Why are nuclear plants losing money at an astonishing rate?
Joe Romm recently wrote a piece for Climate Progress titled Nuclear Power Is Losing Money At An Astonishing Rate.
In that post Romm exaggerates the amount of support that the New York Zero Emissions Credit (ZEC) will provide, absolves the massive build out of industrial scale wind and solar from any responsibility for contributing to the situation, offers an incomplete analysis of the real causes and effects of unsustainably low wholesale market prices and provides a slanted suggestion for implementing a solution.
How big is New York’s Zero Emission Credit?
Like many observers that do not like the idea of helping existing nuclear plants survive temporary market conditions, Romm accepts the very high end of the estimated range of costs for the New York ZEC. With a link to a Huff Post piece By an infamously antinuclear author named Karl Grossman, Romm describes the plan as a “$7.6 billion bailout of nuclear.”
That description overlooks the fact that the equation for the administratively-determined price of the ZECs includes a term that will automatically reduce the amount paid when the predicted wholesale market price of electricity rises above $39 per MWh. Unsurprisingly, given Grossman’s known antinuclear attitude, his article did not mention How wholesale electricity prices above $56 per MWh would result in zero cost ZECs.
Romm should have known better than to trust a single source, especially one with a long-standing agenda of eliminating nuclear energy.
Should we blame renewables?
Romm also takes issue with the notion that unreliable energy system growth is causing market price problems for nuclear energy. He admits that wind, solar, biomass, geothermal and waste-to-energy are still receiving substantial direct payments and market mandates from governments at the local, state and federal level, but he claims that those subsidies are appropriate for emerging technologies that ar still progressing down the cost curve. Besides, he says, those generous subsidies are scheduled to be phased out.
Romm is apparently banking on the fact that many readers don’t know that wind and solar subsidies have been in place since the early 1990s and have been “scheduled” to be phased out at least 5 times already.
Instead of blaming his favorite power systems, Romm says that we should blame “cheap natural gas.” He avoids acknowledging that the massive buildout of wind and solar enabled by the $25 billion that the Recovery Act has dolled out to renewable energy programs has successfully increased the quantity of wind and solar electricity generated by an amount that has finally begun to be visible in EIA statistical reports.
Since weather-dependent sources displace mostly natural gas fired electricity if they are available, the increase in renewable generation has contributed to the current gas market oversupply and low price situation. If the electricity produced by new wind turbines in Texas, Illinois and Iowa had come from burning natural gas, there would not be a gas glut threatening to overflow available storage reservoirs.
The glut is the reason prices are low; fracking makes gas abundant, but it does not lower the cost of extraction compared to conventional drilling.
Blame market design
Romm turns to Peter Fox-Penner for an explanation of the market challenges facing nuclear power plants. His published quote from that conversation is intriguing and offers an opportunity to find common ground.
While I agree that premature closure of safely operating existing nuclear is a terrible idea from the climate policy standpoint, he overlooks the fact that this consequence is neither “unintended” nor the “fault” of solar and wind. This is the very-much-intended result of the way electric markets were designed, and you can be sure this design was not formulated by wind and solar producers and is in so sense their fault.
I concur. The current market structure was purposely invented by market-manipulating entities like Enron to give an advantage to natural gas traders, build an alliance between natural gas and renewable energy and crowd nuclear energy out of the market in order to enable increasing sales for both gas and renewable power systems.
Price on carbon
Romm once again blames the nuclear industry and independent nuclear advocates for not sufficiently supporting the fatally flawed 2009 climate and energy bill. He says the bill would have put a price on carbon, but it did so through the same “cap and trade” mechanism that has proven incapable of actually addressing carbon emissions in example markets like Europe and California.
The politically determined amount of available credits for incumbent producers has invariably been set so high that those credits usually trade for a value that is too low to influence system purchase decisions. They are often so low that they don’t even influence operational choices between burning high emission fuels like brown coal instead of somewhat lower emission fuels like natural gas.
Romm is right that a price on carbon would help nuclear energy from both established plants and new projects compete, but that price needs to be predictable and sufficiently high before it will influence decision making. The rising fee and dividend approach advocated by the Citizens Climate Lobby and James Hansen has a much better chance of successfully reducing CO2 emissions.
