The United States today runs the world’s largest fleet of nuclear reactors. However, we have not started construction on significant additions to our nuclear fleet since the 1970’s.
I often get questions on why we are having such difficulty in executing on new nuclear facilities, especially when compared with China or even France. One important answer to that question, however, starts in an odd place – public power entities (by public I do not mean publicly traded, but owned by a governmental entity of some sort).
Many of the nuclear plants that exist today were started with the help of public entities. While many public entities have sold off their ownership to mainly shareholder-owned entities that run groups of utilities, if you go back to the 60’s through the 80’s when the financing was originally started for these units, you need to look to the public entities. Let’s pick one to start with – NYPA.
New York Power Authority (NYPA):
NYPA today runs 1) hydro electric plants in upstate New York that provide some of the cheapest power in the USA, since hydro is run with an almost zero incremental cost 2) a huge transmission network, built decades ago but at least partially renovated, that brings down power from Canada and the hydro facilities into the densely populated NY metropolitan area 3) some gas fired plants near NYC.
Looking at their web site here, you see a “typical” web site of a utility or a public power entity; lots of talk of green power, sustainability, and pretty pictures with lots of green in them. From the web site:
We’re the country’s largest state public power organization, producing some of the cheapest electricity in North America. Our 17 generating facilities and over 1,400 circuit-miles of transmission lines produce the power to help sustain more than 380,000 jobs statewide. We are a national leader in promoting energy efficiency and the use of renewable-fuel and clean-energy technologies.
And everything said up above may be true. But that is NYPA today, as a neutered, green and publicity friendly entity.
Back in the day, however, NYPA had grand plans. Where did that “cheap” electricity come from? It came from hydro electric power, mainly 2 facilities – one near Niagara Falls and one up north on the St. Lawrence Seaway. It is simply unimaginable for an entity like NYPA to do anything like that today, actually damming up a river and impacting the scenery. These dams may well have been built by ancient Egyptians or Romans for all the chance that today’s NYPA would ever attempt anything that impactful. And without these dams? NYPA doesn’t have “cheap” power, and they mainly are just a transmission lane of power from Canada to the US (where the Canadians actually do “tap” their hydroelectric resources). Not to denigrate the effort to create a new large transmission line; this is also likely far beyond their grasp.
According to their capital plans, during the period 2010-14 NYPA plans to spend $1.6B on capital projects, but only about 1/4 of this is for “generation” activities, and it mostly is related to extending the life of existing generating facilities. For strategic initiatives not included in the capital plans, they mention the following on p15 of the NYPA 2011-2014 Four-Year Financial Plan:
The Authority is considering several projects… an offshore wind generating facility in the New York waters of the Great Lakes and a second off-shore wind generating facility in the Atlantic Ocean off of Long Island; and the potential development of 100 MW of solar photovoltaic systems throughout the state.
But what is mentioned nowhere in NYPA’s documents, except through an oblique reference to decommissioning funds? Nuclear power!
NYPA was a leader once as far as nuclear power, owning the James FitzPatrick nuclear power plant and the Indian Point 3 Nuclear Power Plant. Over the years these plants have changed hands and now are operating by Entergy.
Entities like NYPA were crucial partners in providing low-cost funding (they could issue bonds cheaply and had implicit or explicit backing of governmental units) and support for disruptive and riskier enterprises like hydro and nuclear generation projects.
But now, as you can see, NYPA has sold off their nuclear units and now is content to run existing hydro assets and transmission lines and consider “trendy” investments like solar and offshore wind farms.
It is the absence of entities like this as far as financial and moral support for nuclear power that makes the challenge of the nuclear power “renaissance” even more difficult to pull off. In the current Texas project, the cities of Austin and San Antonio Texas, who provided crucial financial support for the original facilities built at South Texas Project, balked at support for new generation.
As I get time I will go through other public entities that have had a history of support for nuclear generation (decades ago) and helped build the units that make America the largest user of nuclear power but who now, today, shy away from these sorts of investments and instead make a trendy “sop” towards solar and wind power.
