Complicated Economics Challenging Nuclear

Speaking at the International Petroleum Week conference in London on Wednesday, International Energy Agency (IEA) Executive Director Fatih Birol voiced concerns that the United States and Europe aren’t investing enough in nuclear power, while China is charging ahead.

“China is coming back strong. Today there are about 60 nuclear power plants under construction and more than one third of them are in China,” said Birol, noting that U.S. leadership in nuclear power is threatened by two trends, few additions to nuclear capacity and no lifetime extensions for existing plants.

In The Conversation, I write about how policymakers must address increasingly precarious economics of nuclear power if it is to be part of a U.S. climate change strategy over the next century.

Many experts predict that Vogtle—now the only large-scale nuclear construction underway in the United States—will be the country’s last commissioned traditional light-water reactor. According to the Department of Energy, the cost of generating electricity from newly constructed nuclear plants is almost double that from a new natural gas combined-cycle plant.

Natural gas combined-cycle plants aren’t just outcompeting nuclear power on price. They also give power system operators flexibility to adjust quickly to the ebbs and flows of intermittent renewable sources, such as wind and solar power. Nuclear plants are designed to run more than 90 percent of the time, but they can’t ramp up or down on short notice.

It is hard to make a business case for building new nuclear plants, even in regulated states like Georgia and South Carolina, where utilities are allowed to recover construction costs from their customers. In deregulated Northeast and Midwest power markets, where generators compete to deliver electricity at the lowest cost, no new nuclear unit has been permitted for construction since 1977.

Many analyses suggest that nuclear generation is essential for reducing U.S. carbon emissions. In late 2016, the Obama administration published a Mid-Century Strategy for Deep Decarbonization, designed to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent or more below 2005 levels by 2050. Every scenario called for expanding nuclear power. A 2016 study by the Rhodium Group, an international consulting company, projected that if all “at risk” U.S. nuclear plants retire by 2030, greenhouse gas emissions from the U.S. power sector will double from 2020 to 2030.

What’s the best way to resolve this tension between nuclear power’s failing market prospects and its importance to U.S. climate strategy? The Vogtle decision offers some lessons and demonstrates how proactive and aggressive strategies will be necessary to maintain nuclear power’s role in the electric grid and to avoid opening a gaping hole in U.S. climate change strategy.

FERC Attempts to Boost Grid Resilience with New Rules on Electric Storage Resources

In Utility Dive, Norman Bay, former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and a senior fellow at Duke University, wrote that utilities and green groups can advance each other’s aims “if the power industry commits to an even cleaner grid in exchange for support from environmentalists on electrification.” Utilities need electrification to counter flat demand, Bay said, and environmentalists seek investments in technologies for a cleaner grid.

FERC may have just facilitated investments in one such “win-win” technology: energy storage. Last week FERC members unanimously approved rules to remove barriers to batteries and other storage resources in U.S. power markets, a potential game-changer for integration of renewables onto the grid.

FERC directed the regional transmission organizations (RTOs) and independent system operators (ISOs) that run wholesale electricity markets to establish market rules that “properly recognize the physical and operational characteristics of electric storage resources” after finding in November 2016 that existing market rules created barriers to entry for those resources.

The new rules will “enhance competition and promote greater efficiency in the nation’s electric wholesale markets, and will help support the resilience of the bulk power system,” FERC said.

Under the rules, grid operators can use technologies such as batteries and flywheel systems to dispatch power, to set energy prices, and to offer capacity, energy, and ancillary services.

Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur called storage a “Swiss army knife” because of its capacity to provide energy alongside variable renewable generation, to regulate frequency, and to help defer distribution and transmission needs.

The new rules take effect 90 days after publication in the Federal Register. At that point, RTOs and ISOs have 270 days to provide compliance findings and then one year to implement tariff revisions.

Judge Orders DOE to Implement Energy Efficiency Standards

A federal judge ordered the Trump administration to put into effect energy efficiency standards adopted in the last days of the Obama administration. Last week’s ruling arose out of two lawsuits, one filed by 11 states and the other by environmental groups. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) now has 28 days to publish the standards in the Federal Register, which would make them legally enforceable.

The standards languished after the Trump administration failed to publish final efficiency standard rules. U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria said in his ruling that the DOE’s failure to publish the standards “is a violation of the department’s duties under the Energy Policy and Conservation Act.”

Chhabria said he would consider putting his ruling on hold if it was appealed by the DOE, which said it was “looking into next steps.”

The states in the suit (California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Oregon and Washington) argued that the standards reduce greenhouse gas emissions and conserve enough energy to power some 19 million households for a year.

The new standards relate to appliances such as commercial packaged boilers as well as to portable air conditioners, air compressors, and “uninterruptible power supplies,” all three of which, according to the states’ lawsuit, lack a federal energy standard.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

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Tim Profeta is the founding director of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. The Nicholas Institute is part of Duke University and focuses on improving environmental policy making worldwide through objective, fact-based research in the areas of climate change, the economics of limiting carbon pollution, oceans governance and coastal management, emerging environmental markets and freshwater concerns at home and abroad. In his role at the Nicholas Institute, Profeta has continued to use his experience on Capitol Hill to engage in climate change debates. His research has focused, specifically, on market-based approaches to environmental regulations—particularly energy and climate change policy. Other projects engage his expertise in environmental law and air pollution regulation under the Clean Air Act.