Virginia’s Air Is Pretty Darn Clean

Air quality for Richmond, Va., on Nov. 25, 2018. (Click graphic for larger image.)

In the comments section on Steve Haner’s latest post, Reed Fawell provided an intriguing quote from Oren Cass, a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute: Environmental Protection Agency regulations have grown so tight, he said, “that Brussels, the capital of the EU, would be the single dirtiest city in the US, if it were here.”

Really? I wondered if that were true. So I checked the website that maps air quality measurements globally, incorporating data for particulates, ozone, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide. As a proxy for Virginia urban areas, I selected an air quality monitor in downtown Richmond (which turns out to be the second highest of 18 measuring Air Quality Index monitoring stations in Virginia.

Air Quality Index for Brussels, Belgium.

Lo and behold, it turns out that the AQI for Brussels for the past 48 hours is twice that of Richmond. That’s just a snapshot of one particular point in time. Air quality varies with air pressure, humidity, wind, and temperature, so the comparison may or may not be representative of air quality over a full year.

Recognizing that downtown Richmond may or may not be representative of American cities generally, and Brussels may or may not be representative of European cities, I captured a higher-altitude perspective by comparing maps of the Eastern U.S. and most of Europe. Note: The green markers stand for “good” levels of air pollution, yellow for “moderate,” and red for “unhealthy.”

Cass’s statement is almost literally true… but not quite. There are a handful of locations in the U.S. with higher air pollution than Brussels. In the Eastern U.S. only Albany New York had worse air quality, and only by a small margin. Out west, Denver, Colo.; Tacoma, Washington; Long Beach (Los Angeles), Calif.;  and Phoenix, Ariz. were somewhat higher. Iowa City, Iowa’s index was significantly higher — high enough to fall under the “unhealthy for sensitive groups” category.

While air quality varies considerably from country to country, there are large patches in Europe where air quality is problematic, especially in the Belgium-Netherlands area, northern Italy, and big chunks of formerly communist countries. Then, for purposes of comparison, here’s a look at Asia:

Here we get into the “very unhealthy” and “hazardous” air-quality categories. When air quality rates hazardous, “everyone may experience more serious health effects.” It’s almost (but not quite) fair to say that the U.S. city with the dirtiest air is cleaner than the Chinese city with the cleanest air.

Here’s one more map, this one showing how Virginia stacks up to neighboring states:

Here you can see Virginia as a relative oasis of low air pollution. Rural air quality is comparable in Virginia and other states, but the Old Dominion stands out (at least in the past 48 hours) as having no monitoring stations recording “moderate” air quality.

This quick-and-dirty survey is too cursory to draw any broad conclusions. But it is suggestive. Sometimes we need to give ourselves a pat on the back. Subject to  a more authoritative review, Virginia appears to be doing a pretty good job with its air quality. As coal-fired power plants are phased out in the years ahead, we can expect continued improvements.

This surface skimming of air quality data raises other questions: How clean is clean enough? If Virginia air quality is almost uniformly “good,” that is, posing no health threat to anyone, how much sense does it make to continue investing resources into achieving additional incremental reductions? How much do we gain by tightening air pollution standards on our cars or electric utilities? Should we be focusing more on improving water quality? Or preserving wildlife habitat? Or achieving other tangible environmental goals?

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47 responses to “Virginia’s Air Is Pretty Darn Clean”

  1. Jane Twitmyer Avatar
    Jane Twitmyer

    Nice try Jim, but what I objected to was the fiction put forth by Cass that we no longer needed air pollution regulation because we have reduced the amount of pollution by 70% and to reduce it further would not be cost effective. Here is a quote from Cass … ““Clean air should be a priority for all Americans, but thankfully it has been achieved. Air pollution has declined more than 70% since the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970” ….

    Is our air 70% cleaner? I don’t know because Cass didn’t say where he got that figure, but even if it’s true that is not a reason to quit. Downwind states agree with me. In 2017 “N.Y. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman filed a notice of intent to sue, alleging violations of the Clean Air Act, including failure to curb ground-level ozone pollution that blows into New York.” NY had already won a pollution fix, but “last August, a deadline passed for EPA to adopt Federal Implementation Plans (FIPs) addressing the pollution from two dozen states. New York officials say they will sue if the federal government does not do its duty under Good Neighbor provisions of the Clean Air Act. Just this month DE filed suit.

    The emitting states have been finalizing new Good Neighbor plans but … Under the Trump administration’s new guidance, states can consider adopting a looser standard than would have been allowed under the Obama administration. The new one part per billion standard means a state can emit 43% more pollution across state lines than before.

    The Clean Air Act wasn’t meant to be fixed in time to pollutants or remedies. It “specifies that air quality standards are meant to protect the public from ‘air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.’ That is quite vague, and deliberately so. It was understood by lawmakers that science evolves and so regulations should evolve too, updating alongside our best scientific understanding.”

    How do you really fix costs of pollution? It’s complicated but the best way is not to shuffle costs of environmental damage and health problems off onto the public. Capitalists need to know the real prices of goods if they are to make capitalist choices.

    PS. Richmond’s air quality and its asthma population got better when the coal plants ringing the city were closed, which I think was related to the Good Neighbor air pollution suit it lost some years ago to CT. 

  2. I wouldn’t go so far as Cass to say that clean air has been “achieved.” The fact is, I don’t know. I haven’t studied the matter closely — I certainly acknowledge that the swipe I took in the post above is not remotely authoritative, and is only suggestive of the need for a closer look.

    On the other hand, it is undeniable that the U.S. has made tremendous progress. Why not celebrate that fact? There may be areas where we can do better. But, one could argue, such efforts should be targeted to the particular pollutant, particular location, and perhaps particular season or time. One could argue that we no longer need broad, sweeping changes affecting everyone to achieve the localized gains we want to see.

    Lastly, we need to acknowledge that we have finite resources to address our environmental problems. We should apply those resources to remedies that provide the most bang for the buck. Perhaps we could achieve more good by targeting clean water… or habitat protection… or (not my favorite) fighting global warming. Perhaps we have reached the point of diminishing returns where the risk reduction per dollar spent is too low to justify. I don’t presume the answer. I merely raise the question. Are you suggesting that the question should not even be asked?

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    Jane has it right. There is a standard. Many cities in the US still don’t meet that standard on hot summer days and the cleaner air is no due to every restrictive regulation but instead the gradual improvement from retiring coal plants as well as the replacement of older cars with newer cars.

    So those regulations that folks like Cass fought against originally, have succeeded but we still have not “achieved” clean air in some of the urban areas much less year around.

    So the argument here is to loosen the current regulations rather than defer more restrictive ones… because we have “clean air now”.

    The truth is – had the folks who argue against the clean air act – prevailed – our air WOULD look like Brussels and China!!!