Cross posted at LITGM
28 thoughts on “New York Power Authority and Nuclear Generation”
We have a generation (pardon the pun) of politicians who are science illiterate. They are risk averse and in some states, like New York, heavily listing to the left. I wonder what will finally get their attention. Some avoidable calamity, no doubt.
The problem of course is public opinion. I want nuclear power but it’s also obvious we need adult supervision. Both Chernobyl and Fukushima were run by fools. TEPCO is a serial breaker of regulations and it’s probable there is too much fuel packed too densely in reactor #4’s spent fuel pool, among many other problems. Chernobyl apart from being not contained by design was caused by a very foolish shutdown test done badly.
If we can convince people there are adults seriously interested in getting this right there may be a chance of going forward with nuclear power but the present badly run propaganda coming from Japan is not producing much confidence in the population.
Michael – you’d have thought NYC would have woken up after the big blackout they had a few years back. No such luck.
You might want to check out this website: http://www.publicpower.org/
It’s the trade association representing municipally owned (and other publicly owned) electric utilities.
Search for nuclear power on their site. It’s interesting.
NYPA has always been a cesspool a the top (See todays NY Post for the latest scandal). They just threw away an 800 MW Gas fired boiler of recent (late 1970’s) construction to settle a lawsuit by environmentalists) and it makes no difference to their mission. The Indian Point units were obtained from ConEd at firesale prices when ConEd was facing bankruptcy. The PSC negotiations allowed NYPA to finish contruction at Indian Point 3 and the now decomissioned gas fired boiler and ConEd survived.
A more telling story is how the Shorham nuclear Plant on long island was sacrificed for Mario Cuomo’s presidential ambitions. The plant was licensed and operations (it ran for a few days as a bargaining chip). Cuomo wanted to please the greens and certain Long Island interests so he gave a Don Corleone type offer to LILCO where they would get cost recover for the plant if they shut it down, but not if they ran it. So NY ratepayers paid for the plant and the replacement power, while Mario never did run for president (Rumors had it that son Andrew Cuomo had some shady dealings with the Mob that might be revealed if Cuomo the Elder ran).
Some public authorities can run nuclear plants well (Omaha Public Power) but most are total disasters (WPPSS, TVA, NYPA).
I’m not following the argument you’re trying to make here. Are you making the argument for more “public” financing and ownership of electric utilities? I.E. more government ownership and less market forces? These public utilities have sold off almost all the major generation capacity to private entities already, because they can’t operate them (and kept the cheapest and easiest to operate facilities for themselves, like the hydro plants). I would say the biggest impediment to a more modern and efficient generation industry is “public” ownership of some, and “public” granting of monopolies to private entities. This isn’t a competitive business. As far as nuclear goes, there is no reason to favor nuclear over some other form of generation. Whatever is cheaper for the conditions. I agree that nuclear probably would not exist or be much smaller in scale were it not for massive waste from government agencies. Thats not necessarily a good thing. Nuclear, as it stands, is still a “child” that hasn’t grown up in 60 years.
The primary competitive factor for nuclear power is the cost of capital. Public agencies will typically have lower costs for capital than will profit-seeking private entities. Ergo, public agencies have financial incentives for nuclear relative to private firms.
Against that are the political motivations of leadership. John Kennedy was instrumental in getting the power agencies in Washington state to over-invest in nuclear which ultimately lead to the write-off of billions in WPPSS bonds as several partially completed nukes were left unfinished and written-off. JFK did get to make some great speeches and appear very forward-looking though.
Management structures and incentives work against most public agency operations. Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) got its Rancho Seco plant up and running but every contract over $50,000 had to go to a public vote of its elected board of directors. That created a tremendous impediment to day-to-day operations and offered anti-nuclear activists an opening to disrupt operations. Eventually the plant was closed. Of course, SMUD’s investment in “politically correct” geothermal as a replacement came up a dry hole – literally.
