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Looking At The Brackets: New Nuclear Plants Are Odds-On Favorite To Lose In First Round

I just finished filling out my March Madness brackets (for recreational purposes only, I assure you), so I think we also should start a pool on when the next utility will ask its state regulators for permission to build a new, large-scale nuclear power plant? If we did, should ‘never’ be one of the options?

Anyone willing to put their money on Georgia Power? The company actually had gotten state approval to do some preliminary work at a possible site for two new reactors In Stewart County on the border with Alabama. But earlier this month the utility told regulators it was suspending work on the expansion plans at least until its 2019 integrated resource plan is filed.

How about Florida Power & Light? The company’s planned two-unit expansion at Turkey Point has been on the books since 2008, when FPL was optimistically forecasting the new reactors would be up and running by 2018 and 2020, before subsequently pushing the start-up back first to 2022 and 2023 and now to 2027 and 2028. But last year the company told Florida regulators that while it still intended to secure its NRC license for the facility (which is expected sometime this year), it didn’t intend to do anything else until 2020.

Finally, how about Dominion Resources, which has been pushing for years to add a third unit to its North Anna site in Louisa County, Va. The proposed reactor, a 1,470 MW design developed by GE and Hitachi known as the ESBWR (Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor), is a first-of-its-kind unit with an estimated capital cost of almost $15 billion and an all-in cost of about $20 billion. Despite its enthusiasm for the project, even Dominion acknowledged in its 2016 IRP that the reactor was only economic in one scenario—full implementation of the former Obama administration’s soon-to-be defunct Clean Power Plan.

The problems for these companies, and any others considering such a step, go well beyond the well-documented, and still far-from-over cost overruns and delays that have plagued the four new reactors currently under construction in Georgia and South Carolina. The real issue is that the technology—one with high capital costs requiring a long time of steady state operation to get into the black—doesn’t mesh with the nation’s rapidly evolving electric power system. Committing to a nuclear plant constrains you for at least 40 years, and perhaps for as long as 80 years; and while you are still committed, everything else is changing

The key change in the last 10 years has been the revolution in natural gas supply made possible by fracking and horizontal drilling. In turn, that has driven natural gas prices down to levels thought impossible just a decade ago—with no reason to think sharp increases are anywhere in the future.

During the review process for Georgia Power’s Vogtle 3&4 plants, the company and other witnesses presented forecasts from the Energy Information Administration (as well as its own, but more on that in a minute) that look almost laughable today. Take a look at the chart below—prices never drop below $6 per million British thermal units and spend most of the forecast period well above $10 per mmBtu. Now that forecast was in nominal dollars, but even an inflation-adjusted view (see the second chart) has the prices well above $6 per mmBtu for the duration. Compare that to EIA’s 2017 forecast (the third chart), which keeps gas prices below $6 per mmBtu (in 2016 dollars) through 2050.

This radically different outlook for natural gas prices is crucial—since at current levels the Vogtle plants may never make it into the black. In his 2008 testimony during the Vogtle 3&4 certification process before the Georgia Public Service Commission, Philip Hayet, testifying for the commission’s public interest advocacy staff, warned repeatedly that under a low natural gas price outlook the economics of the Vogtle expansion didn’t make sense.

The most telling portion of his testimony follows below. As you can see, portions of his testimony have been redacted (those sections with XXXXX), which was done at Georgia Power’s request. This is a frustrating process for an outside observer since it prevents a complete evaluation of the material for no apparent reason. It is as if state secrets were involved and letting everyone know would somehow compromise the company; instead of, as I would argue, improving the decision-making process by broadly disseminating all available information. That aside, it is fairly easy to fill in the blanks through a careful reading of the testimony, as I have suggested below, particularly when you consider the two paragraphs together.