    You ask – ” Perhaps we have reached the point of diminishing returns where the risk reduction per dollar spent is too low to justify. ”

    so, as usual, I ask: What are you advocating here? That we loosen the regulations? You say you ” I don’t presume the answer.”… hmmm

    These are silly games that Conservatives play when it comes to regulation these days.

    We have cleaner air BECAUSE of regulation … why would we want to undo it?

    1. “The argument here is to loosen the current regulations…”

      A total mis-statement of my argument. I said (1) it’s worth taking a closer look at the data, and if the data I cited is representative, (2) tighten regulations on a targeted and localized basis but (3) not through sweeping, broad-based regulations.

      You see, Larry, in the English language, “not tighten” does not mean the same thing as “loosen.”

      1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        Jim –

        I think your post (article) and follow on comments are excellent. For my part, its reassuring to know that America, best we can tell, has the most effective clean air policies and programs in the world. That is quite remarkable given America’s size, diversity, and highly developed economy. No one else, among our peers or near peers, comes even close.

        I thought your suggestion that we focus now on local problems was spot on, a highly practical and doable next step.

      2. Jane Twitmyer Avatar
        Jane Twitmyer

        But loosen is the argument that is being made … as I wrote above
        “Under the Trump administration’s new guidance, states can consider adopting a looser standard than would have been allowed under the Obama administration. The new one part per billion standard means a state can emit 43% more pollution across state lines than before.”

        Regarding GHG emissions Cass has proposed not bothering with reductions … Writing at The National Review, Cass agreed that there is a scientific consensus on climate change. However, he disagreed that emissions reductions are a solution. Sounds like ‘lessening’ to me.

  4. I don’t know all of the reasons for Europe’s air quality issues. I suspect that part of it is their metro centers are much closer together than ours. That is one reason they have effective inter-city train systems and we do not.

    It could also be due to meteorological conditions. LA’s air quality issues are often made much worse because of their frequent inversions that keep the emissions from dispersing.

    You say ” One could argue that we no longer need broad, sweeping changes affecting everyone to achieve the localized gains we want to see.”

    I know you don’t like to talk about it, but greenhouse gases (GHGs) could be dealt with relatively easily and inexpensively if we didn’t make it a partisan issue. We have recently discovered that the increase in heat trapped in the oceans is several times greater than we thought it to be. The increased heat and greater acidification is bleaching coral reefs throughout the world. The world’s fisheries are mostly near coastlines. Coupled with rising water levels, reduced seafood production poses a substantial challenge for about half of the world’s population.

    The CO2, and I would suggest other GHGs such as methane, were considered to be a “pollutant” that could be regulated by the EPA under the Clean Power Plan. If we took an unbiased look at things, we would discover that building more new gas-fired power plants risks them becoming stranded assets well before the end of their financial lives because of rising gas prices and lower cost options such as energy efficiency and renewables.

    Reducing methane leaks along the supply chain is also relatively inexpensive (the major causes of the leaks have been identified). If we limited natural gas production to what we need domestically, gas prices would rise more slowly, we would maintain more energy independence, and reduce GHGs.

    Cost-effectiveness of solutions has always been part of the rule-making process for various types of emissions.

    For the first-time, the lowest cost sources of producing electricity also create the least emissions. A regulatory process that was based on long-term costs and benefits, rather than short-term utility profits, would identify solutions that met our energy needs in ways that also improve our air quality. It is unnecessary to abandon the consideration of the quality of our environment while dealing with our energy needs.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Tom –

      Your assessment seems fair, lucid, and balanced to me, as regards some of the primary issues.

      My greatest concern is judicious planning, execution and control. I think prudence must be the overriding value when building and operating a great public utility. I don’t see how the Texas oil well wildcatter mentality fits the bill. Nor an environment movement today that I my view is too much dominated by religious zealots on a the mission of their lives, and now are working too often with highly entrepreneurial go get them types in an era akin to the 1949 California gold rush. And others, customers too, simply driven by ideology / vanity.

      In a different time and place, these types would be fine. Here they are playing with America’s most important public utility, a business by nature highly complex, prone to instability, and central to the nations survival.

      Hence the need for stability and prudence. Hence, I’d be very wary of revolutionary change that can cut loose the vagaries, constant failures and gross errors always found in, and indeed typical of, and necessary for, strong capitalistic emerging markets.

      But I do take your basic points seriously. And to a degree at least, I see the shortcoming of Virginia’s current system, as you and others far more knowledgeable that I, have discussed at length on this blog.

      1. Reed,

        I agree with you. Energy has become even more central to our lives now that so much of our commercial and social interactions occur via electronic devices.

        The fact that our energy system has a great deal of inertia is both a curse and a blessing. It is a blessing because we will have our legacy systems for decades to come, even as we add new technologies. This dampens the effect of over-exuberance and failures that occur with trying new solutions.

        It is a curse because making changes in our basic energy system is like trying to turn a super tanker – it will take a while. The changes in customers’ uses are occurring much more rapidly than the producers can or are willing to respond.

        By nature, the utility industry is very conservative and slow to change. This is ingrained in them because their primary mission has been to provide a reliable supply of electricity; much more than to optimize the system design and cost.

        Our conventional generating facilities take years to plan and construct and require specialized skills and capital structures to build. The new technologies, such as wind, solar, and storage, can be planned and built within 1-2 years, and can be developed better by companies that are not utilities. This is a sea change in the energy business that our governance systems have not adapted to.

        The energy company executives typically have decades of experience in the energy business and have proven success in operating the legislative and regulatory levers that will best serve their shareholders. It is very difficult for humans to adopt new habits that are different from what has worked in the past. But this is exactly what our future energy systems are requiring from us.

        In general, we see what is right in front of us and pay less attention to unproven possibilities in the future. Utility executives were traditionally long-term focused (15 years ahead or more) but the pressures of shareholders and Wall Street analysts have brought the bulk of their attention to within a few quarters or a few years.

        That is why I believe that it is essential for us to find win-win solutions so that new methods can be more easily accepted. It is far too easy to continue our present habits to our long-term detriment.

        Whatever happens, the energy companies will choose slow to moderate speed responses. We have surplus conventional generation and demand is not growing, so new responses are unlikely to reduce reliability.

        I am more concerned about continuing the same old responses (on steroids), as we have currently selected in Virginia. I see every major company in the U.S. and many foreign enterprises with facilities in the U.S. (the RE 100) electing to reduce their energy use and rely more on renewables. This will rapidly upset the utility business model that is built on an increased energy use and continued development of new generation. Without a alteration in course, utilities will only remain prosperous by off-loading more of the cost and risk on to their customers. This will give the customers a greater reason to do less business with them – and the downward spiral continues. No one wins in the long-term in this scenario.

