Category Archives: wind power

A Dangerous Precedent or a Slippery Slope?

By Howard Shaffer

viewfromVermontThe governor of Vermont last year established the “Energy Generation Siting Policy Commission” after citizens protested  a proposed wind farm (meanwhile, the legislature proposed a wind farm moratorium bill). The main purpose of the governor’s initiative was to evaluate how much local input should be required in energy siting decisions.

Many Vermont citizens have been taught by nuclear opponents to raise “Not In My Backyard!” cries against nuclear-related issues—and now, this tactic has extended far beyond nuclear. Will Vermont allow every small locality to block projects needed for the state, regional, and national good?

“Wind at the backs” of wind power developers

Vermont’s policy is to encourage the development of alternative energy sources, which include wind, solar, biomass, and small hydro. The policy also supports energy conservation and efficiency, through an energy efficiency utility. And there are federal tax breaks and incentives for these projects. In addition, the state provides a “feed-in tariff” where power is bought by the distribution utility at a higher price than that from other sources.

All energy projects are now required to go through an identical permitting process. The Vermont Public Service Board (PSB) issues Certificates of Public Good (CPG) for energy and other projects. The PSB also conducts an investigation of project applications, including quasi-judicial public hearings, to determine if projects meet the legal criteria for a CPG. Participants in the hearing process must formally apply, and must be represented by legal counsel.

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Industrial wind turbines

Vermont residents living near wind power projects have opposed their construction. The latest designs of large wind turbines, dubbed “Industrial Wind Turbines” by opponents, are over 400 feet tall to the top of the blades. Objections are often raised about environmental impacts. In addition, destroying the view is an objection.

sheffield wind

The impact of land clearing, roads, and ridge line facilities is another major objection.

land clearing

Local citizens have formed groups to lobby their elected officials against these “wind farms.”

save our ridgelines

An objection raised against all projects is that legal counsel is required to formally participate before the PSB. This creates a hurdle for local citizens due to its expense.

The Energy Generation Siting Policy Commission

From the Commission’s charter:

“On October 2, 2012, Governor Peter Shumlin created the Governor’s Energy Generation Siting Policy Commission. The charge of the Commission is to survey best practices for siting approval of electric generation projects (all facilities except for net- and group-net-metered facilities) and for public participation and representation in the siting process and to report to the Governor and to the Vermont Legislature on their findings by April 30, 2013. The Commission will also look at alternative dispute resolution processes for project siting, permit coordination opportunities, how cumulative project impact is considered, and whether generic siting guidelines should be developed.”

The Commission’s report states that it is in the context of goals already set by law:

  • By 2022: 127.5 MW of new in-state renewable electric generation contracts provided through the Standard Offer program of SPEED (30 V.S.A. § 8005a(c))
  • By 2025: 25 percent of all energy from in-state renewables (10 V.S.A. § 579(a))
  • By 2028: 50-percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions; 75 percent by 2050 (10 V.S.A. § 578(a))
  • By 2032: 75-percent renewables in electric sales (30 V.S.A. § 8005(d) (4) (A)

Also, the state’s 2011 Comprehensive Energy Plan requires:

  • By 2050: 90 percent of all energy from renewables


The report’s recommendations are introduced as follows:

“The Commission believes that Vermont can address potentially competing interests and advance clean energy projects efficiently while also protecting the state’s natural resources. An effective and efficient siting process is essential to achieve this. With this in mind, the Commission is particularly focused on recommendations related to the following aspects of the siting process:

      • The role of—and opportunities for—public participation and representation.
      • Process uniformity, transparency, and efficiency.
      • Adequate protection from negative environmental, cultural, and health impacts.
      • Ensuring that the best rather than easiest sites are selected by maintaining a process that rewards appropriately sited projects, thus making the process easier and more predictable for all parties.
      • Encouraging projects that are community-led with the aim of increasing project acceptance and reducing costly contestation of projects for all parties.
      • Avoiding unintended consequences, including keeping the budgetary and retail rate consequences of the recommendations to a minimum.”

Recommendations are grouped in categories:

      • Increase emphasis on planning
      • Simplify tier system
      • Increase opportunity for public participation
      • Improve the siting process for increased transparency, efficiency, and predictability
      • Ensure adequate environmental, health, and other protection
      • Cross cutting recommendations

A key to understanding the whole report is the final policy recommendation:

“27. Although many of the following points have been covered in the body of this report, the Commission recommends that the PSB pay particular attention to these issues in the near term as they relate to siting electric generation within its current jurisdiction: a) the public need for procedural advice throughout the application process (Case Manager); b) an improved PSB website including an online case management system; c) consideration of economic efficiency and least environmental damage, with particular attention to climate change; d) health issues; e) cumulative impacts, which may include aesthetic, grid, economic and health effects; f) potential effects on neighboring property values; g) consideration of view shed in accommodating participation of communities; h) setbacks; i) principal concerns raised at public hearings for the project; and j) a more efficient process for smaller, community sponsored projects.”

The legislature

In January, a bill calling for a three year moratorium on wind power projects was introduced in Vermont’s  Senate. The bill went through the usual committee reviews, in both houses. However, after this process the bill was then changed into an Act of the legislature that requires up to six joint meetings of the Senate and House Committees on Natural Resources and Energy, during a time that the legislature is not in session. This was not surprising, since the chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy is an ardent supporter of alternative energies. The committees are to review the Siting Commission’s report.

A slippery slope?

A major recommendation of the Siting Commission concerns including more local input in the project approval process. Based on what has happened, and continues to happen, concerning the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, dealing with local objections is a major hurdle. Right now, the objections of Vermont Yankee nuclear power plants opponents are heard by the PSB. Vermont Yankee’s opponents have formed groups, raised money, retained counsel, and formally participate in the approval process, at the state and federal level. The opponents want the plant shut down, no matter what.

The obvious problem, which has gone unspoken, is that when there are two sides that desire conflicting results in a controversial issue, both sides can’t be satisfied. Most elected officials don’t like to tell constituents “No,” particularly when an emotional issue is involved. In this era of one-issue politics, elected officials, considering their re-election possibilities, are wary of any group that will oppose them based solely on their stand on one issue alone.

The Commission’s report contains many good recommendations. It admits that the current process was set up when generating projects were large and infrequent. Now that projects are smaller and numerous, the process has to be streamlined. In particular, a tiered system is recommended, so that projects are subjected to a review process matched to their size and potential impact.

The danger in the process, as I see it, is coming up with a solution that will allow small local groups to have a veto over projects—energy, communications, or others—that are needed by the county, region, state, nation, or world. This could create a situation where nothing gets done. For example, in Windham County, home of Vermont Yankee, some do not want nuclear power—and they also do not want wind power.

My grandmother used to say, “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.” The Commission’s report could be viewed as trying to have everything, and saying nothing about hard choices.




Howard Shaffer has been an ANS member for 35 years.  He has contributed to ASME and ANS Standards committees, ANS committees, national meeting staffs, and his local section, and was the 2001 ANS Congressional Fellow.  He is a current member of the ANS Public Information Committee and consults in nuclear public outreach. He is coordinator for the Vermont Grassroots Project. Shaffer holds a BSEE from Duke University and an MSNE from MIT. He is a regular contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

Alternative energy in Vermont – Chickens coming home to roost

By Howard Shaffer

“Curses, like chickens, come home to roost.” – Chaucer, 1343–1400
“The chickens are coming home to roost.” – my grandmother

chickens home to roost 302x201

In Vermont and New England, opposition is now rising against the “alternative energies” of wind and biomass (wood) as electric power sources. The technical arguments are specific to the technologies and locations, but the underlying premises are those that we have already heard raised against nuclear power for a long time—namely, “Its Not Perfect” and “Not in My Backyard.”

Wind power in Vermont

Lowell Mountain wind project

Lowell Mountain wind project

Vermont has four operating wind power facilities in the state (199 MW) and two more under construction. Several more wind power projects are proposed. In terms of environmental effects, there are complaints of noise, pressure wave effects, construction problems, bird kills, and more. However, the most prominent concern seems to be the visual impact.

For those who have come to know and love their mountain vistas, the sight of multiple 400+ foot tall wind turbines can be upsetting. Vermont is known for its rural character and bucolic settings that are well loved by residents, and this pristine setting is a large part of Vermont’s tourist and vacation home draw. One of the complaints against wind power is that destroying the views will lower property values and decrease tourist business.

Siting Study Commission

The virulent opposition to the wind turbines projects resulted in Vermont’s governor, Peter Shumlin, appointing a “Siting Study Commission” to examine how electric power facilities are sited. The commission is due to report on April 25. Currently, the Vermont Public Service Board (PSB) is responsible for examining applications for all kinds of utility facilities, including electric, gas, and communications. One of the complaints that led to the establishment of the commission was that the Vermont PSB is quasi-judicial and that lawyers are required to officially participate, making the expense of participation too high for “ordinary citizens.”

