House Releases Draft Climate Change Bill and A Bit of Nuclear Nistory (Podcast Episode 65)

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Operation Sea Orbit – 1964 (Front to Back: USS Enterprise, USS Long Beach, & USS Bainbridge)

The Markey / Waxman Climate Change Bill

Momentum is building towards greenhouse gas regulation in the United States. Two weeks ago the house of representatives released draft climate change legislation sponsored by Rep. Henry Waxman and Rep. Edward Markey. On Friday the US Environmental Protection Agency turned up the heat when they declared CO2 and other greenhouse gasses “hazards to public health” and labeled CO2 a pollutant. This action gives the EPA authority to regulate CO2 emissions even if congress does not pass legislation focused on curbing greenhouse gas releases.

The Waxman/Markey draft legislation would evoke a national renewable energy portfolio standard that will force electric utilities to get a large percentage of the energy they sell from renewable sources. The legislation defines renewable energy as solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, biomass, landfill gas, and wave energy. The required percentages would phase in starting at 6% in 2012, increasing to to 25% by 2039.

Calendar year Required annual percentage

2012 ……………………………………………………………………. 6.0

2013 ……………………………………………………………………. 6.0

2014 ……………………………………………………………………. 8.5

2015 ……………………………………………………………………. 8.5

2016 ……………………………………………………………………. 11.0

2017 ……………………………………………………………………. 11.0

2018 ……………………………………………………………………. 14.0

2019 ……………………………………………………………………. 14.0

2020 ……………………………………………………………………. 17.5

2021 ……………………………………………………………………. 17.5

2022 ……………………………………………………………………. 21.0

2023 ……………………………………………………………………. 21.0

2024 ……………………………………………………………………. 23.0

2025 through 2039 ………………………………………………………… 25.0

Utilities who are unable to meet the mandated standards would be fined $50 per megawatt hour of every megawatt they sell that exceed the renewable limits. That penalty could very quickly bankrupt companies that fail to comply. For example, a single 1000 megawatt coal fired power plant would be fined $1.2 million per day.

This is a nearly impossible mandate to meet. If this provision becomes law several things will happen:

There is already a huge amount of capitol flowing into wind and solar energy because of the lucrative subsidies that pay much of the installation costs, plus tax credits that some states and the federal government have put into place to encourage investment into these politically favored but uneconomic energy sources.  Taxpayers are already footing a lion’s share of the expense of installing most wind and solar power plants.

A national renewable portfolio standard will cause even more demand for these intermittent power sources. Unfortunately there is no way the supply can keep up with demand.  Utilities in areas of the country with plentiful hydo power will initially be able to meet the standards, but most of the USA has little hydro power.  According to the Energy Information Administration, in 2007 the combined total for wind, solar, wood and other biomass, and geothermal accounted for only about 2.2% of electricity generated in the USA. This means that within three years utilities in much of the country would need to triple the amount of renewable energy they sell. Electricity rates will sky rocket, and that increase will follow through to the entire economy. The cost of energy is embedded in the price of every product and service produced, and rising energy costs will cause inflationary pressures across the economy. The Cambridge Energy Research Associates, an energy consulting company, estimates renewable energy standards will cause prices to increase by 15%. They state that even with massive subsidies wind energy costs 30% more than natural gas, the most expensive form of traditional energy. Solar is even more costly.

Renewable energy portfolio standards will cause inflation across the board and will make goods and services produced more expensive and less competitive than the same products produced in parts of the world where energy costs are lower. Any modest increase in the number of jobs from an expansion in wind and solar will be short lived and will be more than offset by the loss of jobs in the manufacturing sector.

All this makes you wonder – if the fundamental goal of this legislation is greenhouse gas reduction, then why wouldn’t Waxman and Markey take advantage of the lowest cost, most scalable form of CO2-free energy, nuclear power? Consider this, a hypothetical utility with 100% nuclear power would emit zero carbon dioxide or other air pollution yet would fail to meet the energy mix mandated by the Markey/Waxman bill. This is simply outrageous!

Renewable energy portfolio standards represent terrible policy – it’s a manifestation of politicians trying to act as engineers, scientists, and entrepreneurs, a strategy doomed to fail. If the goal is CO2 reduction, then a straight forward approach will have far better results. It’s really quite simple; the government should set an across the board price on CO2 emissions then get out of the way and let the market figure out the most cost effective way to generate CO2-free energy. An appropriate price on CO2 would spawn research and development into wind, solar, coal with carbon capture, biomass, tidal, and nuclear energy. The technologies that offer the most CO2 reduction for the price will be rewarded with further investment and growth. Innovations would create jobs and new products that would become exports to other countries that also want to reduce CO2 emissions.

All this is so obvious I have to question the underlying motivations of the politicians who advocate a RPS. Are they really interested in reducing climate change, or are they using the climate change soap box as an opportunity for personal gain? Outside of their political life are they personally invested in the same technologies they are trying to mandate? We already know this is true in some instances. Al Gore, for example, lobbies Congress on one day and returns to his seat at the head of Generation Management Investment, a company that makes millions in profits from carbon offsets and from investments in renewable energy. He even buys his much touted “carbon offsets” from the company he owns – he essentially pays himself for his high-carbon lifestyle.