“In Figure 11 [also redacted, as are all of the graphics with Georgia Power information in them], the one case that is uneconomic over the entire study period is XXXXXXX XXXXXXXXXXX [low natural gas prices and no carbon dioxide tax/fee]. In that potential future outcome, the nuclear unit will have been a XXXX [I will let you fill in your preferred adjective here, but clearly he means the reactors would have been a bad economic decision]; however, nobody in the utility industry believes that this case is feasible, as there is a great expectation that there will be XXXXX [a CO2 tax/fee] of some form. In the highly unlikely event that XXXXXXXX [no fees/taxes] are imposed, there would most likely be significant gas fired generation built. That in and of itself would be the cause of driving up natural gas prices.

“Excluding the low fuel, no CO2 scenario, which I discussed above, each of the other cases appear uneconomic for some time period before turning up and moving into positive territory.”

I added the emphasis above, since that is clearly where we are today—and could be for the life of the new Vogtle reactors. I cannot say what the ‘low natural gas price’ was that Georgia Power used in its analysis, but remember that at the time prices were never expected to drop below $6 per mmBtu, and notice that even though Georgia Power’s data is redacted, the chart itself starts at $6 per mmBtu and moves up from there. Clearly if its forecasts were below that level the y axis would have had a different starting point.

At a subsequent point in his testimony, Hayet said: “The conclusion that I reach once again is that the benefits of Vogtle 3 and 4 will be greatly tied to what happens to natural gas and CO2 costs in the future, which no one knows for sure. “

That is precisely the problem for any new large nuclear power projects—they commit you to a future you can’t predict.

The inability to predict the future is also evident in the rapid generation technology changes that have occurred since FPL began pushing its new nuclear plans. In 2008 there were perhaps 800 MW of installed solar photovoltaic capacity nationwide; since then almost 40 gigawatts of PV capacity have been installed. And that is just the beginning: The latest GTM Research-SEIA solar market report projects that roughly 85 GW of new solar will be installed in the next six years.

Interestingly, one of the places where solar finally is beginning to take hold is in the Sunshine State, where FPL recently has moved forward with a significant expansion of its solar capacity. The utility brought three new facilities, totaling 223.5 MW of PV capacity, online at the end of 2016, and by the end of February had announced plans to build another eight plants, at 74.5 MW each for a total of 596 MW, by early 2018. In contrast, in its 2008 10-year planning document, the first filed after it began the process to build its two new reactors at Turkey Point, the utility noted that its Rothenbach Park solar facility, completed in October 2007, was then the largest plant in the state “and one of the largest in the southeastern United States.” Its total generating capacity was just 250 kilowatts.

Clearly, here too, much has changed, and that brings us right back to the commitment issue. Once committed to a 40- or 60-year nuclear operating lifespan, which at least at this point FPL still is not, shifting gears to embrace a new technology—one that is emissions free and cost competitive—is difficult, if not impossible.

Finally, there is the incompatibility of the long lead times required for large nuclear power plants and the assumptions made during the planning process concerning load growth. For example, in its 2008 10-year plan cited previously, FPL projected that residential demand (which accounts for the majority of the utility’s load) would climb from 57,243 gigawatt-hours (gwh) in 2008 to 77,121 gwh in 2017, a whopping 34.7 percent increase. Part of the increase, the utility said, would be due to population growth, but the rest would be attributable to higher per capita consumption—with the utility projecting that average annual usage would climb from 14,174 kilowatt-hours (kwh) per customer to 16,514 kwh.

In its latest 10-year outlook, the 2016-2025 plan submitted last spring, FPL noted that actual residential consumption in 2015 totaled 58,846 gwh, an average of only 13,920 kwh per customer. Looking ahead, the utility said, the downward trend in per capita consumption is almost certain to continue; it projected that by 2025 average residential usage will have dropped to 12,516 kwh annually. [The 2008 10-year plan can be found here; the 2016 plan can be found here.]

The impact of the LED revolution and the various appliance efficiency standards implemented recently (particularly those regarding heat pumps and air conditioning units) can clearly be seen in these estimates. I certainly don’t blame FPL for its forecasts, 10 years ago the number of LEDs installed in the U.S. was essentially zero, but that brings us back to the problem of committing to a technology with such long lead times (and then such long operating horizons). In our rapidly changing energy environment, those commitments are a real problem.

