Navigant Research Blog

DOE Collaborates With China on Thorium Reactors

— June 27, 2012

The U.S. Department of Energy is collaborating with China on thorium-based reactors with molten salt cores, according to a report on Smart Planet.  Written by Mark Halper, a United Kingdom-based energy reporter who writes for several U.S. and U.K. publications, the report both confirms what I reported in my book, SuperFuel – that China plans to be a world leader in advanced nuclear technology, including thorium reactors – and outlines publicly for the first time links between the DOE (specifically, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which pioneered molten salt reactor research from the 1960s) and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), which is spearheading R&D on advanced nuclear power in China.

China, which plans to build dozens of new reactors over the next few decades in an effort to wean itself off of coal-fired power plants, is exploring a range of advanced nuclear technologies, including molten-salt thorium reactors (also known as “liquid fuel thorium reactors,” or LFTRs, pronounced “lifters”) as well as fast neutron reactors.  Bill Gates, a backer of nuclear technology startup TerraPower, has publicly spoken of his intention to work with Chinese researchers to help develop next-generation nuclear reactors.  China currently gets less than 2% of its power from nuclear plants.

Thorium, a radioactive element that was instrumental in early nuclear physics experiments of the late 19th and early 20th century, offers several key advantages over uranium as a nuclear fuel.  It’s four times as abundant, and its long half-life (around 14.2 billion years, about the same as the age of the universe) makes it safe to store and handle.  No enrichment is needed to turn it into a nuclear fuel, and it produces far less waste by volume than conventional uranium reactors.  In fact, LFTRs can actually consume waste produced by conventional uranium reactors, processing it into a form that is much easier to store, and which can be used to start up new LFTRs.  Most importantly, thorium is useless as a material for bombs.

While individual scientists at Oak Ridge have privately worked to support new thorium reactor development, and several bills have been introduced in Congress to fund thorium R&D, the U.S. government has had no official involvement in the burgeoning worldwide thorium movement – at least until now, according to Halper’s report.  The organizational chart below was pulled from a presentation by the Chinese Academy of Sciences.  It shows a deep level of interaction between DOE officials, U.S. scientists from MIT, the University of California Berkeley, and other institutions, and their Chinese counterparts.

Co-chairing the partnership’s executive committee are DOE assistant secretary for nuclear energy Peter Lyons and Jiang Mianheng from the CAS.  Jiang, who according to his official biography holds a Ph.D. from Drexel University, is the son of former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin – a fact that has led observers to conclude that the thorium reactor program is backed at the highest levels of the Chinese government.

As I’ve emphasized in my talks about thorium, anything that helps China reduce its dependence on coal is a welcome development.  There are many in the thorium movement, however, who see Chinese supremacy in advanced nuclear technology as an economic and security threat to the United States (one thorium activist used the word “treason” in an email reacting to the Smart Planet story).  China already controls the world market for rare earths, elements that are used in a variety of high-tech applications including smartphone displays, missile guidance systems, and electric vehicles.  Thorium is almost always found in association with rare earth elements, and China is reportedly stockpiling thorium mined as a byproduct at its huge rare earth mines in Inner Mongolia.

“Some skeptics worry that the U.S. is foolishly abetting Chinese efforts to advance a crucial energy technology that China could soon control,” notes Halper, “and thus give China hegemony in two vital areas: rare earths and energy.”

The DOE-CAS collaboration is a key development in an emerging technology that could present one of the major energy breakthroughs of the 21st century.  I’ve requested comment from the DOE and others mentioned in the Smart Planet report, and I will update this blog with responses as they become available.


Batteries and Flywheels Seek Fair Share of Grid Storage

— June 26, 2012

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Order No. 755, among its other provisions, requires regional transmission organizations (RTOs) and independent service organizations (ISOs) to fairly compensate frequency regulating entities.  In October 2011, the organized markets released their intended compliance dates, which range from late 2012 (PJM Interconnection and New York ISO) to early 2014 (ISO New England).