Nuclear energy is not inherently uncompetitive. Fuel costs are low and predictable, equipment is durable and often needs little maintenance or repair, life cycle emissions levels are extremely low, waste is compact and easily managed and paying people fair salaries for productive work is an economic benefit, not a disadvantage.
The established nuclear industry, however, has done a lousy job of controlling its costs and marketing the benefits of its product.
It needs to work more effectively to ensure that regulators do not ratchet requirements, especially when they are imposed for the purpose of producing the right political “optics” with no measurable improvement in public safety. Achieving that condition will require the industry to take a more adversarial approach to regulators. Under the American system of jurisprudence regulators and the regulated are not supposed to be friends and partners.
There is also a need to recognize that innovative, advanced reactor systems that incorporate lessons learned during the past 60 years of commercial nuclear power generation offer the opportunity for long lasting cost reductions. Many of the smaller designs offer the same kind of volume-based learning curves that have so effectively reduced the cost of weather-dependent collector systems like wind turbines and solar panels.
I agree with Romm on the subject of nuclear energy subsidies. They are unaffordable because nuclear is far too productive to remain a small and emerging technology whose subsidies can be lost in the weeds. At this point, that same statement can be made about wind and solar energy. Subsidies for those systems need to actually phase out this time or they will become ever more unaffordable.
They will also become an increasingly important obstacle to the real goal of cleaning up our electricity generating system and enabling it to grow rapidly to provide an ever larger share of our total energy needs.
“The rising fee and dividend approach advocated by the Citizens Climate Lobby…”
The CCL website highlights Amory Lovins RMI and Mark Z. Jacobson studies, while remaining ‘neutral’ on nuclear.
Considering how the the Clean Power Plan was intentionally crafted to favor new natural gas capacity over existing nuclear, along with Romm & friend’s resistance towards NY’s ZEC attempt to ‘socialize the cost of carbon’…is any suspicion warranted over possible alternative motives of the CCL?
Fool me once…
Yes, such associations, as well as the “neutral” stance on nuclear are unfortunate, but none of those things change the policy that they are advocating, and it is probably the best policy around. It is also probably the most favorable to nuclear, of all policies being discussed. All we are (or should be) asking for is a chance to compete on a fair, level playing field, and with the CCL policy, that’s what we’re going to get (although the continued presence of renewables only policies are still a problem).
Their neutral stance on nuclear is due to their effort to build as big a political tent as possible. Many CCL’ers (I’m one) agree to disagree on many issues, including nuclear, but what unites us is that we all agree with the carbon fee and dividend policy. And that’s one thing the organization is clear on. They exist for only one reason, to pass a carbon fee and dividend policy. And such a policy is the best that nuclear’s going to get. Most other politically possible policies are far worse.
In a sense, we should take heart in the fact that so many hard-left environmentalists (who are in love with renewables) are so willing to support a technology-neutral policy like CF&D, as opposed to policies that pick renewables by govt, fiat. It’s probably due to their belief in how cheap renewables are (and will become), and their belief that renewables will win in a fair fight (with nuclear, etc…). If their willingness to agree to correct policies stems from over-confidence in renewables, so be it. (Who knows, they may even be right, eventually, but fair policies that allow renewables and nuclear to compete should be enacted in any event.)
BTW, CCL is probably fertile ground for nuclear supporters to find open minded people who may be convinced on nuclear. That’s what I’ve found. It’s definitely one environmental organization where one can be openly pro-nuclear w/o fearing backlash.
Thanks for the terrific post, which diagnoses the problem and offers sound solutions.
I’m hopeful–bordering on optimistic–that a form of fee and dividend can be enacted within a year.
But until then, perhaps the federal government could provide targeted subsidies for the most vulnerable nuclear plants such as Clinton and Quad Cities. The amount of money would modest. And we could jack up R&D a bit for solar and batteries to broaden the appeal.
I am not so sure that so-called renewables, especially wind, have displaced natural gas fired generation. There is emerging a body of research which shows that every kw of windpower added to the system requires at least .8kw of standby generation. That standby generation is always gas. In a perverse way, windpower has been good for natural gas.
