Cost of Energy Delivery

The cost of delivery is how effectively each energy can be transported to people, particularly high population areas. Since line loss, energy dissipating from electricity lines, occurs, it is important to put electricity generators close to the market it is intended to serve. The closer it is to the market, the less electricity is lost. Furthermore, putting up electric lines and the infrastructure associated with electric lines comes at a cost which is preferably avoided. This means the cost of delivery is highly dependent on where an electricity generator may be put.

Nuclear power plants are very flexible in where they can be placed. According to Lydia DePillis, an energy writer for Slate, the three factors considered in building a nuclear power plant is “state laws, geography, and the disposition of the local community.” Since the dispositions of the local community and state laws are variable and can be changed over a short period of time, they will not be considered in economic analysis, but will be examined further in the political implications section. When it comes to the geography factor, nuclear reactors need to be placed near large bodies of water, whether it is the ocean, a large river, or a large lake. The water source is used as a coolant for the reaction.

Since coal and natural gas are also thermoelectric power, meaning they create steam to spin electric turbines, they have similar requirements as nuclear energy. They require large amounts of water as a coolant, meaning they need to be placed near water sources. In Colorado, this limits us to the natural lakes, reservoirs, and rivers that can be seen in the provided figure. While reservoirs can be created specifically for nuclear, coal, or gas plants, this is an expensive and preferable option. However, there are water features spread out across Colorado, making it possible to construct these plants essentially anywhere.

colorado-river-map

 

For renewables like solar and wind, farms must be placed where they will be most effective. The wind doesn’t blow at the same rate everywhere and the sun doesn’t shine equally across the United States. Solar farms must be placed where they will get the most sun and wind farms must be placed where they will get the most wind. Looking at the map provided by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, we can see where the sun shines most intensely in the United States and least intensely.   This map shows that the south western area of the United States has the most ideal sun exposure for solar energy, and the north eastern area of the United States is one of the least ideal areas for sun exposure. A majority of Colorado rests in 5.5-6.0  kWh/m2/day. While a lot of Colorado rests in a higher area of sun exposure, some of the most populated areas in Colorado, specifically Denver, Boulder, and Fort Collins, do no fall into, or barely fall into, the higher sun exposure areas, thus creating a higher cost of delivery for solar energy in Colorado.

national_photovoltaic_2009-01

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For wind, The National Renewable Energy Laboratory provides a map giving the average annual wind speed at 80 meters above ground level. This map shows that the central United States has the highest average wind speeds, making it more favorable to wind farms as compared to coastal areas. Most of Colorado ranges on the lower end of wind speeds from less than 4 meters per seconds to 5.5 meters per second, though the eastern side of the state ha pieces that can range 8.5 to 9 meters per second. These eastern areas would be the most ideal for wind farms in Colorado, but they are also far away from Colorado’s population centers like Denver, Boulder, and Colorado Springs thus creating a higher cost of delivery for wind energy.

USwind300dpe4-11

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Looking at these geographic implications, we can assess the relative cost differences of the energy sources for delivery. Natural gas, coal, and nuclear all are very versatile, as their only requirement is that they need to be near a water source. Wind and solar energy are less versatile and require higher levels of wind and sun exposure. However, sun and wind exposure do not always line up with areas of population, thus increasing its relative cost of delivery.

Do We Know Enough About Energy Policy?

Energy policy can be really boring to most people. Energy policy combines a lot of technology and science issues with socio-economic and political issues, which creates a complex relationship. Within this complex relationship, there is a lot of published data, ongoing research, and political work-arounds.

Furthermore, its topics don’t grab young minds like drug policy or foreign policy. I suppose oil and gas is not as sexy to think about as the implications of joints and bombs. I get it. Well, I understand you, but I don’t agree with you.

