Tuesday, August 23, 2011

An earthquake, in Virginia??

This is a guest post by Rebecca Anderson, ACE Sierra's Educator and Team Scientist

This is weird. Today at 1:51 pm Eastern time a 5.9 magnitude earthquake struck northwest of Richmond, VA. It was felt as far north as New York City.

Being a native East-coaster myself, I can tell you that we don’t get earthquakes in that part of the country. This means people, buildings and bridges are pretty unprepared for an event like this. Thankfully, I haven’t heard any reports of fatalities or serious injuries yet and hopefully that continues.

But this earthquake has got me thinking. Earthquakes have nothing to do with climate change. We know this. Some quakes can strike out of the blue, like this one, in such a random place that there’s no way you could have predicted it. But other places, like along the San Andreas fault in California, you know that living there goes along with the risk of earthquakes. Scientists put a lot of work into calculating those risks and buildings and bridges are built accordingly.

In this way, earthquakes give us a good analogy for dealing with climate change. The risks are understood and the precautions to minimize the risks are also known. You never know on a given day, even in California, if an earthquake is going to strike or not. Likewise, you never know when a big storm, flood or wildfire will hit. But, much like living along the San Andreas fault, with climate change we know that the chances of these events happening – flooding of the Mississippi, drought in Texas, wildfires in the southwest, this summer’s heat wave – are going up. As the venerable Stephen Schneider said, “We are loading the dice.”

Here’s where we get to the difference. Earthquakes are caused by nothing less than seismic ruptures deep inside the Earth, set off by the forces of plate tectonics. There’s not a lot we can do about that. Climate change, on the other hand, we know we can do something about. The cause of this problem is us and that means the solution can be, is and will be u

One of the best parts of my job with ACE is that I know this. I see it every week at high schools in Sacramento, Reno and in between. Those were my kids who started the Eco Warriors Action Team at Reed High in Sparks, NV. Inspired by ACE, they won $12,000 to green their school’s bathrooms. That was my girl, Laura Dang from West Campus High in Sacramento, showing off not just her DOT (Do One Thing to help the environment), but her 15 DOTs in ACE’s DOT Detectives contest this summer.

One of the coolest things I read about the earthquake is that people were getting tweets about it happening in DC just seconds before they actually felt the quake itself. That means with technology, we are faster even that those speedy P waves. Imagine what we’re capable of!

We know it: Climate change is not an earthquake. It’s our mess, we made it and we gotta solve it. Thousands of young people across the country are heading back to school, rejoining their ACE Action Teams and getting to work.

Step 1: Solve climate change.

Step 2: Stop plate tectonics.

Read more!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

National Journal: Surviving the Coming Clean Tech Crash

Over at the National Journal's Energy forum, my Breakthrough Institute colleague Alex Trembath and I have a new submission to their ongoing discussion asking "How Can Washington Green America's Economy?" Here's the full text...

Before discussing the best way to green the economy, it’s important to note that the U.S. economy has been greening steadily over the past three years. Buoyed by the policies established and extended by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the largest federal investment in clean tech in American history, the clean energy industry has experienced precipitous growth, as documented by Mark Muro and colleagues at the Brookings Metro program in their recent "Sizing the Clean Economy" report.

Unfortunately, the path of progress may be coming to an end. Our research shows that over 70% of the federal policies and funding support for clean energy that has catalyzed the recent growth of the industry is expected to lapse in the next three years, or has already expired. And make no mistake—clean energy is an industry dependent on government subsidy: tax credits, depreciation and other subsidies compose one third or more of the total after-tax value of most solar, wind or other renewable energy projects, for example. So while ARRA provided a “down payment” on a green economy, as these public investments fade away, we are now more likely to witness a clean tech crash than a clean tech revolution.

As the current programs supporting clean energy, like the Production Tax Credit (PTC) and Section 1603 Treasury Grants, approach their expiration, there are a number of steps the federal government can and must take to avert an impending industry crash.

The first would be to get serious about the long-term energy innovation challenge. Until clean energy becomes cheap and cost competitive without subsidy, the pace of clean energy growth will remain constrained and the markets will face continual risk of industry busts if subsidy and policy support changes. We must treat energy innovation with the same priority we afford other national innovation quests, such as the Apollo or Manhattan Projects or the quest to cure cancer. We must invest far more -- eventually on the order of $15 billion annually -- and far more wisely -- restructuring America's energy innovation system and supporting effective new policy models such as the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs), and new public-private regional innovation consortia.

Second, Congress can establish a Clean Energy Deployment Administration (CEDA). CEDA would act as a public investment bank whose mission is to help leverage private-sector investment to bring emerging, innovative clean technologies to commercial maturity. CEDA would bridge the commercialization “Valley of Death” and provide a viable and predictable development path for technologies from the laboratory to grid-scale deployment. The Congressional Budget Office calculates that the agency would cost just $1.1 billion over the next four years. While leveraging billions more in private sector investment, the public bank would return profits from investments and financial products to the fund, making CEDA self-sustaining over time.

Another needed policy change is to reform the current clean energy deployment subsidy regime for maturing energy technologies, which today is comprised of a hodgepodge of tax credits like the PTC and the Investment Tax Credit, depreciation benefits and grants that primarily incentivize firms to deploy more of the same, current-generation technology. Instead, we need a smarter new deployment mechanism that is disciplined and designed to drive technology innovation to decrease the unsubsidized cost of clean energy so that it can be competitive without perpetual subsidy. Such a policy could augment a national renewable or clean energy standard (RES/CES) with a set of technology tiers based on technology maturity, which would provide the incentive for utilities to adopt and deploy clean energy technologies across a range of maturities, and demand continual cost reductions from technology firms over time. One way to augment this smart deployment policy would be with a small price on carbon, wires fee on electricity, or oil import fee, which instead of returning a dividend to consumers would generate dedicated revenues for a federal energy R&D fund to help support the continual innovation needed to get clean tech costs down to parity with fossil competitors.

The fate of many ARRA policies remains uncertain, and the unpredictable political machinations of the “supercongress” and ongoing deficit debate in Washington bring yet more volatility to the clean tech policy debate. Nobody expects a second down payment on the green economy on the scale of the last several years. But as current subsidy support runs out, Washington must support the industry by investing more and differently in clean energy innovation to maintain America’s position in the global clean tech race and avoid an ongoing cycle of clean tech boom-and-bust in the future.

Read more!

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Say No to 'No Nukes' Revival

My colleague Sara Mansur & I have an op ed in today's San Francisco Chronicle, issuing a stern rebuttal to the revival of the "No Nukes" concerts this Sunday at Shoreline in Mountain View, CA.

The world has changed since the original five-night concert series in 1979. An anti-nuclear position may have made good sense then, but is no longer tenable today.

Graham Nash and the MUSE cadre of septuagenerian rockers appear woefully ignorant of the real intergenerational threat faced in the 21st century -- climate change -- and the implications that a 'No Nukes' world would have for public health and the environment.

You can find the print edition in today's Chronicle and an extended edition online here.

Read more!

