Renewables Outpacing Nuclear

According to a recent Vital Signs, renewable energy is outpacing nuclear electricity expansion even though renewables still have a long way to go to catch up with fossil fuel power plants. Michael Renner, senior researcher with Worldwatch Institute writes that nuclear energy’s share of global power production has declined steadily from a peak of 17.6 percent in 1996 to 10.8 percent in 2013. Renewables increased their share from 18.7 percent in 2000 to 22.7 percent in 2012.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, following a rapid rise from its beginnings in the mid-1950s, global nuclear power generating capacity peaked at 375.3 gigawatts (GW) in 2010. Capacity has since declined to 371.8 GW in 2013. Adverse economics, concern about reactor safety and proliferation and the unresolved question of what to do with nuclear waste have put the brakes on the industry according to Renner.

Vital Signs - NuclearIn contrast, wind and solar power generating capacities are now on the same soaring trajectory that nuclear power was on in the 1970s and 1980s. Wind capacity of 320 GW in 2013 is equivalent to nuclear capacity in 1990. The 140 GW in solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity is still considerably smaller, but growing rapidly.

In recent years, renewable energy has attracted far greater investments than nuclear power. According to estimates by the International Energy Agency (IEA), nuclear investments averaged US$8 billion per year between 2000 and 2013, compared with $37 billion for solar PV and $43 billion for wind. Individual countries, of course, set diverging priorities, but nowhere did nuclear have a major role in power generation investments.

In contrast with investment priorities, research budgets still favor nuclear technologies. Nuclear energy attracted $295 billion, or 51 percent, of total energy R&D spending between 1974 and 2012. But this number has declined over time, from a high of 73.6 percent in 1974 to 26 percent today. Renewable energy received a cumulative total of $59 billion during the same period (10.2 percent), but its share has risen year after year. Because wind and solar power can be deployed at variable scales, and their facilities constructed in less time, these technologies are far more practical and affordable for most countries than nuclear power reactors. Worldwide, 31 countries are operating nuclear reactors on their territories. This compares to at least 85 countries that have commercial wind turbine installations.

The chances of a nuclear revival seem slim writes Renner. Renewable energy, by contrast, appears to be on the right track. But it is clear that renewables have a long way to go before they can hope to supplant fossil fuels as the planet’s principal electricity source.

Consumer Attitude About Renewable Energy Rebounds

According to a new consumer survey from Navigant Research, favorable attitudes toward a number of clean and renewable energy concepts, particularly solar energy, wind energy, hybrid vehicles and electric cars, have rebounded significantly from their 2012 levels.

The survey finds the average favorability rating for 10 concepts, which fall under the Solar and wind togethercategories of clean energy, clean transportation, smart grid, and building efficiency, also rose, to 51 percent, the highest level seen in Navigant Research’s annual survey since 2010.

“Between 2009 and 2012, there were steady declines in favorability for some clean energy concepts, particularly the most favorable concepts, such as solar energy, wind energy, and hybrid and electric vehicles,” said Clint Wheelock, managing director with Navigant Research. “This year saw statistically significant increases in favorability for seven of the 10 concepts, and a decline for only one – nuclear power.”

The white paper, “Energy and Environment Consumer Survey,” analyzes the survey responses as a basis for comparing consumer views of 10 energy and environment topics to one another. In addition to favorable and unfavorable opinions, the number of respondents unfamiliar with a concept is also considered in order to compare the level of consumer awareness within each topic.

The survey of 1,084 U.S. adults was conducted in the fall of 2013, and asked respondents to provide their level of favorability for the following key concepts: solar energy; wind energy; nuclear power; hybrid vehicles; electric cars; natural gas vehicles; biofuels; smart grid; smart meters and LEED certification.

According the Navigant Research, the similarly high levels of favorable views toward solar and wind energy indicate that consumers are generally supportive of the more established renewable energies that harness naturally occurring power sources. Since these two concepts have retained their most favored status year after year, Navigant Research asserts that consumers consider these renewable energies to be important pieces in the power generation portfolio of the future.

OSU Spinoff NuScale Goes Nuclear

Oregon State University (OSU) spinoff NuScale Power has been awarded up to $226 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). The company is developing a new form of nuclear power and is a spinoff company based on the pioneering research of OSU professor Jose Reyes. Today Reyes has become one of the international leaders in the creation of small “modular” nuclear reactors.

According to NuScale, this technology holds enormous promise for developing nuclear power with small reactors that can minimize investment costs, improve safety, be grouped as needed for power demands and produce energy without greenhouse gas emissions. The technology also provides opportunities for OSU nuclear engineering students who are learning about these newest concepts in nuclear power.

nuscale-vertical“This is a wonderful reflection of the value that OSU faculty can bring to our global economy,” said Rick Spinrad, vice president for research at OSU. “The research conducted by Professor Reyes, colleagues and students at OSU has been a fundamental component of the innovation at NuScale.”