Vermont Senate Bill 30

A bill (S30) was introduced in the Vermont Senate for a three-year moratorium on wind turbine development. The debate was fierce. The major environmental groups lobbied hard, and the bill has now been stripped down to requiring a study of wind power development.

During the Senate debate, a Vermont renewable developer told the Senate president that he would withhold support and fund an opponent in the next election, if the senator voted for the bill. (This was actually done in writing and widely reported! Meredith Angwin’s Yes Vermont Yankee blog carries three great posts on this amazing event, which demonstrates the political power of the Environmental Lobby in Vermont.)  See:

Comments or Threats: Wind in Vermont
Blowing in the Wind: Threats and Reactions
Environmental Review of Vermont Wind: A Gutted Bill Moves from Senate to House

The S30 bill now goes to the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, chaired by Tony Klein from the town of East Montpelier, Vt. Klein “grew up in the shadow of Indian Point” (a nuclear power plant in New York) and is a virulent opponent of nuclear power in general, and Vermont Yankee in particular. He is also an enthusiast for alternative energy.

Representative Tony Klein 156x150


Klein complains that the S30 bill appears to assume that wind is bad, and that he would prefer that the bill assume that wind is good. He also says that since the bill is about a study, there will be no “open door” and that he doesn’t want to hear from the neighbors of wind projects at committee hearings. (Not “our neighbors” or “my neighbors”, who are after all state residents, but “the neighbors.” One of the senators from the “Northeast Kingdom” area of the state where wind projects are located remarked that his area is bearing the burden of someone else’s policy.)

Senior Senator Bill Doyle’s unofficial but longstanding annual Town Meeting Day poll of current “hot button” issues shows 52 percent opposed to a three-year moratorium on wind development and 35 percent in favor, with 13 percent unsure. The poll also shows 46 percent in favor of continuing efforts to shut down Vermont Yankee and 41 percent against, also with 13 percent unsure. These Vermont Yankee percentages have held steady for years. Doyle poll shows support for wind power, Shumlin’s likability slipping.

A recent Letter to the Editor opposing wind turbines was titled The Making of a NIMBY.

Biomass in Vermont

A wood-burning electric power plant has been proposed for Springfield, Vt. There is opposition from neighbors who object to noise, pollution, resource depletion, and truck traffic. They don’t want it in their backyards. See Sustainability of Springfield Biomass Plant In Question for more details.

Lack of agreement in New England

“I don’t think we know how to do it” was the assessment of Vermont’s Public Service Department commissioner, in reference to attempts by six New England states to implement their governors’ commitment to bulk purchase wind and solar power. The idea would be to lower prices and provide stability, but the states have yet to agree on what should be included as “alternatives.”

One state says biomass is not “cutting edge.” Another state does not consider large hydro power (think Hydro Quebec) acceptable, while others do. For its part, Vermont didn’t count large hydro as renewable until, with the end of Vermont Yankee contracts approaching, it needed to. Then the legislature changed the definition. New Hampshire now uses the terms “renewable” and “sustainable” and is not currently participating in discussions. See New England Renewable Energy A Hard Sell In Region for more details. 

Which chickens?

So, which “chickens” are coming home to trouble those who let them loose?

  • Demanding that energy sources be perfect is one.
  • Teaching citizens to say “Not In My Backyard” is another.

These chickens were let loose against nuclear power years ago. It may be that ardent “anti-nukes” who also are alternative energy enthusiasts may not have considered that someday the chickens could come home—to land on them.




Howard Shaffer has been an ANS member for 35 years.  He has contributed to ASME and ANS Standards committees, ANS committees, national meeting staffs, and his local section, and was the 2001 ANS Congressional Fellow.  He is a current member of the ANS Public Information Committee and consults in nuclear public outreach.

He is Coordinator for the Vermont Grassroots Project. Shaffer holds a BSEE from Duke University and an MSNE from MIT. He is a regular contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.


Friday Nuclear Matinee: Wind Turbines and Nuclear Power

All forms of electricity generation have their own set of advantages… But among the seemingly endless unique advantages of nuclear fission are the massive implications of the deceptively simple equation E=mc².   This translates to unparalleled energy density.

This two-minute video is a real eye-opener on what energy density can add up to in the real world.


See Jason Correia’s infographic and article, and article by Ulrich Decher, at ANS Nuclear Cafe for more information on capacity factor and siting of wind and nuclear power.

A big hat tip to Ray Innes and Gabrielle Hollis for making this video, and Leslie Corrice at The Hiroshima Syndrome.

Replacing nuclear with wind power: Could it be done?

by Ulrich Decher

Many people would like it to be theoretically possible to replace nuclear power with wind power, since the wind is a free resource. The way that I would like to approach the topic is to not discuss the source of power, but to discuss this question from the perspective of “intermittency.” Stating the question another way: Can an intermittent source replace a baseload power source for producing electricity? This question has nothing to do with how the electricity is generated, but everything to do with when the electricity is generated.

The production of electricity involves understanding concepts such as capacity, capacity factor, and generation. These three concepts are often misunderstood and misused when comparing the generation of intermittent electricity with baseload generated electricity. It is sometimes useful to use a familiar analogy when explaining complicated topics. I will, therefore, use the automobile for this analogy, since many of us own a car and everyone is familiar with them.


Here is the analogy: Suppose there is a car on the market that is very environmentally friendly. Its mileage is phenomenal! I call it a “super-green” car.




This super-green car has the same horsepower as a conventional car. It will handle steep hills as well as a conventional car. It has the same 0 to 60 mph performance. The only difference is that when you try to start it in the morning, it will only start 25 percent of the time, and you can never predict on which day it will start. It runs, randomly, 25 percent of the time.

Would you replace your conventional car with a super-green car to get you to work every day? To keep the analogy simple, let us assume that if the car starts on a particular day, it will also take you home at the end of the workday. If it doesn’t start on a particular day, however, it won’t start that day no matter how often you turn the starter key.



To most people, the answer is obvious. Most of us would not hold on to a job very long if we randomly showed up at work only 25 percent of the time. So the answer is no, the super-green car cannot replace the conventional car. Horsepower is the equivalent of capacity in this analogy. An intermittent electrical power source with a capacity (or power capability when it is working) to generate 1000MW cannot replace a conventional power plant with a capacity of 1000MW. Even though the capacities are the same, the power plants are not equivalent. Yet capacity comparisons are made all the time, as if this somehow makes the power plants equivalent. They are not equivalent.

Capacity factor

Others would say that since the capacity factor is 25 percent (the car works 25 percent of the time), you would just need four cars to reliably get you to work every day. This is also not true, however. There is a chance that none of the cars will work on a particular day. As a matter of fact, this probability can be computed, if the probability of each car not working is independent of the other cars not working. It is 0.75 x 0.75 x 0.75 x 0.75 or (0.75)^4, which is equal to 32 percent. So if you owned four super-green cars, the probability of none of them working on a particular day is 32 percent. So, with four super-green cars, you get to work 68 percent of the time, which is better than 25 percent of the time, but it is still a long way from 100 percent of the time.



Another problem with using capacity factor as an equalizing parameter is that there are times when more than one car will start. The extra cars, however, are of no value to you as far as getting to work is concerned. The extra working cars do not average out with the demand to get to work on time each day. They are working at the wrong time.

Note that in the case of a wind farm, the probability of each turbine not working is not independent. If the wind doesn’t blow in a particular area, it will affect all wind turbines. The probabilities are not randomly independent. Therefore, wind farms must be in separate weather patterns, in order to significantly reduce the unavailable time.


A better equalizing parameter is generation. When the super-green car works, it generates highly economical miles. That parameter has its problems as well, however. The generation of economical miles can be increased simply by taking the long route to work. Those extra economical miles are of no value as far as getting to work is concerned. In the same way, generated electricity has no value unless there is a demand for it at the time that it is generated. This is because electricity has zero shelf-life. It must be consumed when it is generated.

So, when generation cost comparisons are made between intermittent and baseload power sources, this presumes that the resulting electricity value is the same. This is actually not the case, because electricity generated when the demand for it is not certain does not have the same value as electricity that is generated when there is demand for it.

There is no perfect equalization parameter when making comparisons between intermittent and baseload generated electricity. Capacity is by far the worst, next comes capacity factor, and the best is generation, but it is not perfect.


So, the conclusion is that intermittently generated electricity cannot replace baseload generation. Just like there is a chance that none of the super-green cars are working on a particular day, there is also a chance that no electricity is generated by an intermittent source. Hence, all the conventional power sources are still needed.