    2. LarrytheG Avatar

      Unfortunately, I have a much darker view that by the time we have enough folks who realize we have serious problems – it will likely be too late and if by some miracle we actually do act in time – it will cost far more than if we had acted earlier and will take a hundred or hundreds of years to recover.

      serious damage as you noted is already ongoing – the increasing temperatures and acidity of the seas is not something we’re going to fix short term even if we were to make serious inroads on the sources of Climate Change.

      But we cannot go forward until enough folks accept the realities and want change. Predictions from Science are not believed. Actual damage will have to be readily apparent for some to believe.

  5. “Predictions from Science are not believed….”

    The scientific method is to form a hypothesis, test the hypothesis in such a way that confirms or falsifies the hypothesis, and then, based on the data, revise and update the hypothesis as needed. Scientists make predictions and forecasts all the time based upon their hypotheses. The mere fact that they are scientists does not make their predictions and forecasts correct. Only time and the confirmation (or falsification) of their forecasts will tell the tale. Given the incredible complexity of the climate and what climatologists call “natural variability,” the frustrating thing about climate change forecasts is that it takes literally decades to see if they are accurate or not.

    We do know that some predictions based upon the anthropogenic global warming paradigm have proven false… polar bears dying out… snowfall a thing of the past… and so on. That doesn’t mean the climate model forecasts are wrong, but it should engender the “humility of uncertainty.” I see no humility or uncertainty whatsoever emanating from those who purport to believe in the “science” of global warming. In Larry’s quote I see only the shamanistic invocation of science.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      re: given your position – how do you view the scientist’s prediction of ozone holes and CFCs?

      If a doctor tells you that if you smoke – you could get lung cancer – not guaranteed – there are folks that don’t so do you believe him/her based on their “prediction”?

      some things can’t be “proven” until the damage is done and you can’t go back.

      when scientists say a hurricane is going to hit a place marked on the map – do you think it is a hypothesis and in fact – proven wrong for most scientists every prediction?

      Do scientists have to predict with 100% certainty before you believe?

    2. Jane Twitmyer Avatar
      Jane Twitmyer

      Jim ..“the frustrating thing about climate change forecasts is that it takes literally decades to see if they are accurate or not.”
      Well results are coming in… we have already had decades. First report was released by President Johnson …
      How about sea level rise … those 8 inches since 1950 are documented facts.
      Global causes include:
      • 700 trillion pounds of ice is melting from Antarctica, Greenland, and mountain glaciers each year.
      • The Ocean Is 1.2 Degrees (F) Warmer Than It Was In 1950. As the temperature of the ocean water increases, the water expands, raising the sea level everywhere.
      Other causes have more local effects, affecting areas and at varying rates
      • The Gulf Stream is slowing …as less water is taken from the East Coast, more water piles up there.
      • Sinking Land. The tectonic plates are shifting causing land on the east coast to sink and the plates re rising on the West coast with the opposite effect.

  6. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    Why would anyone believe Tom Streyer or Michael Bloomberg? They are both seeking power over others.
    “Predictions from Science are not believed….”

    Yes, that is true and for good reason. All of the primary models, some 11, used over the past 30 years have been grossly wrong for those 30 years, save for one, a Russian model whose predictions were a minor fraction of the rest.

    Here in a comment and different critique posted recently by TMT:

    If we had reporting about all aspects of climate change, we’d have a better foundation for making sound policy But climate is a religion that goes beyond science. Note: I’m not arguing that human behavior cannot affect climate nor that we should not continue to move to reliable, inexpensive and renewable sources of energy. But real debate looks at all the facts and data.

    1. Jane Twitmyer Avatar
      Jane Twitmyer

      Reed … “Inconvenient Science: NASA data show that global temperatures dropped sharply over the past two years. Not that you’d know it, since that wasn’t deemed news. Does that make NASA a global warming denier?”

      Here is NASA information. The info has real numbers.
      There is a nice global picture that turns color according to the temperatures in various places from 1884 to 2017, the time frame for which we have records.
      There is also a chart showing the annual mean temperature … a global land-ocean temperature index. From 1960 until now the rise is 1 degree. Yes is moves up and down but that movement is over a rising trajectory.

      1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

        Why should people believe NASA? They altered data.

        And if one asks that, if this scams and fraud are true, why doesn’t the media report them, the German media didn’t report what Hitler did either or the American media report that FDR couldn’t walk on his own and was generally confined to a wheel chair. They didn’t report on either Harding’s or Kennedy’s affairs either.

        We cannot get a sensible and accepted policy on energy and climate unless and until we have all the information on the table. Not just what the power grabbers want.

  7. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    “Predictions from Science are not believed….”

    Yes, that is true and for good reason. All of the internationally recognized primary climate change models, some 11, used over the past 30 years have been grossly wrong for those 30 years, save for one, a Russian model whose predictions are a minor fraction of the rest.

    Here is a comment and different critique posted recently by TMT:

    If we had reporting about all aspects of climate change, we’d have a better foundation for making sound policy. But climate is a religion that goes beyond science. Note: I’m not arguing that human behavior cannot affect climate nor that we should not continue to move to reliable, inexpensive and renewable sources of energy. But real debate looks at all the facts and data.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Here is why the great majority of environmentalist organizations today cannot be taken seriously, in this case the formerly great Sierra Club –


      To quote the article with a twist:

      Earth to Sierra Club: you can’t solve a problem by proposing a solution that fails to deal with the problem, thus ignores the many obstacles to the solution’s imposition.

      This Sierra Club opinion is found in Virginia Mercury just after their earlier posted article titled: Pamunkey Tribe hopes to announce potential casino location in coming months. In that article tribal leaders say they’re trying to work a deal with a Virginia city or county that wants the state’s first tribal casino. And hope to announce a location soon, perhaps on some 600 acres along Interstate 64 in New Kent County, “but received a chilly reception at public meetings held earlier this year.”

      Lets hope the chill on Casino’s proves permanent.

      1. Jane Twitmyer Avatar
        Jane Twitmyer

        Reed … About who and what to believe …
        Can we believe promises made by Dominion in proposals to secure the Amazon HQ? The Sierra article refers to the presentation made by Fairfax County in which Dominion promised to serve Amazon with all the energy they need from renewable sources.
        What say you?

        1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
          Reed Fawell 3rd

          Well, Jane, that’s easy. Dominion is not telling the truth. This is just another variant of the now endless game of crony capitalism, where all concerned are locked into habit of not telling us normal folks the truth.

          Fact is normal folks typically are played and manipulated like fools, for private advantage by the elite.

          Like, for example. what happened in the Spring and Summer of 2017 in C’ville Virginia. The elite don’t tell the truth to the deplorables or lesser folk anymore, or at least that is case with a growing percentage of the elite.

          These bad habits wax and wane over time. There are always exceptions to that rule, thank goodness. But frankly the problem has always been with us. Good historians know that, for example, although you would be surprised how few good historians there are. That too is always the case, bad historians outnumber the good ones by a vast margin.