Thursday, June 30, 2011

UNIDO: Does energy efficiency lead to increased energy consumption?

In the pages of United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO)'s Making It quarterly magazine, I and my colleague and Breakthrough Institute Senior Fellow Harry Saunders published an article explaining the impact and implications of the energy demand "rebound effect" spurred on by energy efficiency.

The article builds upon the Breakthrough Institute's "Energy Emergence: Rebound and Backfire as Emergent Phenomena," a comprehensive literature review pointing to the expert consensus and evidence that below-cost energy efficiency measures drive a rebound in energy consumption that can erode much of expected energy savings.

Read the full article: "Hot topic: Does energy efficiency lead to increased energy consumption?," Making It June, 2011

In the article, we argue:

Truly cost-effective energy efficiency measures lower the effective price of the services derived from fuel consumption - heating, cooling, transportation, industrial processes, etc. - leading consumers and industry alike to demand more of these services. There are other indirect and economy-wide effects as well, as consumers re-spend money saved through efficiency on other energy-consuming goods and services, industrial sectors adjust to changes in the relative prices of final and intermediate goods, and greater energy productivity causes the economy as a whole to grow. Collectively, these economic mechanisms drive a rebound in demand for energy services that can erode much - and in some cases all - of the expected reductions in total energy use, along with much-hoped-for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Furthermore, rebound effects are often most pronounced in the productive sectors of the economy, including industry and agriculture, as well as throughout the world's emerging economies.


Conventional climate mitigation strategies count on energy efficiency to do a great deal of work. For example, the IEA in a global climate stabilization scenario published by the agency in December 2009, estimates that efficiency measures could account for roughly half of the emissions reductions needed. Yet, from a climate or global resource conservation perspective, rebound effects mean that for every two steps forward taken through greater efficiency, rebounds take us one (or more) steps backwards. This is particularly true throughout the developing world, and in the productive sectors of the global economy.

A clear understanding of rebound effects therefore demands a fundamental re-assessment of energy efficiency’s role in global climate mitigation efforts.

A continued failure to accurately and rigorously account for rebound effects risks an over-reliance on the ability of efficiency to deliver lasting reductions in energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. Without a greater emphasis on the other key climate mitigation lever at our disposal – the de-carbonization of global energy supplies through the deployment and improvement of low-carbon energy sources – the global community will fall dangerously short of climate mitigation goals.

At the same time, however, we can re-affirm the role of energy efficiency efforts in expanding human welfare and fueling global economic development. Unlocking the full potential of efficiency may very well mean the difference between a richer, more efficient world, and a poorer, less efficient world. The former is clearly the desirable case – even if the world uses more or less the same amount of energy in either scenario.

The pursuit of any and all cost-effective efficiency opportunities should thus continue as a key component of an efficient course for global development, even as we reconsider the degree to which these measures can contribute to climate mitigation efforts.
You can also find an introductory FAQ on the rebound effect here.

Read more!

Friday, June 24, 2011

5 Reasons I Love the Solar Panel Industry

Its funny how a simple thing like a computer virus can make take a step back appreciate your business. This morning a virus shut down my computer and let me have some time to just think about the business I have. (Anyone else notice how useless you are without a computer these days?)

And in thinking about my business I was able to break down what I love about this industry and why.

1. The People
The people in the solar power industry are different. They get it. Sure there are some jerks and scam artists, but for the most part they people in this business are here because they are passionate about renewable energy and want their work to make a difference. And this translates to how they relate to others and conduct themselves. And the customers that are interested in solar panels usually share the enthusiasm and become infected by it.

2. The Purpose
In my previous business I owned a concrete and excavation company. And my purpose was to make as much money as possible. I wanted to do good work, and provide a living for my employees, but at the end of the day there was very little satisfaction. With solar, I know that even a little system is going to provide clean energy instead of using fossil fuels, and that is very satisfying. Knowing that I can make a good living and help people and the planet? Slam dunk.

3. The Science
I’ll admit it, I’m no genius. How solar power actually works is still a bit of a mystery to me. I know the basics of photons and electrons and yada yada. But how this wonderful science came to be and how we actually turn sunshine into power still amazes me. Making something powerful and wonderful out of something you can’t really see sounds like the stuff of children’s books, and the child in me loves it for that reason.

4. The Technology
I love it that this business changes, if even a little, everyday. All over the world, at any given moment, someone is having a ‘Eureka’ moment in a lab somewhere that will improve how solar power works for us. Whether its more efficient solar panels, racking systems, inverter technology or even financing, millions of people worldwide are working their butts off to make this technology more viable and more affordable.

5. The Future
I’ve never had a business where I could look into the future and say “In 10 years, this industry will be lightyears ahead of where we are now”. Whether its rules requiring solar panels on all buildings (eg in Japan), costs being cut in half, or just widespread acceptance of solar as an alternative to dirty fuels, the future is bright. There will be bumps and misses and setbacks, but the future belongs to solar.

Kriss Bergethon is an entrepreneur and solar writer from Colorado, visit his site at Solar Panels for more information.

Read more!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Webinar - Fukushima and Nuclear Power: Can we live without it?

Live Webcast June 29, 3 PM ET / 12 PM PT

Following the earthquake and tsunamis that tragically impacted Japan in March, the unfolding crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant has captured public attention for months. Energy experts are now questioning the long term impact of the Fukushima disaster on nuclear policy, international power generation, and the global carbon picture:

  • How has the Fukushima crisis impacted public opinion and policy debates about nuclear energy?
  • What do countries like Japan and Germany stand to gain or lose by giving up nuclear power generation?
  • What is the carbon cost of giving up nuclear plants?
  • How will countries that move away from nuclear make up that power elsewhere?
  • Has the demise of the nuclear industry been exaggerated? While some countries are taking aggressive steps away from nuclear, some accounts suggest that overall, the number of nuclear plants continues to grow.

  • Join The Energy Collective's latest webcast as we seek answers to these questions and discuss nuclear power's role in our energy future. Register here today.

    You'll hear from:

    Matthew Wald is a Reporter for the Washington Bureau at The New York Times, covering environmental and energy issues, as well as transportation, aviation and highway safety. Having joined The Times in October 1976 as a news clerk in the newspaper’s Washington bureau, Wald held positions at the New York metropolitan desk, the State Capitol in Hartford, and as a national correspondent, covering a variety of areas including housing and nuclear power, before joining the Washington bureau in September 1996. Wald has covered the Fukushima crisis extensively in the New York Times.

    Edward Kee is a VP at NERA Economic Consulting and a specialist in the electricity industry with experience in nuclear power, electricity markets, restructuring, regulation, private power, and related issues. For more than 20 years, he has provided testimony as an expert witness on a range of electricity industry issues in state and federal courts, before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and before other legal and regulatory bodies in the US and around the world. Mr. Kee also provides strategic advice to companies and governments on issues related to the nuclear and electricity industries. Mr. Kee holds an MBA from Harvard University and a BS in Systems Engineering from the US Naval Academy.