Some of these issues could be addressed with strong leadership from Washington. For example, a carbon tax certainly would help to change the equation, particularly if it was high enough to take a real bite out of competing fuels such as coal and natural gas. But given the current administration’s hoax-based approach to global warming (and the general unease within the Republican Party to doing anything other than to lower taxes), I do not see support for such action coming from the capital in the coming four years.

My pool pick? The fat lady wins, new large-scale nuclear power plants are headed to the losers’ bracket.

Original Post

Dennis Wamsted's picture

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Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Mar 16, 2017 4:13 pm GMT

Good description of the present situation and the difficulties regarding at least 10 (=construction period) + 40years (operating period) decisions.

I only miss the continued price decrease of wind and solar which, together with storage (batteries + PtG), will become the major competitors in the 2030 – 2050 period with prices of 1-3cnt/KWh.
Which competition will cause continued losses for nuclear (such as Vogtle 3 and 4), even if gas prices increase substantially in next decades (e.g. due to a carbon tax).

A pity for the rate payers who were (via a surcharge) forced to invest in such loss producing nuclear adventure.

Rex Berglund's picture
Rex Berglund on Mar 16, 2017 5:47 pm GMT

More than a year ago, the GA PSC’s financial consultant testified that the estimated total cost to complete the Vogtle expansion was between $19 and $21 billion:

“Bobby Baker, a former PSC member who now represents the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, says Georgia Power has a tax liability of $1.1 billion from the financing surcharge it has been collecting from customers since 2011. That tax amount should also be added to Georgia Power’s project costs, Baker contends.

Baker had this exchange with Hayet at Thursday’s PSC hearing:

Baker: Subject to check, if you added to the $8.409 billion figure you are currently using the taxes of $1.107 billion, would that add up to $9.516 billion [as Georgia Power’s share]?

Hayet: Yes.

Baker: With that adjustment, the total cost for the project would be approximately $21 billion?

Hayet: Dividing by 45.7 percent to get the total project costs, is that what you’re doing? Yes.”

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on Mar 16, 2017 8:03 pm GMT

Taxes are fairly arbitrary. They’re not really nuclear costs. And dividing the 1.1 billion by 45.7% seems kindof creative.

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on Mar 16, 2017 8:06 pm GMT

Obviously, current solar and wind will get hurt much, much more than nuclear will, when additional solar and wind compete with incumbent solar and wind in the same hours. PPAs and such will rescue them, but the taxpayers and ratepayers will keep footing the bill.

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on Mar 16, 2017 8:33 pm GMT

Once committed to a 40- or 60-year nuclear operating lifespan, which at least at this point FPL still is not, shifting gears to embrace a new technology—one that is emissions free and cost competitive—is difficult, if not impossible.

And why is that? Exactly because, disregarding sunk costs, a new nuclear power plant is emissions-free and supremely cost competitive for the duration of its life-time! In Sweden, we call that “ett i-landsproblem” (roughly: “a first world problem”). Nobody in his right mind would want inferior solar or wind to replace that.

There is actually no real “commitment” beyond the construction period. The next 60 years is simply a very, very comfy place to be in.

And btw, it’s not like Vogtle and Summer are so huge that there’s no room for “new technology” or some reductions in consumption, obviously. On the contrary, these nukes are tiny additions in the grand scheme of things. Much, much more should be built.

Philip Hayet, testifying for the commission’s public interest advocacy staff, warned repeatedly that under a low natural gas price outlook the economics of the Vogtle expansion didn’t make sense.

So, for the sake of the environment and the climate, we could be happy that some nuclear construction was started. Or we could be sorry that we lose a few paltry dollars from not being able to go all-in on cheap fracked fossils. While Germany has soon sunk 500 billion euro into a very weak and slow energiewende, Americans representing a four times as populous and rich economy seems extremely sensitive to the fact that a few nukes has a few billion dollars in cost overruns.