Of course, some public agencies have done a respectable job with nuclear – Cooper plant is an example. But I’m reminded of James Q. Wilson’s essential point from his book “Bureaucracy” – the greatest enemy of a bureaucrat is another bureaucrat. In TVA’s case, it has been the NRC who’s nuclear regulation and oversight powers are weakest against another federal agency.
Carl’s recent posting about the delays at the South Texas Project 3 and 4 also argues that ownership of nukes by independent power producers like NRG is difficult. I would note that one estimate is that if a privately owner electric utility with a classical rate base has an overall cost of capital of 10%, an independent power producer would need 14 or 15% for the same project. A well-run public agency with bonding authority and a captive geographical market might only see 6 or 8% for its cost of capital.
For a $12 billion nuclear power project, this can make a critical difference in the financial viability of the project as Carl suggests.
The American people are tired of prosperity and liberty; tired of building things, tired of making their own decisions. They demand poverty and tyranny, and they’re going to get it: one green innovation at a time.
If there are any advantages to a publicly owned utility building a nuclear power station, you have to recognize the superior staying power of government against lawsuit happy environmentalists. They can’t be bankrupt in any meaningful way.
And that is a good thing why? To offset a regulatory burden that puts nuclear at a disadvantage?
If that isn’t it, it seems to me that nuclear just isn’t competitive right now, and that it would be unwise to invest money in it.
And even if that’s it, offsetting one market intervention by another rarely works out and only serves to perpetuate interventionism.
Nuclear power plants have a high capital cost and a low operating cost. Fossil fuel plants, especially ones fueled with natural gas, have low capital cost but much higher fuel costs. As a rule of thumb, nuclear heat costs $0.50 a million BTU in the reactor. Natural gas wholesales today at $4.03 a million BTU at the main pipeline junction at Henry Hub, Louisiana (more delivered to the plant of course.) Coal is usually around $2 a million BTU at the mine – again, more delivered to the plant.
So the capital carrying cost is the sum of bond interest rates and cost of equity for nukes for a combined “cost of capital” where 50% is debt and 50% is equity for private utilities. Hence, most of the cost of electricity from nuclear power reflects the cost of capital during its construction.
One has to think long term. Natural gas at the Henry Hub was almost $15.00 per million BTU in 2005/2006 – it is very volatile!
Since it still takes over a decade for a new nuke to come on line, investment in it is a bet on the future price of natural gas.
So tell me, what will be the market price of YOUR labor in 2021? How about #8 rebar or a load of 4,000 psi concrete? Interest rates on a AA corporate bond?
In specific response to Lukas, I was trying to say that public agencies will calculate the ultimate cost of electricity from a nuclear power project to be lower than would a private rate-base utility or an independent power producer. That’s also Carl’s point – without the participation of the City of San Antonio and/or the City of Austin, STP 3 and 4’s cost of capital will increase making the project less attractive relative to projects that use fossil fuels.
Also be aware that TEPCO was to be an minority equity owner in STP 3 and 4. They would enjoy Japanese low cost of capital which made the project attractive to them financially. With the earthquake wiping out so much of their infrastructure, TEPCO will need all the capital it can muster just to rebuild inside Japan.
Your points are well taken Joseph, but in essence you’re just shifting costs from private entities to tax payers, assuming that costs somehow “dissipate” if only public utilities could get lower interest loans, and throwing it into the hands of a gov. bureaucracy (which may or may not lead to lower costs than a private entity). And this because you assume that nuclear is the way to go, despite market indicators which may or may not support such a proposition. While nuclear may have lower operating costs, the cost per energy unit covers more than that (as you point out). Plus coal or gas are more flexible (both in terms of operations, and in terms of modernization down the road), and offer virtually zero risk of catastrophic failure (which has a large cost which needs to be factored somewhere)
So whats the difference between taxpayer subsidies to a wind project, and taxpayer subsidies for a nuclear project?
The point that TMLutas makes cuts both ways, since there are few positives and many negatives of a nuclear agency which is not as responsive to litigation, market forces or public pressures.
