Sunday, October 18, 2020

Nuclear Power Context

I had a really good conversation with my daughter about nuclear power this week.  We've been having a lot of conversations about infrastructure and the environment during the voting period while she filled out her ballot.  

[I'm so proud of her doing the research and voting the whole ballot.  At her age, I left some of them blank, especially the down ticket races & obscure government boards, thinking that others were more qualified to decide.  We all know how that worked out.]

Anyway, I wanted to document our discussion in case your kid asks, too.

The federal Energy Information Administration is a font of information.  Hooray for deep state operatives that collate, quality check and make good information available! 

The US generated about 4118 Billion kilowatt hours (kWh) in 2019. It's impossible to know how much electricity is generated by privately-owned solar panels "behind the meter", but EIA estimates there's an additional 35 Billion kWh.  It's a drop in the bucket, but growing.

The largest chunk of carbon-free electricity in the US is from nuclear, 19.7%.  That's slightly larger than the 17.5% generated by renewables.  

If we were all to magically replace our gasoline powered cars with electric ones, we'd need to double our electricity generation.  If we were to close down all the existing nuclear power plants, we'd have to figure out a way to add carbon free electricity at an unprecedented and extremely difficult rate.  If we were to do both, as some people want, I don't know how we will keep the lights on.

Moreover, large hydropower and existing nuclear power plants in the US were all built 40-90 years ago. 25% of our nations' electricity generation capacity is at the end of their design lifetime and need to be replaced along with the 23.5% that comes from coal.

The US doesn't produce solar panels any more.  (It's dirty and dangerous to produce.  It's expensive to produce safely.)  We rely on Chinese imports.  The Chinese government just announced an aggressive schedule to decarbonize their electricity generation, which may mean exporting less panels to the US.

NIMBYs have stymied wind mill deployment around the country.  

California Governor Newsom announced an executive order that all cars sold in California from 2035 and later have to be electric.  That's 15 years from now and our electricity grid is neither ready or on the way to being ready in time. 

We are in serious trouble unless we dramatically reduce the number of cars we drive, the number of miles that we drive and the size/weight of the vehicles.  This is why I'm such a shill for Ebikes.

In California, I spend a lot of time on the California Independent System Operator site viewing daily electricity data*.  Consider August 16, 2020.  It was a particularly hot day.

Due to a combination of factors, there was insufficient electricity and California experienced rolling blackouts in the late afternoon and evening to keep the grid from crashing over wider areas.  Here's CAISO data for energy sources for that day. 

I replotted the data to put the "Green" energy on the bottom and the most carbon-intensive sources at the top.  EIA reported that roughly half the electricity imports to CA in 2019 were carbon-free. I have no idea what other means so I left it at the top.
Here's a detail of the renewables portion:
When the sun goes down, renewable energy plummets while energy demand rapidly rises. This leads to the infamous CA duck curve.  

Filling this need with batteries would take an insane amount of highly toxic and dangerous batteries.  There aren't enough rare earth minerals to make it happen, anyway.

You could fill the need, in an emergency, by releasing water from dams during the evening to generate hydropower.  But, rivers and streams don't exist solely to be our batteries.  Rivers support whole ecosystems that rely on the cooling power of water flow during the hot afternoons.  This mimics the natural rhythm of snowpack melt, stream flow in Sierras.  Moreover, you can't count on having water to release in drought years.

This gets us back to where we started.  On an annual basis, CA gets about 8-10% of our electricity from Diablo Canyon nuclear plant.  Before the closure of San Onofre, nuclear used to provide ~20% of CA's electricity.  San Onofre and the geothermal power plants near the CA-MX border used to provide SoCal with nearly entirely carbon-free electricity at night.

So we talked about how and where Cobalt is mined; nuclear, battery and coal waste problems, tradeoffs of different sources of electricity, and environmental justice.

It made me feel like I was doing my job as a mom.

* I was the type of teenager that got insider (not public) tours of Diablo Canyon and Forsmark nuclear power plants. People knew that I was interested in science and energy/water, and I also finagled my way into places.  That wouldn't happen today.

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