However, something that became clear to me when I became more interested in energy policy is that almost no one seems to understand it even a little bit. It is like there is a complete black out of knowledge among Americans when it comes to our energy policy and interests. This surprised me because energy policy is so important. It effects everyone in the United States no matter what. If you are reading this blog, you are using energy to read this blog and to keep the servers up for this blog. We all have lights to turn on. We all have vehicles to ride in, whether it is our own car, a bus, or an Uber. Our lives, our planet, and our standards of living are all in wedlock with the energy policies of the nation.

Many friends of mine were fascinated with the Standing Rock protests, which how could you not be with the terrible brutality those protesters had to go through. Yet, very few of these friends had much of a coherent clue of what it was they wanted. They didn’t know how much pipeline had already been built in the United States (around 2.5 million miles), and why this was decided as an effective method to transport oil and gas. They didn’t know what alternatives there were to a pipeline, and they didn’t really know where this pipeline was being placed and who had ownership of this land. However, these to me were minor lapses of understanding. I mean besides industry leaders and top policy wonks, who could really give you the amount of pipeline built in the US right off the top of their head? (Me. THAT’S WHO!)

The most egregious misunderstanding is that many of them truly believed we could live in a world without fossil fuels right now. That we could simply pack up our oil, gas, and coal operations, and there would only be minor complications. This is laughably ignorant, and it is such a widespread idea among college students! Even students at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, which is an engineering and science school! I don’t want to get too bogged down on this specific point and will devote a post on its own to this topic, but looking at the primary energy consumption data posted by the U.S. Energy Information Administration should help clear up this fable. Looking at the amount of energy produced in total from 2015 (97.22 quadrillion BTUs) compared to the amount of energy produced by renewables, which includes hydroelectric, geothermal, wind, solar, and biomass, in 2015 (9.450 quadrillion BTUs), it is clear that renewables have a lot of work to do before we can completely throw away fossil fuels. Getting rid of oil and gas outright would clearly cause widespread shortages, which means immense suffering among people that need electricity right now (think hospitals, 911 responders, etc).

And my anecdotal evidence of my friends is not the only evidence I have for people being grossly ignorant on energy policy issues. Americans have been historically really bad with energy policy.

In 1978, two thirds of Americans polled thought that a nuclear power plant accident could result in an explosion like Hiroshima. Furthermore, this was around the same time that James Bridges’ movie, The China Syndrome, came out, which claimed that during a nuclear power plant melt down, the fuel rods would be so hot that they could burrow all the way to China. People watched and, presumably, believed this movie.

In 1977, 52% of Americans polled by Roper answered that they thought solar power would overtake foreign oil imports in the next 5 years, and 16% thought that wind power could do it. Yet here we are, still importing foreign oil 40 years later.

In the 1970s, a majority of Americans thought that the gas lines and energy shortages were due to oil companies greedily hiding their oil somewhere out of the United States so that they could sell oil for higher prices! As if the instability in the Middle East (particularly Israel and Egypt), environmental regulations, and inflation played absolutely no roles in rising oil prices!

But perhaps, people are smarter now. All these examples are from the 1970s, and after 40 years, perhaps the public became wiser. I will delve into this question on future blog posts. I have to get you to come back to my blog somehow!

 

(The historical polls referenced in this post all came from Eric R.A.N. Smith’s book Energy, the Environment, and Public Policy, which can be bought on Amazon here)

Nuclear Energy: Why Does Colorado Have None?

With the first nuclear reactor, Tennessee Valley Authority’s Bar Unit 2, being connected to the grid on June 3rd since 1996, nuclear energy may be making a comeback. According to the Colorado Department of Natural Resources in 2006, the US produced more than 60% of the world’s nuclear energy production with 103 nuclear reactors, all of which were created before 1996. Compared with all other forms of energy sources (fossil fuels and renewables), nuclear energy sources makes up 20% of electricity generation in the United States.

With Colorado ranked 6th in natural gas production and 7th in total energy production, it would be expected that Colorado would be one of the leaders in nuclear energy production, especially with it being emission-free in production. However, Colorado falls completely flat on this expectation, as it currently does not have any nuclear power plants. Colorado is one of twenty states that does not have a nuclear power plant.