It would be interesting to note how many of the “Chicago Boys” pictures at the top of this page, would agree with your assessment of the abilities of the market to forecast future risks and costs vs a “public” utility’s, and make appropriate “investment” decisions.
I get that, I just do not see any reason to subsidize utilities’ cost of capital. But then I’m not very knowledgeable about how utilities work, so any pointers are appreciated.
I don’t think I was advocating any particular outcome (in this thread), only explaining the essential facts of electric generation financing.
The US has a mixed system of electrical generation ownership. We have independent power producers selling into spot markets and with long term supply contracts (NRG, divisions of Exelon and Entergy). We have federally owned and operated generation and transmission systems (TVA, Bonneville, WAPA.) We have investor-owned electric utilities under cost-of-service rates and franchise monopolies.
Each ownership type has certain financial constraints and incentives that differs from other types. Carl’s original point was that publically owned agencies and rate base utilities have an easier time investing in highly capital-intensive generation projects like nuclear power plants and large hydroelectric dams since their cost of capital is lower.
Fossil fuels are the main competitors to nuclear for new electrical generation. High priced fossil fuels or highly volatile fuel prices combined with low cost of capital advantages nuclear power. High capital costs and low fossil fuel prices disadvantage nuclear.
I don’t think I brought up any issue of subsidy. If NOT paying tax is a “subsidy” then you subscribe to the “all your money is owns” view of government. I would argue that federal loan guarantees are essential for new nukes in the US, as does Carl I think. Why? Wall Street doesn’t trust government to NOT renege on licenses for construction as they done many times in the past.
As to externalities, answer this question – would Japan have been better off using imported oil for electricity generation these last 40 years rather than buildingand running the Fukushima reactors?
My prior post was written as yours was being posted.
A public agency for the generation of electricity is not necessarily a subsidy even with low cost of capital. One could argue that there’s no place for muncipals, rural electric coops, or federal projects since investor-owned utilities are the correct free market solution. Sorry, but that horse left the barn generations ago – we got’em and they ain’ going away.
Is having one of these governmental generators, with their lower cost of capital, participate in large nuclear project a subsidy? I don’t think so, especially for STP 3 and 4 where Austin and San Antonio already own part of STP 1 and 2 and have a right of first refusal in STP 3 and 4 since they are part-owners of the overall STP site and its improvements like the common cooling lake and switchyards.
The current issue is that having the cities participate as co-owners in STP 3 and 4 will lower the overall project’s cost of capital and help the project’s economics. That’s Carl’s point and I think it correct.
Wind and solar get some very direct and many hidden subsidies. Here’s a piece I did on just the tax treatment of depreciation:
While nuclear gets some special treatment, on the whole, the US nuclear power industry is a cash cow for governments. It also offers significant price predictability for electricity and has had significant national security advantages for us as nuclear displaced oil-fired generation back in the 1970s. Oil’s market share went from 35% of US electrical generation in 1970 to 2% today.
Wind and Solar do get subsidies, but the real (base load) competition to nukes these days is coal (maybe hydro too), isn’t it?
I concede that calling the preferred tax treatment of muni bonds a subsidy isn’t fully accurate, but the effect is much the same: Capital that in a free(er) market would have been invested in more profitable projects ends up in the nuke instead.
For baseload generation, location is a big factor in fuel choice. Figure that there is very little unexploited hydro generation within the US. Canada has more resources but less of a market within economic transmission range.
In, say, North Dakota, the coal from the Powder River Basis is definitely the cheapest way to go. Here in California, the shear distance to the coal fields and lack of railroad capacity makes coal very cost ineffective, not to mention the state’s air quality and “global warming” policies.
In New England, coal is expensive as is natural gas. Nuclear has an opening there if public policies were open to it.
Texas is interesting as it has large gas production and further potential. However, natural gas has export markets to the East and West with reasonably low transportation costs so nuclear can be competitive.
Let’s invert you point. The fact that private utilities issue bonds that investors pay taxes on and must pay ccrporate income taxes on profits and create taxable dividends means that government distorts economic decisions too. Of course, taxes are part of the distortion – financial debts of governments in the US have historically been less risky than those of private companies, in large part due to the nature of government monopoly and taxing power.