Intermittent power sources can be of value, however, because they do save fuel in conventional power plants. But the economics are usually not very good at today’s fuel prices. In the car analogy, I compute that my 20-mile round-trip commute to work would save me about two gallons of gas a month if the super-green car gets double the mileage of my conventional car. At $4 per gallon, that is $8 per month saving. It is obvious that, from an economic point of view, this saving is nowhere near the hundreds of dollars required per month to own an extra car. Similarly, I wrote an article explaining that wind farms cannot be justified on an economic basis, except in Hawaii, where expensive oil is used to generate electricity.

But perhaps using intermittent power plants can be justified environmentally. Perhaps not burning fossil fuels is worth the environmental benefit of not releasing as much greenhouse gases. Also, the fossil resource can be saved for other uses such as plastics. That argument breaks down, however, when the baseload generator is nuclear. Nuclear power does not generate greenhouse gases during operation. Saving the uranium for other uses is not applicable, because uranium has no other commercial uses. What exactly would we be saving it for?




So, to answer the general question, can wind power replace nuclear? The answer is clearly no. No technology is perfect, and there is always some impact in everything we do. Nuclear has the capability to meet the electrical needs for humanity for a millennia. That is a very compelling reason to use it, versus using a technology that only works intermittently and requires keeping all the conventional generators that we already have.

Click to go to wind to nuclear info-graphic article by Jason Correia









Ulrich Decher holds a PhD in nuclear engineering. He is a member of the ANS Public Information Committee and a contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

Tape review of Vermont Yankee power struggle debate

By Rod Adams

One of my college roommates served for a while as the manager of our football team; we would talk about the “tape review” sessions that were used by the team to evaluate past performance and to prepare for future opponents. Nuclear organizations, for their part, often have highly developed “lessons learned” programs and they practice the use of technical methods that have been successfully employed by other organizations.

In that spirit, I would like to offer a “tape review” of the recent radio debate “Vermont Yankee: Power Struggle” that Meredith Angwin wrote about so beautifully for ANS Nuclear Cafe under the title of Be Here Now and The Debate.

My intent is not criticism—Richard Schmidt and Meredith both did a great job and already scored a win for the pronuclear team. My goal is to contribute to continuous improvement, help our team get ready for the next time, and build confidence for anyone else who gets an opportunity to publicly engage on the topic of nuclear energy.

The “here and now” philosophy that Meredith wrote about is important. People need to recognize and deal with the world as it is, not as we wish it would be. We should challenge our opponents to base their decisions on what IS, not what is dreamed about. Balance is also important, naturally, since if everyone always thinks of only here and now, the future for our children will be pretty grim.

The predictable

We can make reasonable attempts to predict and influence the future so that it is closer to what we want. We can, for example, predict exactly when the sun will set every day. We can also predict its elevation angle based on time of day, day of year, and elevation. With those predictable numbers, we can chart the maximum power available to collect at any given time—while factors like clouds, snow, and shade from neighboring trees reduce the amount available.

During a debate, a good prop for that statement is an old celestial navigation book with a sun table in it. You can pick one up on the web or at a used book store. A few ancient implements that were used to measure the sun’s travel—perhaps a sextant or a sundial—might also help to illustrate just how much understanding mankind has had about the sun’s behavior and how long we have collectively owned that understanding.

Predictable nuclear

Unlike the scheduled operation of a coal, oil, gas, or nuclear plant, we usually have no real way to predict when and where the wind will blow or for how long. While we know how much it costs to run power cables from one point to another, we do not know specifically whose backyard will host those cables, along with the necessary towers and clear cut corridors, if we want to use someone else’s wind to back up our own.

In contrast, we can predict, based on demonstrated history, that completed nuclear plants can run for at least 50 years (the USS Enterprise recently celebrated its 50th birthday), and probably for 60-80 years. We know how much nuclear fuel has cost in the past and can do a pretty fair job of predicting the cost in the future. We also know that used nuclear fuel still contains 95 percent of its initial energy, and we know how to capture at least some of that energy through recycling. We have no way of knowing what natural gas prices will be in two years.

Walden Pond

During the debate, Richard did a good job in declaring that coal is the alternative in the world in which he lives and works; and in his next opportunity in a public forum, he should use his own experience with a solar energy system to concisely explain why solar can NEVER replace either coal or nuclear NO MATTER WHAT engineering improvements are made. It is perhaps even better to stress that point about solar than the true statement concerning coal and the way things work now. Alternatively, another possible response would be to allow an opponent like Michael Daley to attempt to win supporters (for pronuclear!) by describing—in detail—exactly what it means to live in a “100 watt house”.

Aside: I have visited Michael’s 100 Watt home website. I wonder if Michael and his wife actually live in the 100 watt cabin, or if it is just a writing retreat. His website describes it thusly: “Michael writes his books in a five foot by five foot tower room on a solar-powered laptop computer. He lives in Westminster, Vermont with his wife, award-winning children’s author Jessie Haas.” However, the solar cabin is in Putney, about five miles away from Westminster. End aside.

The Walden Pond–style of simple living might appeal to some, but most Americans would immediately see that day-to-day living in a space that is 12 feet by 16 feet is not quite their idea of the American dream. That is especially true if living there means constantly monitoring the charge level on the battery system and the fuel state of a noisy generator. In a debate environment, there is nothing wrong with letting the opposition try to sell their vision—especially if it is one that is not all that attractive.


Another topic in the debate where Richard and Meredith could turn the opposition’s assumed strengths into a negative for the audience is in the economic area. Michael Daley stated on several occasions that his reason for opposing Vermont Yankee was that Entergy would not agree to give Vermont a discounted rate on electricity. The details there are important; Entergy had been selling power to Vermont for 4 cents per kilowatt hour and wanted to start selling at a market determined rate. It was willing to sign a long-term contract for 6 cents per kilowatt hour.

Compared to the 20 cents per kilowatt-hour that Vermont power companies pay for unreliable wind and solar electricity, 6 cents per kilowatt hour is a huge discount. Armed with numbers and hard copy charts (if prepared carefully in advance), nuclear power supporters should always be willing to talk about economic comparisons with renewable energy advocates.

I’ll now turn the microphone over to others who might have had a chance to listen to the debate. What else should we learn from this engagement? What other facts should we be ready to introduce, what appeals to emotion should we use in addition to appeals to reason, and how should we respond when challenged that “we do not know” what might happen in the future—if in reality the topic under discussion is rather predictable for those who have already done the study and calculation?



Rod Adams is a nuclear advocate with extensive small nuclear plant operating experience. Adams is a former engineer officer, USS Von Steuben. He is the host and producer of The Atomic Show Podcast. Adams has been an ANS member since 2005. He writes about nuclear technology at his own blog, Atomic Insights.

Wind power to nuclear power infographic comparison

By Jason Correia

This article is the first in a series of info-graphic presentations about nuclear energy. This graphic compares the energy density of nuclear to that of wind power.

Please click to see a full-sized PDF of this info-graphic poster

Wind power is dilute and variable so some may argue this isn’t a fair comparison. Yet, we often read in news stories about a wind turbine being built that “can supply energy for 300 homes”. This limited information creates a misleading impression that one turbine will produce that power continuously.

If wind power is compared to a yearly megawatt hour (MWh) figure that a nuclear plant can produce, the impression of what wind can power dramatically shifts. The numbers cannot be fully appreciated until they are fully visualized.

Wind generators, or wind turbines, have become a popular symbol of clean carbon free electricity. Unlike other sources of renewable energy such as hydro-electricity or geothermal, wind and solar power are variable producers of electricity. Since the wind does not always blow nor the sun always shine, any given wind turbine will never produce its full capacity rating for an extended period of time.

Capacity factor

The ratio of electricity produced to the quantity it could produce over a year if it was running at full capacity is known as the capacity factor. For wind power, the average capacity factor is 25 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Capacity factor is the feature highlight of this info-graphic poster. To make a graphic representation of how this compares to one nuclear power plant rated at 1154 megawatts (MW), this shows the full count of all 2077 2-MW wind turbines in a 24”x36” poster. This is what would be required to match the nuclear power plant output even if this array of turbines could hypothetically run continuously at only 25 percent of its rated capacity.

The nuclear power plant can run at least at 90 percent of its capacity factor over a year. In fact, it probably could run at 100 percent of its capacity factor for up to 18 months—and this has been done by many nuclear power plants. The 9,000,000+ MWhs it produces could power a city of almost a million people.

To achieve the same result with wind turbines, simply adding more turbines will not necessarily result in a greater amount of electric power or level it out to a continuous flow. Sometimes the wind is slow, non-existent, or even too fast for the turbines to use safely. Thus, this graphic shows a representation of how average wind-power performance could achieve the same amount of power as a nuclear power plant. Unlike a nuclear power plant, however, the output of wind is too variable to power a city. Like most electrical generators, the power output from nuclear and wind are integrated throughout the grid, although wind as a variable source does present some challenges for grid operators.