I try to understand how that is. Sometimes I guess it is ideologically motivated Greens that are afraid nuclear would be too good and too cheap if supply chains get sufficiently warmed up. Other times, it seems to be the fossil lobby speaking.

Rex Berglund's picture
Rex Berglund on Mar 16, 2017 8:41 pm GMT

Jesper, Georgia Power owns a 45.7 percent stake in the Vogtle project, so if their share is $9.516B, total project cost is ~$21B.

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on Mar 16, 2017 9:07 pm GMT

The math is simple enough, but again, to add taxes that might be exclusive to GP and not really a part of the plant’s costs, to the GP tab, and then divide the sum with 45.7%, looks quite wrong. That’s probably why GP disputes that.

The plant’s costs seems to be 8.409 BUSD divided by 45.7% = 18.4 BUSD. Then GP has accumulated a tax liability from the financing surcharge, but that has got nothing to do with project costs. What reason is there to believe that that 1.1 billion should somehow be matched proportionally by the other owners? (Actually, the cost seems to be 7.5 billion + 0.35 billion for the settlement. The additional fuel costs might be a figment of the imagination of Hayet.)

This only serves to show how desperate anti-nuclear people are to smear nuclear projects.

Robert Hemphill's picture
Robert Hemphill on Mar 16, 2017 9:19 pm GMT

This is as usual a careful and well reasoned article. If new nuclear plants are such a good idea, why is Toshiba keen to sell Westinghouse?

Rex Berglund's picture
Rex Berglund on Mar 16, 2017 9:41 pm GMT

Jesper, I’m quoting testimony given before the GA PSC, Baker is a former member of the PSC, and Hayet was hired by the PSC, so how you can call that a smear campaign is beyond me.

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on Mar 16, 2017 9:59 pm GMT

It’s beyond me how you that can be beyond you. The costs that they try to pile on are dishonest and there can only be one reason to do that.

But I’ll remember that “testimonies” by guys like that are truth to you. Might be useful some day.

Rex Berglund's picture
Rex Berglund on Mar 16, 2017 10:50 pm GMT

Taxes are a cost of doing business. Saying they should not be included in a project’s cost is simply false.

Interesting phrase ‘“testimonies” by guys like that,’ they were testifying at a hearing; Hayet is a consultant hired by the PSC. If he attempted to deceive the commission, that would mean the PSC hired a consultant who was trying to undermine the very project that they themselves approved, would that not be perjury?

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on Mar 16, 2017 11:42 pm GMT

It wasn’t a tax on the nuclear plant construction (on the outflow of money) but a tax on the utility’s (one of the shareholders’) inflow of money/method of raising capital. The latter should obviously not be included in the project’s costs, just as GP points out.

Wow, a hearing! No, this isn’t perjury. Or it is, in a way, but he can always pretend being simply stupid and having no intention to deceive. Sorry, but this isn’t the first, nor the last, time anti-nuclear people manage to sneak their way into contexts like this. The bias is so transparent and obvious. Those who don’t see it, despite having had the facts pointed out to them, simply don’t want to see it. Thus further discussion on this topic is spurious and pointless.

Rex Berglund's picture
Rex Berglund on Mar 17, 2017 1:12 am GMT

Baker’s a lawyer, perjury could lead to disbarment, yet you allege he took that risk to push an ideological agenda. Doesn’t sound like any lawyers I’ve ever met.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 17, 2017 1:14 am GMT

Dennis, whatever you do don’t put your money on Watts Bar 2, which came online in 2016 and is now generating more clean electricity than all solar east of the Mississippi. At a lower cost, and taking up a lot less room.

In TVA territory, you’ll even be able to blog about renewables at night – not that people will care much longer.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Mar 17, 2017 1:44 am GMT

If wind & solar suffer a little, nuclear suffers deadly as it’s cost & marginal price levels are so much higher.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Mar 17, 2017 2:07 am GMT

The owner has to earn the investment+interest back during the operating period.
In order to pay the banks, etc. who also want interest on their loans.
That is a very real commitment beyond the construction period!