    Jesse Jenkins is Director of Energy and Climate Policy at theBreakthrough Institute, and is one of the country's leading energy and climate policy analysts and advocates. He is the co-author with Devon Swezey of the "Rising Tigers, Sleeping Giant" report on global clean energy competitiveness strategies, and is currently working on an update to the report. Jesse has written for publications including the San Francisco Chronicle, Baltimore Sun, Yale Environment 360, Grist.org, and HuffingtonPost.com, and his published works on energy policy have been cited by many more. He is founder and chief editor of WattHead - Energy News and Commentary and a featured writer at the Energy Collective.

    Marc Gunther is a veteran journalist, speaker, writer and consultant whose focus is business and sustainability. Marc is a contributing editor at FORTUNE magazine, a senior writer atGreenbiz.com, and a lead blogger at The Energy Collective. He's also a husband and father, a lover of the outdoors and a marathon runner. Marc is the author or co-author of four books, including Faith and Fortune: How Compassionate Capitalism is Transforming American Business. He's a graduate of Yale who lives in Bethesda, MD.

    Read more!

    Tuesday, June 14, 2011

    ACE students offer White House fresh ideas to spur energy efficiency

    Shreya Indukuri and Daniela Lapidous, ACE Youth Advisory Board members and juniors at the Harker School in San Jose, CA, paid a visit to the White House yesterday, but they didn't just go for a tour. Through working with ACE, this energy-smart duo is scaling up their efforts to spur efficient energy use in America’s high schools – and sharing their ideas with America’s leaders.

    Yesterday, in front of an invite-only audience of CEOs, White House advisors, and utility industry leaders, Shreya and Daniela shared the story of how they reduced their school’s energy use by 13 percent and founded their own non-profit, SmartPowerEd.

    They shared a stage with U.S. Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu; Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack; Director of the Office of Science and Technology, John Holdren; and Chairperson of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, Nancy Sutley.

    In their talk, they let our leaders know that young people care about the future and energy use, and that they are ready to get involved with solutions. They closed with two questions for Secretary Chu and others: how are you going to harness the potential of young people? How are you going to prioritize energy education and inspire young people to act?

    You can see a video of their talk with White House officials here. More to come from ACE's Emily Adler, who accompanied Shreya and Daniela to the event. What a day!

    Read more!

    Thursday, May 26, 2011

    How Much Gas Do You Use? Track Gas Use With This New Widget.

    As the Memorial Day Weekend approaches, many of us are planning road trips — according to the American Automobile Association (AAA), over 30 million Americans will get in their personal vehicles for a weekend get-away, with many driving hundreds of miles.

    Although gas prices have dropped slightly during the past few weeks, they are still a dollar per gallon higher than they were one year ago at this time. These prices have made many of us think hard about the efficiency of our vehicles — how much is it costing us to drive?

    We have developed a tool to help you determine the costs of driving your car or truck, including how much carbon dioxide (CO2) your vehicle produces. Carbon dioxide is a key greenhouse gas that is contributing to global warming. Using the tool below, select your state, your car’s gas mileage, and how many miles you drive in a typical year (default values are set to national averages).

    This widget — which you are welcome to embed on your webpage — also displays the CO2 emissions that result from a particular amount of driving. Gas price data are automatically updated daily from the AAA.

    Read more!

    Thursday, May 05, 2011

    Weighing in on the Gas Tax Debate

    By Jesse Jenkins and Sara Mansur

    Kevin Drum's recent post on the low price elasticity of demand for oil has reignited an old debate over gas taxes and energy innovation.

    Drum draws our attention to some "eye popping" figures for price elasticity of demand for oil from the IMF. According to Drum, these elasticities mean that, in the short term, a 50 percent increase in price leads to a 1.2 percent decrease in consumption. In the long term, it leads to a 4.7 percent decrease.

    Conservative blogger Jim Manzi rightly points out that, with elasticities as low as these, a gas tax at any politically realistic level is not going to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

    Specifically, to the extent that we continue to progress in making non-fossil-fuels technology cheaper and more effective for an ever wider array of applications, we can accelerate the ongoing de-carbonization of our economy. The idea of economists to use artificial scarcity pricing to do this is aggressively marketed in blogs, magazines and TV shows, but is extremely unlikely to work, because the current price elasticity of oil is so low. The work of engineers and physical scientists, however, is likely to be determinative.
    In response, several bloggers have argued that these elasticities are underestimated, pointing to the unreliability of estimates of long-run price elasticity of oil demand in general and to other literature with higher estimates than the IMF study. While the IMF estimates are low, revised estimates certainly aren't so high as to penalize consumption, particularly in the absence of viable, and cheap alternatives to fossil-fuel based technologies.

    This brings us to a second, crucial reason that a gas tax won't solve our dependence on foreign oil. As Matt Hourihan of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation argues on Andrew Sullivan's blog, price hikes alone won't do much to spur clean energy innovation, mostly because of the risks inherent with nascent, early-stage technologies, risks that private companies aren't willing to bear on their own.

    The problem is that just as price changes have to be severe to manifest any impacts on gas consumption, price changes on their own also tend not to do much to inspire the development of radical new tech solutions, unless prices are through the roof. This is mainly due to the high levels of risk and uncertainty that come with new tech: private firms would generally rather seek out low-risk, low-cost alternatives (i.e. more efficient internal processes or capital goods) than to invest time and effort into developing high-risk, initially-high cost alternatives (i.e. hydrogen fuel cells). It takes a real, permanent shock to get any real effects, and suffice to say the American political system is unlikely to ever pass a gas tax high enough to drive these kinds of changes.
    Hourihan points to the European example, where, despite significantly higher gas prices than in the US, the population is still dependent on fossil fuels, and high gas prices haven't led to the widespread uptake of electric cars.

    But this doesn't mean that a gas tax doesn't have a place in a smart model for a clean energy infrastructure. As Ryan Avent noted last summer, a $5 per barrel oil tax could raise about $40 billion annually. That's the equivalent of about 12 cents per gallon of gasoline -- certainly not enough to seriously alter consumer behavior, but $40 billion in revenues is enough to fund the development and construction of an improved clean energy infrastructure.

    As the Breakthrough Institute has previously argued, a low and politically sustainable carbon tax or gas tax or other fee on today's energy consumption, coupled with direct federal investments in innovation, will go a long way towards developing the clean energy infrastructure of the future. In fact, the revenues raised by a carbon or gas tax could be used to fund the public-private partnerships that have so successfully spurred private sector innovation in the past.

    The mental model for this effort shouldn't be the high gas taxes of Europe - designed as they are to penalize consumption (and relatively ineffective at doing so). Rather the right precedent is the relatively low gas taxes of the United States, which raise revenues dedicated to the Highway Trust Fund.

    The reasons for developing a cleaner, safer, more secure energy system are well known. What we need is a user fee charged for the enjoyment of today's affordable and efficient energy infrastructure, used to generate revenues set aside and specifically tasked with building the affordable, efficient, and improved energy infrastructure of tomorrow.

