Thursday, January 21, 2016

Nuclear Industry Recommendations For Obama Clean Power Plan

In comments filed today with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Nuclear Energy Institute recommends that the agency provide states with maximum flexibility to preserve existing nuclear energy facilities and take care not to worsen distortions in electricity markets that are placing some reactors at risk of premature closure. The Institute made these broad recommendations and more specific recommendations below on the agency's Federal Implementation Plan and model trading rules for the Clean Power Plan. 

Preserving and extending the operation of existing nuclear power plants is essential to achieving meaningful, sustainable carbon reductions from the U.S. electric sector. States should use the tools and techniques available under the Clean Power Plan to preserve nuclear power plants, which produce 63% of America's carbon-free electricity. Given this, as it finalizes the federal plan and the model rules, EPA should strive to achieve two broad objectives:

1)    Provide states flexibility to use the tools and techniques available under the Clean Power Plan to preserve existing nuclear energy capacity and promote cost-effective compliance; and 
2)    Prevent further electricity market distortion that is placing existing reactors at risk, or do not pick technology winners and losers when there is no factual or justifiable basis for doing so.

Specifically, NEI believes EPA should:
  • Develop and finalize rate-based and mass-based model rules, to provide states maximum possible flexibility based on their particular circumstances.
  • Ensure state plans demonstrate reasonable assurance that they will preserve existing carbon-free generating capacity, particularly the nuclear energy capacity on which the Clean Power Plan depends. 
  • The mass-based compliance option incorporating existing and new reactors is the only compliance pathway in the Clean Power Plan that preserves existing nuclear power plants. In those states that choose not to cover both new and existing sources, the Clean Power Plan should ensure that states use the tools available under a mass-based approach, including structuring allowance allocation, to preserve existing reactors.
  • Treat all forms of zero-carbon generation comparably, with respect to plan implementation elements like the CEIP and credit for allowance trades between mass- and rate-based plans.
  • Ensure that state plans provide market signals and incentives for companies to maintain existing nuclear power plants and undertake the capital investment necessary to renew reactor licenses for additional 20-year increments. Absent second license renewals, carbon reductions achieved between 2022 and 2030 may not be sustainable beyond 2030.
States have several options to recognize the carbon-free value of nuclear power plants, and thereby ensure that they continue to produce electricity. Illinois, for example, is considering a low-carbon portfolio standard that would preserve nuclear plants that provide 91% of its carbon-free electricity.  Similarly, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has instructed the state Public Service Commission develop a clean energy standard that would achieve the same effect – continued operation of nuclear power plants that provide 60% of the state's carbon-free electricity.  (NEI)

Flint, Michigan Water Crisis

Nearly two years ago, Flint Michigan, which is about 70 miles from the Great Lakes, decided to save money by switching it's water supply from Lake Huron (which they were paying the city of Detroit for), to the Flint River, a notorious tributary that runs through town known to locals for its filth.
    The switch was made during a financial state of emergency and was supposed to be temporary while a new state-run supply line to Lake Huron was ready for connection. The project was estimated to take about two years.  Soon after the switch, the water started to look, smell and taste funny. Residents said it often looked dirty.
    It was actually iron. The Flint River is highly corrosive: 19 times more so than the Lake Huron supply, according to researchers from Virginia Tech.
    According to a class-action lawsuit, the state Department of Environmental Quality wasn't treating the Flint River water with an anti-corrosive agent, in violation of federal law. Therefore, the water was eroding the iron water mains, turning water brown.
    But what residents couldn't see was far worse. About half of the service lines to homes in Flint are made of lead and because the water wasn't properly treated, lead began leaching into the water supply, in addition to the iron.
    This had been the status quo for nearly two years, and until September, city and state officials told worried residents that everything was fine. Former Flint Mayor Dayne Walling even drank it on local TV to make the point.
    But in August, a group of skeptical researchers from Virginia Tech came up and did in-home testing and found elevated levels of lead in the drinking water and made those findings public. State officials insisted their own research was more accurate.
    Later it became publicly known that federal law had not been followed. A 2011 study on the Flint River found it would have to be treated with an anti-corrosive agent for it to be considered as a safe source for drinking water.
    Adding that agent would have cost about $100 a day, and experts say 90% of the problems with Flint's water would have been avoided.
    But Flint residents say they were kept in the dark for 18 months until a local doctor took things into her own hands.  In the pediatric ward of Flint's Hurley Medical Center, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha was seeing more and more worried parents fretting over rashes and hair loss.  No one believed state and local officials when they said that this icky brown water was safe.
    At first, the state publicly denounced her work, saying she was causing near hysteria. They spent a week attacking her before reversing their narrative and admitting she was right.  They were being told by the DEQ that there wasn't a problem.
    In October, the city reverted to using Detroit's Lake Huron water supply, but the damage was done to the lead pipes.  Even with properly treated water flowing in, Virginia Tech researchers still detected lead levels -- albeit lower ones -- in water in Flint homes.
    The state is now handing out filters and bottled water.
    In 2011, Flint was declared to be in a financial state of emergency, and the state took budgetary control. Therefore, all the decisions made during the water crisis were at the state level, which state officials confirmed, not by the City Council or the mayor.
    When the governor appointed an emergency financial manager (in 2011), that person came here ... to simply do one thing and one thing only, and that's cut the budget.
    Lead poisoning is irreversible.  It drops your IQ, it affects your behavior, it's been linked to criminality, it has multigenerational impacts. There is no safe level of lead in a child.
    A state-appointed task force preliminarily found that fault lies with the state DEQ, and on December 29.  Last week, three months after high lead levels were detected in Flint children, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency over the issue.
    The U.S. Attorney in Michigan and the federal Environmental Protection Agency are also investigating why the state chose to ignore federal law and go without the anti-corrosive agent, as the lawsuit contends
    Residents, the former mayor, the current mayor, Congressman Kildee, city workers -- they all blame the governor's office and the state Department of Environmental Quality for what happened to Flint.  (CNN, 1/19/2016)

