Navigant Research Blog

Nuclear Power Tiptoes Back into the Conversation

— October 28, 2015

This may be an uncomfortable notion for cleantech purists, but nuclear power has tiptoed back into the conversation about what sources will supply energy into the future. Recent developments indicate the move toward nuclear power may be closer than many people think. Consider these recent happenings:

  • U.S. nuclear regulators are close to approving the first nuclear power license in 20 years. The Tennessee Valley Authority’s 1,150 MW Watts Bar 2 unit could get the necessary go-ahead in the coming days, and if that happens, the plant could start commercial operations in 2016.
  • The Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan could give the nuclear industry a shot in the arm; current U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Gina McCarthy has said that nuclear plants would be credited under the plan as zero-carbon generation as part of a compliance strategy.
  • Two Massachusetts Institute of Technology-trained scientists are pushing a safer type of nuclear power generation that is designed to eat its own waste. Nuclear physicists Leslie Dewan and Jacob Dewitt have founded separate but comparable startup companies that focus on nuclear generators capable of operating on their own radiated waste, which removes the need for trucking and storing spent radioactive material.
  • China and Bill Gates are said to be making progress in the pursuit of nuclear power. Gates’ nuclear power company, TerraPower, has signed an agreement with the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) that permits the two companies to work together on advanced nuclear technologies that tackle some of nuclear power’s toughest issues: environmental, safety, and cost. China also plans to build 400 new nuclear reactors by about 2050.

Closer to my world, I recently met an attorney who has a background in nuclear power but is no friend of fossil fuels. Attorney Priya Sinha Cloutier has clients that include biofuels companies and various other nuclear power industry players. Her take is that nuclear power needs to be part of the future of energy generation. She is a fan of solar and wind, but those technologies alone are not the only solutions in her mind. It was an interesting conversation, and helped me connect the dots.

Seems pretty clear that a new era is evolving in which nuclear power can be a part of the generation mix, though with better safeguards. Nuclear won’t be the one absolute answer, but could become a very important piece in the future of energy. Thus the nuclear option could take on a new meaning for the rest of the 21st century.


India’s 100 Smart Cities Program Spurs Investment and Criticism

— October 28, 2015

Narendra Modi, India’s new prime minister, has embraced technology more so than any of his predecessors. With 15.7 million followers on Twitter (I was happy when I reached 100) and more than 30 million Facebook followers, the global leader recently made an imprint on the high-tech epicenter of Silicon Valley, visiting a number of companies there last month to talk about how technology can help India face difficult social, economic, and environmental issues. His 100 Smart Cities program is a landmark of this philosophy, aspiring to develop new urban spaces to support overwhelming population growth, adapt to climate change, and create a modern economy. But many have asked if this program really has the capability of supporting these development needs, and if it is instead channeling funds away from areas that desperately need support.

Modi introduced his program in June of 2015, just a month after taking office, pledging a short term investment of $1.2 billion for the planning of projects across the country to be completed over the course of 7 years. Other countries such as Japan, the United Kingdom, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates have also promised billions in investments. Indian cities planned for upgrades and development are predominantly located in the economic corridor between Delhi and Mumbai, as well as in Special Investment Regions and Special Economic Zones where there are fewer restrictions upon international business and investment.

The program’s flagship city of Dholera, located in Modi’s home state of Gujarat, has been in planning mode since 2009 and is currently under construction, with completion expected in 2020. Plans for the megacity include a modernized smart grid infrastructure that supports high levels of renewables and a citywide communications infrastructure and smart city platform that supports both public and private sectors.

Challenges Loom

But aside from Modi’s smart city plan is the fact that much of India will still remain severely underdeveloped. A number of Indian and international development groups have spoken out about the negative impacts of developing isolated super cities while the rest of the country remains underdeveloped and without adequate public infrastructure and access to utilities. Large parts of the country still need to be electrified, and many that are suffer from as much as 40% capacity losses from theft. This has led to a troubled financial state for many of India’s utilities, which are expected to struggle to balance these issues and attract financial support for smart infrastructure investment.

Developing smart cities as a top-down initiative leaves room to overlook the ground-up steps required to effectively meld together technology and community interests. Without citizen participation as an integral part of planning, even if citizens have access to smart city infrastructure to some degree, what are the chances that it will be relevant to them? This is a concern particularly with the country’s poorest citizens, which remain a majority of the population in the country, and may face loss of farmland in areas where smart cities are scheduled to be developed on top of it. Additionally, a large part of this population is dispersed among the outskirts of many cities—how can centralized smart infrastructure provide support to those that can’t easily access it? Modi’s planning, as big and impressive as it sounds, still has some issues to address in order for it to enable economic growth for all of India’s citizens.