    Whether imposed on oil or gasoline or electricity or on all carbon fuels, such a user fee would amount to pennies on the gallon for consumers. But it would ensure that we dedicate the tens of billions needed nationally to develop and deploy the clean, reliable, and affordable energy sources of tomorrow.

    In sum, carbon pricing or gas taxes alone won't lead to breakthrough energy innovations. What will lead us there are directed government investments in energy innovation, in which a smart user fee on energy consumption or carbon emissions can play an important, but fundamentally different (and less central role) as envisioned by conventional cap and trade, carbon tax, and gas tax proponents.

    Read more!

    Wednesday, April 27, 2011

    Unified Diversity - lessons from PowerShift '11

    By Daniela Lapidous, high school junior at the Harker School in San Jose, CA, and member of the ACE Youth Advisory Board

    Phew… it’s been a week since one of the most amazing weekends of my life.

    You see, from April 15-18, fellow ACE Youth Advisory Board member Shreya Indukuri and I got the chance to attend PowerShift in Washington, D.C. and it was INCREDIBLE!

    Basically, it was a gathering of about 10,000 inspiring young people rallying for clean energy action - you can read more about our trip on the blog post Washington D.C.'s awesome regional educator, Daisy, wrote up.

    Besides the details of who we met and what we said, I guess one thing I still marvel at when I look back at the experience is the unified diversity we saw there. (Attack of the oxymorons!)

    The thousands of college students there came from all walks of life – from all parts of the country – from all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. We don’t listen to the same music, we don’t all say “hella”, and we probably don’t even have the same definitions of what being completely “green” looks like – but we were all there, being united by the issue of clean energy! Who expected that?

    The fact is, everyone should have expected that, because the issue of climate change and clean energy deserve to unify us all.

    Shreya and I met people who are being affected by these issues now. We met Cassie, a 17 year-old activist from Southern California who got asthma because of pollution-emitting factories in her city. We met countless people who live next to toxic waste, who have seen extreme weather, and who are seeing pollution destroy their communities. We heard stories of people in Appalachia who are suffering enormously because of mountaintop removal (for the sake of coal mining!).

    Climate change and dirty energy are not issues that will "someday" affect our "grandchildren" - they are right here, right now. It's only a matter of time before they show up on all of our doorsteps and force us to work together, whether we like it or not.

    There was also the diversity of people we met outside of PowerShift. We met Aneesh Chopra, the Chief Technology Officer of the US, and Arun Majumdar, the director of ARPA-E (an innovative energy research department of the government).

    Let’s face the facts: Shreya and I are still high school juniors. We are from California, and we do not wear business clothes on a regular basis. We have APs next week and prom in two weeks. We are very different from the high-level executives we were lucky enough to meet.

    But hearing about a low-cost, very effective solution to energy efficiency – the smart meters that we are installing at high schools – was positive for everyone! Mr. Chopra and Mr. Majumdar were both impressed that we saved 13% off our school’s energy bill in one year and they want all of the schools in the country to get involved.

    No matter how different you are, passion and simple solutions can inspire and connect people – “environmentalists” and “non-environmentalists” alike. When you share your story, people are inspired to craft their own.

    So, go – it’s not hard to find a diverse group of people, or a diverse group of problems, or a diverse world out there… but it’s your job to find the one way to communicate climate change in a way that will unify your audience.

    You, the reader, and I are probably pretty different, too. But we're also pretty alike, because Shreya and I are average students who just sat in an ACE assembly two years ago and were inspired to act. Last weekend, we couldn’t believe we were standing in front of the White House as part of this chain of events. The fact is – this could be you. This WILL be you, because - since you're reading this - we're connected by at least a spark of inspiration to act on climate change.

    Now get offline and... go unify some diversity or something!

    Read more!

    Monday, April 25, 2011

    Interactive Map: All the World's Nuclear Reactors

    Cross posted from Climate Central.

    To better understand the state of the nuclear power industry, Climate Central has built the following interactive map of nuclear facilities as reported by the World Nuclear Association. This map shows every nuclear reactor that has ever been connected to the electric grid, as well as a number of plants (though not all) that are planned. The table beneath the map — which will fill in once you press “play” — shows how many power plants have been built during each decade.

    How To Use This Map:

    Toggle the different categories of power plants (operating, shut down, etc.) on and off by using the check boxes at the bottom right. Multiple reactors are typically co-located, so you might not see them unless you deselect other categories. To learn more about a reactor, click on it to see its vital statistics, as well as a link to the World Nuclear Association, where you can find more facts about each. 

    Click “Play” to watch how the global nuclear power industry has changed over time, with reactor startups and retired reactor shutdowns. Note that while the timeline is playing, you cannot check or uncheck the boxes. 

    This data was last updated prior to the nuclear crisis at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi power plant. Since then a number of power plants have been shut down in Japan, and a few in Germany are also temporarily closed. 

    Why did most countries stop building power plants in the 1990s and 2000s?

    The table beneath the map tells a dramatic story: 391 reactors were built between 1970 and 1990, but only 92 were built between 1990 and 2010. In the United States, where 104 reactors currently provide electricity, only five reactors have been built since 1990. Why?

    Many point to the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 (see Mike Lemonick's story on the fact that this event is still unfolding), and the Three Mile Island Accident in 1979 as reasons that the public turned against nuclear power. Yet, in the United States, the nuclear industry was already slowing down before Three Mile Island.

    In the U.S., many orders for new nuclear power plants were cancelled in the late '70s and '80s largely because the costs of building plants were more expensive than coal or natural gas-fired power plants. One important reason that costs escalated was growing public opposition to building new plants, and unresolved safety and cost questions about radioactive waste disposal and plant decommissioning. These concerns increased legal costs and dramatically extended the time required to build a nuclear plant. Thus, construction costs escalated. Another important reason is that the massive size of nuclear reactors and lack of standardization in technology required each power plant to be more or less custom-built

    Europe’s drive to build nuclear power plants was largely spearheaded after the oil embargos of the 1970s, with France playing a major role — today France generates about sixty percent of its electricity from nuclear reactors. New orders, though, fell off in the late 1980s for similar reasons as in the United States: high costs and public opposition. The Chernobyl accident, which resulted in radioactive fallout across Europe, further deepened public opposition. 

    Today, China and India are the only countries pursuing nuclear power on a significant scale: India has plans for another 18 power plants, and China has 110 in the pipeline. It remains to be seen whether the costs of building nuclear reactors in these countries will be less than they were in the U.S., or whether the crisis at Japan’s Fukushima facility will scuttle plans for many of these plants. Some experts have been advocating for small modular reactors as a less costly way of generating nuclear power, but those have remained on the drawing board.

    How much carbon dioxide pollution have nuclear power plants avoided?

    If the few hundred nuclear reactors on the map had not been built, other power plants would likely have been constructed, the majority of which would have been powered by fossil fuels. How much carbon dioxide (CO2) would these plants have emitted?

    We can’t know for sure, but by using data from the map and making a few basic assumptions, we can get a rough estimate. The data includes the lifetime and generating capacity of every nuclear power plant that has ever been built. 