It is no surprise they are lukewarm on nuclear energy: nuclear power is a threat to their business because it is far more effective at reducing carbon dioxide emissions and other air pollution, at a much lower price, in much larger scales, and it is a stable, reliable energy source.


Operation Sea Orbit – 1964

Last week the world watched the story unfold about the pirate attack on the merchant ship Maersk Alabama. I felt compassion for and a connection with for the ship’s crew because of time I spent in the merchant marine early in my career. I have plied the very same waters where the pirate attack took place, and I couldn’t help but wonder if any of my former shipmates were among those affected. When the USS Bainbridge steamed to the rescue I was even more engaged because I have friends and relatives in the navy, and because I recognized the famous name of the Bainbridge. After a little Internet research I connected the dots on some interesting historical facts.

The present day USS Bainbridge is a guides missile destroyer commissioned in 2005. The ship is named after Commodore William Bainbridge, who was the commander of the famous frigate USS Constitution during the War of 1812. The current ship is the fifth ship to bear the name. I was familiar with the forth USS Bainbridge. That ship was the first nuclear powered destroyer. In the mid to late 1980’s I worked at Knolls Atomic Power laboratory. One of the nuclear plants on the site was called “D1G”, and was the prototype for reactor and steam plant of the nuclear powered USS Bainbridge. The nuclear USS Bainbridge was commissioned in 1962. In 1964 the USS Bainbidge joined the USS Long Beach, the first nuclear cruiser, and the USS Enterprise, the first nuclear aircraft carrier to form the first all-nuclear carrier battle group. This offered a huge advantage for naval tactics and logistics because the battle group could for the first time travel thousands of miles without the need for refueling. In 1964 the Navy decided to showcase this new capability and created Operation Sea Orbit in which the three ship carrier battle group cruised around the world in 62 days, traveling 30,565 miles without refuleing. The photo on my web site for this podcast episode is one taken of the three ships during their cruise around the world.

The story does not end there. Operations Sea Orbit was the idea of Adm. John S. McCain, Jr., the father of Senator John McCain. Adm. McCain was not a navy nuclear officer, but he recognized the advantages offered by nuclear energy. He used Operation Sea Orbit to demonstrate to the world that nuclear power was safe, reliable, and full of potential. With this exposure to the technology it should be no surprise that his son, Senator John McCain, became a staunch supporter of nuclear energy. I am sure you all heard Senator McCain’s promises during the last presidential campaign to expand the number of nuclear power plants in the USA as a way to increase energy independence, create jobs, and reduce air pollution. From a personal perspective it is hard for me to fathom that Operation Sea Orbit took place when I was just three years old. It’s even more amazing to realize that the USS Enterprise, the lead ship in Operation Sea Orbit and the first nuclear powered aircraft carrier, is still a commisioned vessel in active service in the US Navy. That ship is 45 years old and is not scheduled for retirement for another 5 or 6 years! The USS Enterprise is a testament to the durability, safety and reliability of nuclear power plants. The ship has eight Westinghouse pressurized water reactors that provide all the energy required for the equivalent of a small city generating electricity, launching aircraft, distilling water, and driving that massive ship through the water at speeds in excess of 30 knotts. The reactors have operated day in and day out for almost fifty years with five thousand sailors living and working within a few hundred feet of the reactors all the time.

The nuclear industry enjoys the benefits of a fantastic amount of accumulated knowledge and wisdom about how to design, build, and operate nuclear plants safely and reliably. In fact, we’re now in the third and forth generation of nuclear power scientists, engineers, operators, and technicians who are benefiting from thousands of reactor-years of operating experience all the way back to long before Operation Sea Orbit. Anti-nuclear activists attempt to block license renewals with an argument that nuclear reactors are worn out and dangerous after 40 years, yet here we have a perfect example of the same basic technology going strong well past 50 years – safely, reliably, and without contributing to air pollution. Commodore Bainbridge would be proud!

This Week in Nuclear Web Site Reminders

This web site has a number of new features:

· There is a podcast player and show transcripts.

· In addition to the podcast I frequently post news stories on my blog.

· Because I can not possibly cover all the interesting nuclear news out there, I have a “News” page that pulls in recent stories from several of my favorite blogs and news sources.

· There are also nuclear related videos, including a page of YouTube videos related to nuclear energy that is updated daily. Some are serious, and some are funny, but it’ always informative and entertaining!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter where my user name is TheJohnWheeler. When I publish a new podcast or blog article I always send out a message using Twitter to let everyone know. There is a link to my Twitter feed on the web site.

Finally, there’s a link to the Facebook Fan page for This Week in Nuclear. If you use FB please join the fan page and let your friends know about the show.

Peace!

John

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Author: John Wheeler

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