Navigant Research Blog

Coal’s Long Goodbye

— April 13, 2013

Electricity generation from coal has plummeted from favor in the last few years.  A majority of Americans now favor stricter regulations on coal plants, even if it means higher energy prices.  In Europe public opinion has tilted away from coal even more sharply: a recent survey showed that 80% of Germans want to end coal-fired generation altogether.  The anti-coal movement has also gained steam, so to speak, in some unlikely places.

That doesn’t mean King Coal will be dethroned any time soon.  In confirmation hearings before the Senate, Gina McCarthy, President Obama’s nomination for the director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, struck a conciliatory tone when asked about the future of the U.S. coal industry.

“Coal has been and will continue to be a significant source of energy in the United States, and I take my job seriously when developing those standards to provide flexibility in the rules,” McCarthy told lawmakers.  “Flexibility,” in this context, means “exceptions to the forthcoming rules on carbon emissions from power plants.”

German environmental minister Peter Altmaier was more blunt last year, speaking of the black fuel’s future on the continent: Coal-fired plants will be needed “for decades to come” to ensure reliable supplies of power.

In fact, coal consumption is rising, both in the United States and in Europe, to say nothing of China.  The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects power generation from coal to increase by nearly 8% in 2013, bringing coal’s portion of total U.S. generation back to 40%, from 37.4% in 2012.  The cause, according to the EIA: “the increasing cost of natural gas relative to coal.”

(Source: Energy Information Administration)

High prices for natural gas are also driving a coal resurgence in Europe; carbon emissions in Germany, for example, increased by 2% in 2012, according to a feature in Nature, largely as a result of increased power generation from cheap coal.

Developments in Germany reflect the larger paradox facing nations attempting to move toward clean energy production: under the Energiewende, Germany’s national program to shift 35% of its power generation to clean sources by 2020, the country is investing €1.5 billion in renewable energy per year.  However, economic forces continue to push power production to fossil fuels.  Generation from solar photovoltaic installations actually decreased by 500 GWh in 2012, and Germany is currently building some 11 GW of coal-fired capacity (though a substantial portion of that will be so-called “clean coal,” replacing older plants with more efficient, lower-emissions technology).  Germany’s decision to shut down its nuclear power plants after the Fukushima nuclear accident is driving the country to coal for baseload power.

“One of Europe’s biggest energy providers, E.ON based in Düsseldorf, announced in January that it plans to close several gas-fired power stations across Europe that were operating at a loss,” Nature reported, “even though they are far less polluting than coal-fired plants.”

Eventually, coal will be phased out.  However, everyone anticipating a rapid changeover from the fuel that powered the Industrial Revolution has a long wait ahead.

 

Feedstock Shortages Fuel Pellet Boom

— April 12, 2013

Facing unresolved feedstock challenges – including access, cost, and security of supply – the global biomass power market is teetering on the verge of obsolescence.  Combined with controversy around emissions, changes in subsidy programs, and a boom in natural gas power generation, an increasing number of projects have  been cancelled in recent months across the United States and Europe.  Meanwhile, a wave of biomass pellet plant installments may presage an industry boom – albeit much later than otherwise expected.

In the United Kingdom alone, roughly one-third of announced biomass power projects across the country have been abandoned in recent years.  Many of these were dedicated facilities, ranging from 100 MW to 300 MW of capacity.

The Achilles heel of biomass power production is sourcing an adequate supply of feedstock at a reasonable cost.  Biopower’s problem is not so much a function of scarcity – biomass is ubiquitous and currently the fourth largest energy resource worldwide after coal, oil, and natural gas – but it’s an inefficient source of carbon relative to fossil fuels.  Unlike coal, oil, and natural gas, biomass lacks density in two ways.  First, it’s scattered across large swaths of land (such as forest thinnings from national forests) and must be collected and aggregated.  Second, its energy density is three-fifths that of coal, adding a premium to the cost of transporting volumes from source to customer.

