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Aggregating Energy Since 2006


Is Pawlenty changing his mind about energy?

In an apparent policy reversal, Minnesota state agencies told legislators that further climate change action may be unnecessary. Data have shown a drop in emissions from 2005 to 2006, and the assistant commissioner for air quality at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, David Thornton, and the new head of the Office for Energy Security, Bill Glahn, suggest that if that trend continues, Minnesota will meet its emission reduction goals in 2015 with no new policy actions.

This seems highly unlikely to me, and I find the suggestion disturbing.

Furthermore, they are suggesting that Big Stone II will reduce carbon emissions because it could replace two older coal plants (which won't happen), and that the only new policy suggestions from the Minnesota Climate Change Advisory Group (MCCAG) they support are eliminating the ban on new nuclear plants (which the MCCAG suggested should be studied) and implementing appliance efficiency standards.


Thanks to Keith for the heads-up.

Study evaluates clean energy technologies and declares winners

And the winner is wind! According to a study done by Mark Z. Jacobsen, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford, wind the cleanest of the "clean energy" technologies. Other winners, in order, are concentrated solar (the use of mirrors to heat a fluid), geothermal, tidal, solar photovoltaics (rooftop solar panels), wave, and hydroelectric. The losers include biofuels, nuclear, and "clean coal," which Jacobsen says are not nearly as clean as currently touted.

Not a huge surprise, but he used an apparently new method:

Jacobson has conducted the first quantitative, scientific evaluation of the proposed, major, energy-related solutions by assessing not only their potential for delivering energy for electricity and vehicles, but also their impacts on global warming, human health, energy security, water supply, space requirements, wildlife, water pollution, reliability and sustainability.

For more information, see:

Review of solutions to global warming, air pollution, and energy security
Wind, Water, and Sun Beat Biofuels, Nuclear, and Coal for Clean Energy
Stanford University Professor - Mark Z Jacobsen

Full carbon accounting for nuclear power

In an interesting report, a team of Australian academics created a life-cycle accounting of carbon dioxide emissions from nuclear plants and found them to be higher than previously thought. The main source of the difference is the mining of uranium, which is predicted to become more energy intensive as the high-grade sources diminish. This report is apparently the first to consider the environmental costs throughout the process of creating nuclear power.  It is helpful to have a greater accounting of the impacts of nuclear energy, and this report could be used to further illuminate decisions about new electricity plants. However, I would still imagine that the greenhouse gas emissions of these sources are much lower than any fossil fuel source, even including the transportation and sourcing of the uranium.

Omnibus Bill S.F. 2096


The Environment, Natural Resources, and Energy Omnibus Bill (S.F. 2096) is out of conference committee and will be signed by Governor Pawlenty, according to Minnesota Environmental Partnership's John Tuma.

This bill touches on nuclear, hydrogen, wind, and carbon sequestration - all toward the bottom of the bill if you are inclined to read the direct language. It also continued to fund the Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment (IREE) at the University of Minnesota.

On nuke stuff - Xcel Energy already has to contribute to the Renewable Development Fund (RDF). Groups can get money from this fund to develop or commercialize renewable energy projects. Xcel now has to pay an additional $350,000 per year for each dry cask of spent fuel it stores on-site at the Monticello plant.

Outside of this bill, some are apparently opposing Xcel's new storage out of safety concerns though some are accusing them of merely using an excuse to block nuclear power. I'm not sure where that is at currently, but I certainly hope Xcel is able to continue running Monticello as existing nuclear power plants strike me as a win-win compared to needing to build more coal baseload plants.

Interestingly, nuclear power plant troubles have negatively impacted Xcel's profits. Looks like the future of nuclear power might not be as bright green as some have suggested.

Back to S.F. 2096 - the bill also makes it clear that Xcel can apply for RDF money though it must be judged equally to other applications.

Public Utilities must make monthly reports to to the PUC that show a bunch of stats, including number of customers, number and amount of accounts past due, average monthly bill, total sales revenue, and a bunch of stats relating to low-income energy programs. All this will be made publicly available. The bill has a bunch of language about the cold weather rule - detailing when utilities can cut power/fuel to customers for nonpayment and the rules for reconnecting. I'm not sure how this differs from current law.

On Hydrogen, the bill gets more specific than current law. Hydrogen fuel is to come from renewable sources and several Minnesota Agencies are to move beyond "identifying opportunities" to demonstrate the technology to identifying opportunities to deploy the technology. In other areas, it strengthens the language to force agencies to push harder for Hydrogen applications as it becomes feasible.

