Nuclear power may be America’s most controversial source of energy. A dam can drown a stunning stretch of river. Coal may loom larger in climate and public health debates, given its airborne pollutants and toxins buried in coal-ash dumps dotting the nation. Solar-thermal plants, seen as environmentally benign, can incinerate birds in mid-flight. Using any technology has consequences, but with nuclear power, they feel more . . . consequential. It might be origins of nuclear power in the fires of World War II. It could be echoes of Chernobyl or Fukushima. Whatever the reason, bring up nuclear and you may generate heat that has nothing to do with physics.
The Nuclear Landscape
Whatever the opinions, these are the facts – 95 reactors at 57 plants in 29 states supply about 20% of America’s electricity. As mentioned earlier in this series, nuclear plants are baseload plants. They operate at maximum output nearly all the time, except when refueling or during maintenance. The oldest active reactor came online in 1969, the newest in 2016 – the latter the first such in 20 years. Two more reactors are now under construction in Georgia. And though we’re down from 107 units operating in 2003 –upgrades and more efficient refueling mean total output is about the same as it was 17 years ago. France remains the most nuclear-heavy country – more than 70% of its power comes from fission. But in terms of total output, the US still leads the world.
It’s all driven by physics on a scale that’s hard to grasp. Atoms of a few heavy, unstable elements like uranium are prone to split, or “fission”. In the process, they release neutrons – neutral subatomic particles – and huge amounts of energy. As those neutrons speed away, they hit other atoms. Some of them split, releasing more neutrons and more energy. That energy boils water, which generates steam, which turns a turbine – and so on into the grid. Under controlled conditions, you’re in the control room of a nuclear power plant as smokeless fire converts steam to electricity. Under uncontrolled conditions, you’re in the New Mexico desert on July 16th, 1945, as light brighter than the sun springs from the earth.
Keeping intense heat and potentially deadly radioactivity under control is an expensive, complex process. American reactors are surrounded by massive containment domes of concrete and steel. They’re cooled by networks of pumps and condensers backed up by multiply redundant systems in case of emergency or loss of power. And given their fuel, they’re operated to the most exacting standards in any industry in terms of security. All this adds up. It’s not that nuclear power is all that expensive in terms of routine operations, fuel and maintenance. EIA data show that between 2008 and 2018, these costs for fossil plants ranged from 3.5.to 4.1 cents per kilowatt-hour. For hydropower, it was .9 to 1.2 cents and for nuclear, ranging from 2.1 to 2.7 cents.
Up-Front Costs vs. Climate Benefits
What has tilted the table against nuclear projects in recent years has been costs – driven by this need for safety. An example: the Tennessee Valley Authority began construction on its Watts Bar plant in 1974. By the time a second reactor was done in 2016, total costs for the project hit $12 billion. “Abundance of caution” fits the industry’s outlook. After the Fukushima tsunami in 2013, new flood protection measures more than 6% to the costs of that second TVA reactor. And in Georgia, two new units for the Vogtle plant, first priced at $14 billion in 2009, are now estimated at $25.7 billion.
Despite high capital costs, nuclear power has one huge advantage over other forms of electricity in an era confronting climate limits. It produces power without producing CO2 or other greenhouse gases. Obviously, building plants and parts and refining fuel consume energy and generate greenhouse gases. But nuclear plants – with up to nearly 4 gigawatts of capacity, and operating flat-out for months on end – do so without any GHGs. With this in mind, there’s a big effort to extend the lives of nuclear plants now in service through the USDOE with improved materials, plant upgrades and risk analysis.
There’s been a great deal of time and money invested in developing the next generation of nuclear technology. We’re now in the fourth generation of plant designs, though none have gone beyond prototypes. Some designs use water at very high pressure, others use helium or molten salt as coolants. This next generation is designed to operate at higher temperatures, use much less fuel and generate way less waste. Some new designs can use nuclear waste as fuel. An additional important field is the development of passive safety designs – reactors that need no or minimal human intervention in emergencies.
Finally, given the high costs of nuclear, modular design is seen as the wave of the future. Smaller, more efficient reactors could allow for deployments of this form of low-carbon power without the enormous costs seen in current projects. Whether economic conditions and public opinion permit the deployment of this fourth generation will be one of the big climate/energy questions of the 2020s.
Batteries are ancient, by today’s tech standards. Benjamin Franklin is the first person we know of to use the term, and the first published science on the topic dates to 1791. The days of metal disks stacked in brine are long gone (except in middle school science class). Lead-acid batteries in cars and golf carts are still common and will be for years, given their low cost. But the focus here is on the next generation of large-scale systems. And the question is how these batteries – bigger and more powerful than anything we’ve known – can redefine and remake the world’s electrical grid.
