New ideas challenge the status quo and refute commonly held knowledge. Common knowledge or the popular, sensible take on an issue is not known for nuance or attention to detail. Common knowledge tells us that we need more and more electricity for our growing economy and to power the electronic gadgets we all love. Given this mindset, it makes perfect sense to keep every power plant in the country running full time, 24/7 to avoid any possibility of a service interruption.
Well, reality has a way of intruding on common knowledge and poking holes in old ideas which are no longer valid – even if may take a while for people to figure out what’s going on. The economy has picked up; more people are back to work and spending money on an assortment of electronic devices: so, of course, power usage is no doubt soaring. Well, not really; in New York electricity usage is actually holding steady. How can this be? Check the figures at the Independent System Operator, the group that runs the grid and they will show you the facts and figures. Last year projected use was approximately 33,000 megawatts, while actual use came in at 29,000 megawatts. That’s a big difference. What was available from all the generators in NY State was 41,000 megawatts. No shortage of electricity here.
Holding the line on usage means getting more work out of every watt. It means that our swarm of electrical devices and games are more efficient than ever before. It means that more manufacturers have figured out that efficiency on the production line saves money, helps the bottom line and that is a smart thing to do.
Other factors figure into this calculation as well. The cost of generating electricity has plummeted and the new plants that have come on line in the past few years are cleaner and more efficient. It makes it difficult for old plants using old technology to compete. Like when computers got established in the business world and a lot of people in the typing pool lost their jobs, or when party lines for telephones disappeared and switchboard operators who ran them also disappeared. There was even a time when common knowledge insisted that automobiles would never replace the horse because they were not as dependable and could not go as far. Technology has changed through the decades, never more rapidly than now. What is currently common knowledge eventually fades as new ideas become commonplace.
Baseload Generation and Negative Pricing
It helps that many of the new generators coming on line are green, primarily wind and solar. It means less carbon in the atmosphere, fewer greenhouse gasses and cleaner air for all of us. The fuel is free, no charge for the sun or wind or tide. Startup takes about two years and there is no toxic waste left behind for future generations to deal with. Some people want to include gas in this category, and the abundance of gas from fracking has been a big factor in the surplus of cheap electricity. Still, it has a bigger carbon footprint than wind and solar and is already more expensive in some markets. Moreover, a lot of studies show that we can have adequate generation capacity without it.
Electricity generated from sun, wind, and gas plants do have something in common; they start up fast when they are needed and turn off equally fast when demand goes down. This is different from the old technology of coal and nuclear, the so called “baseload” plants that have to run 24/7 whether the electricity is needed or not. You might say that coal and nuclear have a faulty on and off switch since it takes outside electricity and several days to start them up once they do go down. In fact, in 2006 the North America Electric Reliability Council actually redefined baseload to mean the total amount of megawatts needed to run a system at peak – not production that happens 24/7. It seems that the days King C. O N. G. (Coal, Oil, Nuclear, Gas) may be numbered.
Where does the electricity from coal and nuclear plants go when they can’t sell it because there is no market for it? It has to go someplace since you can’t store large amounts of electricity. Coal and nuclear plants actually have to pay another, cheaper, generator not to produce. It’s called negative pricing. Wind farms are paid a fee by a nuclear plant to turn off their turbines to make room for electricity generated by reactors. This is a strange but true kink in our deregulated system. Nuclear plants, which have a higher cost per kilowatt hour than even coal plants, are in the worst predicament when it comes to negative pricing. Making these kind of payments means running at a loss and has contributed to requests for subsidies from the owners of nuclear plants so that they can continue to pay dividends to stockholders. This is usually done under the guise of “energy diversity” and panicky stories about how gas prices are surely going to rise rapidly.
You can’t keep selling your product for less than it costs to make it and stay in business. That’s why some of the nuclear plants around the country, like FitzPatrick and Ginna in upstate New York, are threatening to close unless they get massive taxpayer subsidies to guarantee their profits. Actually this process is the deregulated free market at work in the energy sector and with a level playing field it would close out legacy plants that can no longer compete. It’s a process that needs to be welcomed and supported as it brings with it more efficient, cleaner generation and cheaper electricity bills for us all. Green energy also creates more jobs at about a six to one ratio. Still, that does not make it any easier for those workers losing their jobs as the old baseload plants retire.
Jobs are always an issue when any big business closes, not only for those involved but also for politicians who are notoriously behind the eight ball when it comes to science and technology. Fortunately, a model was set for the nuclear industry when Entergy, the owner of Vermont Yankee, closed their reactor and provided the community with $10 million dollars transition money over five years. While this is just a start, a just transition for nuclear workers when a reactor shuts down is important. Historically speaking, it is a lot more than most folks experience when their companies go bankrupt and they lose their jobs. And of course the plants that are closed remain on the tax roll whether they are producing electricity or not. The assessment goes down but lately there has been talk of an additional tax for nuclear sites on the storage of high level nuclear waste which must remain on site. Reactor sites were never designed for long term storage of radioactive materials so this could be deemed a new and taxable use.
Intermittent Generation and Distributed Generation
What happens to wind and solar generation when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow? This is the myth that the nuclear industry desperately holds up to view. Their claim that the grid can’t handle intermittent supply has been proven wrong over and over again. All generation is inherently intermittent; at some point every power plant shuts down – either it is a planned shutdown for repairs or refueling or it is an unexpected malfunction or accident. Either way, grid operators switch sources and our grid continues to hum along. That is the way it is designed. So, the answer to what happens when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow is surprisingly simple: it is distributed generation, or, generation from many different smaller, flexible sources. Distributed generation like roof top solar has cut down the need for more polluting forms of electricity. The wind is always blowing somewhere and it is clean, free fuel. As wind farms have expanded and are situated at different elevations electricity is available in significant, predictable and reliable amounts. While some turbines may stop, other wind farms all over the state keep producing and wind is much stronger at night. It is the number of wind farms coupled with an efficient transmission system that counts the most.
New York now has enough solar generated electricity online to replace a nuclear power plant. Developments like this mean that it is crucial for utilities to rethink their role as transmission companies that make their money based on usage. What happens when more and more homes are generating electricity during peak summer hours and meters are running backwards? Who pays transmission charges then and how does the utility make enough money to maintain the infrastructure?
New York State has an official program called Reforming the Energy Vision (the REV) that is trying to answer this question in order to avoid the utility “death spiral” where fewer and fewer customers pay to support the wires and poles that hold the system together. Of course, as transmission fees get higher more and more people to install solar panels- which means even less money for the utility. Florida and Hawaii have attempted to solve this problem by passing laws that virtually ban all new solar rooftop. Germany struggles with the same issue. The electricity market is in turmoil as all of these factors sort themselves out and entrenched utilities and corporations fight to hold on to their profits and limit the growth of renewables.
One thing is certain; we don’t need to spend any more time counting megawatts. We have an abundance of electricity and predicted usage has come in lower than expected for the last two years. Conservation and efficiency are working. We need to talk to our elected officials and tell them to “wake up and smell the coffee”. Let the old legacy plants go the way of the dinosaurs and welcome more job producing renewable energy options. Stop looking backwards. The current
reality of an abundance of clean electricity for a green energy future is here now. It’s knocking at the door and it’s time to open up to the power of the wind and sun so that we can all breathe easier.
Marilyn Elie, the author of this paper, is a founding member of the Indian Point Safe Energy Coalition, a coalition of groups and individuals working to close Indian Point. Special thanks to Irving Lefkowitz for his keen eye for editing.