It creates the Minnesota Renewable Hydrogen Initiative:

The Department of Commerce shall coordinate and administer directly or by contract the Minnesota renewable hydrogen initiative. If the department decides to contract for its duties under this section, it must contract with a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization within the state to develop the road map. The initiative may be run as a public-private partnership representing business, academic, governmental, and nongovernmental organizations. The initiative must oversee the development and implementation of a renewable hydrogen road map, including appropriate technology deployments, that achieve the hydrogen goal of section 216B.013. ... The road map should describe how renewable hydrogen and fuel cells fit in Minnesota's overall energy system, and should help foster a consistent, predictable, and prudent investment environment. The department must report to the legislature on the progress in implementing the road map by November 1 of each odd-numbered year.

The DoC will be awarding grants to help meet renewable hydrogen energy goals. By the end of next year, the Labor and Industry Commissioner will have recommendations for the Legislature to unify codes and standards for a hydrogen infrastructure. It will also deal with saftey standards for the "production, storage, transportation, distribution, and use of hydrogen, fuel cells, and related technologies.

On Manitoba Hydro - it specifies a task force that will collect information about who is employed by the project and the status of lawsuits against the project as well as its environmental impacts.

On Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTS), the bill says that they are great and says the commissioner may use the teams to "provide professional, technical, organizational, and financial assistance to regions and communities to develop and implement community energy programs and projects, within available resources."

Section 28 creates a Rural Energy Development Revolving Loan Fund. The fund is limited to loans less than $100,000 and has a max interest rate of 1.5%. It will assist in funding wind studies and transmission interconnection studies.

By Feb 1, 2008, the DoC will have issued recommendations based upon a stakeholder group's evaluation of designing a system to allow off-site renewable distributed generation. This would essentially allow some groups to invest in wind turbines while keeping the renewable energy credits that currently tend to go to utilities. The utilities are opposed to it, so we'll see what this stakeholder group does.

When it comes to Carbon Sequestration, the bill deals with both terrestrial (storing carbon in soil and vegetation) and geologic (injecting it underground). The University of Minnesota is going to assess Minnesota's terrestrial sequestration potential and impacts. The Minnesota Geologic Survey will study the possibilities and impacts of sequesting carbon geologically in the Midcontinent Rift system.

Finally, there was a question about whether county governments may own wind projects or not. Winona County now can. Rather than clarify whether all counties can do this, it just says that Winona County can use certain powers granted to municipal power agencies.

Senate Energy Committee Tackles Nuclear

Nuclear Cooling Towers

Looks like the Minnesota Senate Energy Committee is having a nuclear-themed week. They are taking testimony on the bills on Thursday; the agenda for Tuesday is as follows:

Legislative History of Nuclear Power in Minnesota

Report by PUC Concerning Certificate of Need for Dry Cask Storage

Overview of Nuclear Energy

S.F. 2081-Murphy:Nuclear powered electric generating plants
certificate of need issuance prohibition elimination; legislative
electric energy task force expiration date extension; nuclear energy

S.F. 1930-Murphy:Nuclear powered electric generating plants
certificate of need issuance prohibition elimination.

S.F. 1491-Jungbauer, M. J.:Nuclear powered electric generating plants
certificate of need issuance ban repeal.

S.F. 1608-Jungbauer, M. J.:Nuclear powered electric generating plants
certificate of need issuance prohibition elimination.

S.F. 1414-Kubly:Monticello nuclear plant phaseout, contingency
planning and storage approval.

S.F. 1794-Kubly:Dry cask storage at Monticello stay extension.

S.F. 2144-Kubly:Monticello nuclear facility routine radiation
emissions health report.

S.F. 2199-Anderson, E. R.:Nuclear waste storage modification;
utilities greenhouse gas infrastructure costs recovery.

Currently, nuclear power plants are not permitted to receive a certificate of need by the PUC and therefore may not be built. Several of these bills aim to change that. I find it interesting that Senator Jungbauer is leading the fight to bring nuclear plants to MN as he has proven to be a major skeptic of climate science.

Accident at Monticello nuclear plant

The Star Tribune reports that a minor accident occurred recently at Xcel's Monticello nuclear plant. Apparently a control box broke lose from its support beams and fell about a foot onto a pipe carrying radioactive steam. No leaks were detected in the pipe as a result. Interestingly, the plant had been running for a record 637 consecutive days without a shutdown. Most plants run for 12 to 18 months before being shutdown for routine maintenance and refueling. Xcel officials deny that this created a risk.  

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has notified managers at four other nuclear plants around the country of similar age and design to check for this problem.