NuScale said it is bringing closer to reality a nuclear concept that could revolutionize nuclear energy. The Obama administration has cited nuclear power as one part of its blueprint to rebuild the American economy while helping to address important environmental issues.

“OSU has made a strong effort to build powerful partnerships between our research enterprise and the private sector,” said OSU President Edward J. Ray. “The DOE support for NuScale is a vote of confidence in the strategy of building these meaningful relationships, and they are only going to pick up speed with our newest initiative, the OSU Advantage.”

News of the NuScale grant award was welcomed by members of Oregon’s Congressional delegation. “Oregon State University deserves a lot of credit for helping to develop a promising new technology that the Energy Department clearly thinks holds a lot of potential,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, chairman of the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “Today’s award shows that investing in strong public universities leads to innovative technologies to address critical issues, like the need for low-carbon sources of energy, while creating private sector jobs.”

OSU officials say the development of new technologies such as those launched from NuScale could have significant implications for future energy supplies. “The nation’s investment in the research of small-scale nuclear devices is a significant step toward a diverse and secure energy portfolio,” said Sandra Woods, dean of the College of Engineering at OSU. “Collaborative research is actively continuing between engineers and scientists at Oregon State and NuScale, and we’re proud and grateful for the role Oregon State plays in assisting them in developing cleaner and safer ways to produce energy.

World Energy Use to Rise by 56 Percent

According to the International Energy Outlook 2013 (IEO2013) report released by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), over the next three decades, world energy consumption is projected to increase by 56 percent. This will be driven by growth in the developing world. Clean-fuel technology is also playing an important role in the outlook, with renewable energy and nuclear power expected to grow faster than fossil fuels over the forecast period.

figure_1 World energy consumption“Rising prosperity in China and India is a major factor in the outlook for global energy demand. These two countries combined account for half the world’s total increase in energy use through 2040,” said EIA Administrator Adam Sieminski. “This will have a profound effect on the development of world energy markets.

IEO2013 presents updated projections for world energy markets through 2040. The IEO2013 Reference case projection does not incorporate prospective legislation or policies that might affect energy markets.

Key findings include:

  • World energy consumption increases from 524 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu) in 2010 to 820 quadrillion Btu in 2040. The increase in world energy use is largely in the developing world, where growth is driven by strong, long-term economic growth. Half of the total world increase in energy consumption is attributed to China and India.
  • IEO2013 projects increased world consumption of energy from all fuel sources through 2040. Fossil fuels are expected to continue supplying much of the energy used worldwide. Although petroleum and other liquids remain the largest source of energy, the liquid fuels share of world marketed energy consumption falls from 34 percent in 2010 to 28 percent in 2040. Renewable energy and nuclear power are the world’s fastest-growing energy sources, each increasing by 2.5 percent per year; however, fossil fuels continue to supply almost 80 percent of world energy use through 2040.
  • Natural gas is the fastest growing fossil fuel in the outlook. Global natural gas consumption grows by 1.7 percent per year. Increasing supplies of tight gas, shale gas, and coalbed methane support growth in projected worldwide gas use. Coal grows faster than liquid fuels consumption until after 2030, due to increases in China’s consumption of coal and tepid growth in liquid fuels demand attributed to (1) slow growth in Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member countries, and (2) high sustained oil prices.

The report also finds that given current policies and regulations limiting fossil fuel use, worldwide energy-related carbon dioxide emissions rise from about 31 billion metric tons in 2010 to 36 billion metric tons in 2020 and then to 45 billion metric tons in 2040, a 46 percent increase over the 30-year span.

Energy Exec Survey: Energy Independence by 2030

According to the 11th annual Energy Industry Outlook Survey conducted by the KPMG Global Energy Institute, 62 percent of energy executives believe the U.S. can attain energy independence by 2030, eliminating dependency on foreign oil. The survey polled more than 100 senior energy executives in the U.S. and found that this is a 10 percent increase from last year’s survey. Of this number, 23 percent believe the country can attain energy independence as soon as 2020.

Utility owned Wind-farmIn addition, 17 percent of respondents believe that U.S. energy independence will never happen, a drop of 10 percent.

“Increased domestic production, particularly from shale assets, is having a profound impact on the global energy sector, introducing new sources to the energy matrix,” said John Kunasek, national sector leader for energy and natural resources for KPMG LLP.

He continued, “This ‘shale gale’ is certainly contributing to the increased optimism among energy executives on the potential for U.S. energy independence and driving large investments into the development and production from these shale assets, including ‘Greenfield’ investment plays.”