The FERC order attempts to increase the prevalence of non-traditional energy sources for frequency regulation services by compensating service providers who ramp quickly and accurately.  Prior to this ruling, RTOs and ISOs could compensate frequency regulation the same way they compensated generation: based on total electricity dispatched to the grid.  This promoted the use of traditional, fossil fuel based generation, which is very inefficient at frequency regulation because of the long ramp-up and ramp-down times.

Consider California ISO’s ACE “Smoothing” program.  This initiative began as a study conducted by CAISO and Beacon Power (which recently emerged from bankruptcy), and CAISO plans on an implemented system between 2013 and 2015.  While the ISO relies on larger energy storage mechanisms, such as pumped hydro and reserved generation at large power plants, for adapting to changes in forecasted load over a period of hours, ACE “Smoothing” employs flywheels to store and transmit hundreds of megawatts per minute.  This allows the ISO to quickly balance generation with load, reduce stress on the grid, and automatically minimize frequency regulation issues.

Regulation “mileage,” or the entire amount of energy added and subtracted from the grid to ensure proper frequency, is now compensated instead of net dispatch; this is represented by the green area on the ACE “Smoothing” figure above.  Batteries and flywheels are specifically mentioned as potentially ideal candidates for such applications, and manufacturers of such products will surely benefit from this FERC ruling.  Less obvious, though just as important, is the boon to software companies dedicated to developing energy management systems.

For example, San Francisco-based Growing Energy Labs, Inc., or GELI, is developing a web-connected software platform called Energy Operator System, which allows various storage points to interact with one another and the grid.  The hardware-software functions as a computer to manage large-scale, grid-level batteries at the cell level; the batteries are then connected to the grid via an inverter.

While CAISO’s study was developed as an exercise in feasibility, GELI’s system could be implemented to perform the necessary battery control automation.  Grid operators would be able to manipulate these site-specific computers to dictate electricity output or intake.  The software also allows for dynamic pricing models, where applicable.

Such a technological advance would affect energy storage across multiple installation scales.  Utility-scale renewables would obviously benefit, since excess generated electricity could be used to smooth output.  More important, especially considering the intent of FERC 755, would be the development of a larger market for batteries, flywheels, and other short duration technologies.  Several battery manufacturers, such as troubled A123 Systems, are developing new products to tap into the potential for performance-based compensation, and batteries energy storage projects are also sprouting up in South AmericaSpider9 and Sendyne are developing similar products to GELI, and are well-positioned to enter this space as grid-connected battery storage becomes more widespread.


Storage Technology Enables Energy Transformation

— June 26, 2012

Solar energy technology has now overtaken wind power as the darling of the investment community, heralding – according to some – an era when distributed generation technologies help make our energy system look more and more like the Internet.  With more than $137 billion flowing into the solar sector over the past year, the Solyndra debacle has clearly not deterred investors from betting on the sun as a strategic fuel of the future.

Though large-scale wind and solar facilities need to be part of the solution of any credible effort to reverse climate change, which many scientists now claim is nearing the point of irreversibility, the most radical energy system reforms are occurring in our own homes and communities, as well as in the developing world.

Today, large-scale solar PV plants that can produce as much power as small nuclear reactors are popping up in deserts throughout the western United States and other parts of the world.  Things get really interesting when these generation units are installed at the point of power consumption, with systems so small they can be measured in terms of watts.

Thanks to archaic rules, some of which date back to nearly a century, most of these micro-generation sources can only serve one customer.  They also become useless when the larger grid goes down –unless they include some form of energy storage.  If one wants to think beyond the boundaries of one’s private property and collaborate with neighbors during times of an emergency by networking, then one needs to look to a microgrid that can actually separate from the larger utility grid – and run as an island.

Solar Integration Energy Storage Revenue by Technology, World Markets: 2012-2018

(Source: Pike Research)

Advanced forms of energy storage and microgrids will be featured at the 5th annual Storage Week conference, being held in San Jose, California this week.  Advanced energy storage will also take a center seat in my next report, on microgrid enabling technologies.