  8. European vehicles are much more likely to use diesel than U.S. vehicles. All those black cabs (many have advertising now and aren’t black) in London, for instance are diesel and not cleaned up diesels. The particulate and nitric oxide pollution from diesel tends to be significantly higher from diesel powered cars than from gasoline. Diesel can be cleaned up, but the processes reduce power, add cost, and require maintenance. (This is where Volkswagen cheated.) Diesel does typically produce less greenhouse gas per mile driven, so there is a tradeoff.

    Coal use has been going down in Europe, but is still used for 20% or so of generation. Use is still pretty high in Germany (which has moved away from nuclear) and Poland in particular.

    Tom is probably right that proximity/density and climate may play a role. The U.S. is much more spread out.

    In California, for instance Long Beach, which was cited by Jim, a significant component comes from ships near the ports, and a not insignificant percentage during some periods originates in Asia.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      so the phrase “clean diesel” ??? since VW lied – and others accused also – has apparently disappeared from view?

      The problem with coal in Europe is that unlike the US – supplies of Natural Gas tend to be in the Soviet Union which is making it expensive and difficult to get on a reliable basis. That drives Germany and the rest of Europe back to coal.

      But there is something else and that is that coal is baseload and so are Nukes – they cannot generally ramp up or down quickly and that makes them not good companion fuels for renewables.

      Gas is about the only fuel besides diesel that can ramp up or down in response to varying output of solar/wind.

      without gas – renewables are very difficult because coal/nukes have to run flat out 24/7 to assure reliable power.

      Finally – consider the world inhabited islands (about 700 million on 10,000 islands) . Almost all of them lack native fossil fuels and have to import diesel fuel to generate electricity. My bet is that they contributed a considerable amount of pollutants but because they are islands – they don’t suffer from that pollution.

      1. “so the phrase “clean diesel” ??? since VW lied – and others accused also – has apparently disappeared from view?”

        I think it is recognized that diesel requires more ongoing maintenance to be as clean as gasoline is with a catalytic converter that can go 200k miles. For instance urea tanks have to be filled in diesel. It also reduces power output.

        “But there is something else and that is that coal is baseload and so are Nukes – they cannot generally ramp up or down quickly and that makes them not good companion fuels for renewables.”

        I am not going to argue that nuclear has much of a future since Fukushima, but I don’t think it is correct to say nuclear cannot ramp. It is not as flexible as gas, but it ramps by about 1/3rd in France and can probably go to 50% or so with some upgrades. Given how far we are behind the 8 ball in the de-carbonization race, I still think nuclear could play a role. I respect Tom’s expertise, though, and he seems to think it should not.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          Izzo – my understanding was that brand new VWs right out of the factory failed the emission tests… and they apparently cannot fix it so diesel are going away.

          If Nukes could vary in output – it would compete directly with gas and they simply do not – they’re either all on or all off pretty much and that makes them and coal not compatible with renewables.

          I support Nukes as a baseload fuel over coal – no question but the real issue is how can you incorporate renewables if the baseload generation is not flexible enough to vary in response to varying renewable generation. That’s what is killing Germany and other parts of Europe on solar/wind… when solar/wind dies – what comes online ? You can’t run solar then bring up coal – then take it down when solar comes back so that’s why they are burning a lot more coal now. it has to run 24/7.

          1. Larry, France can a level of load following with its nuclear fleet and that is what I was referencing. You can see online. It can be done but is not as flexible as gas.

            Regarding VW, they used a program that could determine when the car is being tested for emissions vs standard use. The standard use algorithm enabled more power but was dirty. Diesel can be made cleaner but there is a performance tradeoff and it requires expensive ongoing maintenance (e.g. urea tanks). I lived in Europe and my perception was city air was not clean and diesel was a big factor. It could just be me, though. You can actually see particulate emissions from many cars there. That is less common in the U.S.

        2. Izzo,

          Much of what I have written about nuclear units applied to new construction. The experience with the Summer plant in South Carolina and the Vogtle plant in Georgia, provides actual evidence of how outlandishly expensive new nuclear construction can be.

          But that also applies to the cost of refurbishing older units. Many nuclear units around the U.S. closed at the end of their 40-year license because it was not cost-effective to continue operation. Both North Anna and Surry were able to gain a 20-year license extension. But at least $4 billion will be required for retrofits to allow those units to qualify for another 20-year extension. This is several times higher than the cost of alternative methods of providing the same amount of energy.

          Reactors in France have demonstrated the ability to vary their output, but that is not how most nuclear units in the U.S. have historically operated. We are moving to a much more flexible and responsive energy system and the inflexible operation of aging nuclear units are an increasingly bad fit for that future energy system.

          Zero carbon generation by renewables is the lowest cost type of new generation, other than energy efficiency.

          1. Tom, I don’t disagree that nuclear appears finished in the West. If reports are true, though, China is constructing plants for about 1/5th the cost in the West, largely because they still have a functioning supply chain and they can override delay tactics that burden projects elsewhere. They also appear to be making design advances.

          2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
            Reed Fawell 3rd

            I have read about the Chinese move into that market, as well. Concern is that whatever that market is or becomes with new advances, the Chinese will own it, particularly in third world they are eager to penetrate. And they’ll own the new advanced technologies too.

      2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        I understand and appreciate the above discussion re: how various capacities within the grid today might ramp up and down to back-fill, infill, and otherwise supplement, all other technologies within the grid, in ways that, under all conditions, achieve the sweet spot of total reliability at lowest possible cost to rate-payers and other customers. Is this not the central quest, the holy grail?

        And does not this sweet-spot operational capability become increasingly important, indeed absolutely essential, as more and more renewable power comes on line?

        And is it not true that each locale, its power-mix, demand curve, geographic location, and weather variability, impose its own unique criteria for success? Like N. Germany.

        If that be so, it seems to me that these issues must be the overarching problems to solve on our way to hopefully getting safely to the goal of 100% renewable power fueling our grid.

        And that, until then, no one on the grid can claim to operate on 100% renewable power, except for very special circumstances.

        And that, until then, namely, the time we are assured that 100% renewable power is totally safe and secure power for all customers then and into the future, until that wonderful point is reached, I suspect we must move with prudence.

        In that regard, I recall that everyone use to speak of storage as the silver bullet. Where is that now? Perhaps too severing service into independent districts might help. But does that tend to weaken the whole? What else is out there, to get us safely to 100% renewable power?

        In any case, absence speculative breakthroughs, is it not highly premature to be talking about 100% renewable power anytime soon? And, until then, is not the risk of overbuilding it (in lieu, or in replacement, of or without sufficient regard to its backup traditional power), an ever-present risk?

