the Dispatch. He called cancellation of the project "very good news."

Dayton Daily News coverage of Battelle's reversal cited opposition by Darke County's Republican state representatives Jim Zehringer and Richard Adams. And local CBS affiliate WHIO-TV, in a report titled "Protesters Win CO2 Battle in Darke Co.", said 90 percent of participants in a recent poll weighed in against carbon sequestration.

Even the ethanol plant operator had its qualms. The Daily News said that Neill McKinstray, vice president and general manager of The Andersons’ ethanol division, "hadn’t been assured to his satisfaction that any environmental contingencies, however remote, would be addressed."

For a straight taste of Darke County's qualms, check out the blog maintained by the ad-hoc Citizens Against CO2 Sequestration.


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