Unlike smart digital switches, energy storage is highly relevant to both grid-tied and remote microgrids.  Companies such as Powercorp — now a part of ABB – deploy a flywheel to provide frequency regulation and related ancillary services within the microgrid.  ZBB Energy, which just raised $12 million in a common stock offering by MDB Capital Group, sells a zinc bromide flow battery that can store variable renewable energy for up to 8 hours, and then supply power at times where either the sun doesn’t shine (or the wind doesn’t blow.)  One of the most interesting storage vendors to eye the microgrid market is the Japanese firm GS Battery (a subsidiary of GS Yuasa Group), one of the top battery manufacturers in the world, which offers four kinds of lithium ion storage devices as well as portfolio of lead-acid based products.  The company believes the slower than expected growth of plug-in and hybrid electric vehicle markets means a drop in price, which also translates into a more competitive value proposition for microgrids.

Like storage, microgrids have yet to be fully understood by regulators.  Contrary to what I reported in my last blog, Connecticut has become the first state to enact a microgrid policy this past May, committing $15 million in grants and loans to support microgrids at police stations and hospitals in response to two major power outages last year that wreaked havoc with the economy.  The state government has reportedly identified 300 viable microgrid sites.  It is hoped these microgrids will create local jobs by tapping regional fuel cell manufacturers to generate a significant portion of distributed power generation.


With New Energy Efficiency Directive, the EU Makes Sausage

— June 26, 2012

The remark often attributed to Bismarck, that the making of laws, like sausages, is not a pretty sight, seems particularly relevant to regulation in the European Union.  The EU’s 20-20-20 targets for 2020 are rightly considered to have established a world-leading benchmark for energy policy and the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, but maintaining real commitment to that policy across 27 nations is a constant political struggle.

Of the three key targets set for 2020, the reduction in energy consumption has proven the hardest goal, with member states likely to achieve 9% efficiency gains by 2020 on current activities, instead of the targeted 20%.  This has led to renewed pressure for the EU to provide a tougher approach to ensuring that member states meet the required targets.  However, reaching agreement on how tough the new Energy Efficiency Directive should be has also proven far from easy.

Advocates of a stronger approach to energy savings had hoped that enforceable energy efficiency targets could be applied for each country, an approach that has been successful in driving forward renewable energy programs across the EU.  Government leaders, though, have resisted any significant move in that direction.  Instead, the new directive details measures that EU countries must adopt but does not provide specific targets for each country.  Those measures in turn have been the focus of difficult negotiations.

A number of countries have resisted important elements of the proposed new directive, including the United Kingdom and, more surprisingly, Germany.  Nevertheless, an agreement was finally reached earlier this month.  The result is a half-full or half-empty glass situation depending on your perspective.

The focal point of the new directive is the requirement for energy retailers to reduce energy consumption (in terms of their volume of sales) by 1.5% by 2020.  This proposal was watered down to allow about a quarter of that reduction to be achieved by other means, and so the actual reduction is closer to 1.1%.  In addition, the requirement that 3% of public building stock should be renovated annually to meet energy efficiency standards will now only apply to central government buildings.

These and other measures are estimated to provide a 17% saving in energy efficiency by 2020.  For some that’s enough to claim a victory, particularly as this is a minimum requirement and there will be a further review of progress in 2014 and 2016, with the possibility of introducing further measures as necessary.

The state of the European economy, of course, loomed over the discussions.  Critics of stronger measures claimed that it is the wrong time to put additional requirements on businesses, while others pointed to the overall net value of the measures to the European economy.   The Energy Efficiency Directive is estimated to cost €24 billion ($33 billion) a year until 2020, but it will save companies and consumers €44 billion ($61 billion).  The European Commission also estimates that the Directive will lead to an increased GDP in EU of €34 billion ($47 billion) in 2020, along with 400,000 new jobs.

As Europe’s countries struggle to resolve the financial and political issues around the eurozone crisis, the goal of achieving a low-carbon Europe is one of the few positive long term visions.  The struggle over the Energy Efficiency Directive, however, indicates that getting there will require a lot more sausage-making.


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