This hasn’t always been the case. Colorado use to have a nuclear power plant, named Fort St. Vrain, near Platteville, Colorado which was built by General Atomics Company and owned by the Public Service Company. The station began construction in 1968, and started generating electricity for the grid in 1976. The station was an early prototype of a high temperature, gas cooled reactor (HTGR). It was the first commercial reactor for electricity to use this gas cooling method, and one of four early HTGRs that used a thorium fuel cycle. All four that used this method have been shut down. According to Tony Kindelspire, writer for the Boulder Daily Camera, “problems plagued the plant from the start.” The plant was shut down in 1989, and has since been made into a natural gas plant.

So why doesn’t Colorado have a nuclear power plant now? In the United States, nuclear power is regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), but under the Agreement State Program, which Colorado is one of them, the NRC will relinquish portions of its regulatory jurisdictions to the state. However, a lot of regulatory power is still retained by the NRC. According to the National Conference of State Legislators, Colorado is not one of fifteen states that has regulations or laws against nuclear energy development or production. So it must not be regulatory barriers holding back Colorado’s nuclear potential.

This must mean it is just not economically feasible to create such energy in Colorado. Perhaps it is that the market currently does not favor this kind of production naturally, and energy producers should look elsewhere for energy production.

Nuclear power plants are actually pretty expensive to build. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, costs rose from 2002 to 2008 from between $2-$4 billion to around $9 billion. However, the cost for the new Bar Unit 2 reactor was at $4.9 billion, and expects to add 1,150 megawatts to its grid. Compare this to the Rush Creek Wind Farm proposed to be built in eastern Colorado which costs $1 billion dollars, plus an additional $443 million accumulated from taxpayers from Production Tax Credits (PTC), and can only produce 600 megawatts if winds were blowing at exactly the correct speeds for 24 hours a day.

While the power plants might be quite expensive to build, the use of nuclear power plants to generate power is relatively cheap. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, “in 2015, the average total generating cost for nuclear energy was $35.50 per megawatt-hour.” Furthermore, if the plant had more generating units per plant the price could get considerably lower. Compare this to wind energy, which has a generating cost around $40 per megawatt-hour, nuclear energy has cheaper generating costs.

Below is a graph provided by Energy Information Administration comparing the generating cost of different energy sources. Take note that the numbers represented are millions per kilowatt-hour, the hydro-electric category consists of both conventional hydroelectric and pumping storage, and the gas-turbine section is a conglomeration of gas turbines, internal combustion, wind, and photovoltaic. The cost is a total of fuel cost, operation cost, and maintenance cost. The full graph can be found here.

EIATotalGeneration cost

 

If it is the case that nuclear energy is simply too expensive to be a feasible method of producing electricity then so be it. However, it is evident that markets in Colorado are currently unfairly favoring wind and solar energy through subsidies and tax credits. Thus making it unclear if nuclear energy is truly unfavorable in the current market or is just being crowed out by government intrusions on the market. Perhaps skewed markets are the reason we do not see any nuclear power in Colorado. It is a question worth addressing.

In Response to “A Prosperous and Cleaner Future…” by Lynne Kiesling

If I were to describe Lynne Kiesling’s publication “A Prosperous and Cleaner Future: Markets, Innovation, and Electricity Distribution in the 21st Century” as anything, it would be that she is the Friedrich Hayek of energy policy. This paper methodically, and almost poetically, describes a major issue facing the energy and environmental policy world today: archaic design, a design that was put in place during the 19th century Progressive Era which put regulators “as agents, custodians, and stewards of ratepayer resources” (Kiesling 2015).

However, putting regulators in a dynamic and ever-changing market as custodians gives rise to what Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek describes as “The Knowledge Problem” in his 1945 essay “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” in which he says:

The peculiar character of the problem of a rational economic order is determined precisely by the fact that the knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess. The economic problem of society is thus not merely a problem of how to allocate “given” resources—if “given” is taken to mean given to a single mind which deliberately solves the problem set by these “data.” It is rather a problem of how to secure the best use of resources known to any of the members of society, for ends whose relative importance only these individuals know. (Hayek 1945).