    Today, nuclear power plants worldwide operate on average about 80 percent of the time. In earlier years, they were shut down for longer periods, with closer to a 55 percent in service rate. Given these operating percentages, let’s assume for estimation purposes that nuclear power plants throughout their entire history have operated on average at 70 percent of their capacity. In that case, the nuclear power industry globally has produced about 60 trillion kilowatt hours of electricity.

    If these power plants had not been built, let’s assume the electricity would have been generated instead from a mix of coal, natural gas, and hydropower in the proportions that these are used today (roughly 2:1:1). Given how much CO2 these sources emit on average per kilowatt hour (natural gas: 907 grams of CO2; coal: 590 grams; hydropower: 0 grams), we can estimate that each kilowatt-hour of nuclear power avoided about 600 grams of CO2 from entering the atmosphere. 
    That means that the nuclear industry has avoided emissions of about 40 billion tons of CO2. That is one third more CO2 than humans put into the atmosphere every year from burning fossil fuels. It is also about one-twelfth of the cumulative CO2 people have added to the atmosphere during the past 160 years from burning coal, natural gas, and petroleum. This is a rough estimate, yet it shows that nuclear power has played a major role in lowering CO2 emissions. 

    The clear question for society — and one that is highly debated — is whether the risks and costs of nuclear power outweigh the industry’s significant potential to offset fossil fuels. 

    Map Data and Disclaimer
    The data was obtained from the World Nuclear Association’s online database, which can be accessed from their website. Many countries have “planned” reactors that are not shown on this map. Furthermore, the location of some planned reactors, especially in China, is only approximate.

    Read more!

    Thursday, April 14, 2011

    Election Season or Innovation Season?

    I'm reminded recently of Daffy Duck fighting with Bugs Bunny, the duck demanding that it's Rabbit-Hunting Season and Bugs refuting that it's Duck Season. In this cartoonish analogy, President Obama is both Bugs and Daffy, in a shouting match with himself. It's either Investment Season or Election Season. It apparently can't be both.

    There's a reason Energetics' subline is "A blog on climate, energy and politics." As frustrating as it sometimes is, the pursuit and achievement of goals on the path towards decarbonization and a clean energy future depend heavily on the institutional intricacies set up by our political landscape. The political infrastructure in place establishes the ability of our nation to invest in our future. President Obama's speech at George Washington University yesterday illustrated this notion, and his stump speech that ostensibly kicked off his 2012 campaign was often inspiring in its liberalism and rhetorical embrace of innovation economics.

    The America I know is generous and compassionate. It’s a land of opportunity and optimism. Yes, we take responsibility for ourselves, but we also take responsibility for each other; for the country we want and the future we share.
    I will not sacrifice the core investments we need to grow and create jobs.
    In place of "jobs," the President could have easily said "a national infrastructure renovation" or "a clean energy economy." All three are true, but the politics of the game will probably guarantee that jobs are the key focus of his speeches from now until at least November 2012.

    Like Bugs vs. Daffy though, there is some trickery at play. The President is calling this moment Investment Season when it's shaping out to be anything but. The sweeping and not entirely insincere verbiage dedicated by the President to investing in a "future we want" is undercut by the recent budget debacle, where we see funds for innovation, science and research cut across the board. The Breakthrough Institute crunches the thoroughly uninspiring numbers, and while investments levels for FY2012 aren't quite as low as they would be if Congressional Republicans had their way, more often not the President and his allies came away on the losing end of the draw.

    I believe the President would be better served by a more ambitious agenda, one that aims to significantly increase investments in our nation's transportation grid, energy infrastructure, education and technological robustness. Indeed, I wish Obama would act exactly like he said he would in his 2011 State of the Union address. Instead, we have conflicting messaging coming from his podium. "Invest in our future" is sidelined by "live within our means" and calls for the government to tighten its belt like millions of families across the country. Economists agree this is a red herring -- now is not the time to worry about the deficit, but instead a time to rebuild a nation whose citizens, infrastructure and resources will guide it out of debt in the future.

    The President is going to win next year. But a victory without a bold agenda will ill-serve the needs of an American economy desperately crying for the investments it's been robbed of for decades. Obama need not fret whether it's Investment Season or Election Season. It's both. Investing in America's future is good politics, and Obama's characteristically hopeful and progressive political rhetoric needs a policy backbone that seriously invests in the future we want.

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    Wednesday, March 30, 2011

    Interactive Maps: Worldwide Nuclear Power

    Cross posted on Climate Central.

    As the world continues to watch the crisis at Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant unfold, many are asking what the repercussions will be for the future of nuclear power. First, though, we must understand the current state of the nuclear industry: Where are the world’s nuclear power plants located? How much electricity do these plants produce? How much more nuclear generating capacity is planned, and for where?

    The International Energy Agency (IEA) reports that about 16 percent of the world’s electricity comes from nuclear power, and that given pre-Fukushima plans, this percentage would stay roughly constant over the next two decades, barring any major changes in policy.

    The maps below, which come courtesy of Katherine Marvel, a post-doctoral fellow at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, show where the world’s nuclear reactors are presently located and how many more are planned. (Visit Climate Central to see the maps with full interactive capabilities.).

    Number of Nuclear Reactors

    Percent of Electricity from Nuclear Power

    Before Fukushima, there were 443 functioning nuclear power plants in the world. About 62 were under construction, and another 324 were in various stages of planning. (This data comes from the World Nuclear Association, a nuclear power advocacy organization).

    The world’s nuclear power is concentrated in a handful of countries: Of the world’s 192 countries, only 30 have nuclear power plants, and 75 percent of global nuclear generation is concentrated in just eight countries: The United States, France, Japan, Russia, South Korea, India, the U.K., and Canada. Membership in the "nuclear power club," though, is set to expand considerably if current proposals come to fruition.

    The following eleven countries lack nuclear power today, but are planning to build or are building power plants: United Arab Emirates, Vietnam, Turkey, Poland, Belarus, Bangladesh, Iran, Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, and Kazakhastan. Another eight countries: Israel, Italy, North Korea, Thailand, Lithuania, Chile, Italy, and Malaysia, have proposed to build power plants.

    Number of Nuclear Reactors Under Construction

    Number of Nuclear Reactors Planned

    Number of Nuclear Reactors Proposed

    • Operating = Connected to the grid.
    • Under Construction = first concrete for reactor poured, or major refurbishment under way.
    • Planned = Approvals, funding or major commitment in place, mostly expected in operation within 8-10 years.
    • Proposed = Specific program or site proposals, expected operation mostly within 15 years.   

    Another fact shown by the graphics is that although many countries have proposed or are planning to construct nuclear power plants, only China is aggressively building them — they have proposed 110 and are building 27. By comparison, the United States has 23 proposed reactors, but only one is under construction. And that single reactor, which is located in southern Tennessee, was begun in the 1980s, put on hold for 20 years, and is only now being completed.