        1. Jane Twitmyer Avatar
          Jane Twitmyer

          “In any case, absence speculative breakthroughs, is it not highly premature to be talking about 100% renewable power anytime soon?”

          Many of us don’t think we need a ‘speculative breakthrough’, especially if we can reduce demand by the 50% that CitiGroup predicted was possible through on-site generation and efficiency, a year or 2 ago. But who is talking about 100% “anytime soon”? What is VA’s number? 6%, or has it gone up a bit because of corporate demand?

          PJM says it can handle 50% renewable energy without a major grid/reliability issue. Let’s aim for that “soon”.

          1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
            Reed Fawell 3rd


            That sums up your position nicely, Jane. Thanks. Glad we got it clear.

            Hope you can’t find a way to cut other peoples’ demand by 50%. After all, non renewable power built this civilization and its wealth and keeps it going and growing.

        2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
          Reed Fawell 3rd

          Now, I think that reality, and its truth, is beginning to emerge.

          The IT high tech industry – players like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and big universities – are rapidly becoming the largest single users of electricity in the world, building and operating cloud and mega-data collection and processing centers, for example.

          Thus, according to leftist environmental theology (which I reject), corporations like Google, Facebook, and Amazon, and the industries that they represent, and big universities too, are emerging as the world’s greatest polluters, daily spewing greenhouse gases up into the atmosphere, causing the growing onslaught of global warming that is said to now threaten our planet.

          If you believe this theology, then players like Google, Facebook, and Amazon, and big universities too, have two choices, namely:

          1/ players like Google, Facebook, and Amazon, and universities too can shut down their huge cloud and data processing centers, and stop building new ones, in order to save our planet.

          2/ Or Google, Facebook, Amazon, and big universities too can falsely claim that they operate solely on renewable energy. Hence, using these falsehoods, we get flooded with false statements like this one:

          “Companies, especially IT, have “stepped up their purchases of wind, solar and other clean energy this year, at a pace that far outstrips 2017. Amazon has bought more than 1.22 gigawatts of output to date from US clean-energy projects, second only to Alphabet Inc.’s Google, with 1.85 gigawatts. Google, the world’s largest corporate buyer of renewable energy, is now powering its entire global operation—including both data centers and offices—with 100 percent renewable energy.” (BNEF)

          And you also get deeply and irrevocably flawed editorials like this one found at:

          All of these claims by Facebook, Amazon, Google, and big universities, as best I can discern from our discussions here on this BR blog, are directly contrary to the truth. And they will be directly contrary to the truth far into the future, as best as I can tell.

          Why can’t we all just start telling each other the truth about what is really going on here in this world we all share?

          1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
            Reed Fawell 3rd

            Let’s try to describe the problem with renewable power in another more simple way:

            Absent a very significant technological breakthrough, we will get to the point where 100% renewable power can fuel the total needs of our growing civilization and its economies worldwide when the Sun Shines and the Winds Blow constantly and always without fail for 24 hours a day 7 days a week.

            And when that happens, even then, renewable power may not generate enough power for our needs.


            Because if folks like Google, Facebook, Amazon, the big universities, and all the other new folks who follow them, keep on expanding their needs for electric power by building ever more and larger cloud and data collection and processing centers worldwide, and other new technologies that follow in their wake, our needs by then could easily outrun our then capacity. So we would end up like Germany now.

            So meanwhile, we must be prudent. And we must work hard on technological breakthroughs that totally change the games we play.

          2. Reed,

            You say “Hope you can’t find a way to cut other peoples’ demand by 50%. After all, non renewable power built this civilization and its wealth and keeps it going and growing.”

            You, as many of us participating on this blog, experienced the growth of this nation’s industrial and economic power in the second half of the 20th century, propelled by the increasing use of energy, mostly from fossil fuels.

            For the past several hundred years, the world has been using its savings account of ancient sunlight stored as fossil fuels. Even though there is still some left in the account, we are realizing that it makes more sense to begin living off our energy “income” as do other forms of life on earth.

            It is time for us to reset our notion of “progress”. In the last century, we considered greater energy use as a sign of progress because it helped us build the economic structure we have today. Going forward, the most vibrant economies will be those that use less energy to produce more goods and services.

            A group of data center owners wrote to the SCC and said that, although they intend to keep building data centers in Virginia, the total energy use by all of the data centers in the state will stabilize or decline as a result of increased energy efficiency in their operations. Our entire tech industry is built upon doing more with less. This pattern is beginning to be applied in other sectors as well.

            The “we use 100% renewable energy” claim is bookkeeping scheme, not a reality; but our entire energy system overseen by PJM works in the same way. One REC is equivalent to 1 MWh of energy produced by a renewable source (solar, wind, hydro, etc.). If you own RECs equal to your total usage of electricity you can claim that your use is from 100% renewable sources. The REC is a proxy, not the actual energy. It is not possible to identify the actual source of the electricity you use. Electricity does not flow as water does.

            Think of it this way. If four people each poured a quart of water into a bucket and you took a quart of water back out, you would not be taking the same water that you put in, but it would be the same amount. That’s how RECs generated with solar during the daylight hours can offset energy used at night that is obviously generated some other way. A substantial amount of wind energy is generated at night, but the output is still mixed with other sources in the grid to which your meter is connected.

            We are in a new energy era. What we did in the past will not serve us as well in the future.

          3. Jane Twitmyer Avatar
            Jane Twitmyer

            I can only say that you must skip read to reach your conclusions … That IT companies are spewing and lying about what they do. What they are doing is investing in renewable energy because they are aware of the problem of the amount of electricity the require. Why do you think Dominion is building all that utility scale solar? Our IT companies require Dominion to sign those Green tariffs equal to the amount of energy they will use.
            It is required and Dominion has gone so far as to promise all the renewable energy it can use to our new IT company headquarters in Arlington. Had to make that promise in order to secure the deal.
            Now do tell why you can name the BNEF statements as lies. Do you have other information? Yes IT companies are very big users of electricity. They are also very big purchasers of renewable energy.

  9. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    Izzo says: Coal use is still pretty high in Germany (which has moved away from nuclear) and Poland in particular.”

    Yes, and I understand that Germany moved away from nuclear far too quick. Contrary to their planning, the newly built renewable plants were too inefficient and unreliable to fill the resultant gap left by the shut down nuclear plants. So the Germans had to build new coal plants on emergency basis to fill the gap, and also ran to Russia for a new gas deal to restore the economy’s reliable electric power. In addition to that debacle, the German homeowners electric bills went through the roof, causing a political uproar, and the electric bills of Germany’s industrial and commercial users also soared, injuring the German economy, their GDP. Last time I looked the cost problem remained unresolved. That was a year or two ago.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      In his comment immediately below TBill says:

      “Personally I would say Chemophobia has become the No. 1 weapon for environmental groups and many liberals. So as long as Americans are willing to get sucked into that hysteria, and many are, then we have a problem.”