    Wednesday, January 20, 2016

    2015 Hottest Year on Record

    The heat record set in 2014 was shattered by the high temperatures in 2015, making last year the hottest year ever recorded, based on data going back to 1880, according to the NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). 
    Specifically, the year was 0.23 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than 2014, according to NASA. The measurement recorded by NOAA was slightly worse: 0.29 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than 2014. According to NOAA, 2015 was 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th century average.
    NASA and NOAA both keep independent global surface temperature datasets, measuring temperatures over both the land and the oceans using thermometers, ocean buoys and ship readings. The datasets do not always agree perfectly, but they showed relatively little disagreement this year.
    2015’s record heat — enhanced, especially in later months of the year, by a strong El NiƱo event that released warmth from the Pacific Ocean — was apparent long before the official declaration of the current record.
    Every month in 2015 except for January and April was the hottest of that month on record globally, according to NOAA. In other words, September of 2015 was the hottest September in 136 years, as was October of 2015, November of 2015, and so on.  (Wash Post, 1/20/2016)

    Friday, January 08, 2016

    Methane Leak In Aliso Canyon California

    An enormous amount of  methane gas is currently erupting from an energy facility in Aliso Canyon, California, at a rate of 110,000 pounds per hour. The gas has led to the evacuation 1,700 homes so far. Many residents have already filed lawsuits against the company that owns the facility, the Southern California Gas Company.
    Footage taken on December 17 shows a geyser of methane gas spewing from the Earth, visible by a specialized infrared camera operated by an Earthworks ITC-certified thermographer. The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) released the footage last week.
    In early December, the Southern California Gas Company (SCGC) said that plugging the leak, which sprang in mid-October, would take at least three more months. Right now, the single leak accounts for a quarter of the state's entire methane emissions.
    SCGC's efforts to stop the flow of gas by pumping fluids directly down the well have not yet been successful, so they have shifted their focus to stopping the leak through a relief well.  They are also exploring other options to stop the leak. The relief well process is on schedule to be completed by late February or late March.
    Part of the problem in stopping the leak lies in the base of the well, which sits 8,000 feet underground. Pumping fluids down into the well, usually the normal recourse, just isn’t working. Workers have been ”unable to establish a stable enough column of fluid to keep the force of gas from coming up from the reservoir” The company is now constructing a relief well that will connect to the leaking well, and hopefully provide a way to reduce pressure so the leak can be plugged.
    Methane, the main component of natural gas, is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide when it comes to climate change impact. About one-fourth of the anthropogenic global warming we’re experiencing today is due to methane emissions, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. Leaks like the current one in California, it turns out, are a major contributor.So far, over 150 million pounds of methane have been released by the leak, which connects to an enormous underground containment system. The cause of the leak is still unknown.  Research has also revealed that more than 38 percent of the pipes in Southern California Gas Company’s territory are more than 50 years old, and 16 percent are made from corrosion- and leak-prone materials.
    Right now, relief efforts have drilled only 3,800 feet down—less than half of the way to the base of the well. At that rate, the torrent of methane pouring into California won’t be stopped any time soon. (Motherboard, 12/26/2015)

    Thursday, January 07, 2016

    Electric Vehicles Can't Compete With Internal Combustion Engines

    The 2015 car-sale data are in: Americans bought a record 17.5 million passenger vehicles in the United States, of which 113,588 — 0.6 percent — were either plug-in hybrids or all-electrics, according to That was about 10,000 fewer than in 2014.

    Automakers have sold 404,176 electrics (EVs) since they hit the market in 2010. That is 0.16 percent of the 250 million-plus U.S. passenger vehicle fleet. Assuming all are still on the road, carmakers must sell 300,000 this year and next to reach 1 million, or 0.3 percent of the fleet, by 2018.