Competing against low-price fossil fuels like coal and natural gas, biomass feedstocks can’t afford to rack up costs associated with harvesting, aggregating, processing, and transportation without heavy subsidization.  Where coal producers capture efficiency through economies of scale and an international transport infrastructure, biomass production remains, at best, a cottage-based market.

Pellet Pull

For these reasons, the financial viability of biomass power falls off a cliff when resources are sourced outside of a 50-mile radius, making larger projects with bigger biomass appetites much riskier.  These projects typically bank on a concentrated local source combined with the import of biomass pellets from international suppliers, a market still in its infancy.

Today, wood pellets are one of the largest internationally traded solid biomass commodities used specifically for energy purposes, but they represent only a fraction of the scale of the global coal trade.  Biomass pellets have lower moisture content than raw biomass, which decreases fuel degradation during the storage period, increases energy density, and creates a more homogeneous composition, all of which translate to higher energy efficiency during combustion.

Growth in biomass power generation is dependent upon the expansion in the international trade of wood pellets over the next decade – principally from Canada, the Southern United States, Russia, and Baltic region of Europe to the European Union and Asia Pacific.  Responding to the sudden surge in the global trade of industrial biomass pellets, Energy Exchange APX-ENDEX was launched in November 2011, becoming the world’s first dedicated exchange for biomass renewable energy.  The exchange is expected to bring more transparency to the market by adopting several certification schemes for industrial wood pellets already used in today’s bilateral contracts in order to ensure that the wood pellets originate from sustainable wood sources.

With the trade in industrial pellets still in its infancy, many biomass power plant operators like RWE in Germany and Drax Group in the United Kingdom have taken matters into their own hands, investing in upstream pelleting facilities outside their domestic markets.  Many oil majors – from Conoco to Chevron – are getting in on the action as well.  Although the biomass pellet market is heating up, it will be 5 to 10 years before biomass power generation picks up steam.

 

Why We Don’t Need a Fusion-Powered Rocket

— April 7, 2013

A team of researchers at the University of Washington (UW) has won a second round of funding from NASA for their concept for a nuclear fusion-powered rocket to take men to Mars.  Given the very grave problems we face as a nation and as a species, not to mention the long and dismal history of fusion reactor design, the folly of this is astounding.

“We are hoping to give us a much more powerful source of energy in space,” John Slough, the UW research associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics who heads the project, said in a UW website feature, “that could eventually lead to making interplanetary travel commonplace.”

I call this kind of thing “future porn”: the starry-eyed reporting of R&D that aims to accomplish outlandish goals that, even if attainable, will almost certainly prove too expensive, complicated, or non-lucrative to ever become reality.  Future porn stories always contain lots of conditionals and very long timeframes.  The terms “could,” “would,” and “eventually” tend to appear frequently.  “Now, astronauts could be a step closer to our nearest planetary neighbor through a unique manipulation of nuclear fusion,” the UW site reports.

Slough’s team “was one of a handful of projects awarded a second round of funding last fall after already receiving phase-one money in a field of 15 projects chosen from more than 700 proposals.”

I can think of a half-dozen things that NASA should be working on that would be more applicable to our current predicament and beneficial to humanity than harebrained schemes for Mars exploration; warding off annihilating asteroids and dealing with climate change would be top of the list.

Fusion Fail

The fusion-rocket news out of Seattle coincides with a discouraging report in Science News on the National Ignition Facility’s long, quixotic, and so-far failed attempts to produce controlled fusion by compressing a sphere of cryogenic hydrogen using 384 beams from the world’s most powerful laser, thereby releasing tremendous amounts of energy.  NIF scientists 4 years ago confidently predicted “that by September 30, 2012, they would demonstrate a fusion reaction producing net energy, a milestone known as ignition.”  Needless to say, that hasn’t happened.