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on Mar 17, 2017 8:21 am GMT

Reread what I said about perjury in my last comment. There is absolutely no risk in misleading like that. Also, Baker just asked questions in your quote. He didn’t make claims of his own.

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on Mar 17, 2017 8:23 am GMT

Nope, they are not. And again, solar and wind kills the spot prices of other solar and wind in much higher proportion than it kills spot prices of baseload.

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on Mar 17, 2017 8:25 am GMT

Didn’t you read that the utility charge customers for construction in advance, or as they go along? This means the commitment is during construction. After that, it’s real comfy. Almost free, emissons-free power for 80 years. Greatest gift to grandkids imaginable.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Mar 17, 2017 9:01 am GMT

Check the financial situation around the new NPP’s in USA better.

Considering it’s high costs compared to wind & solar, nuclear emit 2-10 times more CO2 per KWh than wind+solar+storage.

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on Mar 17, 2017 9:24 am GMT

Yes, Bas, you keep lying about that and have been repeatedly shot down. I won’t care to do it again.

Rex Berglund's picture
Rex Berglund on Mar 17, 2017 2:12 pm GMT

If lying under oath doesn’t matter being under oath doesn’t matter.

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on Mar 17, 2017 3:21 pm GMT

So you think oaths always create clearly stated truth or are always utterly meaningless? I’m sorry to be the one to break this to you, but the world isn’t that simple.

If they’re out to get you and are sharp, asking good followup questions, it’ll be somewhat difficult to mislead. If you’re the attacker and is a bit stupid with numbers, nobody is going to prosecute you afterwards. It wouldn’t be worth it and it’d be next to impossible to prove intent.

Rex Berglund's picture
Rex Berglund on Mar 17, 2017 4:47 pm GMT

You asked me to reread your comment, which said “No, this isn’t perjury. Or it is, in a way, but he can always pretend being simply stupid and having no intention to deceive,” then you said “There is absolutely no risk in misleading like that” which means you’re saying “lying under oath doesn’t matter.” My point was that if you believe that lying under oath doesn’t matter, then being under oath doesn’t matter.

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on Mar 17, 2017 5:52 pm GMT

Please reread my comment on the world not being that simple.

Rex Berglund's picture
Rex Berglund on Mar 17, 2017 6:47 pm GMT

Ah, recycling, good for you.

Let’s return to the big picture. The 3 big questions are what’re the likely schedules to complete the AP1000s, what impact will the slips have on the costs, and what are the implications for future development.

As for the AP1000s, a bill has been introduced in the US legislature removing the 2021 deadline for eligibility for the PTC, clearly that looks bad for the schedule. Thanks to Mr. Wamsted for pointing out the technique called “pinning” for maintaining schedules.

Since the schedule slips will certainly add to the costs, the $19B to $21B forecast is likely to be raised.

Given the schedules and costs, it seems likely that there will be no more AP1000s built in the US.

I predict the next reactor to come online in the US will a NuScale SMR.

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on Mar 17, 2017 7:57 pm GMT

You mean the next after the four AP1000?

I think the US is a lost cause in the medium term. We can push snooze and have a look again at the sentiments in 2030. Somewhere around that year, China will have the largest installed base of nuclear power and will export reactors left and right. The US might still generate some interesting research, but prototypes will still have to be built in countries with better regulation.

You mention NuScale. Let’s hope for that, but Rod Adams just published on that and the amount of red tape they have to wade through is simply staggering. They’ve had to purchase 40,000 staff hours from the NRC just for pre-application preparations. That’s more than $10 million. And now the real test begins with a 40 month review. Reminds me of how the Chinese have been rumored to bill relatives for the bullet used to execute dissidents.

Anyway, no, the four AP1000s are not really the (nor any) big picture. Four construction starts the same year, and then nothing? What’s the point, really? A revival of the nuclear track should involve at least two dozen reactors, to get supply chains and industrial learning going. Like Yoda said: “Do, or do not. There is no try.” But a lot of people doesn’t seem to want a success for US nuclear, instead choosing to pounce on wobbly first steps of the just barely revived nuclear construction industry.