While the wind is blowing the standby gas generators aren’t burning fuel. Wind doesn’t displace the need for the gas capacity, since all wind can disappear over large areas. It does, however, lower the amount of fuel consumed when electricity is being produced by wind collectors.
In the aggregate, injection and storage rates have to increase to meet the prospective additional demand from the additional standby capacity. Also, a point I did not make earlier is that natural gas is gaining at the expense of coal as well. Most capacity retirements are coal. Natural gas has filled the gap much more quickly than wind and solar.
My dear, respected Rod, “While the wind is blowing the standby gas generators aren’t burning fuel.”
Surely a word or two is missing. “aren’t burning _much_ fuel” perhaps?
The thing is, I visited Europe’s biggest alternative style of spinning reserve, before Thatcher so destructively privatised the CEGB.
My brother was Chief Biologist for the Dinorwig Pumped Storage project in the heart of beautiful Snowdonia in Wales.
There are six bloody great “reversible” turbines, and in turbine mode four of them were running.
For the sake of immediate response to sharp increases in demand, as happens when a popular TV show is interrupted by a commercial message, two of the 300 MW turbines were kept spinning, when I saw the instruments, in compressed air, at a power cost of 2 MW each.
I believe that is a great deal less than the power needed to keep a gas turbine of comparable power, in idling mode.
Not all of the gas turbines needed to provide power when the wind isn’t blowing are kept spinning. Though the wind can die pretty rapidly, gas turbines can also cold start with relative ease. There will certainly be some turbines spinning, but most will be set up for remote start when needed.
Sure, the fuel burn isn’t zero, butt it is vastly less than when producing rated power.
I’m not sure if more renewables (esp. wind) will lead to more or less gas generation in the future. Many of us nuclear supporters have long believed that wind farms are a means by which the (powerful) gas industry takes market share from coal and nuclear.
The reason is that gas plants are far better at ramping up and down, and acting as backup for intermittent renewables, for both technical and economic reasons (“variable costs” like fuel are most of their overall cost).
Thus, while the immediate impact of wind generation may be gas plants throttling down and using less gas fuel, the mid- to long-term impact is that the presence of intermittent wind power causes nuclear and coal plants to close and be replaced by “flexible” gas generation.
There may be offsetting effects, but I’m inclined to believe that the overall impact is (will be) more gas generation, not less. We’re clearly seeing gas generation increase, while coal generation is decreasing (as well as nuclear, to a smaller extent). It’s not clear if all of that is simply due gas being so cheap compared to coal (and thus gas simply replacing coal directly). Much of it may be due to the impacts of renewables (that need “flexible” backup), mainly wind.
I agree with nearly everything you wrote. The temporary effect of reducing gas burn and driving down natural gas prices in the here and now versus is what is driving both coal and nuclear out of the market. Coal plant shutdowns are less permanent than nuclear plant shutdowns, but they still do not allow for immediate return to operation in the case of market price spikes when competitive supply destruction goes too far and leads to a supply/demand imbalance that favors suppliers.
Over the long term, RFKjr is right, big wind and solar plants are really gas plants, but large wind and solar plants while nuclear and coal plants are still in the market do reduce gas burn and help to drive gas prices to the unprofitably low levels that enable a price war to work as designed.
I am wondering if this is finally the moment when the go-along-to-get-along paradigm has come back to bite us in the a$$. The unnecessary and unproductive ratcheting of regulation to produce the right political optics has more or less been accepted without much protest from the reactor business. I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve had where the consensus always seemed to drift to the decision to go along with the regulations because it was “easier” to do that than stand our ground and challenge them, although we knew all along that there was nothing in the record to support the ratcheting. The long-term consequences (escalating costs for doing useless things) was given little thought. Now we find ourselves in the position of the frog left to boil in a slowly heating pot. It may be too late to jump out, and if we do, where do we land?
What’s frustrating is that total wind subsidies in New York are 2-3 times what the nuclear subsidy is. Estimated 17 dollars per MWh for nuclear and 42-52 for wind (combining state and federal subsidies).
so it’s cheaper to subsidize wind to meet clean energy requirements than it is to subsidize nuclear.
