Welcome to the August Energy Buzz! It’s the dog days of summer and this month we’re going to take a closer look at two recent financial developments dogging nuclear power. Then, to keep our cool, we’ll see how two influential reports are helping fan the rise of small scale wind power.
Money Woes Dog Nuclear Power
Currently, there are 99 operating nuclear reactors that have all (with the exception of TVA Watts Bar unit 2) been built before 1996. All of these rely on water (known as Gen I or Gen II technology) to work as coolant and as a source for steam to drive power turbines. The two newest nuclear projects, V.C. Summer units 2 and 3 in South Carolina and Vogtle units 3 and 4 in Georgia were set to become fully operational by 2020. That changed when project contractor Westinghouse filed bankruptcy on March 29. Both projects had experienced delays and made mistakes that drove an estimated $13 billion in cost overruns.
On July 31, the South Carolina Public Service Authority and South Carolina Electric & Gas Company, announced the Summer project would be halted. This fall, Washington lawmakers will scramble to extend current production tax credit legislation to fund the Summer project as well as the Vogtle project, which received an $8.3 billion loan guarantee under the Obama administration. Whether it gets them back on track is yet to be seen.
Ironically, while nuclear plants are hemorrhaging millions of dollars and scaring investors, development of Advanced Nuclear plants by the Department of Energy is starved for lack of funding and private investment. According to University of California and Carnegie Mellon University researchers, it’s unlikely the U.S. will develop and deploy an advanced nuclear reactor before 2050. That’s because in examining Department of Energy budget records, researchers found U.S. Office of Nuclear Energy “lacks the funding and programmatic focus required to execute its mission.” The agency has spent a mere $2 billion over an 18 year period on all advanced reactor and fuel initiatives. At just over $100 million per year, researchers point out that’s scarcely enough funding to put together just one commercially deployable design.
Cheaper Wind Attracts Fans of Small Scale Turbines
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory released its annual wind report. 2016 Wind Technologies Market Report details that not only have wind additions delivered 8,203 MW in capacity in 2016 but newer, larger wind turbines themselves can now generate up 2.15 MW due to enhancements in rotor, blade, and tower designs. Average cost for installed wind projects have fallen from $2,370/kW in 2009 and 2010 to $1,590/kW in 2016. Most important of all, long term levelized cost for wind power-purchase agreements has reached 2¢/kWh, comparable to the price of natural gas-fired generation.
Small wind power (up through 100 kilowatts) is also growing. The DOE’s 2016 Distributed Wind Market Report reported that 45.4 megawatts of distributed wind power was added in 25 U.S. states and the U.S. territory of Guam in 2016 and now boasts a cumulative capacity of 992 MW. The most amount of installed wind by a state was Rhode Island with 15 MW, though New York installed the most in one quarter, 627 KW. Utilities, churches, and schools were the type of institutions that installed the most, 29 MW in 2016. So far 77,000 small scale turbines are spinning throughout the entire U.S.
In spite of Ohio’s law requiring all wind turbines over 50 MW to be 1125 feet — or about 1/4 mile from neighboring property lines, the state is still seeing demand for small scale wind installations to power farms, factories, and other businesses. From 2015 to 2016, 9.24 MW of small scale wind power went online in the state.
With the successful spread of small scale wind, one group of mechanical engineering researchers at the University of Utah explored small vertical axis wind turbines (VAWTs) for use in suburban/urban environments. VAWTs come in a variety of shapes and sizes but basically are composed of vertically aligned blades rotate about a vertical axis. The researchers chose to work on a straight-blade Darrieus type or H-rotor turbine. They found that small VAWTs are able to operate effectively in areas prone to turbulent air flow, such as urban and suburban environments where traffic and buildings can concentrate or disrupt normal air flow. Using a computer simulation derived from 2009 wind data, they ran 13 different wind turbine configurations to find out the most effective one. They found that VAWTs using their optimized configuration can financially compete with fossil-fuel based power plants in urban and suburban areas, producing electricity at 10% lower than the average national price/kWh.