    The disparity between planned power plants and plants under construction raises the question of how many of these proposed plants will actually be built. Also, the expansion of nuclear power to new countries raises issues related to nuclear proliferation — the technology to build certain nuclear power plants could be used to make nuclear weapons with relative ease. And what these maps do not show is what would be built instead of these nuclear plants, should they not move forward. In place of nuclear power, will these countries invest in coal, natural gas, hydropower, solar, or wind energy?

    Answering these questions will require continued work to balance the benefits and risks of nuclear energy against the growing energy demands of society.

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    Monday, March 28, 2011

    WattHead's Jesse Jenkins on NPR: Nuclear as Usual

    WattHead.org Founder and Chief Editor and Breakthrough Institute Director of Climate and Energy Policy Jesse Jenkins was on NPR's Weekend Edition this past Sunday discussing Japan's nuclear crisis and what it means for the future of nuclear power.

    The interview touched on many of the issues that were the subject of a recent Atlantic Monthly article co-authored by Jenkins and Breakthrough Institute co-founders Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger.

    Here is an excerpt of that article:

    [L]ost in the hyperbolic claims of nuclear opponents, the defensive reactions of the nuclear industry, and the carefully calibrated repositioning of politicians and policymakers is the reality that Fukushima is unlikely to much change the basic political economy of nuclear power. Wealthy, developed economies, with relatively flat energy growth and mature energy infrastructure haven't built a lot of nuclear in decades and were unlikely to build much more anytime soon, even before the Fukushima accident. The nuclear renaissance, such as it is, has been occurring in the developing world, where fast growing, modernizing economies need as much new energy generation as possible and where China and India alone have constructed dozens of new plants, with many more on the drawing board.
    Absent Fukushima, developed world economies were not going to build much new nuclear power anytime soon. The deliberations in Germany have involved whether to retire old plants or extend their lifetimes, not whether to build new plants. The decade long effort to restart the U.S. nuclear industry may result in the construction of, at most, two new plants over the next decade.

    By contrast, even a much more serious accident would have been unlikely to delay the construction of new nuclear plants in the developing world for long. For major emerging economies like China and India, energy is still too scarce and expensive for much of their populations and economies and they will likely continue to build new nuclear plants as fast as they can in the coming decades.

    In the end, what it all looks like is business as usual, for nukes specifically and the global energy economy more generally. Despite the claims of proponents, present day renewables remain too expensive and undependable for any economy in the world to rely upon at significant scale. So Germany, despite its vaunted solar feed in tariffs, will rely more heavily upon coal, which it has in abundance, as it retires its aging nuclear fleet. The US, already in the midst of a natural gas boom, will use more gas. And China and India, desperate for every kilowatt of power they can produce, will develop every available energy resource they have as fast as they can, including nuclear.
    Jenkins also appeared on MSNBC's The Dylan Ratigan Show at 1:40 PM PST/ 4:40 PM EST today to discuss nuclear power and the situation in Japan. Here's the clip:

    Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

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    Wednesday, March 16, 2011

    Exploring Earthquake Risks to US Nuclear Power Plants

    Cross posted on Climate Central.

    This click-able map shows the 104 active nuclear reactors in the Lower-48 states, overlaid with both recent earthquakes and the 15 strongest earthquakes in the region's history. Note that the most powerful earthquake on record, estimated to have measured 9.0 on the Richter scale, shook the Pacific Northwest back in 1700. You can click on each power plant to obtain more information about it, including the type of reactor design.

    The second (static) map shows the earthquake risk as measured by "Peak Ground Acceleration" or PGA. During an earthquake, the ground shakes back and forth, and the damage is roughly proportional to the ground's maximum acceleration. The map shows the two percent likelihood that the PGA will exceed the shown values in the next 50 years.

    Explore the maps, and read on for additional details below.

  • The nuclear crisis following the disastrous 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami in northern Japan continues, and it's raising broader questions about nuclear safety both in and outside of Japan. Many Americans now are asking how vulnerable our country's nuclear facilities are to natural disasters, particularly earthquakes.

    Of the reactors in the U.S., about one third of them are boiling water reactors, using the same technology as the Fukushima Daiichi reactor in Japan. In addition, there are eight nuclear facilities located along the seismically active West coast. Twelve of the American reactors that are of the same vintage as the Fukushima Daiichi plant are on seismically active areas around the country.

    Unsurprisingly, most of the earthquakes in the contiguous U.S. have occurred in California. But three of the most powerful 15 quakes occurred in Missouri, and another took place in South Carolina. And the strongest ever recorded, estimated to have measured magnitude 9.0, shook the Pacific Northwest back in 1700.

    The bottom map above shows the earthquake risk as measured by "Peak Ground Acceleration", or PGA. During an earthquake, the ground shakes back and forth, and the damage is roughly proportional to the ground's maximum acceleration. The map shows the two percent likelihood that the PGA will exceed the shown values in the next 50 years.

    In other words, if the map shows that the PGA is 1.0g for a given spot (say, southeast Missouri), that means there is a two percent chance that the peak ground acceleration will be greater than 1.0g at some point in the next 50 years. PGA is measured in "g," with one g being how quickly an object accelerates in free fall (you can also think about "pulling Gs," as in a fighter plane).

    The PGA risk is what is typically used to set building codes. Most nuclear power plants are designed to operate under 0.2g PGA, and automatically shut off if the PGA exceeds 0.2g. However, they can withstand a PGA many times larger than that.

    The magnitude scale is a measure of the total energy an earthquake releases. This is related to, but not directly proportional to the PGA. For instance, the recent earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, recorded a deadly PGA of 2.2g, even though it was "only" a 6.3 magnitude earthquake, while a recent earthquake in Chile, which measured 8.8 magnitude, recorded an acceleration of 0.78g.

    If you click on the nuclear power plants on the map at the top, you can see what the 50-year two-percent likelihood PGA is for each power plant.

    The following nuclear power plants have a two percent or greater chance of having PGA over 0.15g in the next 50 years:

  • Diablo Canyon, Calif.

  • San Onofre, Calif.

  • Sequoyah, Tenn.

  • H.B. Robinson, SC.

  • Watts Bar, Tenn.

  • Virgil C. Summer, SC.

  • Vogtle, GA.

  • Indian Point, NY.

  • Oconee, SC.

  • Seabrook, NH.

  • As the unfolding situation in Japan has demonstrated, ground acceleration is only one concern. In fact, the Fukushima reactor -- which is protected by a thick casing of concrete designed to withstand even a plane crash -- was built to survive an earthquake like the one Japan just experienced, and the peak ground acceleration at the plant on March 11 measured only 0.18g, according to one report. The safety of nuclear reactor design is addressed by "defense in depth," which means multiple back-up systems are installed as precautionary measures. If one safety measure fails, there are several others in place to prevent a nuclear emergency. The Fukushima complex was evidently not sufficiently prepared for the combination of an earthquake and a massive tsunami, and when the waves crashed around the power plant, the cooling system failed, leading to a cascade of problems. Some claim that the reactor design is partially to blame, as well. Whether the events at Fukushima will reveal systemic problems at other plants remains to be seen, but it certainly highlights the need to be somewhat imaginative when planning for the worst-case scenario.

