Technological Left Side

Build Nuclear Plants, Limit Coal to "Intelligent" Coal, Fund a Massive Development Program for Energy Storage, Continue to Commercialize Renewables, and Limit LNG to Strategic Imports for Distributed Power Networks

As I have suggested, on the production side, all dials on our insecurities and vulnerabilities meters point to nuclear as the best option for bulk power generation. It's far from perfect, but it best solves the optimization equations governing the left side of the value chain. We need a policy program that targets nuclear power for up to 50 percent of our electricity, and reduces coal to less than 20 percent. We need to close the nuclear fuel cycle with reprocessing facilities; that way, we reduce the potential amount of uranium that has to be imported and we at least have control over the weapons-grade coproduction threat. We have great experience with nuclear power; we need only evolutionary advances in technology to ramp up the construction program. (We'd really be just continuing the program that was halted in the 1980s from cancelation of orders.)

Concurrent with this, we should reduce the unrelenting oversight and paperwork process surrounding everything that goes on at a nuclear plant. Here's a lesson from history: When we first started building coal-fired boilers, there were serious explosions and catastrophic loss of life and property. The industry publications were full of articles about this dangerous state of affairs. The industry learned to control this danger, design for more safety, and apply codes and standards to operations.

I believe this is where we are with nuclear power. The industry has learned from the earlier accidents. The current generation of reactors has one of the most impressive safety records of any industrial sector. The next generation of reactors was designed with even more and better safety features. Like the early days of the boiler business, the industry can largely police itself now. The economic imperative is there. Downtime at a nuclear plant costs the owner an inordinate amount of money. The industry knows an accident at one reactor, however minor, is an accident at every reactor. Accidents still occur and will occur, but the question is whether the elaborate restrictions and documentation required by the NRC represents energy (and money) properly spent? I think not.

Mr. President, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Korea, and Japan get from 40 percent to 80 percent of their electricity from nuclear plants. They seem like nice places to live with nice people and healthy economies. Why can't we do this here in America as well? We won't be perfect, nor are they, but we have to weigh tradeoffs and respond appropriately. One thing's for sure: The global war on terror and our continuing global defense expenditures has claimed far more lives than accidents at nuclear plants.

The coal industry thinks we should build clean coal plants. That's a good idea, but I have an even better one. If we're going to build coal plants to exploit our most abundant energy resource, let's build intelligent coal refineries. Intelligently designed coal plants are located at the mine, so that the emissions and discharges can be put back where they came from and the supply line is minimized. They also would include provisions for extracting other high-value energy products from the coal, and to process recycled materials using principles of industrial ecology. Finally, no coal plant should be built without a well-defined, executable plan for managing carbon dioxide emissions with transparent costs to do so. This would be the equivalent of a nuclear plant's emergency-preparedness plan that it develops in cooperation with the local community.

The technological component of the plan also includes a healthy role for electricity storage. Electricity storage is an enabling technology. It "enables" us to have a more secure and reliable grid. It enables renewable energy to have a larger role on the production side of the chain. It enables us to optimize the use of existing generation and transmission assets. It enables distributed generation to become a valuable and continuous electricity production and cogeneration asset, not just a standby or emergency source of power. It facilitates electricity markets, just like storage and inventory control benefits marketers and traders in every other commodity. Every kilowatt hour we get out of an existing asset is one that does not have to come from a new asset.

Right now, the energy storage funding within the Department of Energy is but a pimple on the backside of the federal budget—less than $20 million. This budget should be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Storage serves as a perfect area of emphasis for the federal government because the benefit of energy storage that accrues to each piece of the broken up value chain is too small for it to be funded by any one sector (transmission, distribution, generation). But because of this, it also has no constituency in Washington or the state houses. Every aspect of the production and delivery value chain benefits if we can commercialize electricity storage options for distributed and bulk applications and drive down the cost. Mr. (or Madam) President, why don't you be the visionary leader who spearheads the new energy storage program?

The Departments of Energy, Homeland Security, Agriculture, and the Environmental Protection Agency, should collaborate with industry to fund a program similar to the Clean Coal Technology Demonstration program focused on electricity storage. This "sixth dimension" of the electricity value chain should be developed in conjunction with new industry players that are focused on storage. After all, this is what happened in the natural gas industry. Once the industry was deregulated in the 1980s, storage became a critical part of the proper functioning of competitive bulk gas transmission.

The nominal goal for bulk electricity storage could be 15 percent of the nation's generation capacity, which is similar to the level of storage available in the natural gas industry.

Finally, just forget about importing large amounts of LNG for bulk electricity generation. It's a bad idea. End of story. I would hope that an outright ban on this practice from government is not necessary, and that the economic proposition will effectively do the job. On the other hand, limited LNG imports to supplement the fuel supply for distributed power and microgrid networks may be helpful. What we absolutely, positively do not want is to be dependent on imported LNG like we are on imported petroleum today and into the foreseeable future. That should be painfully obvious. Threatening LNG imports could be helpful in tempering gas prices, but I wouldn't rely on them for anything else.

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