You’ve likely heard the expression “lightning in a bottle”. Storing electricity at industrial scale is very much like that. Electricity moves fast. In copper wire or other conductors, it’s traveling at somewhere between 50% and 99% of the speed of light. And in grid operations, it has to be sold – that is, used – as soon as it’s produced. If it isn’t, grid and utility engineers run the risk of power plants disconnecting, since they’re only designed to run in a very narrow range of conditions. What this next generation of battery tech provides is a way to store that electricity and in doing so provide a whole basket of benefits – financial, technical and environmental.
Arguably the biggest single benefit battery storage provides is the ability to capture electricity from renewable sources. Obviously, the wind doesn’t always blow. And even when it does, that’s an issue in itself. In February 2017, the Danes powered their entire country for 24 hours on windpower. But if a wind farm produces more power than needed, the system operator must start shutting down turbines or face overloading the grid. And while the sun defines “predictable”, solar plants only provide power for so many hours per day. Large-scale storage means that intermittent, low-cost, and environmentally-friendly electricity can be stored now and used later.
Having large amounts of electricity in storage and ready to go at a moment’s notice is a financial boost for power companies. It means that utilities can sell back low-cost power from renewables to meet peak demand; when power sells for far more than it cost to generate. It also means that utilities can meet their own demand spikes without having to pay the often-bruising high prices electricity markets produce at peak demand.
There’s more. Energy storage can improve the system’s operating reserve. Like energy, the grid is always moving – more demand here, less demand there, big storms and equipment failures now and again. It’s a dance that never stops. Engineers and analysts meet these constant changes with machines and data to keep the system balanced. But they are never 100% correct in predicting what will happen on any given day. Having stored reserve power that can be deployed in seconds boosts the operating reserve, and in doing so, boosts grid stability. Improving stability can mean lower infrastructure investment costs. It can also cut the costs of “black starts” when generators go down. Typically, they have to be restarted with diesel generators, but battery systems for just this purpose have already been successfully tested.
So, what do utility-scale batteries look like? Imagine shipping containers lined up in an electrical substation, or row after row of gigantic desktop computer towers. The Hornsdale Power Reserve, in South Australia, was designed and built by Tesla. It uses lithium-ion batteries (like in your computer) and provides 129 MWh of power – enough to supply all the electricity for about 3,500 homes for an hour. These projects sound large, though total deployments to date are tiny – globally about 6 GWh through 2018. But there’s one simple fact that you need to remember. In 2010, commercial battery packs cost about $1,100 per kilowatt-hour. By December 2019, that price had fallen to $156 per kilowatt-hour, a drop of 87% – and nearly 50% of that total decline came in the preceding three years. With costs set to break the $100 mark by as early as 2024, batteries are increasingly likely to be included in energy infrastructure and development for years to come.
You have power.
Your access to energy would have cracked human credulity for most of our species’ time on earth. For millennia, we elbowed away the margins of night with the smoking glow of wood, grass or buffalo chips. Just 200 years ago, whale oil and candles lit the homes of a slowly industrializing world—for those who could afford them. For those who couldn’t, wood remained the main source of light, heat and cooking, along with the coal that drove that industrialization. Now, in an eye-blink of human history, we have become the beneficiaries of a world in frenzied motion.
The energy we use never stops moving. It hurtles from point to point at velocities approaching the speed of light. It slowly plows the oceans in ships big enough to dwarf the fever-dreams of Pharaohs. It is explosive coal dust shot into a furnace, feeding flames five stories high hot enough to melt platinum. It is water roaring 600 feet down a pipe, turning a generator the width of a small house 100 times per minute. It is mazes of pipes and conduits, steam and heat, toxic and explosive chemicals, all combining to refine Jurassic sunlight into jet fuel and gasoline. It is today’s sunlight knocking electrons out of their orbits and into batteries and wires. It is the fission of a single uranium atom unleashing enough energy to make a grain of sand visibly jump, triggered by a neutron moving 1.4 miles per second in reactor spaces unimaginably dense with such reactions. This frenzied motion never stops, only occasionally slows, and makes our world—food, music, lighting, medicine, communications, trade, everything—possible.
As Americans, how does all this shake out? What drives our nation’s energy system today, and what will that system look like tomorrow? And what kind of future do we face as the consequences of this vast, and amazingly productive disruption become clearer? These are the kinds of questions this continuing series of short essays will try and provide some answers to.
We are Metropolitan Energy Center. Part of our mission is to present the best information available on energy, its principles, power and drawbacks, whether it’s heating your house or powering your car. We’ll be covering a lot of ground–from the grid to the feedlot, and from alternative fuels to solar technology. We’ll touch directly on the projects we pursue and probe larger questions of energy policy. We hope that in the process we can hold your interest, provide food for thought, and perhaps puncture a few myths about what new technologies can and can’t do.
Things are already moving fast, and we hope you’ll hop on board for this excursion.
By: Meggan Shoberg
The health and safety of students in the classroom is of crucial importance. According to the U.S. Department of Education, currently 55 million people spend their time in K-12 buildings. That is about 20 percent of our current population! Teachers, students, administration, and staff are all spending a majority of their time indoors, between the walls of these vital buildings. The students who reside in these buildings consume more oxygen than their adult counterparts, and are afflicted by poor indoor air quality, inefficient energy systems and health risks at a higher rate.