Placement of wind turbines

Wind turbines on wind farms would not be packed closely together as shown in this graphic. Optimally, wind turbines should be placed at least 7-15 diameter widths apart. Given that one 2-MW turbine can be taller than the Statue of Liberty, this can cover an enormous amount of land area with extremely tall structures. With this imaginary wind farm array, a minimum amount of land area required would be about 318 square miles and could include more for access roads, ground leveling, and tree removals. Wind farms are typically built in groups where the name-plate capacity can be 30-50 MW by 10-30 or more turbines. Thus, we will never see a group of 2077 2-MW (4154 MW name-plate capacity) wind turbines.

The 1154-MW nuclear power plant can typically occupy about 50 acres of land, often with a buffer space of land area of at least 1 square mile. The nuclear plant in this graphic is shown without an optional cooling tower, which can be up to 200 meters high.

The purpose of this graphic is to show a visual comparison of wind power to nuclear power with respect to capacity factors. Although there are many other factors to compare, capacity factor is a straightforward data-driven comparison that is an easy concept to understand—but often overlooked.


Jason Correia is an independent graphic artist and web designer who has worked on projects with PopAtomic Studios and Atomic Insights. He is dedicated to producing innovative and creative graphics and presentations to promote nuclear energy education and awareness. He has a BA in Industrial Design from San Francisco State.

Pretty Energy

By Suzy Hobbs Baker

I recently joined the latest social media phenomenon—“Pinterest”—after some good old-fashioned peer pressure from my pals. Basically it is an online scrapbook, where you can collect images from all over the Internet and organize or “pin” them under categories like “recipes to try” or “ideas for the garden” on your personal page. There is very little text and not much user-to-user interaction. You just browse thousands of images of party dresses, wedding ideas, art, or whatever you or other users have uploaded to the site. Essentially it’s a whole lot of eye candy.

This new forum is largely dominated by women, and has an overwhelming number of users, to the extent that there is currently a waiting list to join. Upon recognizing that this website is basically the “visual-Google-for-women,” I decided to do a little experiment to find out what nuclear-related images were on the site. Since every image has to be “pinned” from the web, I figured that whatever images I found on this site would be a pretty good visual representation of how women feel about nuclear power at this exact moment in time.

Well, what I found wasn’t pretty. In fact, it was downright bad:  Earless bunnies of Fukushima, atomic bomb explosion after atomic bomb explosion, and not a single image of a nuclear power plant. Not one. The closest thing I found that was even remotely positive regarding nuclear energy was this image:

For those who can’t read Spanish it says, “Nuclear Today, Solar Tomorrow.”  But hey, at least they are smiling and shaking hands.

So my next step, which I thought was going to bring up thousands of results, was to search for wind power. Surprisingly, only two images of wind turbines resulted, and I thought to myself, “Okay, maybe this just isn’t a forum where energy is a topic that people are thinking about.” But before I could rest assured, I did a quick search for “solar power” and stumbled into the archetypal female brain for all things solar energy. Put simply, women like solar energy. A lot. In fact, “solar power” yellow is a very popular color right now. You might even say that solar is en vogue with the ladies.

The common thread among all of the “solar power” search results is that they are small consumer items that you can use in your everyday life. They are all relatively inexpensive, cute, and easy to use. I get the distinct feeling that women’s experiences with “solar” products inform their broader beliefs about solar power. But what else are women thinking about energy issues?

According to the 2009 “Woman’s Survey on Energy and the Environment” by Women in Public Policy, the single largest concern among women is moving toward clean energy sources, trumping cost, reliability, and jobs. Women are the primary decision makers about household energy use, which is good, but they collectively have a lot of misconceptions about energy, which is not so good. Fifty-four percent of women think that nuclear energy releases CO2 and is a primary cause of climate change. Only 12 percent of women surveyed know that coal is the largest source of electrical generation in the United States. Basically, a lot of the ladies making decisions about energy at home do not have all the facts.

So, what can we do to solve this problem? First of all, we need to focus our outreach efforts specifically toward women. When we present information, we should take the time to gear it toward the specific concerns of our audience that we know to be reducing environmental impact. And we must make it visually appealing. Basically, make it pretty. Make it fun. If we can learn anything from, it’s that ladies really like resources that are pretty, user friendly, and interactive. The best way to increase public support and overall use of nuclear energy is to appeal to women.


Hobbs Baker

Suzy Hobbs Baker is the executive director of PopAtomic Studios, a non-profit organization dedicated to using the power of visual and liberal arts to enrich the discussion on nuclear energy. Hobbs Baker is an ANS member and a frequent contributor to ANS Nuclear Cafe

In Defense of Eyesores

by A. Priori

Have you ever heard the joke about the football player who was so ugly that, whenever he stepped onto the field, he was penalized 15 yards for illegal use of face? Okay, you probably haven’t heard that one before, because I just made it up. The concept of ugliness, both in the abstract and as attributed to specific entities, has long inspired creativity; after all, it spurred me to develop that magnificent joke. (For you young folks out there, the term “illegal use of hands” used to be applied to something one shouldn’t do in football, only in the last few years the terminology has changed, so . . . ahh, skip it.)

Ugliness is often undervalued by society. I contend that eyesores actually enrich human life, by impelling us to come up with clever ways of deriding them. In my own japery I try not to get personal (despite the richness of the “Your Mama’s So Ugly” genre), because I have no desire to be cruel, rude, nor the target of a shiv between the ribs. Fortunately, in our world we have no shortage of inanimate objects that are surpassingly ugly. Which brings us to cooling towers and wind turbines.

As it happens, I don’t see either the large hyperboloid natural-draft cooling tower nor the large-scale wind turbine as particularly ugly, but from what I’ve been reading lately I may be in the minority. Plenty of people declare that their esthetic sensibilities are offended by these structures, perhaps not so much because of the things themselves, but the fact that they tend to be placed in settings where they seem to clash. Even if the construction and operation of these devices can be shown to be environmentally benign (or as close to that ideal as any alternative would have been), some yogurt-besotted backpacker would still whine about how they intrude upon his enjoyment of The Beauty Of Nature.

A certain well-known, politically active, usually left-leaning family in the Northeast has come out strongly against offshore wind farms in that region, and the argument pretty much boils down to the fact that these folks don’t want to see wind turbines while they’re out on their yachts. Never mind that these people apparently accept the presence of lighthouses, breakwaters, Coast Guard facilities, and other human creations, because they’ve looked at them for years and perhaps had to hone some yachting skills by maneuvering around them.

Sure, we all go bananas over The Beauty Of Nature, even though in much of the world today, and in all of it until a couple hundred years ago, the natural world is/was a place where human survival is iffy at best. This is why people have tended to form tribes, gather in villages, and otherwise take steps to prevent all of that Beauty from killing them. I strongly suspect that a civilized person’s love of Nature arises from her/his ability to escape its red-in-fang-and-claw aspects.

Ugliness alone does not strike me as sufficient reason to banish any object that serves a purpose. The proper response, says I, is to make jokes. The jokes can even be used to point toward issues that could be raised against the object, as follows:

That windmill is so ugly that:

  • birds fly into the blades on purpose, just to stop seeing it.
  • a certain oil tycoon put it in his energy plan, because he looks better when he stands next to it.
  • grid operators are relieved when it’s off line for days on end, so they can ignore it.
  • the sleep-disrupting noise and animal-addling subsonics don’t seem so bad by comparison.

Let’s move on to cooling towers. They come in many varieties, but the one that makes the eyesore category is the humungous hyperboloid. It is also, in the public mind, an icon of nuclear power itself, thanks to eerie photos of Three Mile Island in 1979, with those worrisome red glows along the towers’ sides. Actually, the glows came from aircraft warning lights (the Harrisburg, Pa., airport is near TMI), but they were shown out of focus (intentionally, I gather) on the cover of Time Magazine. This freaked out people who never found out that a tower carries out final-stage cooling of water that isn’t radioactive.

Even less known to the public is that most nuclear power plants in the United States don’t use hyperboloids. Of the 63 sites where power reactors are now in operation (counting Hope Creek and Salem as one site, and ditto FitzPatrick and Nine Mile Point), only 16 have hyperboloid cooling towers. Hyperboloids are, however, used at many power plants that aren’t nuclear, and many plants that don’t even generate electricity, sometimes leading to these installations being misidentified at a glance as nuclear plants. So much for the whole icon thing.

In several areas, cooling capacity is already strained in the summer, and one path to nuclear electricity production growth—the power uprate—increases a site’s demand for cooling. So the fact that options exist for more cooling (such as through the addition of hyperboloids where they haven’t ever been built) should be seen as encouraging. Lately, though, lots of industry folks get into a snit when anyone suggests they cough up for hyperboloids. Cost is usually cited, but I’ve heard a few people rip into them for being ugly (the hyperboloids, not the industry folks, although in some cases . . . but I digress).