Joseph, you’re right that public agencies do have an easier time in investing in such projects. This however, does not mean that their actual costs are lower, or that the investment becomes more attractive in an economic sense. They may have lower cost of debt, but someone is subsidizing this lower cost of debt. Their cost is not entering into your calculation. There is fundamentally no difference between directly subsidizing a windmill operator, or providing a tax credit for an electric vehicle, or providing low interest loans and tax breaks to nuclear. You can call them direct or hidden subsidies, they do the same thing, and they are funded from the same source. Unless the external subsidies are accounted for, your “lower cost of capital” is just an accounting number.
The argument you make over volatility in fuel or concrete or whatnot prices in the future, cannot really be an argument that a government institution with very conflicting incentives can be expected to better forecast or make the appropriate investment decisions, than a private entity, given the same set of information.
On whether Japan would have been better off or not without that specific nuclear plant, isn’t one I can answer. I doubt most of Japan’s nukes have even provided any return on investment, even in accounting terms (ie ignoring taxpayer subsidies), since most of them are relatively recent. And of course, the costs of this recent disaster are hard to determine as of yet. And of course in some markets, nuke makes profitable sense. I don’t know if Japan is one of them.
One of the most inflaming instances of the recent news coverage was a screen title – “Nuclear Explosions” – while the video was of burning liquified natural gas storage tanks. For Japan, the two main competitors for new electrical generation are nuclear and imported liquified natural gas.
To show a visual of the burning competitor while using text to scare about nuclear was one of the lower moments in generally reprehensible mainstream media coverage of the tsunami and its after-effects. Most of the damaged Fukushima reactors are 40+ old, BTW.
Again, invert your statement “They [public agencies] may have lower cost of debt, but someone is subsidizing this lower cost of debt.”
Ask “Why should the increased costs of capital for private enterprises work against a clean source of electricity like nuclear?”
Nuclear power is feasable when energy costs are high. Commercial nuclear plants are subject to a multitude of federal and state regulations making them costly to operate and also easy to demagogue. Look at the number of references to Chernobyl in this post, a plant thad little in common with western designed reactors.
On the orher hand, the nuclear navy can meet all of Naval Reactor’s regulation and shutdown maintenance requirements as the taxpayers fund every single cost associated with nuclear ops. Despite this advantage, the Navy still has had to radically reduce it’s nuclear fleet. Since the 1990’s, it has mothballed nuclear cruises, the 637 class boats and the majority of LA class subs. As long as excessive regulations and slack compliance by industry exist, nuclear plants will not be cost effective alternatives.
“Ask “Why should the increased costs of capital for private enterprises work against a clean source of electricity like nuclear?””
Ah! But thats not inverting anything I said. Thats just making the argument that one should prefer nuclear because of some specific feature it has. This doesn’t mean that it is more economical, it doesn’t mean that government can actually lower the cost (if government could lower the cost of capital of nuclear, it can do so for just about everything, which would make a great case for saying that everything should be financed by government since it can achieve lower costs than the markets! This is obviously not true), or that government can operate at a more profitable or more “forward viewing” way than the alternative. My only point is that what you and Carl are saying is that the only way nuclear can keep going forward, is through a subsidy. Now its been getting subsidies for 70 years, and still hasn’t grown up to pull its own pants up. Now do you think any of the “Chicago Boys” up there on top would entertain such an idea for very long?
If the argument is that the markets are unwilling to invest in nuclear because the permit and regulatory system is too uncertain, then you ought to be advocating the reduction of government intrusion in this industry, not a subsidy to overcome the very same political games. But of course, since the nuclear industry makes its own regulatory rules for the most part, this is not a very convincing argument.
As far as Japan, again I don’t know anything about its energy market other than it imports the vast majority of its energy, and most of its nukes are relatively recent (and I’d bet, most haven’t made any returns on investment, even a fictitious accounting type of return). How they are financed, and who operates them, I have no clue. Nor am I saying that in a market which has the highest electricity costs in the world (Japan is pretty close I think), that nuclear doesn’t become economic (without taking into consideration why Japan is so expensive). But it doesn’t mean it is so in the US market.