Just to clarify, it’s frustrating that media and anti nuclear groups paint these subsidies as a massive bailout, when wind and solar are already getting way more per MWh for the same thing (clean energy)
Of course our opponents paint the ZEC as a massive bailout and focus on the biggest number they can find in potential costs. That is what they do.
I prefer to do my best to paint a more accurate picture, to illuminate the temporary nature of the support and to show how the “subsidies” might not be needed. I also want to continue pressing for the artificial support for unreliables to end INSTEAD of pushing for the artificial support for nuclear to begin.
I am an advocate of cheap, clean energy with the order of those adjectives being purposely chosen. Expensive energy is a burden on the rest of the economy and on economic mobility for the people who do not yet have very much.
I agree that cap-and-trade has not been effective in CA or in Europe. But cap-and-trade, per se, is not the problem. In isolation (with no other policies present), cap-and-trade can be an effective, technology-neutral, market based policy. One that would let all means of emissions reduction compete on a fair level playing field, resulting in maximum emissions reduction at minimum cost.
The problem is the effect of other market distorting policies, most notably large renewables mandates. (Renewables subsidies, independent of the cap-and-trade program, are also a problem). The main weakness of cap-and-trade is that it does not work well with other such policies. Policies like a carbon tax work better.
The truth is that if you have a weak cap-and-trade policy (with a humble emissions reduction goal) combined with strong renewables mandate (or subsidy) policies, the cap-and-trade policy is neutralized and has no impact. The reason is that, if compliance with the other (e.g., renewables mandate) policies, by itself, will yield emissions reductions equal to or greater than those specified in the cap-and-trade policy, then the price of a CO2 emissions credit drops to ~0, and the cap-and-trade policy has no impact.
In other words, financial incentives for all other means of emissions reduction drop to zero. This makes a mockery of the central concept behind technology-neutral policies like cap-and-trade. That is, that all means of emissions reduction are given equal financial incentive, and thus compete on a fair, level playing field. Instead, the entire “emissions reduction market” is handed, by govt. fiat, to one means of emissions reduction, renewables.
Ideally, all such winner-picking policies would be eliminated (i.e., *replaced* by the technology-neutral policies, such as cap-and-trade or a carbon price). Barring that, however, policies that put a (fixed) price on CO2 emissions, such as a carbon tax or a carbon fee and dividend (CF&D), are better than cap-and-trade, for other emissions reduction options like nuclear. The reason is that there is always some, fixed level of incentive to reduce CO2 emissions, regardless of other policies like renewables mandates. Nuclear will always have some finite amount of financial incentive vs. a fossil plant (actually, a relatively large one, under CCL’s policy).
Admittedly, nothing would save other emissions reduction options like nuclear from extreme renewables mandate policies, that literally require that most or all electricity come from renewables. One would hope that cooler heads will prevent such things. But in any event, policies like CF&D are better than cap-and-trade.
It looks like it will be a generation before nuclear takes off again.
The outlook curve goes out a long way until the year 2040. With the low capital cost to construct gas plants, the low operating costs and a low fuel cost, how can complex nuclear compete? With the influence of natural gas on our governing bodies, there will be little penalty for the Carbon Dioxide emissions.
The growth of natural gas use could rise. This would increase the price making nuclear more competitive, but the gas supply may also match the growth in demand.
Is there a chance that the new innovative nuclear plants can meet or exceed the low price of gas?
Another wild card are “post natural gas” technologies that can keep nuclear moored at the starting gate for generations even if natural gas supplies wane, like producing gas fuels from coal that can work just as well in natural gas plants.
Eino asked, “Is there a chance that the new innovative nuclear plants can meet or exceed the low price of gas?”
A good chance. Both Moltex and Terrestrial Energy expect their SMRs to deliver energy for under $50/MWh. Gas plants are projected to be about $75/MWh.
From a view point of resource management ,i think the best solution would be to phase out all gas fueled generation except for plants designed to produce peak power. Natural gas is better used for home heating and industrial heat sources than power generation. This was done back in 1980 but reversed by Reagan in the early 80’s. Nuclear could be used to process coal and other fossil fuels into gas. Cutting out the subsidies for solar and wind , should be our number one priority and happily there is a strong movement for this. A program to develop hands off reactors such as Toshiba has proposed for remote sites would could also close the price gap.