If a certain major utility honestly believes that its best option is to give up half of a 20-year license renewal just to avoid building a hyperboloid, we may be heading for a reality check. State governments have a lot to say about whether power plants, or industries in general, comply with the Coastal Zone Management Act. All four power reactors in California have effectively been given until the end of their original license periods to stop using once-through cooling; even if their licenses are renewed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the state will require some kind of added systems, hyperboloid or otherwise.

I suggest that we bite the bullet on cost, build more cooling towers, and then make jokes about how ugly they are, to wit:

That cooling tower is so ugly that:

  •     water filed a class-action lawsuit about having to go through it.
  •     fish are grateful for the salt rain, because it blocks the view.
  •     a certain major utility won’t even put one on the Jersey shore.

Readers are, of course, encouraged to submit their own creations, in keeping with the ideal of high-minded discourse to which every blog must aspire. Imagine what a wonderful world this could be, if there were so much more inanimate ugliness out there, for all of us to ridicule without guilt. We’d be so busy there might not be time to notice your mama.


A. Priori

A. Priori is so ugly that he has to hold up a “No image available” sign in front of half of his face. He is the as-yet-undiagnosed disorder of E. Michael Blake, a senior editor of ANS’s Nuclear News magazine; Blake would have you believe that he’s devastatingly handsome.

Can California meet its Renewable Energy Portfolio? Part III

by Ulrich Decher

The first two parts of this series (here and here) presented historical trends in electricity generation in California, and the growing use of in-state natural gas and imports of electricity from grids in neighboring states. They also showed that the use of “Unbundled Renewable Energy Credits” could meet the 33 percent renewable portfolio on paper, but may not benefit consumers in California with actual delivery of electricity.

Since writing those two parts, I have become aware of a presentation on the impact of intermittent renewables on California’s distribution system (CAISO—California Independent System Operator) given by Clyde Loutan at a CAISO workshop. In his presentation, Loutan showed the projected capacity addition used in a 2006 CAISO study to meet the 33-percent portfolio:

This table is interesting because my previous articles indicated that biomass and geothermal sources are not expected to expand significantly. Yet the above table indicates that California expects to expand these two sources by a factor of two or more. These two sources would not present intermittency problems on the grid, but whether or not this can be done by 2020 remains to be seen.

Also to be noted is the huge solar thermal contribution assumed. Solar thermal uses concentrated sunlight to heat a fluid to high temperature to generate electricity. Most of the solar thermal plants being proposed in California do not store energy for nighttime use and thus would only provide electricity during daylight hours. This electricity during daylight hours would be intermittent because of intermittent cloud cover.

Whether California will meet its solar capacity projection also remains to be seen. The large solar projects, like all energy projects, face environmental permit challenges as evidenced by the recent suspension of construction at the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System project due to the impact on the desert tortoise.

Using the projected capacity data in the above table, and assuming that the capacity factor of wind and solar photo voltaic (PV) is 25 percent and 15 percent, respectively, the electricity generation projection for wind and solar PV can be plotted along with historical trends. These plots are the same plots previously present in Part I of this article, but extended to 2020 to show the projection.

The plots show that the contribution from the intermittent sources of wind and solar PV is projected to be about 10.5 percent (8.1 percent + 2.4 percent, respectively) by 2020 for the CAISO study. Adding about 3 percent for solar thermal places the intermittent sources at 13.5 percent.

The CAISO study indicated that one of the biggest problems with placing that much intermittent electricity on the grid is that other power sources with rapid ramp rates (up and down) are needed to compensate for the intermittency. A direct quote from the workshop is: “Ramp rates for CAISO generating assets today may not meet the grid’s needs once the wind and solar generating facilities required to meet the 2020 33-percent [Renewables Portfolio Standard] are up and running.” In other words, the intermittent sources can be built, but they may not be able to be used. This would be rather pointless.

Note that the ramp rate requirement is independent of any improvements to the grid. Even for a most modern grid, power sources with rapid response rates still need to be available to compensate for the fluctuations of wind and solar because electricity basically cannot be stored. The generating asset with the most rapid ramp response rate is hydro. This works well at the Bonneville Power Administration, with ample hydro, but may not help California much, with less available hydro.

The 13.5 percent intermittency mentioned above is an average over a year. In order to determine the capacity requirement to achieve this generation, one needs to divide by the capacity factor for each source. Assuming a capacity factor of 25 percent for wind and 15 percent for solar, the wind capacity must be 32 percent (8.1 percent/.25) and the solar capacity must be 36 percent (5.4 percent/.15).  The total intermittent capacity is 68 percent of the average yearly generation.

So, on a particular day, if the wind is blowing and the sun is shining, the intermittent sources could, in theory, generate a major portion of the power on the grid. Because, however, of the rapid variability of wind and solar (on partly cloudy days, for example), experience shows that 20 percent is a more realistic limit. So, the California plan overestimates the amount of intermittent sources that can be placed on the grid by a factor of more than three. What will happen to the investments of all the solar power plants that have been approved in California when they find out that their electricity cannot be placed on the grid?

Even though California has passed a law that requires the use of intermittent sources on the grid, there is a higher law that requires the power sources be balanced with the loads on the grid without damaging the transmission lines.

Thou shall balance the grid

It is the responsibility of the distribution system to maintain this balance continuously 24/7. Increased use of intermittent power sources makes maintaining this balance more difficult. We know that this balance is maintained today, because the electricity delivered to our houses does not vary significantly in voltage and frequency. If the distribution system failed to do this, we would know it very quickly, as the lights and appliances would fail to operate properly.

Where will California’s renewable portfolio be in 2020? In my opinion, the generation will fall significantly short of the 33-percent goal that has been legislated. Too much of the goal relies on intermittent sources that cannot be fully accommodated on the grid.

Although there is no limit to the amount of intermittent power sources (such as wind turbines) that can be built and connected to the grid, there is a limit to the amount of their generated electricity that can actually be used. If that limit is exceeded, the wind turbines need to be idle even though the wind may be blowing. This would reduce their capacity factor from the currently achievable value of about 25 percent to perhaps as low as 10 percent (depending on how many are built). At several million dollars per wind turbine, this does not seem to be a particularly wise energy plan, particularly in today’s economy in California.


Ulrich Decher holds a PhD in nuclear engineering. He is a member of the ANS Public Information Committee and a contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

Don’t judge a book by its cover: Getting to the bottom of EIA monthly data

By Paul Wilson

Earlier this month, a number of sources drew attention to the Energy Information Administration’s report on energy (published in June), with headlines suggesting a landmark accomplishment: “Domestic Renewable Energy Production Surpasses Nuclear.” Even Rep. Ed Markey (D., Mass.), ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, got in on the act, proclaiming that “The real energy renaissance happening in America is from the flourishing of renewable energy.”

I should warn you that the EIA’s spreadsheets are a real treat for people such as me who like numbers, and I offer many different views of these numbers below.

The EIA’s  claim focused on the fact that in the first quarter of 2011, total renewable energy production—2.24 quads (quadrillion BTUs)—outpaced nuclear energy production (2.12 quads [See footnote on unit conversion]), which, on the surface, is an interesting change. But dig a little deeper and there are a couple of caveats that should be clarified.

First, it is important to recognize that the renewable energy here includes all hydro power and biomass combining to be more than 83 percent of this total production. Recognizing this, it should come as no suprise that it’s not the first time that renewables have surpassed nuclear generation. In fact, until 1988, this was always the case (when assessed on an annual basis), when more than 98 percent of generation came from these sources. Since then, improved nuclear performance (and modest new construction) has kept nuclear ahead of total renewable generation, as hydro has fluctuated and wind energy has seen large growth rates.

Second, it is important to recognize that “total renewable energy production” includes non-electric applications. When we look at the the first quarter of 2011 in the electricity sector alone, we find that

  1. renewables produce only 13 percent of electricity, compared with 20 percent for nuclear,
  2. conventional hydro power is responsible for more than 63 percent of the generation, and
  3. conventional hydro power is responsible for more than 68 percent of the growth compared with last year.

Since there has not been a 28-percent growth in installed hydro capacity, this change can be attributed largely to the climate and a wet spring. The contribution of all renewable energy to the electricity sector is dominated by annual fluctations in hydro power more than any other factor. Total renewable electricity generation peaked in 1997 and is finally approaching those numbers again, while nuclear electricity generation has grown by more than 28 percent.

So, what is the real headline? Markey and others missed a chance to point out a large relative growth in wind energy production—40 percent—compared with the first quarter of 2010. While some may scoff at the small magnitude, these 0.083 quads represent more than 4 percent of the total nuclear generation in that same period. This is good news for the wind energy industry and consistent with its year-over-year growth rates between 30percent and 60 percent over the past few years. Nevertheless, wind energy is still less than 3 percent of total generation.