Will one of you learned gentle-persons please explain the economics of wind-generation facilities to me. Can they actually provide abundant power at an economical cost, and are they doing it anywhere (EEC), or are they just an exorbitantly costly sop to the Greenies?
An electrical generator can earn revenue in deregulated markets in two ways. One, the unit can actually run and make power and is paid on a per kilowatt-hour delivered basis. It can also be so trustworthy and responsive a producer that it earns what’s call “capacity payments.” Since electrical reliability is so important, a system will pay a generator just to be ready, willing, and able to produce. It can be paid for both and the big units usually are.
For a grid, someone must ensure that there is adequate generation capacity to meet loads at all times, even peak loads. So the grid is planned around hydro, nuclear coal, and gas generation. Wind mills are not reliable and are not responsive to the grid demand. Hence they do not merit capacity payments. For example, the Texas grid, ERCOT, rates them less then 10% reliable for capacity payment purposes. The overall US nuclear fleet has many years of greater than 90% capacity production and the downtime for refueling is usually planned for spring and fall, periods on minimum electrical demand.
If you follow my American Thinker link above, you’ll see that an investment in nuclear produces twice what the similar investment in wind would yield in annual kilowatt-hours. Hence, wind power would cost roughly TWICE what nuclear would cost, ignoring fuel and O&M which are minor for nukes. BTW, maintenance is very expensive for wind mills.
So what is wind WORTH? Since gas and coal plants have to be available with or without wind, as the wind could die at any moment, wind should only be worth what natural gas or coal is NOT burned because of wind generation.
Long story and explanation – in the real world, wind and solar are useless and VERY expensive. Add public policies that REQUIRE and SUBSIDIZE wind and solar, they are an expensive and pointless boondoogle.
Sure, but that is something that (a priori) affects all private utilities equally, no matter how they choose to generate their energy, so the distortion is smaller.
You said Wall Street won’t commit to financing nukes because of regulatory uncertainty. Isn’t that uncertainty also a concern for publicly financed projects? DC may change its mind, and all of a sudden you’ll have sunk billions of dollars of public money.
Public agency investment is more secure in that the public agency has the power of taxation or a dedicated rate base to extract the moneys from. An independent power producer (IPP) is riskier because it has neither a tax base nor a rate base. Public agencies get better loan terms and lower rates so can better afford more capital intensive projects. But yes, regulatory uncertainty affects ALL business and especially nuclear.
Here’s a piece a did a few years ago (2003) that might explain IPPs and nuclear power:
As to taxes, they do most directly affect a private utility’s and an IPP’s generation choice through depreciation schedules as I explained in the linked article in my comment 13 above.
Thanks for responding to everyone here. You are a very patient person.
In general people tend to go off into la-la land.
The question is – why can’t we build nuclear plants anymore? And a big part of the answer is – because governmental entities like NYPA don’t want to get involved. The government units provide money and political backing for tough jobs like this and helped to build a LOT of our existing units in one way or another.
Their absence (for the most part) today is a big reason why the “renaissance” was never going to happen.
I will start going through other public entities, as well.
This also impacts coal – the public entities are basically doing little compared to the historical norm to build base load capacity.
NYPA is kind of different but many of the public entities need a “resource plan” which implies that they have an obligation to provide reliable baseload service. It is interesting to see how they meet that obligation while doing the usual sop to non-competitive and unreliable power sources like wind and solar. See my article here on the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power as they struggle with a renewable power standard
More to come.
Sadly enough, all depressing. We aren’t investing in squat on the public level.
The grid will become private and if you want reliable power you’ll ultimately need to do that yourself or move somewhere where they make the reliable grid a priority.
Like Dan says, it will be funny to watch them all flip when they can’t charge their iphone or watch their flat screen TV or get air conditioning but it is coming, and fast.
Comments are closed.