Many Midwest schools have been recipients of Energy Star Awards, and that is an amazing first step to creating the best environment for learning. There are a couple of key considerations to make when analyzing your school building’s efficient and indoor air quality:
- Energy Star and other energy benchmarking programs are a standard for adults, not children. So, area schools should be looking to not just achieve minimum standards, but exceed them to accommodate their most vulnerable residents.
- Look at the building’s efficiency during occupied periods of time. While over a 24-hour period, a school may warrant acceptable results, these facilities are unoccupied a portion of the time and experience high traffic during school hours. Energy efficiency measures should account for the time that the building is actually using energy, not when it’s sitting dormant.
Over the next few months, we will be diving into the topic of efficiency, maintenance and indoor air quality of schools. We’ll be covering the benefits, low-cost improvement measures, EPA tools, and how Metropolitan Energy Center is a great partner for your school’s efficiency project. Stay tuned in the coming months as we explore this critical compenent to protecting the health of our students, and contact Meggan@metroenergy.org with questions about how your school can improve its efficiency.
By: Mary English
Those that have been in the lighting business a long time can probably remember the struggle of energy efficient lighting: The product came into the market higher priced than their older cousins, the fluorescent light bulb. They were too bright. Too white. What was the benefit?
The benefit, it turned out, was energy savings. Lots and lots of energy savings. (Some would say the aesthetics have since caught up to this benefit as well.) However, since the habit was to change out light bulbs once the old ones aged and burned out, the lighting retrofit took a while to gain traction.
We now find ourselves in the same situation with a new product package in the commercial market: the humble motor, fan, and VFD packaged retrofit for HVAC and refrigeration.
HVAC takes up to 30-50% of your utility bills according to the US Department of Energy and field experts — and the vast majority of commercial properties are wasting money on inefficient equipment. This is due to manufacturers cutting costs with the original cheaper components to boost margin. One of these main components is the motor that drives the air flow in forced air systems.
There has been a new kid in town for quite some time, but it remains virtually unknown to those in the energy efficiency business: electronically commutated motors (ECM). These motors are 70% more efficient than their older cousins, the shaded pole motor. This technology has been around for decades, but has remained virtually unused since it hasn’t been mandated by code.
The mandate for brand new equipment is about to change from the DOE this June for brand new installs, but this still leaves almost 90% – including relatively new systems – in HVAC and refrigeration installed with these old motors that burn through your utility dollars much like the old incandescent light bulbs. Most people upgrade their equipment when it breaks down, just like businesses waited until their light bulbs burned out in the old days. This thinking is short sighted, especially when you see how much impact on energy use a new motor retrofit can have on your bottom line.
A Kansas City based company – FridgeWize – is out to change minds and bring awareness to this opportunity in the commercial market. They are uniquely positioned in that they are the only company in the U.S. with a business model to retrofit high efficiency ECM’s to end-user businesses and property owners nationwide.
Founded in 2010, they have already done retrofits nationwide in major chain restaurants. One such nationwide retrofit saved over 5-million kilowatt hours (kWh) over 450 restaurant locations – that is the equivalent of a 2 megawatt solar field (at almost five times less the cost of renewable installs). For energy wonks, the numbers are fun to see. In refrigeration, FridgeWize consistently sees 80-90% energy savings when retrofitting an old shaded pole motor with an ECM and their own carbon fiber blade where they have a patent pending (see Image 1) on the walk-in cooling units.
In more traditional HVAC air delivery – such as roof top units, air handlers and VAV fan boxes – the kWh savings are not as aggressive, but still better than any other more common retrofits in the industry; and roughly 10% the cost of replacing an entire HVAC system. FridgeWize in several case studies has seen roughly 60% reduction in kWh’s on the power needed to operate the blower fans when using ECM’s along with a variable speed drive (VFD). This is illustrated in Image 2.
FridgeWize has seen validation in the last several years through international awards won in the industry. In 2016 they won the illustrious Energy Efficient Product of the Year for HVAC&R. The firm’s CEO, Ryan Grobler, was presented the award in London after beating out high profile products from the likes of Mitsubishi and Samsung manufacturers.
“We are excited to be in Kansas City as this community thrives in sustainable leadership. We have been flying below the radar, but with the aggressive rebates being offered by KCP&L for our products, we don’t think we will be a secret much longer,” said Grobler. “With the rebates, we’re looking at return on investment for these retrofits in 1 – 2 years max.”
The rebates Grobler mentioned are the 75% HVAC bonus rebate being offered by KCP&L through September of this year, or when the money runs out – whichever comes first.
For more information on FridgeWize and their retrofit products, they can be reached at 913-579-8484 or email@example.com.
Some images courtesy of all-free-download.com