[unit conversion footnote] The EIA converts nuclear electricity to BTUs based on the average thermal efficiency of the nuclear fleet. This is clearly an appropriate converstion for fossil fuels, because all of their chemical potential energy is converted to heat and, in turn, to electricity. For nuclear energy, while this does measure how much heat is generated, it ignores the large quantities of remaining nuclear potential energy in the used fuel. For renewable energy sources that don’t rely on thermal energy conversion, the EIA uses a simple unit conversion from kWh to BTU. Ultimately, this means comparing apples to oranges on a total energy production basis.



Paul P.H. Wilson is an associate professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the chair of the Energy Analysis and Policy graduate certificate program. Part of his research focuses on addressing policy-driven questions about the adoption of advanced nuclear fuel cycles.

Can California meet its Renewable Energy Portfolio? Part II

By Ulrich Decher

Part I of this article presented the in-state electricity generation in California as well as imports required to meet California’s electricity requirements. This Part II section will present how the use of Renewable Energy Credits may be used to meet California’s renewable energy portfolio.

Renewable Energy Credits

Renewable Energy Credits are the power generation credits that a distribution system can use to meet its renewable portfolio. These RECs come in two flavors—bundled and unbundled. The bundled RECs are the credits that are bought and used within the same distribution system. The unbundled RECs are those bought by one distribution system but used in another. These RECs are managed by the Center for Resource Solutions, which also prevents double counting of credits.

The unbundled RECs are particularly interesting, because it means that a distribution system doesn’t need to build renewable energy power plants because the distribution system can simply buy the renewable power that is generated in another distribution system.

This creates significant problems for the exporting distribution system. For example, the Bonneville Power Administration is currently negotiating with California and is “concerned about potentially significant negative consequences for Northwest and California consumers if decisions about the use of unbundled RECs are made without full consideration of the infrastructure requirements associated with the delivering a reliable, least cost supply of renewable energy to California.”

So, what are the consequences? The use of unbundled RECs seems to mean that California could purchase all the renewable power generated by all the windmills that are connected to the California grid.

This is happening right now as California is contracting for wind energy from places as far away as Alberta, Canada. The electricity generated in Alberta, however, will not arrive in California. It is too far away. The only thing that is happening is that Californians are paying for it to meet their renewable portfolio. This seems pretty strange, that Californians are required to pay for a benefit that they don’t get.

The fact that 15 percent of its imports in 2009 are “unspecified” probably means that California intends to purchase enough renewable energy credits to meet its goal. This would mean that it would not need to build any more renewable power generators. It just needs to purchase the power from its neighbors (at the expense of the rate payers in California).

There are problems

Problem #1

What happens to the 15 percent energy imports that California actually uses but now “disowns”? Does this conventional energy remain on the books of the exporting grids or does this energy magically disappear from everyone’s books?

It would be interesting to see the accounting of credits in the neighboring grids to see if this is actually happening. It is difficult to imagine that a neighboring distribution system with thousands of windmills would not be able credit any of it because California bought all of it.

Problem #2

Neighboring grids that are required to accept the power from wind turbines also need to build backup power plants to compensate for the intermittent wind and to keep the power on the grid stable. If these power plants are required only for wind power going to California, should not California also be required to pay for them as well? I don’t believe that this is happening. The penalty for the intermittency is paid by consumers on the neighboring grid.

Problem #3

If the maximum renewable energy that can be placed on an isolated grid is about 15 percent, what happens if all the distribution systems have renewable goals that are much higher (such as California’s 33 percent)? The result will be a bidding war for a scarce commodity, pushing prices ever higher.

This all seems a bit unfair. Who gave the wind industry the power to shift all the benefits of renewable energy out of state and import all the negative impacts, while reaping all the profits? One would think that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) would not allow such an imbalance between states to occur. From all that I have read, however, FERC is all for it.

The impact of unbundled RECs is that it raises electricity prices as governmental organizations, utilities, and individual businesses bid for renewable credits. The electric rates will increase for customers, which either import or export RECs (in other words, all customers are penalized).

This has already occurred in Lewis County in Washington State, for example, which had to raise overall electricity rates. The rates would have decreased without the REC accounting system.

California electricity generation trends

So, to answer the question: Can California meet its renewable energy portfolio?  The answer is “probably,” but not by building more renewable sources. Rather, the answer is by buying credits for sources that are built elsewhere. As long as California is the high bidder for these credits and can gather enough contracts with renewable generators, it could meet its goal.

The down side, however, is that other distribution systems must deal with intermittency and environmental disadvantages associated with the renewable sources, and may not be able to credit the renewable sources in their own distribution systems. This is an unfair redistribution of renewable energy credits, which FERC should stop.

So, while California pays a lot of attention to meeting the renewable portfolio, the actual trend is to shift the generation out of state. This generation is drifting in a direction that is not in the interest of consumers. California seems to be playing shell games with the bookkeeping of renewable credits rather than paying attention to meeting the needs of consumers to provide an adequate, affordable, and environmentally acceptable supply of electricity.



Ulrich Decher holds a PhD in nuclear engineering. He is a member of the ANS Public Information Committee and a contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.


Can California meet its Renewable Energy Portfolio?

By Ulrich Decher

California has recently adopted a renewable energy portfolio with the goal to provide 33 percent of its electricity from renewable resources such as wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, and small hydroelectric facilities by 2020.

Can this portfolio succeed? It is an ambitious goal, but it takes more than legislative action for such a program to go forward. It takes an actual plan that can be met with actual engineering accomplishments.

In order to determine the probability of success, we can look at California’s renewable energy sources in prior years. These are available on the Internet and are presented in the following graph.

The plot shows the actual renewable sources of electricity generated in California from 2005 to 2009 and shows the projected increase required to achieve the goal of 33 percent by 2020. Notice that the renewable contribution has been rather constant over the previous years and requires a dramatic increase to achieve the goal. This implies that something different needs to be done than what has been done it the past, otherwise the projection line will be ever steeper and eventually needs to be abandoned.

So, exactly which of the renewable energy sources can be increased to reach the goal? It is generally accepted that biomass, geothermal, and small hydro cannot be increased significantly, which leaves the intermittent sources of solar and wind to do the job. Is it reasonable to expect that solar and wind can accomplish the task? The gap that must be closed by 2020 is 21 percent of the total electricity consumption.

Solar currently contributes only 0.3 percent (2009) of the electricity used in California. This contribution is too small to expect a significant contribution by 2020. It might be doubled by 2020, but this is still a small amount.

The wind contribution is 2.7 percent (2009), which is a bit larger. The expectation that it will close the 21-percent renewable gap is unrealistic, however, for the following reasons:

  1. Meeting the goal would require adding about 2-percent wind generation every year for 10 years. This yearly increase is about equal to the total wind generation in California today. It is unreasonable that many wind turbines (tens of thousands) could be built and installed somewhere in California every year.
  2. Another reason is that the California grid (or any grid) cannot handle 20-percent generation from wind energy. It is generally accepted that 20-percent wind capacity is the limit that an isolated grid can handle. (Capacity is quite different from generation for wind turbines. For each unit of capacity addition, there is only ¼ of a unit for generation addition because of wind intermittency).

So. if California is able to add the maximum amount of capacity (20 percent), it would only translate to generation of about 5 percent. California, therefore, already has about half the wind energy that the grid could ever handle. With a crash program to build all the wind turbines that California could handle, the total renewable contribution might increase to 15 percent by 2020 (11.6 percent current contribution, which includes 2.7 percent wind plus 2.3 percent maximum potential wind increase). This is still a long way from 33 percent.

So, the question still is how California expects to reach its 33 percent renewable goal. To shed some light on that question, we must examine California electricity imports.

California electricity imports

California does not generate all the electricity used in the state. The plot below shows the historical imports into California.

The plot shows that in some years, the electricity imports have exceeded 30 percent. The large increase in 2006–2007 has come as a result of the virtual elimination of in-state electricity generation using coal. This reduction in in-state generation needed to be compensated by an increase in imports (largely from imported coal generation).  So far, the net effect of California’s desire to go green is to shift the coal generation to other states.

The reduction of in-state coal generation is shown in the next plot, which shows all the in-state generation. (Both of these plots are normalized to the total 2009 energy consumption because of my desire to use the units of % and, at the same time, show real generation trends that are not confused by changes in electricity demand.)

One of the interesting aspects of the imports graph is the “unspecified” portion of the imports in 2009, which is thusly explained:

Due to legislative changes required by Assembly Bill 162 (2009), the California Air Resources Board is currently undertaking the task of identifying the fuel sources associated with all imported power entering into California.

This unspecified portion of the imports is about 15 percent of the total generation.

If we compare the 2009 imports to the 2008 imports, it is clear that much of this “unspecified” portion actually comes from imported coal generation, with a smaller amount from hydro and natural gas.

If California can reclassify this “unspecified” portion of its energy mix as “renewable,” then a good portion of the renewable portfolio could be met. That appears to be the plan, as will be explained further in tomorrow’s post.