Politicians and regulators are generally the butt of many party jokes as being incompetent and foolish, however this is a misunderstanding of why regulators stifle markets and innovation. Energy regulators will make bad decisions on what is best for the energy market or the environment not exactly because they don’t know what is best, but because they can’t know what is best.  The same could be said about a CEO of an energy company. Lynne Kiesling explains this idea by saying “[i]n dynamic markets with diffuse private knowledge, neither entrepreneurs nor policy makers can know a priori which goods and services will succeed with consumers and at what prices.”

Thus, it is not the free market assertion that private sector forces know better than public sector forces, per se. However at first glance, it seems that a solution in energy and environmentalism problems can never be found if no one actually knows enough to solve it.  This is not the free market assertion either. Instead it is that a free market is the quickest trial-and-error process for determining solutions based on the dispersed knowledge of private sector actors, which is determined through prices and profit. This is the crown-jewel of competition, which is absent in today’s energy market because of government sanctioned monopolies. Public sector action is simply too slow to enact this trial-and-error method, nor would they be able to determine what is and isn’t successful quite like consumers and the market can. Furthermore public sector forces are too slow to keep up with the innovation of today’s market, which is illustrated by Kiesling through the emergence of new technology like smart-grids, nuclear energy, and combined-cycle gas turbines. Kiesling as a result concludes that our regulation methods are inherently far too static for the dynamic market and technology we see today:

Many of the assumptions of this regulatory model are increasingly untrue in our modern society. The assumption of a single production technology with a declining long-run average curve has long been incorrect, as shown by the smaller-scale combined-cycle gas turbine (CCGT) innovations in the 1980s and the ensuing unbundling of generation from the vertically integrated firm and the liberalization of wholesale energy markets in restructured states in the U.S. This assumption is becoming even more problematic in the face of recent innovations in smaller-scale generation technologies, including natural gas, renewables, and even small modular nuclear power. (Kiesling 2015).

If Kiesling and Hayek are correct, it is clear that a feasible solution to problems we face today in energy and the environment, which are increasingly complicated topics, is the free market, and not an expansion of archaic regulation methods.

What does it mean to be agnostic on energy?

Simplistically, it means that we support the free market methods of finding a preferable energy source, whether it be renewables, fracking, nuclear energy, or some other energy production method.

It seems that there are many conservatives and libertarians across the United States that are against renewable energy, namely wind and solar, in and of itself. However, this shows a complete misunderstanding of the free market position. Oil and natural gas are not libertarian sources of energy, whatever that may mean. The whole point of a free market is that it is undesigned. There are no winner and losers chosen, but instead our energy source is “chosen” through consumer demand, prices, supply, and a multitude of other factors.

The truth is that I have a soft spot for renewable and clean energy. The environment is important to me, and I wish for people for years to come to enjoy the same Rocky Mountains I have enjoyed my entire life. I hope most people would think it would be absurd to claim otherwise. However, I still do not think it is appropriate for the government to mandate or skew markets for the sake of what a few may determine is a preferable energy supply, as it would most certainly be arbitrary.

For example if I were to choose, I would probably choose nuclear energy as a preferable form of energy production as it is clean, really awesome (totally not a value statement), and relatively effective. However, nuclear energy is not perfect as it can be really expensive to build the infrastructure for and takes incredibly specialized professionals to do the job. If some environmental leftists were to choose, I assume they would choose wind energy. Wind energy production doesn’t create emissions, and the wind is a resource that won’t be going away anytime soon. However, wind is not a reliable enough source of energy to depend on and the materials used to build these farms are not environmentally friendly either. Similar things could be said about solar energy. If a traditional conservative were to choose, they might choose hydraulic fracturing, which is relatively cheap and cleaner than crude oil drilling. However, fracking is not emissions-free and is also not currently politically desirable in many ways.

So when we set up a system that chooses winner and losers, the winner is only dependent on who the chooser is, which is not something that I think anyone is particularly interested in.