    The bottom line is that a major earthquake would probably not result in a nuclear meltdown at the reactors on the above map, but it could present significant engineering challenges. Quantifying the risks, and minimizing them as much as possible, is a key task for everyone involved in the nuclear energy industry.

    Alyson Kenward contributed reporting to this article.

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    Friday, March 11, 2011

    A Roadmap for America's Energy Future? Hardly

    For the second time in eight months, a coalition led by California Rep. Devin Nunes has proposed their Roadmap for America’s Energy Future (H.R. 909). The plan, introduced in the House last week, is advertised as a set of “comprehensive and forward thinking initiatives designed to address both the short and long-term energy needs of the United States.” Nunes and company deserve some credit for trying to straddle the market-and-drilling approach on the right with the green-deployment-now approach on the left; but, calling it a comprehensive energy policy solution? Far from it: the plan would do little more than drive fossil fuel development with some marginal progress on nuclear and renewables, while generally ignoring the need to drive innovation in the energy sector.

    First, the key components: the bill would open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the outer continental shelf (OCS) to drilling for oil & gas, codifying the aggressive five-year leasing program (PDF) proposed, quite literally, during the Bush Administration’s waning hours. It would also restore Bush Administration plans to open roughly 2 million acres of western lands in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming to oil shale development, which were suspended by the Obama Administration, much like the OCS drilling program. The bill would then deposit the federal revenues gained from leasing royalties — generally 12.5 percent or 16.7 percent of the value of the lease, depending on location and water depth — in a new “American-Made Energy Trust Fund” establish within the Treasury Department. These funds would, in turn, be used to carry out a series of reverse auctions for renewable energy: contracts would be awarded to those generators who could produce megawatts at the lowest cost, multiple times a year and in different regions.

    On nuclear, the bill takes several steps. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) would be required to issue 200 new permits by 2040, and to finish consideration of Yucca Mountain or find an alternative site within a year. The bill attempts to streamline the licensing process, establishes a national nuclear council, and opens the door to increased funding for small modular reactors (SMRs) and spent fuel recycling, among other things. Lastly, the bill would direct the Defense Department to move forward on coal-to-liquid fuel technology.

    The real goal of any “comprehensive” energy policy must be to efficiently drive the clean energy transformation, simply put. This is best achieved through aggressive investment and support for energy innovation from lab to market, with the end goal of delivering affordable technology. The Roadmap’s sponsors take a worthwhile stab at this goal through the renewable energy reverse-auction idea. It’s an appealing premise: whereas production tax credits from clean power offer a flat subsidy per unit of energy produced, a reverse auction — with DOE as the demanding buyer and renewable generators as the striving sellers — can award contracts to those power producers who are able to achieve the best performance, each year. That means a built-in competition mechanism, forcing companies to compete against one another. And it sets limits on awards per source and per size, which means contracts wouldn’t be the exclusive domain of any one (or two) cheap technologies or biased in favor of large producers, ensuring an open field. As an incentive to help drive continual technical improvements in existing technology, it seems solid.

    Beyond the auction, the plan also takes some decent first steps on innovation in the nuclear space, specifically on SMRs. The NRC does need to increase its manpower and resources devoted to assessing SMRs, a promising next step in nuclear technology, and while the bill guarantees nothing in terms of funding, it nevertheless acknowledges the problem. And some future reactor designs will run on spent fuel, so requiring NRC to pursue rulemaking on spent fuel recycling in the next two years is a good step forward.

    But beyond these measures, there’s not much else to recommend it. There’s zero investment in the building blocks of innovation: no R&D support or tax credits, no public-private partnerships to develop energy gamechangers, no mention of manufacturing. This is a real shame, given that Nunes and company have devised what could be a sizeable fixed revenue stream for investment via drilling royalties. Revenues should theoretically reach tens of billions per year — well within the range of investment most experts say we need. The reverse auction is a nice idea for back-end competitive market creation to drive down costs of existing technology, but without investing in front-end development to achieve big breakthroughs in new technology — especially technologies too risky for a risk-averse private sector — you’re not really solving the problem and filling the critical innovation gaps. Radical new technologies will naturally be more expensive than existing, deployed technology at first, so you have to be careful about crowding them out.

    About that revenue stream: the truth is, while a carbon tax would undoubtedly be a better source of revenue, clean energy advocates might want to at least give drilling royalties a look, counterintuitive as it may be. Expanded drilling is probably more likely to pass Congress than a decent carbon tax at this point. With the recent run-up in gas prices, the typically short-sighted chorus for expanded production has already started.

    In fact, using expanded drilling royalties to fund a clean energy revolution might be the single best argument for opening up federal lands and waters...not that there are many other good ones. If the goal of national energy policy were to promote prolonged fossil fuel use without having a meaningful impact on petroleum prices, the bill could succeed wildly. The Minerals Management Service (now the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement) has estimated the existence of roughly 85 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 420 trillion cubic feet of natural gas on the OCS, and the USGS says there are 10 billion barrels in ANWR. The real mother lode, however, is western oil shale: the U.S. easily holds the largest reserves in the world, and could yield 800 billion recoverable barrels or more, assuming any commercialization challenges could be met.

    Given that the country consumes around 19 million barrels per day, these appear to be large sums…except when one considers production ceilings. RAND has said it could take decades to achieve even three million barrels per day from the oil shale deposits; the president of Chevron has said we might see 1 million barrels per day from the OCS; and EIA has estimated similar sums from ANWR, eventually. So we realistically might see, what, a 5 million barrel-per-day boost in 10-20 years? The idea that global oil prices will somehow be restrained by expanded domestic drilling anytime soon is sublimely stupid. And this doesn’t even get into the emissions question.

    All drilling does is expand the long-term availability of fossil fuel sources, which is not what we should be doing – so if we do drill more in the near future, it just means we need to be that much more aggressive in developing viable clean alternatives. Which, unfortunately, the Roadmap for America’s Energy Future doesn’t really do. Nunes and company get credit for a couple innovative proposals, but they’ll need to do a lot more if this is to be considered anything like “comprehensive.”

    Originally posted at ITIF's Innovation Policy Blog.

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    Thursday, March 10, 2011

    The Nuclear Energy Game Changer? Thoughts After the NRC Regulatory Information Conference

    By Matthew Stepp, Clean Energy Policy Analyst, ITIF

    There is a growing chorus of experts, businesses, and public sector leaders espousing for one key clean technology: small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs).  And the reason is clear.  These next generation advances in nuclear energy may be – dare I say – a silver bullet energy solution that transforms electricity generation, provides the military with an independent and more secure energy source, and offers industries a low-carbon energy alternative. And like other clean technologies, and maybe even more so, SMRs require significant federal support to make them a viable clean energy option.

    The significant up-front capital cost and decade-long development time for licensing and constructing large power plants has renewed interest in smaller nuclear options in recent years.  In response, nearly 60 SMR designs have been proposed worldwide, though none have been deployed.  Their main selling points: reduced cost, customizability, safety, less nuclear waste, and long power generation lifetimes without refueling (table below). 