George Crocker of the North American Water Office is quoted as saying market forces are pushing utilities to push their plants to the limit. That's an interesting question but I'm not cynical enough to buy it just yet. Utility officials must be wary of negative publicity as any small accident gets reported in the news - much more so than other industries that work with hazardous substances. It seems to me that they would avoid taking shortcuts that might jeopardize safety.

Nuclear Storage in Doubt

Storage of nuclear waste remains my biggest concern with the technology. Now it looks like even our limited knowledge about how to store it moderately safely is in doubt. Nature is reporting that radiation degrades our storage containers more rapidly than we expected.

This is not to suggest that we have a problem with storage now or even in the near future. The question is what kind of a mess we are planning to leave for future generations.

Nuclear waste needs to be stored for hundreds of thousands of years. We thought we could store it safely for a couple of thousand but it looks like the technology is not there yet.

The problem is that the radioactive waste damages the matrix that contains it. Many of the waste substances, including plutonium-239, emit alpha radiation, which travels for only very short distances (barely a few hundredths of a millimetre) in the ceramic, but creates havoc along the way.

A fast-moving alpha particle knocks into hundreds of atoms in its path, scattering them like skittles. Worse still, the radioactive atom from which the particle comes is sent hurtling in the other direction by the recoil. Even though its path is even shorter than that of an alpha particle, the atom is much heavier, and can knock thousands of atoms out of place in the ceramic.

All this disrupts the crystalline structure of the ceramic matrix, jumbling it up and turning it into a glass. That can make the material swell and become a less secure trap. Farnan says that some zircons that have been heavily damaged in this way by radiation have been found to dissolve hundreds of times faster than undamaged ones. So if the ceramic gets wet, there could be trouble.

This does not make storing nuclear waste impossible, but it certainly suggests we have a lot more work to do. This strikes me as being a decent reason to wait for more research before adding more nuclear power plants.

Who Guards Nuke Plants?

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has decided against changing the specs for new nuke plants.

The question is basically who is responsible for deflecting terrorist attacks on the plants from the air. Obviously, terrorists attacking the plants with airplanes is a serious concern for everyone involved. As of now, the responsibility for preventing such an attack apparently goes to the Department of Homeland Security.

My impression of modern reactor design is that it has passive protection measures. From listening to Science Friday, I had the impression that if "things go bad," the reactor's design would cause it to stop the nuclear reaction without requiring much intervention.

So I wonder how much damage a 737 landing on the plant would do. Would it merely release some radioactive material into the atmosphere (merely?) or spread it via the resulting explosion?

Is there a threat beyond the spread of the reactor fuel? Such a threat is obviously scary, but I wonder about the likelihood. Do nukes have radar currently? I would hope that Homeland Security has a mechanism to alert nuke plants if a plane is acting erratically and approaches a plant. How much warning time does a plant need to secure its material against such an attack?

This is important because some firms will soon build new nuclear facilities:

Mr. Peterson said the industry wanted the regulations to be issued soon, because companies had expressed interest in building 30 new reactors. The actual number built is likely to be much smaller, experts say, but there is a widespread expectation of new orders, probably in 2007.

Some under-analyzed nuclear concerns

I wrote this as a response to another comment, but couldn't see how to link to the Nuclear category, so I'm posting this here as well. A few concerns I have about nuclear (I really don't think it's the way of the future) that haven't been expressed as much.

1. The costs are ridiculously high. Nuclear, once thought too cheap to meter, is now one of the most expensive types of energy, and that's even without counting the government covering massive waste repositories and cheap energy subsidies for the feedstocks of nuclear. I recently heard that somewhere in Kentucky, there are 3 entire coal plants making electricity just to refine the uranium needed in a number of eastern nuclear facilities - not very clean, even in the global warming sense (this was on Kilowatt Ours, a recent film on energy in the Southeast). Nuclear takes lots of energy to mine, refine, and process, plus all the radiation controls and all, which makes it really expensive. It's more expensive than wind, geothermal, or cogeneration biomass, and within a few years, it will be more expensive than solar too. It's a bad energy return and a bad financial investment.

2. Waste storage facilities are too exposed to terrorism. I know the plants themselves are very well secured, but I know that at least on some plants - the one I know the most about is Indian Point, which is on the Hudson River about 30 miles north of New York City - store waste in water. For the details; you can read The End of Nature by Robert F Kennedy but here's the basics: tons of this waste is stored in liquid pools in buildings 'with the structural integrity of a Wal-Mart big-box'. There's no threat of fission in an attack, but a direct hit with a 747 full of fuel would shatter the roof and evaporate the water in these pools, causing massive meltdown. The fall-out zone is a 50 mile radius, and at least with Indian Point, that zone has about 20 million people in it. What's worse, the two planes that attacked the World Trade Center flew directly over this facility on Sept. 11. Now, this is partially just lax security and bad management at a single facility, but with terrorism (of course linked with our oil addiction) on the rise, is this really a threat we want to chance?