      I agree, gross abuse by environmentalists of Chemophobia also has been my ‘personal’ experience working with environmentalists. Hysteria is far too often what they are after, trying to gin up and incite hysteria in others. To do that they need to create, often out of thin air, artificial or highly dubious problems that ignite primal fears in other people while the untruths claimed the spark those fears are hard to disprove. Thus the professional tactics of environmentalists are all too often about building false problems magnified by echo clambers that cascade peoples emotions and fears, stampeding those people into blind herds going over cliffs.

      The great scholar Cass Sunstein wrote about how this technique powered the Love Canal Hoax and set off the Superfund debacle that ended up wasting tens of billions of public monies. His study of the Love Canal debacle and other contemporary hoaxes is “Availability Cascades and Risk Regulation” by Cass R. Sunstein and Timur Kuran published 2007 by University of Chicago Law School.

      Another informative and very recent article on this subject is found at:

  10. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: ” But climate is a religion that goes beyond science”

    yes indeed. virtually every scientist on earth believes it so does DOD, NASA, NOAA and most major corporations…

    the real question is – do you have to see proof before you believe?

    that’s apparently the standard with skeptics because if a scientists predicts a hurricane will hit someplace and it doesn’t it means he’s incompetent or a lying SOB seeking “power”…. or “control”…. such foolishness.

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      Larry – your comparisons of climate science to the prediction of the track of an individual hurricane’s path just are not valid. A better comparison would be the annual prediction of NOAA (and other “scientific entities”) as to the likely number and severity of hurricanes for an upcoming season. Ditto for the predictions for a coming winter season.

      Sometimes the predictions an active or less active season are right. But quite often they are wrong. Ditto for winter predictions (a cold and snowy season for the mid-Atlantic) or tornado seasons (a quiet season for the Midwest). We generally have much less confidence in these longer range predictions/forecasts than we do for predictions of the path of an excepted storm, its expected amounts of precipitation or the expected wind speeds. And quite often, when a seasonal prediction is way off, the predictors get some criticism.

      Most scientists as well as the public tend to believe that the further into the future a prediction is made or the broader nature of the area subject to the prediction, the more likely there will be errors. And there is often some disagreement among various forecasters.

      Yet, we turn to climate globally looking decades into the future and we are to believe that all of the predictions must be true. Everyone must hold the same belief and any missed predictions are to be ignored. Similarly, only evidence that supports a prediction can be considered.

      This is not science. This political propaganda. This is about power, control and money.

      I’m not arguing that human behavior cannot affect climate over time. Nor am I arguing against renewable energy. I am arguing against intentional fraud, misrepresentation and suppression of contrary evidence, as well ignoring scientific method.

      Publish any contrary data and missed predictions. Then let’s have open debate.

      1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        TMT –

        Your comment above is right on target. And it looks like the latest effort by 13 US government agencies, some 1600 pages of report written by some 300 scientists is indecipherable, namely:

        “a poorly organized, over-lengthy piece of junk that hardly fills one with confidence in the motives of its authors. And that goes double for the reporters and headline writers who pronounced doom based on a report they apparently didn’t make the slightest attempt to understand.” See Holman Jenkins, Climate Change is Affordable, in today’s Wall Street Journal, Nov. 28, 2018. And it is just the beginning.

        Also of note in today’s WSJ is this telling comment:

        “The US has become a world Leader in reducing emissions in recent years as booming natural gas production helped the U.S move away from burning more carbon rich coal.” See U.N. Says Emissions Pledges Fall Short by Timothy Puko.

        This observation is thanks, of course, in no small part to our nation’s growing network of natural gas pipelines, which help America to be the number 1 world leader in reducing our nation’s greenhouse gases. In fact, growing natural gas production is the key that empowers and makes possible our growth of more renewable power in this country, that would otherwise fail the nation without its growing gas supply.

        Then of course there is Walter Russell Mead’s fine article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal titled “How American Fracking Changes the World.” Thank our lucky stars for fracking. We’d be in deep trouble without it. Yet another wonderful generator of blessings achieved through the genius of US technology, Americans who get things done for all of our benefit.

  11. I agree with Izzo that diesel is probably a big part of the EU air quality problem, and probably a big part of remaining pollution in the USA, along with coal.

    Personally I would say Chemophobia has become the No. 1 weapon for environmental groups and many liberals. So as long as Americans are willing to get sucked into that hysteria, and many are, then we have a problem.

    1. One reason for cleaner air in the USA is that gasoline-fueled cars are now much, much cleaner.

      The 3-way automobile catalytic converter is a modern miracle, virtually eliminating CO, NOx, and hydrocarbon emissions. Furthermore, the EPA has mandated ultra-low sulfur gasoline, which has now penetrated most of the market, and the lower sulfur really boosts the effectiveness of the 3-way cat converter.

      The implication of this is, The special reformulated gasoline we currently use in NoVA and Hampton Roads (which costs another +20-30 cents per gallon vs. conventional gaso) has probably served its purpose and may be less important now. I believe there is some thought to new gasoline standards– the Autos want a higher octane in Regular to enable higher MPGs. Of course, nothing is easy…the Ethanol Lobby insists that any octane increase should come solely from increased use of ethanol, but of course, the basic purpose of an oil refinery is to increase octane, so more ethanol is not the only answer.

      Unfortunately diesel vehicles have proven less “easy” to clean up versus gasoline vehicles.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        Yes.. the regulation on sulfur and NOx has resulted in cleaner air and they do allow different formulations in response to the seasons but even then there are still cities in the US that will have problems if the regs are reduced. What they’ve also done – is allow the formulations to change by region and that further complicates – and makes more expensive.

        In the end – the question is if we reduce regulation does the air quality get worse in some cities? If the answer is yes – then should we de-regulate anyhow because other cities are “clean”? That’s the basic argument being made by those that want the regs rolled back.

  12. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Let’s see. Belgium is about the size of, well, err Maryland? Of course I see the relevance!

  13. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    “Everybody from Greenpeace to student activist Greta Thunberg to Green New Dealer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) says we have to transition from fossil fuels to renewables in order to save the climate.

    But if solar and wind are substitutes for fossil fuels, why are the world’s biggest oil and gas firms promoting them?

    Over the last three years, the five largest publicly-traded oil and gas companies, ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron, BP, and Total invested a whopping one billion dollars into advertising and lobbying for renewables and other climate-related ventures.

    Their ad blitz has targeted the global elite in airports and on Twitter. “Natural gas is the perfect partner for renewables,” say airport ads run by Norwegian oil and gas giant Statoil. “See why #natgas is a natural partner for renewable power sources,” tweets Shell.

    No sooner had I landed in Germany, for 2017 U.N. climate talks, when I was confronted by airport ads paid for by Total, the French oil and gas company reading, “Committed to Solar” and “Committed to Natural Gas.”

