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Clean Power NRG backs out of plan to build two nuclear reactors in Texas

Published on April 21st, 2011 | by Tina Casey

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Wind Power Beats Nuclear Power in Texas

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April 21st, 2011 by
 
NRG backs out of plan to build two nuclear reactors in TexasTexas has more wind power than it can use, and that partly explains why NRG Energy, Inc. has backed out of a plan to build two new nuclear reactors in the state. To be clear, the stated motivation for the decision was the nuclear disaster resulting from last month’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan, which among other things has affected the regulatory landscape here in the U.S. However, it’s also clear that rapid growth in the alternative energy field is rapidly chipping away at nuclear power, helped along by new grid and energy storage technologies. This triple threat is undermining the foundational reason for investing in nuclear power, which is (or should be) to get the most abundant and reliable energy bang for the buck.

Renewable Energy Beating Nuclear

On a global scale, energy capacity from renewable sources passed up nuclear for the first time last year, which was long before the tsunami damaged Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant. The problem, of course, is to get energy from renewable-rich areas to those without. That’s a problem that certainly hasn’t stopped the fossil fuel industry, given the shipment of coal and petroleum around the world. For renewable energy, massive transmission projects like DESERTEC are at hand. The future could also bring advanced energy storage technologies that would enable renewable energy to be shipped in battery-type devices (reusable or recyclable ones, of course).

Wind Surplus in Texas

The wind surplus in Texas could have a ripple effect on energy investments in other states in the U.S., even without the development of new smart grid technology. One example is Pattern Energy, which has proposed building a 400-mile line connecting wind power from Texas to existing transmission lines that serve Alabama and several other southern states. Unlike the decades-long process involved in siting and building new nuclear facilities, the company anticipates a permitting and construction process of about five years. Also slated for Texas is a gigantic new wind power storage facility, which other states are already eyeballing for the Pacific Northwest renewable energy infrastructure.

NRG Backs out of Texas Nuclear Plants

Rebecca Smith of the Wall Street Journal notes a number of issues that factor into NRG’s decision. The primary reason is a months-long safety review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission following the tsunami in Japan, which could jack up the cost of the project due to design changes and other factors. Smith also lists uncertainty over financing, which was supposed to come from Fukushima’s owner Tokyo Electric Power. More to the point, in Texas there is no regulatory structure that would basically guarantee NRG a captive audience for its product. The two new reactors would have to compete on price along with every other form of available power.

Renewable Energy vs. High Risk Energy

For all its advantages, nuclear energy is a high risk endeavor.  Those risks are becoming increasingly untenable – and incredibly expensive – as existing plants get older. New York’s aging Indian Point nuclear facility has started to raise alarm bells, for example, partly due to the virtual impossibility of safely evacuating nearby communities in case of an emergency. For that matter, another facility in New York, the Shoreham nuclear power plant, had to be decommissioned before it ever went online, partly because planners failed to account for population growth in nearby suburbs. Ratepayers were stuck with the tab and the facility still sits there, sucking up valuable real estate.

It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over

Apparently, NRG’s partner Toshiba is still intending to move ahead with the permitting process.  Toshiba signed onto the project just two years ago in 2009, which is pretty much a blip on the screen in nuclear construction terms, so it’s no surprise that the company hasn’t thrown in the towel yet. However, given that wind power is set to take off not only in western U.S. states but all up and down the East Coast as well, the prospects for nuclear look pretty dim.

Image: Texas wind turbines by the russians are here on flickr.com.

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About the Author

Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.



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  • Sean Casten

    This is a crazy story. Wind is cheaper than nuke, but intermittent. Nuke is baseloaded but expensive (and subject to all sorts of other LT risks.) Nuke is having a hard time attracting capital for all sorts of reasons, not limited to Japan (see: history of construction cost overruns), and wind is attracting capital for all sorts of reasons, not limited to fundamental economics (see: US tax policy). To imply a linkage between rises in deployments of one causing reduced deployments of the other is to infer a causality that isn’t there – or else a horribly irresponsible grid management process.

    • Anonymous

      It’s not as crazy as you seem to think.

      Nuclear is clearly getting killed based on finances alone. Natural gas has become such a cheap producer of electricity that it makes zero financial sense to build new nuclear. The big boys running the big energy companies have publicly stated that as a fact.

      Wind is getting built. Yes, some of the impetus for building wind other than for financial reasons, at least short term financial reasons. Right now the wholesale price of wind is about the same as the wholesale price of natural gas. Plus wind does not pump more carbon into the environment, which natural gas certainly does. In the long term wind is vastly cheaper than NG because it helps us avoid the incredible expense of climate change.

      We’re building a lot of NG production. The ‘old fossils’ believe in fossil fuel and boiling water to make electricity. And right now the NG numbers look good to them.

      For those of us concerned about our future, NG is a blessing and a curse.

      It’s a blessing because it reduces substances like mercury in our environment and produces some less CO2 per unit of electricity as compared to coal.