Everyone on this comment thread appears to be in general agreement that the fundamental design of the power market itself is actually far more important to the success of a particular technology option than its fuel resource base.
We have fission fuel reserves to last us thousands of years but government policies are now designed to maximize the consumption of gas. Gas fired electricity today; yesterday it was coal under the Carter admins “Fuel Use Act” (as pointed out above by Donald Ernst) which discouraged use of gas fired baseload generation. The energy policies of the Carter admin were pro-coal, a fact forgotten now. Under the “Limits to Growth” thinking of the time coal was seen as a plentiful domestic resource — the US would be burning a billion tons of coal per year for a couple decades directly as a result of Carter policies set in the mid-late-70s that arrested the precipitous growth of gas generation in the 1960s, and fission in the 1970s, and those coal emissions alone shortened the lives of around a million US residents, until gas took off again in the 1990s largely as a result of both power market de-regulation (which favored low capital cost gas generators) and SO2 cap & trade legislation promoted by GHW Bush, criticized at the time, but now viewed as highly successful policy by the environmental community.
We should also agree at least on the basic aims of an optimal power market such as network reliability, reduced price volatility, preservation of natural resources, national security and economic independence. Today’s fission woes are largely due to the fact that baseload generation is illogically discounted by this regulated market in order to favor intermittent & peak generation. The strength of fission is long-term base-load price stability, today’s market rewards short-term intermittent and peak power production. D.U.L.C.E.T. should be our proposed policy goal (Dispatchable Ultra-Low Carbon Electricity Transmission).
Solar & Wind cannot power more than a fraction of an isolated power grid by themselves as the high-price island grids of Hawaii & the Caribbean demonstrate; they burn oil & coal. Dispatchable baseload reliability is required.
The US could easily achieve energy independence from OPEC imports if our national energy policy would simply promote the introduction of natural gas as a transportation fuel displacing petroleum imports. At today’s spot prices (Henry Hub) a gasoline gallon equivalent of natural gas would cost about 35 cents.
Rational market design would allow fission to (ultimately) displace essentially all hydrocarbon fueled electricity generation and let the current rate of natural gas production displace all OPEC imports saving well over $100 billion per year in US annual petroleum import trade deficits. Tariffs should be placed on OPEC imports which have recently been displacing North American production of unconventional reserves which cannot be maintained for long below ~$40-$50bbl. Similarly carbon-outsourcing tariffs could be placed on Chinese (PRC) imports (aka border carbon adjustments — allowable under WTO); 25% tariffs would similarly yield well over $100 billion in revenues which could be used to retire the entire US coal fleet in less than a decade. Such trade tariffs on both OPEC and the PRC would be, I think, far more politically palatable and efficient than either CO2 cap-and-trade or carbon fee & dividend (CF&D).
Joe Romm is an idiot. Engaging with him is a waste of time.
I partially disagree. With regard to the second statement, challenging misinformation from people like Joe Romm is one of the contributions I can make to society. I don’t disagree with other part of your comment.
Fee, yes, dividend not so much. Most of the proceeds need to be used to remove excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
@David B. Benson
Using the large proceeds from any useful fee on CO2 by the government is fraught with potential for corruption, cronyism and capital capture. I would strong oppose R&D paid for out of the proceeds of the fee. It is very likely to be wasted.
However, if there is a fee for dumping CO2 into the atmosphere, there could also be a payment — of similar magnitude per unit of CO2 — for well-audited and reviewed installations that permanently remove CO2 from the atmosphere. I’m not adverse to paying for the services provided by successful, scalable innovations that clean up the residues from a couple of hundred years worth of increasing prosperity.
Recent Comments from our Readers
The Clinton Nuclear Plant also in Illinois was shutdown essentially for almost 2 years before it was taken over by…
Good Podcast – Very informative One thing that was not discussed is how to deal with a particular fear that…
Renewables people are masters in marketing. Unreliable intermittent generators whose output is all over the place, and usually badly correlated…
Looking at their lineup, Westinghouse seems bound and determined to keep Gen IV in its “place” which is apparently the…
So they are developing a scaled down version of the AP1000, which is a scaled up version of the AP600,…