    All of which raises the question: why, if renewable energy advocates are defenders of the climate, are they working with the oil and gas industry to replace zero-pollution nuclear plants with fossil fuels?”

    Should you want to know the answer to the dirty little secret go to:

  14. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    A major new investigative report by the German newsweekly Der Spiegel describes how the so-called Energiewende, or renewable energy transition, is failing. Here, as I stated many times before, we can see America’s future with renewable energy too.

    As reported by Michael Shellenberger in this months Forbes (May 6):

    “Over the last decade, journalists have held up Germany’s renewables energy transition, the Energiewende, as an environmental model for the world.

    “Many poor countries, once intent on building coal-fired power plants to bring electricity to their people, are discussing whether they might leapfrog the fossil age and build clean grids from the outset,” thanks to the Energiewende, wrote a New York Times reporter in 2014.

    With Germany as inspiration, the United Nations and World Bank poured billions into renewables like wind, solar, and hydro in developing nations like Kenya.

    But then, last year, Germany was forced to acknowledge that it had to delay its phase-out of coal, and would not meet its 2020 greenhouse gas reduction commitments. It announced plans to bulldoze an ancient church and forest in order to get at the coal underneath it.

    After renewables investors and advocates, including Al Gore and Greenpeace, criticized Germany, journalists came to the country’s defense. “Germany has fallen short of its emission targets in part because its targets were so ambitious,” one of them argued last summer.

    “If the rest of the world made just half Germany’s effort, the future for our planet would look less bleak,” she wrote. “So Germany, don’t give up. And also: Thank you.”

    But Germany didn’t just fall short of its climate targets. Its emissions have flat-lined since 2009.

    Now comes a major article in the country’s largest newsweekly magazine, Der Spiegel, titled, “A Botched Job in Germany” (“Murks in Germany”). The magazine’s cover shows broken wind turbines and incomplete electrical transmission towers against a dark silhouette of Berlin.

    “The Energiewende — the biggest political project since reunification — threatens to fail,” write Der Spiegel’s Frank Dohmen, Alexander Jung, Stefan Schultz, Gerald Traufetter in their a 5,700-word investigative story (the article can be read in English here).

    Over the past five years alone, the Energiewende has cost Germany €32 billion ($36 billion) annually, and opposition to renewables is growing in the German countryside.

    “The politicians fear citizen resistance” Der Spiegel reports. “There is hardly a wind energy project that is not fought.”

    In response, politicians sometimes order “electrical lines be buried underground but that is many times more expensive and takes years longer.”

    As a result, the deployment of renewables and related transmission lines is slowing rapidly. Less than half as many wind turbines (743) were installed in 2018 as were installed in 2017, and just 30 kilometers of new transmission were added in 2017.

    Solar and wind advocates say cheaper solar panels and wind turbines will make the future growth in renewables cheaper than past growth but there are reasons to believe the opposite will be the case.

    Der Spiegel cites a recent estimate that it would cost Germany “€3.4 trillion ($3.8 trillion),” or seven times more than it spent from 2000 to 2025, to increase solar and wind three to five-fold by 2050.

    Between 2000 and 2018, Germany grew renewables from 7% to 35% of its electricity. And as much of Germany’s renewable electricity comes from biomass, which scientists view as polluting and environmentally degrading, as from solar.

    Of the 7,700 new kilometers of transmission lines needed, only 8% have been built, while large-scale electricity storage remains inefficient and expensive. “A large part of the energy used is lost,” the reporters note of a much-hyped hydrogen gas project, “and the efficiency is below 40%… No viable business model can be developed from this.”

    Meanwhile, the 20-year subsidies granted to wind, solar, and biogas since 2000 will start coming to an end next year. “The wind power boom is over,” Der Spiegel concludes.

    All of which raises a question: if renewables can’t cheaply power Germany, one of the richest and most technologically advanced countries in the world, how could a developing nation like Kenya ever expect them to allow it to “leapfrog” fossil fuels?

    The Question of Technology

    The earliest and most sophisticated 20th Century case for renewables came from a German who is widely considered the most influential philosopher of the 20th Century, Martin Heidegger.

    In his 1954 essay, “The Question Concerning of Technology,” Heidegger condemned the view of nature as a mere resource for human consumption.

    The use of “modern technology,” he wrote, “puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy which can be extracted and stored as such… Air is now set upon to yield nitrogen, the earth to yield ore, ore to yield uranium…to yield atomic energy.”

    The solution, Heidegger argued, was to yoke human society and its economy to unreliable energy flows. He even condemned hydro-electric dams, for dominating the natural environment, and praised windmills because they “do not unlock energy in order to store it.”

    These weren’t just aesthetic preferences. Windmills have traditionally been useful to farmers whereas large dams have allowed poor agrarian societies to industrialize.

    In the US, Heidegger’s views were picked up by renewable energy advocates. Barry Commoner in 1969 argued that a transition to renewables was needed to bring modern civilization “into harmony with the ecosphere.”

    The goal of renewables was to turn modern industrial societies back into agrarian ones, argued Murray Bookchin in his 1962 book, Our Synthetic Environment.

    Bookchin admitted his proposal “conjures up an image of cultural isolation and social stagnation, of a journey backward in history to the agrarian societies of the medieval and ancient worlds.”

    But then, starting around the year 2000, renewables started to gain a high-tech luster. Governments and private investors poured $2 trillion into solar and wind and related infrastructure, creating the impression that renewables were profitable aside from subsidies.

    Entrepreneurs like Elon Musk proclaimed that a rich, high-energy civilization could be powered by cheap solar panels and electric cars.

    Journalists reported breathlessly on the cost declines in batteries, imagining a tipping point at which conventional electricity utilities would be “disrupted.”

    But no amount of marketing could change the poor physics of resource-intensive and land-intensive renewables. Solar farms take 450 times more land than nuclear plants, and wind farms take 700 times more land than natural gas wells, to produce the same amount of energy.

    Efforts to export the Energiewende to developing nations may prove even more devastating.

    The new wind farm in Kenya, inspired and financed by Germany and other well-meaning Western nations, is located on a major flight path of migratory birds. Scientists say it will kill hundreds of endangered eagles.

    “It’s one of the three worst sites for a wind farm that I’ve seen in Africa in terms of its potential to kill threatened birds,” a biologist explained.

    In response, the wind farm’s developers have done what Europeans have long done in Africa, which is to hire the organizations, which ostensibly represent the doomed eagles and communities, to collaborate rather than fight the project.

    Kenya won’t be able to “leapfrog” fossil fuels with its wind farm. On the contrary, all of that unreliable wind energy is likely to increase the price of electricity and make Kenya’s slow climb out of poverty even slower.

