During my stint as a Washington DC bureaucrat, I noticed how certain phrases worked their way into the daily language. Most people were probably not even aware of how quickly they would adopt the popular phrases, but I have always been a bit fascinated with language and how it develops. I tried to take note and to studiously avoid sounding like I was just one more speaker who could provide a score in a game of “B. S. Bingo.” There are certain phrases, however, that became popular because they portrayed an original thought that was quite useful.
One of the phrases was “what keeps me up late at night. . .” For months, if not years, whenever someone giving a brief wanted to call attention to a really important topic of concern, they would start off with that phrase. Anyone who reads Atomic Insights and pays attention to the time stamp on the posts will recognize that I often have difficulty staying asleep because I have started thinking about a topic that is nagging me enough to want to share it with the world.
Last night, just before going to bed, I came across a smoking gun advertisement that helped me find a little more evidence that there is a long standing alliance that seems to be successfully implementing what I personally consider to be a dangerous strategy. They are convincing energy decision makers in many of the largest energy markets that the earth is so awash in easy methane that it would be a waste of time and money to work hard to build a new generation of nuclear plants anytime soon. Here is a screenshot of the ad.
When I first saw it, I had a feeling it was going to be a short night. For nearly everyone else in the world, such a ad would be easily overlooked. Energy conferences happen many times each month – so what? Who cares that there is one called “The Role of Natural Gas in a Low Carbon Economy” happening in Cancun, Mexico in December? Is it really important that the American Council on Renewable Energy is advertising a conference during a UN meeting on climate change that is jointly sponsored by the Worldwatch Institute and the International Gas Union?
Why would such an ad wake me up in the very early hours of the morning and make it almost impossible to go back to sleep without writing something?
I saw that ad immediately after reading articles and getting sent links from around the world pointing out how much money very savvy energy insiders at ExxonMobil and Chevron are continuing to invest into projects to extract and transport natural gas.
It showed up on my computer monitor within two months of posting a video showing Michael Eckhart, the President of the American Council on Renewable Energy grab a microphone at an energy conference to emphatically declare his organization’s official position that nuclear was not renewable. He made that dramatic – and rather rude – interruption immediately after a presentation by three knowledgeable people who described a partially blazed path to build systems that can recycle waste and capture the 99.5% of the energy value of natural uranium that we are currently storing as either “depleted” uranium or “spent” nuclear fuel.
Aside: Waste to energy (WTE) systems have been welcomed into the “renewable energy” club for years. Of course, they do not take much market share from coal, oil, natural gas, solar panels, geothermal energy systems or wind turbines. End Aside.
The ad entered my consciousness soon after writing about the drumbeat of pronouncements from people who claim that the world is awash in cheap natural gas that can fuel either easy to build power plants or underutilized power plants.
That drumbeat includes contributions from leaders in the electric utility industry like Chris Crane of NRG, Mayo Shattuck of Constellation, John Rowe of Exelon, and Armando Olivera of FPL who might otherwise be talking about their companies’ exciting projects to build new nuclear power plants. Those electric power industry decision makers, however, have announced that their nuclear construction plans are on hold while they take a look at this new shiny object called cheap natural gas. (They don’t actually phrase it that way – I am using a bit of poetic license.)
Here is a little more of the intrigue that I want to share with you before trying to get back to sleep. The Worldwatch Institute, which publishes a lot of information about its mission to encourage renewable energy development, is headed by Christopher Flavin. He is a former journalist who has been discouraging the use of nuclear energy, often based on an assertion that it is a market failure since at least 1983. In a 2007 USA Today article titled Some rethinking nuke opposition, Flavin showed up under the heading of “Some foes won’t budge”:
“I think there are a lot better carbon-free alternatives for producing electricity,” says Christopher Flavin, president of Worldwatch Institute, an environmental research group.
The Worldwatch Institute has often published articles indicating that it is part of a group of “clean energy advocates” that worries about the potential that their efforts might be “tainted” if nuclear energy is ever accepted under that definition.
I am going to try to tie this all together.
Though nuclear energy is
clean enough to operate inside sealed submarines, traditional “renewable energy” advocates adamantly refuse to consider promoting it. Though natural gas explosions and fires kill people with depressing frequency and though burning it produces at more than 600 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour – at least 35 times as much as a pessimistic lifecycle evaluation of the emissions from nuclear energy – those same renewable energy advocates are willing to sign up as the co-host of a conference focused on selling natural gas.
Though electric power industry decision makers that were leading the charge towards new nuclear plants four years ago have decided that natural gas is cheap enough to encourage them to interrupt or abandon those building plans, companies that have been producing natural gas and petroleum for decades are making big, long term bets in natural gas production capacity. Those bets will only pay off if the price of natural gas rises more that what analysis available in the advertiser supported media claims to expect.
My advice to you: Recognize that the fix is in. You are supposed to believe that gas is cheap, that developing nuclear energy projects is too hard, and that the right path is to stop working to build new nuclear power plants.
As I wrote several weeks ago, I am deeply skeptical of the notion that the historical volatility in the price of natural gas has been overcome by the timely development of hydraulic fracturing technology. I cannot agree that methane is renewable or even abundant; a resource that will be consumed in 90 years IF speculative reserves can be developed AND IF we do not increase our rate of consumption simply does not qualify for either of those terms. It is not true that natural gas combustion is cleaner than nuclear fission, no matter what the people who make decisions for the Worldwatch Institute or the American Council on Renewable Energy want you to believe.
As an investor, I am going to continue to bet with the house and recognize that natural gas is inherently more costly for customers (and more profitable for suppliers in the near term) than nuclear energy. I also recognize that the best bet for consumer prosperity and environmental cleanliness is to build as many new reliable nuclear plants as possible. I will work with great dedication during my waking hours to contribute as much as I can to the successful development of new nuclear power plants. We are going to need them if ExxonMobil and Chevron are right about the future availability of natural gas.
Perhaps now I will be able to get a little more sleep before working on the challenging processes required to get a new nuclear power plant design licensed in the United States.
P. S. I was amused by the ad that Google decided to display for me while I was proofreading the above. It seems that the adsense page rank algorithm recognizes that the financial folks are in on the fix.