Imported wind generation

There has been a substantial increase in the use of wind-generated electricity in California, as shown in the plot below. Most of the increase since 2005 has come from imports.

One might think that a few percent of intermittent wind on the grid would not cause problems, but this amount is an average over a whole year.  This amount is, in fact, a problem at times during the year when demand for electricity is low and the wind generation is high. At those times, electricity distribution systems find themselves in a no-win situation, where they have to break wind generation contracts in order not to violate existing electricity distribution laws. This has already resulted in lawsuits brought against BPA by the wind industry.

These lawsuits need to be defeated. We can’t make laws giving a privilege to one industry, such as a mandated market for wind, which requires other entities to break existing laws. Furthermore, the wind industry should not be compensated for not producing power at those times. It should be a risk of doing business. Such risks are normally accepted by other industries.

The wind generation that is discussed above is generation that is actually used in California. There also exists wind generation that is not used in California, but is credited to the state. This is discussed in Part II of this article, which will appear tomorrow.



Ulrich Decher holds a PhD in nuclear engineering. He is a member of the ANS Public Information Committee and a contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

Thoughts on a Chart

By Meredith Angwin

Vermont’s Department of Public Service (DPS) is holding local meetings about a proposed Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan, which is supposed to be on the governor’s desk in October.

On June 7, I went to the DPS meeting in Springfield, Vt. Three of us from the Hartford Energy Commission carpooled down and listened to a very good presentation by the new commissioner, Elizabeth Miller. Ms. Miller was appointed by Governor Peter Shumlin, a man who is a fervent opponent of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant. I was pleased to see, however, that Ms. Miller is thoughtful and articulate. I liked her presentation on Vermont’s Energy Future. (Note: the Web site for the Comprehensive Energy Plan is very good, but does not yet include the June 7 presentations.)

Why did I like her presentation so much? One reason is that she used the same chart I use in many of my talks about Vermont Yankee. The chart is from a presentation given by Dave Lamont of the DPS in March of this year.

The chart shows Committed Electric Resources—that is, contracts signed between Vermont’s utilities and electricity generators. The chart tracks 10 years (not a very long time, actually), starting in 2010 and ending in 2020. Here it is:

Click to enlarge

The chart assumes that Vermont Yankee closes in March 2012. You can see all the empty space (electricity demand) not filled with electricity contracts, starting in 2012.

Thoughts on the chart

The chart is quite dramatic. Vermont Yankee’s contribution goes down to zero by 2013, and the existing Hydro-Québec (HQ) contracts go to zero by 2016. There are new, widely-celebrated HQ contracts, but they do not fill in as much as what was provided under the old HQ contracts. (HQ is selling us less power in the future.) Granted, the chart does not include 60 MW from Seabrook, recently announced.

On the other hand, you may note that wind energy—providing almost nothing right now (light-blue near the top)—is supposed to be a significant contributor to Vermont by 2016. Indeed, Vermont utilities have announced purchases of wind power from New Hampshire and Vermont, and these “committed resources” are on the chart. The problem, however, is that the actual wind turbines are not on the ridgelines yet. People are fighting them tooth and nail for various reasons. So, I don’t think that wind will provide much power to Vermont very quickly.

Thoughts on the meeting

I was at the June 7 meeting with two of my fellow Energy commissioners. These people are devoted to energy savings, and they know quite a lot about houses, street lights (we’re all very proud of our street light project), and so forth. As typical Vermont Democrats, however, they are against Vermont Yankee (and they do not read my blog). One of them said that he had never seen the chart before, and he was surprised by it. My fellow commissioners are devoted and hardworking in their roles on the town’s Energy Commission, but they are also devoted to Vermont Yankee closing.

From my point of view, this chart is all over the place:

Also, I show the chart at Rotary presentations, and the DPS commissioner shows the chart at planning meetings. Yet, at least one of my fellow commissioners had never seen it before.

Thoughts on Ms. Merkel and Miss Marple


When I get discouraged, I sometimes look at the Big Picture. In this case, it doesn’t help. I look at Germany, and at Prime Minister Merkel saying that Germany will have to build more coal plants to help with the “transition” from nuclear to renewables. These coal plants are likely to stay around awhile, I think.

Then I thought of Miss Marple, Agatha Christie’s senior-citizen detective. Miss Marple understands the world because, after all, “everything happens in a village,” she said. The motivations are the same in the microcosm of a village and in the larger world. In other words, the people of Vermont have a chart of future electricity sources, yet many people are ignoring it (despite my best efforts). The people of Germany will build coal plants—they aren’t ignoring their chart, perhaps. But they are deluded if they think that a coal plant won’t run for at least 20 to 40 years, once built. Those plants will not quietly fade away in 10 years in honor of wind turbines. As Miss Marple says, everything happens in a village. In this case, everything happens in Vermont. But with any luck, we will keep our nuclear plant, and Vermont will show the big world (including Germany) that nuclear, not fossil, is the proper bridge to a renewable future.



Meredith Angwin is the founder of Carnot Communications, which helps firms to communicate technical matters. She specialized in mineral chemistry as a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Later, she became a project manager in the geothermal group at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). Then she moved to nuclear energy, becoming a project manager in the EPRI nuclear division. She is an inventor on several patents. Angwin serves as a commissioner in the Hartford Energy Commission, Hartford, Vt.

Angwin is a long-time member of the American Nuclear Society and coordinator of the Energy Education Project. She is a frequent contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

Fitting wind onto the electricity grid (part 2)

By Ulrich Decher

In a previous article from January—Fitting Wind onto the Electricity Grid—I presented the advantages and disadvantages of promoting wind power. The conclusion was that there were some advantages, but they were far outweighed by the disadvantages. The reason for having so many wind turbines on the grid is, I said, that it is motivated by politics, not by environmental or economic needs. In this article, I will further explore the reasons why wind turbines are being placed on the grid. In order to do that, I take a look at the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), a federal agency based in the Pacific Northwest, and the California Independent System Operator (ISO) balancing system.

Detailed information is readily available on these two electricity distribution systems, and there is a heavy emphasis on increasing wind generation for both of these grids.

Bonneville Power Administration

The BPA describes placing wind on the grid as a “good thing” for the region. I decided to investigate this value judgment: Is it really a “good thing,” and for whom is it good?

The BPA grid is run by the Department of Energy. The BPA Corporate Strategy Statement states that the BPA “markets the power from federal dams within the constraints and requirements for other river purposes,” which are:

  • Flood control
  • Protection of fish under the Endangered Species Act
  • Compliance with the Clean Water Act
  • Other requirements (including irrigation, navigation, and water supply)

These requirements for the management of the federal dams “take precedence over power production,” according to the BPA.

The real time power output of the BPA grid shows that hydro power normally far exceeds the grid demand, which means that the BPA is a net exporter of electricity to neighboring grids in Washington, Oregon, and California. The water runoff from the Columbia River Basin, however, is seasonal and highly variable, as low as 396 cubic meters per second to as high as 15,575 cubic meters per second. It is therefore necessary to back up the hydro power in order to create a stable electricity supply on the grid.

Conventional power sources such as fossil and nuclear are necessary when hydro power is not available. Note that wind turbines are not useful for this purpose since they are intermittent and cannot be turned on when needed.

One of the problems faced by the BPA is that during the spring and with ample runoff, a sufficient amount of water needs to pass through the hydro turbines to prevent excess spill, which has been shown to be harmful to fish populations that are protected by the Endangered Species Act. Extraordinary measures are taken during these periods to reduce the power generation from sources other than hydro, including reducing the output from Energy Northwest’s Columbia nuclear power plant, in Richland, Wash.

But the electricity generated by wind turbines is required to be accepted on the grid, and this exacerbates the problem. As a result, the BPA is now considering requiring the reduction of wind power as a last resort. But the wind industry is saying that it should be compensated for the lost revenue—in other words, it should be compensated even when the turbines are not producing power.

So, exactly, what is the “good thing” of having so much wind on the BPA grid?

Does wind on the grid increase the power capacity of the grid?

No, the power capacity of the BPA is determined by the power capacity of the hydro turbines and the conventional power plants that can be turned on during the peaks of the electricity demand. When wind is added to the grid, there is no power capability addition, since it cannot be guaranteed that the wind would blow when the power is needed to meet the peak load.

Does wind on the grid increase reliability of the grid?

No, it does not. Fortunately, the BPA normally has ample hydro power that can be adjusted rapidly to compensate for wind power variations. Notice (below) the frequent fluctuations in the hydro power (blue) during April to compensate for the wind power (green), whereas the load (red) is fairly smooth and more predictable. As more wind is added, however, the requirement for hydro to compensate for wind variations will increase. The power-dispatching requirements and the power surges on the transmission lines may get too severe.