The NIF account makes for a fascinating case study in the peril of relying on computer simulations.  Essentially, the researchers were convinced by their computer models that the hydrogen would compress symmetrically, i.e., into a near-perfect sphere.  Instead, the material deformed and warped, defying the attempts to unleash more energy than the powerful lasers put in.  “Nature just wants to break you,” said John Edwards, NIF’s associate director of fusion – a remark that echoes the head-shaking sighs of just about everyone who’s ever tried to achieve a sustainable, controlled fusion reaction.

Instead of lasers, the fusion rocket out of UW would use large metal rings, made of lithium, caused by a powerful magnetic field to implode and compress a type of plasma, leading to continuous bursts of fusion that would power the rocket.  To master the intricacies of this ingenious scheme, the scientists have relied upon, you guessed it, “detailed computer modeling.”

 

The Problem With Pay as You Go

— April 7, 2013

A “pay as you go” strategy for critical infrastructure, such as power supply – wherein infrastructure is financed incrementally, during the construction process – could make sense when applied to small remote microgrids supplying small solar systems in the developing world.   End-users in these countries often earn subsistence wages and need only enough juice for lights, computers, and cell phones.

When applied to nuclear power, though, the pay as you go concept dramatically increases the risks to end-users.   Just ask residents of Florida, where ratepayers are discovering that utilities can actually make more money – and consumers pay more for electricity – the longer it takes to build nuclear power stations.  The culprit is something called “construction work in progress,” or CWIP.

The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) has made a convincing argument that CWIP should actually save consumers money.  By collecting funds from ratepayers in advance of actual power production, sudden rate shocks can be avoided.  Financing costs for such large infrastructure projects can be reduced under CWIP, since investors have more certainty that debts will be paid off.  Since the investment ratings of utilities are protected, borrowing costs also shrink.

In the case of a proposed nuclear reactor by Progress Energy in Levy County, Florida, NEI estimated that CWIP program financing would save consumers $13 billion over the life of these nuclear reactors.  When Florida passed a bill in 2009 authorizing CWIP, it sailed through the state legislature with only a single dissenting vote.

After 6 years of CWIP financing, residential customer bills in Florida are projected to increase by $50 a month this year, even before the nuclear reactors generate a single kilowatt-hour of electricity.  Progress Energy originally estimated that building the two unit reactors would cost $5 billion and would be generating carbon-free power by 2016.  Instead, the construction costs have ballooned to $22.4 billion, and the plant – if ever completed – will not be generating power until 2021.

Ironically, this revised price tag and construction schedule mean that Progress Energy will generate more – not less – revenue the longer it takes to build the nuclear reactor.  If the project were cancelled today, the utility would still walk away with $150 million in profit.  So far, ratepayers have committed to over $1 billion dollars for a nuclear plant that won’t produce any power  for almost a decade.

If nuclear power could be financed in a way that makes economic sense, then proceeding down that path might make sense.  “Distributed nukes” – which would be deployed at a much smaller scale, reducing large investment risks – could be a better fit for CWIP and provide the form of financial innovation that might lead to a nuclear renaissance.  (Both water and transmission facilities have deployed CWIP with little controversy).  Unfortunately, the experience in Florida is turning former nuclear advocates and supporters of CWIP into skeptics, though the practice still has its defenders.

All eyes are on Florida to see if and when the plug is pulled on CWIP for large-scale nuclear power plants, with Republican state representative Mike Fasano, who voted for the CWIP state legislation in 2009 and supports nuclear power, leading the charge to shift financial risks away from ratepayers and to utility shareholders with new state legislation.

 

Blog Articles

Most Recent

By Date

Tags

Clean Transportation, Electric Vehicles, Energy Storage, Policy & Regulation, Renewable Energy, Smart Energy Practice, Smart Energy Program, Smart Grid Practice, Smart Transportation Practice, Utility Innovations

By Author


{"userID":"","pageName":"Smart Energy Practice","path":"\/tag\/smart-energy-practice","date":"8\/22\/2014"}