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