    Currently, two broad design categories have emerged.  Light water reactor (LWR) SMRs are similar to scaled down versions of current large nuclear power plants.  LWR-SMRs range between 200-300 megawatts and are aimed at providing new baseload capacity or act as a replacement for retiring coal power plants with a 4 to 5 year fuel replacement cycle.  LWR-SMRs are also closest to deployment.  The first demonstration project – the mPower LWR by Babcock and Wilcox - is set to take place at the Clinch River Site by the Tennessee Valley Authority.

    The second category is advanced SMRs, otherwise called fast-reactors or high temperature gas-cooled reactors.  These designs are at an earlier stage of development because of their use of untested coolant system designs and more highly enriched fissionable material than presently regulated plants.  But these reactors offer the prospect of much longer refueling lifetimes, often in excess of 10 years, and more flexible site locations, because many don’t use water for cooling.

    So, while “silver bullet” may be too strong of a statement – SMRs don’t solve all our clean energy needs - the potential benefits of SMRs are significant and the key to realizing these benefits comes down to creating a cohesive national clean energy policy to innovate through a number of technological barriers.  And I’m not the only one who thinks so.  This week was the 23rd Annual Nuclear Regulatory Commission Information Conference that brought together hundreds of nuclear energy leaders from industry and government to talk all things nuclear.  The hottest topic?  SMRs.  The clear message?  Industry and government leaders are ready to move forward in developing new small reactors as soon as policy makers give the green light.

    In his opening conference speech, NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko remarked that his agency will be taking the first steps in licensing new SMRs by announcing that, “[the NRC] may take final action on three design certification rules for new [LWR-SMR] reactors as early as this summer, and conduct the first mandatory hearing on a new reactor license since the 1970s.” Department of Energy’s Director for Advanced Reactor Design Sal Golub presented that the goal of his office is to “license and deploy LWR-SMRs by 2020.”  The President proposed in both his 2011 and 2012 budgets to create a nearly $100 million SMR program within the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy that would focus on deploying LWR-SMRs as well as perform much needed advanced SMR RD&D.  And bipartisan group of Senators have recently proposed a bill designed to speed up the deployment of SMRs.

    But there is an immediate policy barrier: the federal clean energy innovation budget.  While Congress debates how best to reduce the federal budget deficit, clean energy innovation is in the unfortunate position of being a prime target.  Like other emerging clean technologies, reducing or eliminating support for SMRs could effectively set back the United States nuclear industry by decades.  NRC Chairman Jaczko stated firmly that possible budget issues require, “…tough choices…because if everything is a high priority then nothing is.”  Essentially, if the NRC budget is slashed, its staff would have to focus on the 44 large reactor applications it is currently reviewing and not be able to more quickly attend to licensing first-of-kind SMR designs.  The same budget decisions would have to be made by DOE if their proposed SMR program is not funded.

    And the stakes are high for policy makers to “get it right” on clean energy innovation policy.  Presently, Russia is preparing to deploy the world’s first electricity generating SMRs and France has quickly progressed in developing their own SMR designs.  In fact, the majority of SMR designs aren’t being developed in the United States and many U.S. nuclear technology companies are looking to foreign countries to deploy their technology.  Whether this possible clean energy game changer has an impact environmentally and economically in the United States is up to policy makers because everyone else is waiting.

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    Wednesday, March 09, 2011

    Senate Democrats Propose Across-the-Board Cuts in Energy Innovation Budgets

    In the latest in DC's battle over the federal budget, the Senate Democrats released on Friday their plan to fund the government through FY2011, which would make substantial cuts in federal energy innovation across DOE agencies.

    While ultimately keeping energy innovation-related spending at a higher level than would the House's Continuing Resolution (CR) (passed two weeks ago), the Senate's plan decreases budgets for each of the DOE's offices involved in energy-innovation as compared to FY2010 appropriations, in sharp contrast to the proposed increases for energy innovation related spending through President Obama's proposed FY2012 budget.

    (click to enlarge)
    *ARPA-E received $400 million in ARRA funding, to be spent over FY2009 and FY2010, or $200 million per year on average. No additional funding was provided for the agency in regular FY2010 appropriations.
    **The estimates for Fossil Energy R&D used in this post refer solely to the Fossil Energy R&D program, rather than Fossil Energy Program as a whole, as Fossil Energy R&D is where energy innovation investments are concentrated.
    ***For exact figures, see chart at the end of this post.

    Overall, the plan would cut over $800 million from the overall budgets of key DOE agencies engaged in energy innovation, relative to FY2010 levels (see Graphic 1/Table 1). Below, we estimate the impact on direct energy innovation investments that would result from these cuts. (Graphic 2/Table 2). We find that the overall budget cuts would strip at least $332 million in energy-innovation specific investments from these DOE agencies relative to FY2010 levels.

    (click to enlarge)
    *Calculations for share of FY11 House and Senate CR budgets devoted to energy innovation for the Fossil Energy R&D program are estimates based off of proportion of 2010 Fossil Energy R&D budget devoted to energy innovation projects. However, calculations for share of the FY12 Obama Administration's proposed budget for Fossil Energy R&D differed, as the Administration stated throughout the proposed budget its goal of phasing out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, and proportions of total budget devoted to energy innovation are expected to change accordingly. For an explanation of the calculation used to estimate that number, see this post.
    **See here for details on methodology used to estimate energy-innovation proportions of office budgets.
    ***For exact figures, see chart at the end of this post.

    The largest of these cuts would come from the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, which is engaged in the research, development, demonstration and deployment of renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies, and whose energy innovation budget would be decreased by approximately $152 million. The Office of Science (OS), too, would see an energy innovation budgetary decrease of $55 million from FY2010, and the Office of Nuclear Energy's energy innovation investments would decrease by $81 million.

    This plan is merely a starting point as the House and Senate gear up for negotiations with the White House over how to fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year. However, this presents a worrisome development for energy innovation investments, as the opening positions of both chambers of Congress now embrace across-the-board cuts in energy innovation investments. Senate Democrats appear poised to abandon the Obama Administration's efforts to preserve or enhance critical national investments in energy innovation, and as the House and Senate close the gap between their two proposals, more cuts may be forthcoming.

    (click to enlarge)
    *ARPA-E received $400 million in ARRA funding, to be spent over FY2009 and FY2010, or $200 million per year on average. No additional funding was provided for the agency in regular FY2010 appropriations.

    (click to enlarge)
    *Calculations for share of FY11 House and Senate CR budgets devoted to energy innovation for the Fossil Energy R&D program are estimates based off of proportion of 2010 Fossil Energy R&D budget devoted to energy innovation projects. However, calculations for share of the FY12 Obama Administration's proposed budget for Fossil Energy R&D differed, as the Administration stated throughout the proposed budget its goal of phasing out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, and proportions of total budget devoted to energy innovation are expected to change accordingly. For an explanation of the calculation used to estimate that number, see this post.
    **See here for details on methodology used to estimate energy-innovation proportions of office budgets.

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