    Heidegger, like much of the conservation movement, would have hated what the Energiewende has become: an excuse for the destruction of natural landscapes and local communities.

    Opposition to renewables comes from the country peoples that Heidegger idolized as more authentic and “grounded” than urbane cosmopolitan elites who fetishize their solar roofs and Teslas as signs of virtue.

    Germans, who will have spent $580 billion on renewables by 2025, express great pride in the Energiewende. “It’s our gift to the world,” a renewables advocate told The Times.

    Tragically, many Germans appear to have believed that the billions they spent on renewables would redeem them. “Germans would then at last feel that they have gone from being world-destroyers in the 20th century to world-saviors in the 21st,” noted a reporter.

    Many Germans will, like Der Spiegel, claim the renewables transition was merely “botched,” but it wasn’t. The transition to renewables was doomed because modern industrial people, no matter how Romantic they are, do not want to return to pre-modern life.

    The reason renewables can’t power modern civilization is because they were never meant to. One interesting question is why anybody ever thought they could.”


  15. Reed,
    I would like to give you some additional information to ponder to balance against the information Mr. Shellenberger has presented in the Forbes articles that you referenced.

    Mr. Shellenberger says that nuclear power is a source of “cheap energy in unlimited quantities.” In my early years in the utility industry, they said nuclear energy would be “too cheap to meter.” None of these forecasts turned out to be true. Rather than being a solution, the nuclear units built in the U.S. were a major part of the problem. Combined with the oil shocks in the 70s and 80s, the huge cost overruns of the nuclear units built during this period shifted the utility industry from a decreasing unit cost business to an increasing unit cost business.

    For nearly 100 years, adding a larger, more modern generating unit decreased the unit price of electricity. In the 70s and 80s, many of the new baseload power plants added throughout the country were nuclear units. The enormous size and multi-billion dollar price tags for these units boosted our energy prices considerably. Since that time, adding conventional generation of any type increases our cost of electricity. Our utility industry has not yet come to grips with this sea change in the fundamental nature of their business.

    Mr. Shellenberger notes that “after investing $33 billion over the last decade to add more solar and wind to the grid, France had to use less nuclear and more natural gas.” If you recall, the estimate for one single reactor, North Anna 3, was over $29 billion. That was several years ago and decades in advance of its scheduled operation. The current estimate might well be over $33 billion for a single reactor.

    France will be in a world of trouble as its nuclear fleet ages and requires refurbishment or replacement. Its vaunted state-owned nuclear company has struggled to bring nuclear units it is developing in other countries in on schedule and on budget.

    Often ignored are the huge subsidies that nuclear power requires. They are the largest subsidies of any type of generation. The large tax breaks and failure to price in the externalities associated with extraction and fuel use put fossil energy in second place. The much smaller subsidies for solar and wind are phasing out next year.

    New nuclear plants qualify for production tax credits similar to wind generation. Federal loan guarantees are often instrumental in supporting the construction of nuclear units. Such guarantees can be important. Due to the history of massive cost overruns, and because existing nuclear units are proving to be noncompetitive in wholesale energy markets, banks are wary of lending for nuclear projects. Industry estimates indicate that proposed loan guarantees alone would save an American utility at least $13 billion over 30 years in the financing a modern nuclear reactor. Even with such guarantees, rating agencies have said they would downgrade any company investing in new nuclear units because such projects were “bet the farm gambles.”

    By far the largest subsidy for the nuclear industry is the Price-Anderson Act, which off-loads much of the liability for a nuclear accident onto the American taxpayer. The Act limits the total liability of a nuclear plant operator in the event of an accident. Owners of nuclear plants now pay $450 million each year for each reactor site (not each reactor). In the event of a nuclear accident, each owner would be assessed a prorated share of the damages in excess of $450 million, up to $131 million per reactor. With 98 reactors in the insurance pool, this second tier of coverage provides about $12.9 billion. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission also requires licensees to have a minimum of $1.06 billion in onsite property insurance at each nuclear facility, which might include more than one reactor.

    The coverage provided by private insurance under the current scheme is not enough to cover the possible damage from a nuclear accident. That is why the Price-Anderson Act excludes nuclear accidents from all U.S. property and liability policies.

    Based on the experience from the Fukushima plant, cost estimates for a nuclear accident could range from $20 – $525 billion. This results in a range of the real insurance cost from the lifetime generation of electricity from nuclear plants of between $0.22 – $5.78 /kWh which is currently subsidized by taxpayers, but not included in the costs of electricity.

    The Price-Anderson Act was originally authorized only until 1967, when it was expected that the nuclear industry could demonstrate an adequate safety record to attract private insurers. Industry officials have continued to seek extensions of the Act, without which, they said the commercial nuclear industry would die. The current liability limits are due to expire in 2025.

    The low cost of nuclear fuel is often mentioned as an advantage of nuclear units, comprising just 14% of the levelized cost of energy for nuclear units. Nuclear fuel has been priced well below the cost of production for a long time due to price supports by the Russians. Nuclear fuel costs are now rising and high quality fuel used in American reactors is beginning to be in short supply. The fuel percentage of total costs of energy rises to 34% when the cost of spent fuel management is included.

    The nuclear industry has been socially irresponsible in putting off dealing with nuclear waste issues for nearly 60 years after the first commercial reactors began operation. Rather than finding a safe, dependable means of storing nuclear wastes for the more than ten thousand years required for the longer half-life materials, we are content to indefinitely leave highly radioactive wastes in spent fuel pools and reactor vessels in the nearly 100 reactors scattered throughout the U.S., many near large population centers.

    Mr. Shellenberger fails to take into account the true cost of carbon capture from nuclear units compared to available alternatives. The cost of carbon abatement using nuclear units, according to a 2010 study, could exceed $200 a ton. Prices would be much higher now based on the recent experience of the Summer and Vogtle projects.

    Good energy efficiency projects are priced at 2-3 cents/kWh, a little more than the production tax credit for new nuclear units. They provide 24-hour/365 days of energy savings, even better than the capacity factor of nuclear units.

    Shellenberger says “The reason renewables can’t power modern civilization is because they were never meant to. One interesting question is why anybody ever thought they could.”

    We once had the Stone Age that transitioned into the Industrial/Mechanical Age. Our current energy systems are based on that old technology. Edison would recognize most of the devices we currently use in our electrical system. Life on earth exists because of the interaction of the energy of the sun with our atmosphere. Some forms of life capture and store that energy, which is then transformed and transported throughout the ecosystem. We will create a more vibrant economy and healthier social system when we learn to live off our energy income rather than deplete our energy savings account. Many technologies and new habits will make the transformation to a Biological Age possible. We will enter a new era when we learn to mimic the sustainable systems that have existed for eons on Earth. We have spent centuries fighting against how natural systems operate, and made many advances and a mess in the process. First, we must let go of our outdated mindset and open to new possibilities.

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