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on Mar 18, 2017 6:24 am GMT

which came online in 2016 and is now generating more clean electricity than all solar east of the Mississippi

The usual garbage comment from Bob with no backing data and/or links.

Let’s go ahead and use the reported output for entire Watts Bar facility – units 1 and 2 which together generated 12,335 GWh of electricity in 2016. The source of that data can be seen here.

Meanwhile the solar east of the Mississippi generated 14,975 GWh in 2016 as reported by EIA here.
Note: add up New England,Middle Atlantic,East North Central, South Atlantic and East South Central regions to get this east of Mississippi total.

Unit 2 of Watts bar by itself will hopefully generate 10,000 GWh yearly. Perhaps this will happen in 2017, if it stays online for full year.

Meanwhile solar east of Mississippi will continue to grow. The growth rate for 2015-2016 was 87%. In 2017, it might conservatively grow to 18,000-20,000 GWh from the 15,000 GWh in 2016.

In other words, about 2x the amount of Watts Bar Unit 2.

Here is a link for the project mentioned in Dennis’s article above- a recent announcement from FPL to build 8 solar plants in Florida by the end of 2017 with a total capacity of 600 MW.

It is early days for solar East of the Mississippi. There will be continued strong growth in this region for many years to come.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 18, 2017 7:06 am GMT

Ho hum. More cherry picking from Joe, who would like readers to believe he hasn’t noticed Watts Bar 2 didn’t come online until October 2016, and has blown away Eastern solar every month since.

Why would anyone care about your silly predictions when you can’t even figure out what happened last year?

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Mar 18, 2017 10:09 am GMT

Doesn’t change that the numbers in your previous comment were wrong again.

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on Mar 18, 2017 2:06 pm GMT

Wow Bob. You practice reality just like your buddy Trump.

As I stated – once Watts Bar2 actually stays live for a full year – it will generate 10,000 GWh.

This is substantially less than the 15,000 than solar generated east of Mississippi in 2016.

10 vs 15. Which is bigger Bob?

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 18, 2017 3:05 pm GMT

Joe, if there’s one thing you renewables cultists are good at it’s making wayward predictions, then having the arrogance to submit them as evidence when proven flat-out wrong – on stuff that’s already happened. You and Bas, two birds of a kind. “Wow”.

But have a nice day, you and your alternative facts are even more boring than he is. And if you can’t distinguish relative quantities of small integers, I certainly don’t have the time or patience to teach you.
(onedit: that one will require both fingers and toes. You’re welcome.)

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Mar 18, 2017 10:18 pm GMT

Yes, LED lighting and other efficiency improvements will combine with nightly-charged electric vehicles and 24-7 factory and data-center loads to change demand patterns: they’ll make demand look more like baseload.

Regarding the idea of making infrastructure commitments we may regret in the future: there is a very good chance that we’ll eventually decide to deeply decarbonize the grid. In that case, for places which have ruled out the nuclear option, CC&S will play an important role, as it allows fossil fuel to fix the problems created by a 50% renewable grid.

With a grid rich in sustainable electricity, power-to-fuel could absorb a few percent of grid power (i.e. that portion of the electricity which must otherwise be discarded as surplus). But the resulting fuel can be sold much more profitably when replacing gasoline than when replacing cheap coal or fossil gas, even when coal and gas must use CC&S.

A commitment to renewables is a commitment to fossil fuel with CC&S.

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on Mar 18, 2017 11:14 pm GMT

“you and your alternative facts”

Just like your fearless leader Bob. ignore the published data. Better yet, call them “alternative facts”.

Any links or data for your “early morning tweet” Bob?? – I thought not.

Surprised you didn’t just say that a British spy agency has infiltrated the EIA and changed the data.

“you can’t distinguish relative quantities of small integers”

So just to be clear for the readers Bob:

You are saying that 10 is greater than 15. Is that correct?

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