      And it’s dispatchable. That means that whenever there is ample wind and/or solar on the grid the gas valve will be closed. NG has a fuel price, wind and solar do not. That’s better than dealing with a coal plant which can’t be quickly shut down or brought back on line.

      Of course NG is also a curse. It does produce CO2. It leaks methane. Fracking for NG is screwing up our water supply.

      If we can get the fracking problem under control and greatly reduce the methane leaks then NG can be a useful bridging technology on our way to a greenhouse gas free grid. The NG capacity is going to be built. As we develop better storage and demand response systems we can dial back on the gas until, hopefully, we need it no longer.

      It’s kind of like making a pact with Joe Stalin to defeat Ol’ Adolph. Team up with a lesser devil and then deal with that lesser devil further down the road….

  • http://importantmedia.org Important Media Umbrella Acct

    thanks for the extra points/links. very informative :D

  • http://importantmedia.org Important Media Umbrella Acct

    I should have replied to & approved this one before the other, I guess :D Some duplication. Anyway, I replied to the first part already (and on your post), and regarding the second part, thanks for sharing. I guess you are from Texas? (Not sure why the Texas case was added?). Yes, innovations in wind technology, transmission, and storage options will narrow the difference between capacity and output in the coming years.

    If we look at the differences between wind technology today and a couple decades ago, or energy technology in general today compared to hundreds of years ago, we can easily see that things can be improved. Wind is a very promising energy source and has much potential.

    And, of course, a tremendous amount more wind energy capacity and output is on the way already. Just one crossover of many, of course

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  • Wayne Williamson

    Interesting how all the twitter links just lead back here(not a twitter person so I don’t know what that means).

    I think its great how wind and solar are gaining ground….but…my question
    is what are you going to do when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine…

    • Anonymous

      We’ll do what we now do when a coal or nuclear plant goes offline. We’ll engineer the grid to deal with those problems.

      Right now we use dispatchable hydro, gas peakers, storage, and demand response.

      We’ve built 21.5GW of pump-up hydro to deal with the nuclear problem. Nuclear can’t be turned off when demand is low so we built a lot of pump-up to store ‘not wanted’ power and then feed it to the grid when demand rises. We will likely build more pump-up along with CAES (compressed air, we’ve got one facility up and running) and utility scale batteries (some are already on line). We’ll build thermal solar which can store energy for days and weeks.

      We already pay large consumers to cut their electricity use when supply is strained. We’ll likely do more of that, along with timing things such as EV charging and appliance use. (You really care what time of day your refer defrosts? As long as it gets done often enough to keep the frost down is all that matters. Cycle it when supply is up, not when supply is low.)

      And we’ll install more ‘always on’ sources such as geothermal, tidal, hydro and biomass.

  • http://www.giftsspace.com/blog Online Strategies

    The nuclear fear paves way to wind power the “open source” for clean energy.

  • Anumakonda Jagadeesh

    Yes. Wind Power is expanding in US at a rapid speed. Soon US will be a big player in Offshore Wind Farms.

    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India
    Wind Energy Expert
    E-mail: anumakonda.jagadeesh@gmail.com

  • Guest

    Ms. Casey desperately needs to learn something about energy in general and electricity in particular. Specifically, she needs to learn:

    a. The difference between electric generating CAPACITY and electric GENERATION. This makes a huge difference when talking about wind.

    b. That electricity from wind is very high in true cost and low in true value. It is totally misleading to compare electricity from intermittent sources like wind with reliable generating sources like nuclear, coal, natural gas, oil, (some) geothermal, and (some) biomass.

    • Anonymous

      Mr/Ms Guest needs to learn how inexpensive wind-produced electricity has become and how valuable any cheap, clean power is to the grid. In Texas, utilities are reporting that wind is lowering the overall price of electricity.

      Mr/Ms Guest needs to learn about the grid and how grid managers are constantly balancing rapidly changing demand and supply and how wind is just one more source that can fill the need for power.

      Mr/Ms Guest also needs to understand that even nuclear, coal, and natural gas generation is not 24/365. Those plants go off line from time to time. On average coal plants are down about 15% of the time and nuclear, best case, is available about 90% of the time.

      Grid managers use dispatchable sources such as natural gas and hydro to fill in the gaps caused by demand/supply mismatches.

      I really doubt that Ms. Casey needs to learn about “CAPACITY and electric GENERATION”. She’s been at this for a while.

      Perhaps Mr./Ms. Guest needs to learn how to read with comprehension. This article is about Texas not building a couple of planned nuclear plants and about Texas’s success with generating electricity from wind.

    • Tina Casey

      Errr…I hate to pick sides but basically Bob is right. What’s with the snark? Aside from that, its a commonplace in the wind and solar industries that smart grid technology and advanced storage technology are needed to smooth out the bumps in intermittent energy sources. Sorry if I didn’t make that clear.

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