The survey shows that natural gas is predicted to play an important role and 79 percent of those surveyed agree that the energy industry’s emphasis in developing environmentally friendly technologies should focus on natural gas, followed by nuclear (39 percent), solar (33 percent), and clean coal technologies (32 percent), indicating a slight shift away from the total bullishness around natural gas seen in the 2012 survey results, to a more balanced view with solar and wind technologies making gains.

Ninety-five percent of energy executives expect continued R&D investment in alternative energy projects this year while 55 percent anticipate investments will remain unchanged in 2013. However, the percentage of respondents predicting a 10 percent increase in R&D investment nearly tripled, from 11 percent in 2012 to 30 percent in 2013. Continue reading

Solar PV Grid Parity Could be Reached in 2013

Solar power is expected to reach grid parity when solar panels can be produced for under $0.70/watt with a total system cost under $2.00. As solar PV costs have been trending downward, grid parity could be reached as early as 2013 if the trend continues. This is according to a new free white paper, “Investing in the Power of the Sun: The Capitalist Case for Solar Energy,” authored by Michael Gorton, chief executive officer and chairman of Principal Solar along with Dan Bedell, executive vice president of corporate development of Principal Solar.

In addition, the white paper states, “Solar PV has experienced exponential cost drops year-after-year for over 30 years, with projections putting PV module costs at $.50/watt, total system costs under $2.00 per watt and output electricity at just under 6 cents per kWh – grid parity in 2014.”

Today, China is leading the way on solar PV production and pricing. I had the opportunity to correspond with Dan Bedell and the first question I asked was if U.S. solar panel manufacturers can also reach grid parity or will we see China reach this first and the U.S. to follow?

“The U.S. will likely continue to trail China and other lower cost manufacturing countries in the race to the cheapest-priced solar module,” said Bedell. “However, the U.S. supplies a large percentage of the silicon that China uses to manufacture modules and the modules we import are then installed by Americans. It’s only the assembly process in the middle that is currently occurring primarily overseas. To focus too much on the location of the manufacturing, obscures the true financial impact and the huge benefit on the U.S. economy of dropping solar prices.”

With concern over the loss of government support of solar power and other renewables I asked Bedel what would happen if the U.S. can’t reach grid parity by 2013. Will it put the industry is greater jeopardy? Continue reading

Schools in Japan Complete Solar Projects

Sometimes good things really do come out of something bad.  The Great East Japan Earthquake devastated schools, businesses, homes and lives. But this week, the Japan Reconstruction Fund held a ceremony at Shinchi Elementary School to commemorate the completion of several solar facilities in four public elementary and junior high schools in the town of Shinchi in Soma-gun, Fukushima Prefecture. The solar systems are part of the city’s urban development program.

The solar power projects were funded from grants from Coca-Cola Company and Coco-Cola Educational Foundation. The Fund decided to assist Shinchi Elementary School, Fukuda Elementary School, Komagamine Elementary School, and Shoei Junior High School after evaluating requests to help reinforce disaster management with new solar power facilities and to help educate pupils about clean energy.  The solar power system includes an emergency solar generator with a maximum capacity of 20 kilowatts and storage batteries with a total capacity of up to 16 kilowatts.

During the ceremony, Mayor Norio Kato greeted attendees and delivered opening remarks about Shinchi’s recovery. Tatsuya Natori, Chair of the Shoei Junior High School Student Council, delivered a speech on behalf of all the students.

Natori said, “We were very relieved to hear that the solar system means that we can still use electricity after a disaster. We will always be grateful to the Fund for its kindness, and will study hard so we can play solid roles in local reconstruction.”

While the schools are all educating students about energy and environment, they each have a different focus. For example, Shinchi Elementary School focuses on educating about solar and wind power and Shoei Junior High School plans to teach about nuclear power generation as well as solar generation. However, all of the local schools and the town will collaborate in researching solar power and announcing their findings as part of the town’s overall efforts to acquire knowledge about the environment and energy.

Book Review – Last Summer at the Compound

This weekend I read the fiction book “Last Summer at the Compound,” by JH Bartlett.  The story takes place outside of Boston, near the aging Pilgrim nuclear power plant with the same design as Fukushima (the plant that was hit by the tsunami). Taking place a year after the Fukushima disaster, there are fears surmounting in the community and in one of the main characters that a disaster with the plant could take place, whether by accident or design. The book ends on Labor Day weekend, so I thought it was only fitting to review the book today.

The story chronicles a multi-generation family who spends each summer near the water at the family “compound”. This summer an unsettling change is in the air and the family begins to discuss whether to sell the property or hang on. One of the most vocal family members to sell is Sarah, who is worried the nuclear power plant will be attacked or have a severe accident. She is also concerned about the spent rods that have been stored near the plant with no where to go.

On the plus side, the author does a good job of laying out the pros and cons of nuclear energy through the characters. Also through her characters she brings up the need for renewable energy and the ongoing wars that have taken place around the world for oil as well as environmental concerns as reasons to support clean energy.