SCOTUS on FERC Order 745: Nothing but a G Thing

— October 26, 2015

Now that it seems like we are past the point where we might see a quick decision by the Supreme Court on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) Order 745 case on demand response (DR), let’s reflect back on the hearing last week. Unfortunately, I did not actually get into the hearing, despite waiting outside in line for 4 hours. Looking at the court’s website, it seemed like there should be room for a couple hundred public viewers.

However, only about 50 people who lined up, starting at 4 a.m., got in to see the full case. Apparently, a lot of seats were taken up by other spectators with priority access. Who knew so many energy geeks cared about this case? Regardless, the line outside was like an independent system operator stakeholder meeting, with many interested parties hoping to get a glimpse inside but holding mock trials while waiting.

I was able to read the hearing transcript and listen to the audio recording, so I could visualize the proceedings. There were two main issues at hand: does the FERC have jurisdiction over DR, and if so, should DR receive the full locational marginal price (LMP) for participating in the wholesale energy markets? The solicitor general of the U.S. Department of Justice, Donald Verrilli, represented the FERC’s case that it does have jurisdiction. Next, Carter Phillips, a lawyer representing EnerNOC and other petitioners, attempted to bolster Verrilli’s message and also weighed in on the LMP issue, which was the original scope of FERC Order 745. Finally, Paul Clement, a former solicitor general, spoke on behalf of the Electric Power Supply Association (EPSA) and other parties that supported the court of appeals’ ruling, which negated the FERC’s jurisdiction and rejected the LMP argument.

Weighing In

Of course, throughout that testimony, the justices interjected questions and comments on all sides of the issues. Justice Samuel Alito recused himself from the case, so there is a chance that a split vote could result, leading to an upholding of the lower court’s ruling. Justices Clarence Thomas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg were silent during the hearing, so assuming they sit along party lines on this issue, we have to interpret the comments of the remaining Justices. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy appeared to favor the lower court’s ruling based on their peppering of Verrilli and Phillips. Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Stephen G. Breyer seemed to lean toward deferring to the FERC, with Breyer referring to the “G thing,” meaning the LMP-Generation (G) payment method that EPSA preferred. It was interesting to hear analogies made to Ferraris, McDonalds, and Walmart by parties to try to explain how the wholesale and retail electricity markets interact.

There was a chance that a quick split decision could be announced and put us out of our misery, but it appears that window has closed, so now we have to wait probably several months for the final verdict. If DR ever appears before the Supreme Court again, I’ll know to bring my tent.


Security Concerns Pose Risk to IoT Market Expansion

— October 26, 2015

If the Internet itself is not fully secure, then it stands to reason that the Internet of Things (IoT) cannot possibly be fully secure either. Whether it’s refrigerators, cars, thermostats, or even your food (the Guardian reported that even your steak may have come from a connected cow), the IoT is becoming a ubiquitous feature of modern life with inherent security risks. The addition of billions of devices that communicate through Internet-connected IT infrastructure while using various types of hardware is likely to create a challenging market to safeguard in the years to come.

While there are few risks to having data collected on cows, some IoT devices do raise some security concerns for human beings. Devices such as GPS-connected running shirts (that hackers can use to know when you’re not home) and face recognition smart locks (which can be tricked by being shown digital photographs) are particularly prone to hacking breaches.

The IoT in Smart Cities

Smart city technologies with IoT capability—such as smart parking systems, which use sensors to guide drivers to open parking spaces, or traffic management systems, which help government organizations synchronize traffic lights for optimal traffic flows—also exist simply to improve the quality of life for city residents (in this case reducing traffic congestion and pollution). However, there are some legitimate security concerns with these technologies that need to be addressed as well. Using traffic management systems as an example, security researchers at the University of Michigan were able to hack nearly 100 wireless networked traffic lights by using only a laptop and wireless card. If hackers can easily and quickly cause mass disarray through traffic light manipulation—by, say, changing all the lights in a particular intersection to be green—it’s not unreasonable to foresee public distrust of smart city IoT technology.

Nevertheless, not all IoT devices are easily hackable, and some are providing invaluable security features to society. In fact, cameras and the IoT are helping to make life much safer for those who have encounters with the police or are near a crime scene. The introduction of body cameras on police in Rialto, California resulted in complaints against officers dropping by nearly 90% in 2012 compared to 2011, and use of force by officers dropped by 60%. Additionally, IoT-connected sensors in Denver, Colorado can pinpoint the location of gunshots by triangulating sound, allowing officers to be more quickly deployed to a crime scene.

Security Issues Need to Be Addressed

If the IoT market is going to expand as quickly as many analysts believe, the issues surrounding security need to be addressed early on—not after significant breaches that will likely result in a huge loss of public trust in IoT technology. Conducting privacy and security risk assessments, minimizing the type of data that is collected, and testing advanced security measures before rather than after product launch are all ways that companies and governments can ensure a high level of security for IoT devices while also respecting a reasonable level of privacy for citizens.


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