3. It's ridiculous to expect that strategies for storing nuclear waste can successfully envision security for 10,000-100,000 years. The former is the same period of time as since the agricultural revolution, the latter since roughly the evolution of our species. It's quite likely that waste storage plans that have functioned well in the past 50 years, and may function well for the coming decades or even centuries, will have significant negative consequences further down the line.

4. Conservation lifestyles, smart urban design, local economies, energy efficiency, and renewable energy are much more effective and safe strategies. They're also of course much more fun.

Monitcello License Extended

Xcel's license to operate the nuclear power plant in Monticello has been extended.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Wednesday gave Xcel Energy permission to operate its Monticello nuclear power plant for 20 years past its original license expiration in 2010.

The plant now is cleared to stay in business until Sept. 8, 2030.

The article gives a number of details about recertification process and concerns of some regarding the safety of nuclear power facilities.

My opinion: ain't nothing safe 'bout nothing. Nuclear power certainly is dangerous, but you don't see me working a coal mine either.

NYTimes Energy Challenge


Roughly every two weeks, the NY Times has released a new article on various energy topics in what they are dubbing "The Energy Challenge."

Recent Topics:

  • Global Warming
  • Ethanol
  • Nuclear
  • Coal
  • Solar 

Report from U of M Renewable Energy Workshop Oct. 12

I attended the Renewable Energy Workshop today sponsored by the U of MN Electrical Engineering Department. As expected, it was largely technology-focused, with some general discussions of the challenges facing renewable energy here and elsewhere. (And a good buffet style lunch). Here a few salient points of the talks I attended.

A Power Grid for the Hydrogen Economy - Thomas Overbye, U of Illinois

The speaker talked about his research into superconducting transmission lines. The idea behind the project is to supplement our existing grid with a network of underground high voltage DC transmission lines made with superconducting material. The benefit of using superconductors is that the current density can be much higher, so fewer transmission lines have to be built. Line losses would also be minimized.

Each line would consist of a superconducting core for carrying the electricity with an outer ring of liquid hydrogen, which would act both as a coolant and an energy storage mechanism. During times of low electricity demand, excess electricity from renewable sources would be used to create the hydrogen via electrolysis.

Though such a grid is technically feasible, cost is a major issue, though the speaker was quick to note that anything transmission related is expensive. He quoted a figure of roughly $2.5 million per mile to install these cables. Water scarcity may also be an issue in some places.

Lessons from Norway - an unlisted speaker, didn't get his name

(A grad student actually did this talk in place of his professor, who was scheduled to speak but couldn't make it.)

This talk mainly focused on the challenges facing Norway in meeting its future electrical demand and making use of its vast renewable energy potential (enough to supply twice that of its current annual consumption.) Currently, 99% of Norway's generation comes from low cost hydropower. However, similar to here, demand is outpacing supply. More supply will have to be brought on in coming years.

I was struck by how similar the challenges facing renewable energy are to here - public resistance (in the case of wind), cost (wind energy is still more significantly more expensive than hydropower), and political uncertainty (will subsidies continue?) Norway is also facing transmission limitations, just like here.Especially of note is that public resistance to wind energy projects has increased in recent years, for all the typical reasons - avian mishaps, other wildlife impacts, and aesthetics.

Planning for Renewable Energy at a MN Utility - Glen Skarbakka, Mgr of Resource Planning, Great River Energy

The speaker talked about the challenges of meeting GRE's rapidly growing load (about 100 MW/year) while incorporating renewables. GRE's load is mostly residential, meaning that demand goes way up in the summer, but varies a lot day to day, depending on weather. This makes it a challenge to use wind energy, which is not dispatchable in the traditional sense (though forecasting has gotten highly accurate.)

I was mostly impressed by GRE's goals to reduce its CO2 emissions to 2000 levels by 2020, as well as doubling its renewable objective of 10%. The speaker admitted that meeting the first will be extremely challenging, to say the least.

Wind Energy - Present Projects and Potential in Minnesota - John Dunlop, American Wind Energy Association

The speaker talked about how wind turbine technology has advanced over the last 20 years and how wind energy continues to grow rapidly in the US and elsewhere. He also provided a nice summary of the recent situation with the Dept of Defense blocking new wind farms due to concerns over radar. The report finally came out on Sept. 27, 143 days late. It didn't really say anything that could not have been written in one day - only that wind farms can interfere with radar. It didn't offer any mitigation measures to help current or future projects move forward. Sounded like a great use of taxpayer dollars.