On the negative side, I felt that the characters’ voices weren’t authentic enough and the end of the book was unfulfilled. I also felt like there were many missed opportunities to really explore nuclear energy and various plot lines. The story was more of a novella and it missed the opportunity to be a novel with a true, in-depth exploration of both nuclear power and family dynamics.

France Walks the Walk for Reduction of Fossil Energy

It appears that France is walking the walk with its call for a reduction of use of fossil fuels. The country uses more nuclear energy than any other; yet, have publicly stated they will phase out its use of thermal power. According to a new report, from GlobalData, “Thermal Power in France, Market Outlook to 2020, 2012 Update – Capacity, Generation, Regulations, Power Plants, Companies,” France is one of the few European countries will is capable of achieving a reduction of fossil use by the end of the decade.

The largest share of the French power market is occupied by the nuclear industry, which at 63,130 MW will account for almost half of the country’s 2012 total installed capacity. While nuclear power will still increase by the end of the decade, it will be only marginally, with installed capacity expected to reach 67,530 MW by 2020.

The country is forecasted to drop from 27,720 Megawatts (MW) in 2012 to 23,783 MW in 2020, declining at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 1.9%. At the same time, other major European nations such as Germany, Italy and the UK are expected to increase thermal installed capacity during this period.

As a result of France’s reduction of use of thermal power, they are increasing their use of renewable energy. Today, the county generates 130,231 MW in today and is estimated to increase to 156,639 MW in 2020. The government is factoring in reducing greenhouse gas emissions as well as energy efficiency in all decisions and is planning on installing a five million solar thermal units by 2020 with 80 percent of the solar arrays installed on homes.

Book Review – The Powers That Be

I felt like an academic when I read this week’s book, “The Powers That Be Global Energy For The Twenty-First Century And Beyond,” although author Scott L. Montgomery wanted the book to be “fun.” I sported my black geek glasses and curled up in a chair at a local coffee shop and attempted to give off the personae that I’m smart. Although I’m not sure anyone was fooled, I’m definitely smarter about our country’s energy options now than I was before I read the book.

This is an extremely in-depth look at what our energy landscape looks like today. It also reviews where we stand, as a world, with regard to resources and options as well as politics and policies that are driving the future. In addition, it looks at where we are headed.  As I look at our country, I’ve felt for a long-time that we are “energy illiterate” and need to become better students of energy education. While Montgomery agrees to some degree, he feels the problem lies more in lack of curriculum and the inability for people to learn about energy in a nonpartisan setting.

Montgomery writes, “Energy matters are critical to understand because they are fundamental to our way of life and because they are the subject of endless misconception, misrepresentation, and, as already noted, myth.”

Throughout the book, Montgomery takes an approach that many other authors have not and that’s the view that he doesn’t categorize energy as “dirty or clean” or necessarily “evil versus good.”  He explains that fossil fuels help build and transport renewable sources and also reminds us that every type of energy has an impact on the environment. Yes everyone, there is no “renewable” energy source that is developed, produced or transported without a fossil fuel. Continue reading

Book Review – Energy, Convenient Solutions

I read an unusual book this week. “Energy, Convenient Solutions,” by Howard Johnson. The book was part Energy 101, part manifesto, part conspiracy theory. It began with a look at various forms of energy ranging from fossil-fuels to biofuels – to nuclear energy. From there, Johnson laid out his manifesto, per se, or his ideas on energy, our current state and what the future could or should look like. The end of the book reviewed factors that make it difficult to effect change as well as highlighted several “hate campaigns” that have been lobbied against big oil and nuclear energy.

Johnson says the real purpose of the book is to present many different ideas about the generation, transport and use of energy. “The study of these ideas and the efforts to make them into realities can result in excellent and viable solutions in years, instead of decades. Creative solutions are sure to be found that require few and inexpensive infrastructure changes and by using both new and existing technologies.”

Now, before I continue, some of you will accuse me of being in the pockets of Big Oil. I’m not. I’m simply reviewing the author’s book and the thoughts contained therein. What makes the diversity of energy books so compelling is the fact that each author has his or her own ideas, predictions and solutions.

Speaking of predictions, Johnson outlines a few in his book. First, he notes that the largest energy growth sector is expected to be in electricity and the largest growth product will be nuclear energy followed by geothermal. He believes there will be a decline in coal-fired power plants unless carbon sequestration technologies come a reality, and also believes wind and solar energy will require long-term substantial subsidies to compete, and even so, may never be cost competitive. In addition, he predicts hydropower will stay fairly stagnant due to environmental concerns and finally believes electric vehicles will dominate and vehicles fueled by liquids (such as gas or biofuels) will be phased out. Needless to say, like so many others, Johnson does not believe first generation biodiesel or ethanol is a solution but does have hope for things such as algae-based biofuels. Continue reading