Saturday, February 23, 2013

End Global Warming in Two Easy Steps

1.  Transition with natural gas.

U.S. CO2 emissions are declining rapidly with a shift from coal to natural gas.  Down over 10% since 2007, and continuing to decline even as the U.S. economy has grown back since the financial crisis.  Shift from coal to gas is made possible as a result of the shale gas boom and massive new gas supplies coming on line.

2.  Solar (and other renewables)

Solar PV pricing is following its own sort of "Moore's Law" -- 7% annual decline in costs annually for MANY years past, and likely to continue at the same rate for the next 20 years at least.  Increasingly available and cheaper electricity from renewables will allow a transition to electric vehicles and gradual shift away from oil and coal entirely.

Short term -- shift from coal to gas.
Longer term -- shift entirely to renewables.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Empire Strikes Back

What does the LDP's election victory in December 2012 mean for Japanese energy policy?

The LDP platform made a bow toward phasing out nuclear power (Japan should “strive to build an economy and society that does not rely on nuclear power”), but stated that any decision about future energy mix is only to be made “within the next ten years”.  Meanwhile, post-election, Prime Minister Abe made a number of statements that sound like a nuclear power booster, indicating that Japan should build new reactors, and the government should strive to obtain “public understanding” to do so.

How much of a change is this?  The official policy change is very subtle.  But Abe’s tone is far less reluctant.  He notes, rightly, that any new reactors to be built use an advanced design, and should be safer, more reliable, longer-lived and cheaper than old ones such as Fukushima Daiichi, and sounds almost eager to push ahead with nuclear power.

Then again, will the Japanese people really trust statements about nuclear safety … statements remarkably similar to what they were told in the past, but which were disproved by the Fukushima accident?  Prime Minister Abe seems to think that an election victory gives him a mandate to promote nuclear power.  But a pro- (or at least slightly less anti-) nuclear position was not why he won the election.  Indeed, the LDP’s platform on the issue was almost indistinguishable from the DPJ.  And the LDP’s coalition partner, Komeito, has a clear anti-nuclear stance.  Asahi Shimbun exit polls indicate that 78 percent of voters favor either an immediate or gradual move AWAY from nuclear power.  Only 15 percent oppose such a move.  And cabinet representatives have gotten some rough treatment on television and in other public venues when the discussion turns to nuclear's future.

My prediction is that Mr. Abe will have as much success in promoting nuclear power as George W. Bush did in privatizing social security using the “political capital” he felt he had accrued in defeating John Kerry in 2004.

And the government must work with the new, more independent Nuclear Regulatory Authority, which has recently discovered likely “active” seismic faults under two groups of reactors that otherwise would be top of the list for potential restart.

Fortunately, regardless of how the nuclear discussion plays out, everyone, including the LDP, supports a continued investment in renewable energy, and diversification of sources (and reduced cost) for fossil fuels.

As for other reforms of the electricity system -- we shall see.  There is some good news in that METI advisory committees are moving ahead with plans to split generation, transmission and distribution.  Apparently they are adopting a proposal to operate these functions in separate subsidiaries of the large utilities.

Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA) draft rules make restarts look very expensive

On January 30 the NRA, Japan's new nuclear regulator (not to be confused with the U.S. pro gun lobby, the National Rifle Association), released an initial draft outline safety rules for Japan's existing, largely shut down fleet of nuclear reactors.  The detailed rule draft is expected in April, with final rules to be adopted by July 18, 2013.

According to press reports, the new rules will make it extremely time-consuming and expensive to restart reactors.  The rules are to consider not only natural disasters, but also potential terrorist attacks.

Some highlights:

1.  New cabling requirements.  Apparently Japanese reactors approved before 1975 have cabling that would not meet the NRA's proposed requirements for flame-resistant coating.  A complete recabling of these reactors is said to be prohibitively expensive, and if this rule becomes final, it might shut the door on any further efforts to restart older reactors.

2.  Radiation filters.  A new requirement that all have filtering vents that make it possible to discharge steam without releasing radioactive substances, to avoid the hydrogen explosions seen at Fukushima without releasing massive amounts of radiation into the surrounding area.  Apparently this is less of an issue for pressurized water reactors (PWRs), which have much more substantial concrete containment domes, than for boiling water reactors (BWRs) such as those at Fukushima Daiichi.  The Yomiuri reports that only two BWRs, at the TEPCO Kashiwazaki-Kariwa facility in Niigata, are expected to start work on installing these expensive filters in time for summer.  The PWR reactors are said likely to be given a grace period for this requirement.

3.  Higher seawalls.  Seawalls must be high enough for the largest "hypothetically possible" tsunami.  At the Hamaoka plant in Shizuoka -- number one suspect for tsunami damage, a new seawall has been under construction since 2011.  Initial reports mentioned an 18 meter height.  Now it is being built to 22 meters (72 feet) high, at a total cost of at least 150 billion yen (almost $2 billion).

4.  Duplicate control rooms.  The new rule outline requires construction of quake-proof crisis response building, including a second control room, that can take over plant operations in the event the main control room cannot be used because of quake damage, radiation release, terrorism, etc.

5.  Additional earthquake fault data analysis.  Finally, all plants are being required to undergo an additional, detailed survey to verify lack of any earthquake faults.  As seen at Tsuruga and Higashidori recently, if the burden of proof shifts onto the utility to prove lack of earthquake faults, it becomes very hard to satisfy the requirement in Japan.

The lead story in Friday morning's Nikkei Shimbun suggested that the cost for satisfying these requirements is likely to be well over a trillion yen ($11 billion), and perhaps much more.  A short English language summary of the Nikkei story is here.

Of course, both Hamaoka and Kashiwazaki-Kariwa are huge question marks in terms of seismic risk, so we could see hundreds of billions of yen spent at each location ... but neither ever restart.  According to Nikkei, the most likely reactor restarts, in fall of 2013, are Kyushu Electric's Kawauchi reactor in Kagoshima, and Shikoku Electric's Ikata reactor in Ehime.

One English report from the Asahi Shimbun is online here.