    The limiting factor is, was and will be for years the value proposition: Given the cost of advanced batteries, which has not come down as swiftly as EV boosters assumed, most EVs are still very expensive. Gas savings, however, can’t offset the higher purchase price, even when you factor in the $7,500 federal tax credit EV buyers get.  Unless and until that’s solved, the raison d’etre of electric cars, and of federal policies to favor them — making a significant dent in carbon emissions — will be null and void.
    Take the 2016 Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid that can go 50 miles or so on battery power before a gas motor kicks in. The Volt’s annual fuel cost (gas and electricity) is $250 less than the yearly gas tab for a comparable Mazda 3, according to the Energy Department.  However, the Volt’s list price (with all the options and after the tax credit) is $3,525 more than a similarly equipped Mazda 3’s. Do the math: The Volt’s gas savings will offset the price differential in 14 years.  Two-dollar-a-gallon gas isn’t doing anything to help the EV value proposition.

    Tesla? Priced north of $100,000.  Tesla did sell 50,580 vehicles worldwide in 2015.  Tesla owes its survival to subsidies.   This Silicon Valley start-up has gotten $4.9 billion in state and federal support over the past decade, according to a May 30 Los Angeles Times report.   The Times’s figure doesn’t include the tax breaks and other incentives for EV buyers in Norway, whose inhabitants had purchased 8,700 Tesla Model S’s as of October — roughly 10 percent of Model S sales worldwide since its introduction — according to the Norwegian Embassy in Washington.
    In September 2012, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the U.S. government was on course to subsidize EV production and sales to the tune of $7.5 billion through 2019.  We might have gotten more carbon reduction, sooner, if the government had spent that much money on things other than tax breaks for retrofitting coal plants to burn natural gas or nuclear power. (Wash Post, 1/6/2016)

    Tuesday, January 05, 2016

    Natural Gas Spot Price in 2015 Lowest Since 1999

    graph of monthly and annual average natural gas spot price at Henry Hub, as explained in the article text

    Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on Natural Gas Intelligence

    Natural gas spot prices in 2015 at the Henry Hub in Louisiana, a national benchmark, averaged $2.61 per million British thermal unit (MMBtu), the lowest annual average level since 1999. Daily prices fell below $2/MMBtu this year for the first time since 2012. Henry Hub spot prices began the year relatively low and fell throughout 2015, as production and storage inventories hit record levels and fourth-quarter temperatures were much warmer than normal.
    graph of monthly average natural gas spot prices at key trading hubs, as explained in the article text
    Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on Natural Gas Intelligence

    Natural gas prices at key regional trading hubs ended the year lower than their starting point. At northeastern locations, where natural gas transmission infrastructure is often constrained, prices spiked in the early months of 2015, which were colder than normal compared to much of the United States. Prices at the Algonquin Citygate, which serves Boston, and at Transcontinental Pipeline's Zone 6, which serves New York City, began the year much higher than the Henry Hub spot prices in early 2015, but then fell below the national benchmark for much of the rest of the year. The annual average spot price at Henry Hub of $2.61/MMBtu was $1.78/MMBtu, or 41%, lower than the 2014 average.
    Despite declining prices, total natural gas production, measured in terms of dry gas volume, averaged an estimated 74.9 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d) in 2015, 6.3% greater than in 2014. This increase occurred even as the number of natural gas-directed drilling rigs decreased. As of December 18, there were 168 natural gas-directed rigs in operation, only about half the number of rigs at the beginning of 2015, according to data from Baker Hughes Inc. However, the remaining rigs are among the most productive, and producers have continued to make gains in drilling efficiency.
    graph of monthly natural gas production and consumption, as explained in the article text
    Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Natural Gas Monthly

    Low prices and strong production led to increase use of natural gas for electric power generation, which is projected to be about 26.5 Bcf/d in 2015, exceeding the 24.9 Bcf/d level in 2012. Natural gas surpassed coal as the leading source of electricity generation on a monthly basis for the first time in April, and again in each of the four months from July through October.
    In the residential and commercial sectors, which use natural gas primarily for heating, consumption in 2015 declined 6.7% and 4.4%, respectively, from the previous year largely because of warmer weather. Natural gas consumption in the residential and commercial sectors was particularly high in 2014 because of cold temperatures in the first and fourth quarters. Although 2015 had a cold start, temperatures in the fourth quarter were warmer than normal throughout most of the United States.
    graph of natural gas in underground storage, as explained in the article text
    Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Weekly Natural Gas Storage Report

    Growth in production also allowed for strong builds in working natural gas inventory. Inventories surpassed 4,000 Bcf for the first time, reaching 4,009 Bcf in the week ending November 20.
    With much of the growth in natural gas production in the Marcellus and Utica shale regions in the Midwest, several major pipeline projects came online in 2015 to transport natural gas from these plays to consumers. In August 2015, the Rockies Express Pipeline (REX) reversal was completed. REX, one of the longest natural gas pipelines in the United States, began service in 2009 to bring Rockies gas eastward. As Marcellus production increased, however, demand in the East for natural gas produced in the Rockies declined. The REX reversal added westbound capacity to enable the transport of natural gas produced in the Marcellus and Utica Shale regions to consuming markets in the Midwest. Several other new pipeline projects began to take natural gas produced in the Marcellus and Utica regions to consumer areas on the East Coast, Midwest, and Gulf Coast area. (DOE-EIA)