Update on CapX 2020 - Terry Grove, GRE

The CapX project is an ongoing transmission planning project involving all major utiltiies in Minnesota, planning transmission needs through 2020. I already knew how long this process takes, but the uninitiatied would probably be shocked. Though, there are good reasons it takes this long. The Certificate of Need process for the first group of lines, mainly to improve reliability, alone will take through 2008. Then route permits have to be aquired, which will take through 2010. During this time, lots of meetings are held with city governments, landowners, and other agencies. The proposed Brookings -SE Minnesota line alone will require that 200,000 landowners be notified. This is just a massive undertaking.

From what I've heard, the last round of tranmission construction was an extremely drawn out and painful process. It will be even worse this time around, due to the industry restructuring that has occured since then. Now, independent power producers can bid in new projects to the MISO queue. Most of these projects fail to get off the ground, since banks won't supply the financing until a power purchase agreement is signed - a chicken and egg problem - meaning that planners don't know where new generation will actually be.

Results of Research Funded by NSF, Xcel Energy, and ONR - Ned Mohan, Electrical Engineering, U of MN

Ned gave an overview of renewable energy-related research in the EE department, then talked mainly about a matrix converter his research team developed. The converter can be used with any variable speed generator, including wind turbines and will boost power output by 1.5X of nameplate ratings. This would also eliminate the problem of bearing currents in typical motors, which eventually destroy the bearing and represent a major maintenance headache. Ned also talked about the benefits of using silicon carbide (SiC) in power electronics, which improves device performance by 10-100 times over plain silicon (Si). The cost of SiC continues to fall, making the use of this material more feasible.

Xcel's Nuclear Waste

Looks like Xcel will have to ask the Minnesota Legislature for permission to expand its temporary nuclear waste storage at its Monticello facility.

The Pioneer Press is reporting that Xcel's plans for temporary storage in Utah may fall apart.

The Interior Department last week rejected a lease Xcel and other utilities had signed with the Skull Valley Band of Goshutes to store waste on its reservation. It's still unclear whether an appeal will be filed, but Xcel said Wednesday it would not help pay for one.

The lease would have allowed Minneapolis-based Xcel and seven other utilities to ship up to 44,000 tons of nuclear waste to Goshute land southwest of Salt Lake City, where it would be stored for up to 50 years or until a permanent federal repository is available, either at Yucca Mountain in Nevada or elsewhere.

Xcel operates 2 nuclear power plants in Minnesota. When it needed increased storage capacity at Prairie Island recently, the legislature granted it in return for increased investments in renewable energy.

This will likely provide another opportunity to force Xcel to further increase those investments. I hope they word the legislation more clearly though in order to ensure Xcel is not able to weasel out of the intended commitments.

Nuclear Power to Save the World!!

A group in South Africa has developed a new nuclear power technology . The new technology includes two key advances. First, the fuel comes packaged in a way that is safer to handle and allows more complete use of the fuel. The advantages are not just in reduced cost and safety but also, since the fuel is used to exhaustion, it reportedly poses less of a proliferation problem. Second, the reactors are smaller and cooled with helium instead of water. This allows for them to be more easily located near areas of concentrated demand. The helium cooling also appears to provide increased security again devastating accidents.

So, what's the other side of the glowing coin presented in this news release?

Slow Start to Nuclear

Despite the Federal government sending a message to the private sector to push forward with building new nuclear power plants, the response has been tepid. A longish NY Times article looks at the business outlook on nuclear power plants. I found there to be a couple interesting tidbits. One is that the reasons companies decide not to build a new nuclear power plant are generally not the same as the reasons opponents are worried about:

Opponents often cite the risk of accidents and the problem of nuclear waste, but the companies that do not want to build say that those are not factors in their decisions…the risk that really matters to utility executives is financial. Among the companies that would actually build these plants, executives focus more on uncertain factors like the future price of power, the cost of producing competing fuels, and the cost of cleaning up coal plants to meet standards for the pollutants that Washington does regulate — sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and soot.

One energy company executive stated it clearly that their role is to maximize their shareholders profits. Even if nuclear power plants may eventually be more cost effective than coal plants they carry a much higher level of uncertainty and risk. An example is that typically when they build a new power plant they begin the process by selling the future power for a certain length of time (hedging). They then use these contracts to ease the worries of investors and bankers in order to get the outside financing necessary for the high capital outlay. Since nuclear power plants take on the order of 10 years to bring into production it is difficult to sell power 10 years from now for a 10 year timeframe.

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