However, that does not mean we can’t have an effect on the energy being used today. We certainly can, but we can’t use government preferences for these ends. Consumer demand is a powerful element of a market, and it is something that we all can affect. If you are interested in cleaner energy, educate people about it. Make people really desire having cleaner energy or whatever form of energy you think is best. This isn’t an impossible task, but it is more difficult than using the government as a tool to your ends.

Furthermore, as surprising as this may sound, we must check our own privileges when discussing sound energy policy. Yes, the environment is important and we should protect it, but this does come with a higher bill. While this higher bill is mostly affordable to the high and middle class, the same can’t be said for the less fortunate and lower class. While they would certainly benefit from a cleaner environment, I am not sure they would find the tradeoff of being able to afford more food, better clothes, and so on desirable. However in a free market of energy, they could make such a choice if they so desire.

When it comes down to it sound energy policy is quite difficult, and even more so when you think the government should pick winners and losers in the market. People think that it is so easy when they post things to Facebook like “of course the government needs to subsidize renewable energy” yet they know very little about the costs of such a policy and who it effects. Likewise, people think it is so easy to say “oil and gas is the cheapest therefore the best”, but they don’t even bother to consider the externalities of such a decision or how different people may value its environmental effects.

Trevor Burrus, a research fellow at the Cato Institute, recently wrote about the difficulties of gun policy in which he explains that the gun control argument is not as obvious of an argument as its advocates would like you to believe and the gun rights argument is not as obvious of an argument as its advocates would like you to believe. The same could be said about energy policy, and most policy matters. It is hard. It is nuanced. There is no cure all policy or energy source, for that matter.

This is why I am agnostic on energy sources, and this is why the free market is so important. There are certainly market failures in addressing issues throughout history, but freeing up the market takes the hard decisions out of the hands of an arbitrary decider, or deciders, and into a complex system in which we all are a part of.

Nuclear Energy: But What about Rocky Flats Plant?

Nuclear energy can be a touchy subject to Coloradans. The only real commercial power plant to exist in the state was Fort St. Vrain, and then there is an even bigger and more widely known elephant in the room: Rocky Flats. If you don’t know what Rocky Flats is, it is a controversial nuclear weapons development facility near Golden, Colorado that was opened in 1952. When it was built, the information of what the facility was doing and the materials it was using was mostly secret due to national security interests because of our contentions with the Soviet Union. Transparency was certainly not a virtue of the Cold War Era. Due to our lack of knowledge in the nuclear area at this time, there were some precautions taken to eliminate contamination, but not all the proper precautions were taken. As a result the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and a few other governmental organizations had investigated the site and found huge breaches in safety for the surrounding public, the environment, and plant workers. Production halted in 1989, and cleanup began in 1992.

While the current contamination of surrounding areas, which include residential and agricultural areas, are not high enough to warrant cleanup by the EPA, the site is still highly monitored by the EPA and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), as it is listed as a Superfund site by the EPA. Public outcry against the site was huge back in the early 90s, and there is still a lot of public contention today.

However, it is wrong to conflate a commercial nuclear plant with a nuclear weapons plant. Rocky Flats Plant was used to create nuclear weapon triggers called “pits”, while commercial nuclear plants create electricity. The Rocky Flats Plant used weapons grade plutonium, while nuclear power plants use regular enriched uranium. While plutonium was used at the Rocky Flats site, uranium is normally used for weapons as it is more readily found than plutonium, but the uranium used for electricity in commercial plants is still much different than the uranium used in weapons. To put this in perspective, weapons grade uranium has drastically higher levels of 235U (the isotope used to create both electricity and weapons) than the concentration of the enriched uranium (also the 235U isotope) used in electricity generation. Weapons grade uranium has over 90% 235U, while the enriched uranium used in electricity is 0.7% to 25%.

With this perspective, it is clear to see why weapon development has a much higher chance of contamination and a more severe effect from contamination than electricity generation. While there are possible health and environmental concerns with nuclear power, to use weapons development as evidence against it is groundless.