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During periods of low hydro power, the wind power variation would need to be accommodated by power variations of the conventional fossil and nuclear plants. These generators are not as responsive to rapid variations as hydro turbines.

Some advocates of wind power are counting on better weather predictions to help reduce the impact of the chaotic nature of wind. I respectfully disagree. Weather predictions are currently adequate to predict general wind conditions, but they will never be able to predict the timing and strength of wind gusts.

Does wind on the grid provide any environmental benefit?

No, adding wind on the BPA grid requires adjusting hydro power to compensate for the wind power. Both wind and hydro are emission free, so there is no environmental benefit for that trade off.

In addition, adding wind turbines throughout the BPA service region has a significant land-use and visual impact. This is a high environmental price to pay when the return is the lack of any significant power capability benefit.

Finally, for electricity grids that do not have ample hydro, adding wind also requires adding natural gas, which is not emission free.

Does wind on the grid provide any cost benefit?

No, but other power plants save fuel when the wind turbines are operating. Remember, however, that wind turbines do not replace any other power plant, because they must be backed up by another generator when the wind is not blowing. The cost benefit depends on the cost of the fuel saved. An analysis I performed in my previous article on wind power showed that there is no benefit in most cases.

Does wind on the grid help keep the hydro reservoirs full?

Yes, wind turbines can be used for that purpose. If this, however, is the only benefit of having wind turbines on the grid, should we not allow other power sources to compete on an equal basis? Perhaps other power sources can do it more cheaply and not require feed-in tariffs.

As stated in the BPA Corporate Strategy statement, there has been remarkable growth of wind-generated electricity on the BPA grid. There is currently about 3000 MWe wind capacity on the grid, with another 3000 MWe planned by 2013. This is not so remarkable, however, when one realizes that it is a mandated market and a fully subsidized market. Any product would thrive in such an economic environment.

California ISO balancing system

The California ISO balancing system has recently published real-time generation data similar to that available on the BPA grid. One Web site for the ISO shows the total generation for the current day updated every 10 minutes. This site compares the actual power to the power projection for the current day. Also shown is the wind and solar generation. Notice that a separate graph is required to show the wind and solar contributions, since these inputs are so small that they would not be visible on the first graph.

Another ISO Web site shows the generation results for the previous day. Geothermal is a major renewable contribution in California, generating about 1000 MWe, and is a relatively constant power source during the day. Unfortunately, the opportunity to expand this energy source is limited.

California has recently adopted a 33-percent renewable energy portfolio by 2020 and is relying on wind turbines to generate much of the additional renewable energy.

The electricity production in California in 2009 is shown in the following table:

The renewables sources in California currently contribute 13.9 percent of total electricity production for in-state generation, but only 11.6 percent of the total when imports are included. (The “unspecified” row is as shown in the table because California is currently negotiating with neighboring states to determine how to credit renewable electricity that is generated in other states.)

One thing to note is that California is an importer of electricity, unlike the BPA, which normally exports a large amount of hydro power. This means that California is not in full control of its renewable portfolio, but must seek the help of other states, many of which have their own renewable portfolios to meet.

If California is counting on imported energy credits to help meet its renewable portfolio, consumers in neighboring states should ensure that California is legally required to pay for a significant portion of any new transmission-and-distribution equipment costs that are incurred to accommodate renewable power generation.

The problem with the California renewable goal is that most of the renewable sources—such as biomass, geothermal, and small hydro—cannot be expanded by a significant amount. This leaves the intermittent sources of solar and wind to do the job.

If California is to meet its goal of 33-percent renewables by 2020 and if it is relying on the intermittent sources of solar and wind to accomplish this goal,  these two sources must increase from their 2009 contribution of 3 percent (2.7 percent for wind and 0.3 percent for solar). The renewable gap is currently 21.4 percent (33 percent – 11.6 percent), so the intermittent source must increase by a factor of about seven (7 = 21.4 percent/3 percent). This assumes that the energy demand in 2020 is equal to the demand in 2009. If demand grows, as is likely, this factor would be even higher.

It is highly improbable that the California renewable portfolio goal will be accomplished. While it is possible to build more wind turbines and solar panels, there is a limit to the amount of electricity that can be placed on the grid from intermittent sources. This limit will be reached before California gets near its 33-percent renewable goal.

The more likely result of this renewable portfolio will be an increase in the use of natural gas for the production of electricity, which is already happening in California. Natural gas produced 42 percent of the state’s electricity in 2009, and it will likely increase under current policies. If natural gas displaces other conventional electricity generators, consumers of electricity should hope that the price of natural gas remains low. This has not been the case in the recent past.

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Placing wind on the grid is a good thing for whom?


The conclusion of this review is that placing wind on the grid is not a very “good thing” for consumers or the environment. It is, however, heavily entrenched in today’s politics. The following is a quote from Jon Wellinghoff, chairman of the Federal Energy Regulating Commission, when interviewed by a reporter from The Oregonian newspaper:

Q: We’re already seeing rate and bill increases from transmission and renewable projects being built in this region.

A: You’ll see those rate increases more in the Northwest because you’ve traditionally had extremely low rates for energy, so the marginal cost for you is going to be higher. That should give you even more impetus to look toward those opportunities to manage the overall bill and not be concerned about the increase in the rate.

Wellinghoff’s honesty is appreciated, but what he is saying is that electricity consumers in the Northwest have had it too good for too long with low electricity rates. The rates are going up because of the funds required for renewables projects (such as new transmission lines)—but consumers in the Northwest should not worry about higher rates!

That is a remarkable statement coming from the head of a federal agency whose purpose is to represent the interests of consumers. The best “opportunities to manage the overall bill” is to stop giving preference to particular producers of electricity and to allow a competitive market for all sources. This is how a deregulated electricity market was supposed work. It certainly doesn’t work for markets that give preference to renewable energy sources.



Ulrich Decher holds a PhD in nuclear engineering. He is a member of the ANS Public Information Committee and a contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.


The evolution of my energy thinking

By Ajax Eastman

I am not a scientist although I have had a life long passion for the natural world. That is what led me to become an intervenor in a 1997 permit application before the Maryland Public Service Commission to build an industrial wind project on the Appalachian ridges of western Maryland. Those Appalachian ridges contain Maryland’s greatest abundance of biological diversity because they represent the northern edge of the southern species and the southern edge of the northern species producing a rich mixture of species.  These mountain ridges also are mainly blanketed by unfragmented forests that are required by interior dwelling species and their habitats.

Dr. Chandler Robbins, the noted ornithologist who spent more than 50 years doing research on breeding birds in western Maryland, said that those ridges are a major migration corridor for neotropical birds. It was after I first became involved in opposing the proposed wind project that I learned a great deal more about the myth that the wind-turbine industry has perpetuated that has clouded the truth about its many drawbacks.  I subsequently became an intervenor in two more projects in western Maryland, but unfortunately all three were granted permits and today those unfragmented forests have been deeply penetrated by wide roads to accommodate enormous turbines and their blades, turbine pad footprints, etc., all to the detriment of birds, bats, and terrestrial flora and fauna.

Being against wind is like being an anadromous fish swimming upstream against a dam (another mistake we made without consideration of the precautionary principle) or a skunk at a garden party. Having been involved in conservation and environmental endeavors since 1970, I now find myself bucking all of the state and national environmental organizations that I used to belong to (with the exception of the Maryland Conservation Council) on the industrial wind issue. The “renewables band wagon” is like a train roaring down the tracks at breakneck speed and the media has chiefly ignored exposing its downsides.

I had been a strong opponent of nuclear energy for many years, especially after Three Mile Island, where, like most people, I believed all the accounts of radiation spreading everywhere and was especially fearful that it would reach Baltimore. Fortunately, within the Maryland Conservation Council, we have two retired Johns Hopkins University researchers who had worked with radiological materials. They have dispelled the myths of the adverse health impacts of TMI, explained why Chernobyl was such a catastrophe, and assured me that disposal of nuclear waste is not unsolvable. They have also convinced me of the merits of nuclear energy.

Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant

I’ve had a tour of the Calvert Cliffs-1 and -2 nuclear plants and found that they are valuable facilities that have been producing electricity reliably for 40 years and have been re-permitted for many more.

This is the background of how I have come to oppose industrial wind and strongly support nuclear energy.


Ajax Eastman has been involved in environmental and conservation issues since 1970, having served on the board of the Maryland Environmental Trust, as past president of the Maryland Conservation Council, Co-chairman of the Maryland Wildlands Committee, and on numerous other state boards and advisory commissions. Her love of the natural world began at an early age when she attended a camp in Maine, where today she helps young campers develop a deep appreciation for the rich natural diversity surrounding them.

Ajax Eastman’s recent column—Pulling back the curtain on Industrial Windwas distributed by the Bay Journal News Service, which focuses on environmental issues affecting communities in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and the Mid-Atlantic. She is a guest contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.