Wind Energy: Balancing the Demand

In recent years, exponential demand for new U.S. wind energy-generating facilities has nearly doubled America’s installed wind generation. By the end of 2007, our nation’s total wind capacity stood at more than 16,000 megawatts (MW) – enough to power more than 4.5 million average American homes each year. And in 2007 alone, America’s new wind capacity grew 45 percent over the previous year – a record 5,244 MW of new projects and more new generating capacity than any other single electricity resource contributed in the same year. At the same time, wind-related employment nearly doubled in the United States during 2007, totaling 20,000 jobs. At more than $9 billion in cumulative investment, wind also pumped new life into regional economies hard hit by the recent economic downturn. [1]

The rapid development of wind installations in the United States comes in response to record-breaking demand driven by a confluence of factors: overwhelming consumer demand for clean, renewable energy; skyrocketing oil prices; power costs that compete with natural gas-fired power plants; and state legislatures that are competing to lure new jobs and wind power developments to their states. Despite these favorable conditions, the wind energy industry has been unable to meet America’s true demand for new wind energy-generating facilities. The barriers include the following: availability of key materials, the ability to manufacture large key components and the accessibility of skilled factory workers.

With the proper policies and related investments in infrastructure and workforce development, the United States stands to become a powerhouse exporter of wind power equipment, a wind technology innovator and a wind-related job creation engine. Escalating demand for wind energy is spurred by wind’s competitive cost against rising fossil fuel prices and mounting concerns over the environment, climate change and energy security.

Meanwhile, market trends and projections point to strong, continued demand for wind well into the future. Over the past decade, a similar surge in wind energy demand has taken place in the European Union (E.U.) countries. Wind power capacity there currently totals more than 50,000 MW, with projections that wind could provide at least 15 percent of the E.U.’s electricity by 2020 – amounting to an installed wind capacity of 180,000 MW and an estimated workforce of more than 200,000 people in wind power manufacturing, installation and maintenance jobs.

How is it, then, that European countries were able to secure the necessary parts and people while the United States fell short in its efforts on these fronts? After all, America has a bigger land mass and a larger, more high-quality wind resource than the E.U. countries. Indeed, the United States is already home to the world’s largest wind farms, including the 735-MW Horse Hollow Wind Energy Center in Texas, which generates power for about 230,000 average homes each year. What’s more, this country also has an extensive manufacturing base, a skilled labor pool and a pressing need to address energy and climate challenges.

So what’s missing? In short, robust national policy support – a prerequisite for strong, long-term investment in the sector. Such support would enable the industry to secure long lead-time materials and sufficient ramp-up to train and employ workers to continue wind power’s surging growth. Thus, the United States must rise to the occasion and assemble several key, interrelated puzzle pieces – policy, parts and people – if it’s to tap the full potential of wind energy.

POLICY: LONG-TERM SUPPORT AND INVESTMENT

In the United States, the federal government has played a key role in funding research and development, commercialization and large-scale deployment of most of the energy sources we rely on today. The oil and natural gas industry has enjoyed permanent subsidies and tax credits that date back to 1916 when Congress created the first tax breaks for oil and gas production. The coal industry began receiving similar support in 1932 with the passage of the first depletion allowances that enabled mining companies to deduct the value of coal removed from a mine from their taxable revenue.

Still in effect today, these incentives were designed to spur exploration and extraction of oil, gas and coal, and have since evolved to include such diverse mechanisms as royalty relief for resources developed on public lands; accelerated depreciation for investments in projects like pipelines, drilling rigs and refineries; and ongoing support for technology R&D and commercialization, such as the Department of Energy’s now defunct FutureGen program for coal research, its Deep Trek program for natural gas development and the VortexFlow SX tool for low-producing oil and gas wells.

For example, the 2005 energy bill passed by Congress provided more than $2 billion in tax relief for the oil and gas industry to encourage investment in exploration and distribution infrastructure. [2] The same bill also provided an expansion of existing support for coal, which in 2003 had a 10-year value of more than $3 billion. Similarly, the nuclear industry receives extensive support for R&D – the 2008 federal budget calls for more than $500 million in support for nuclear research – as well as federal indemnity that helps lower its insurance premiums. [3]

Over the past 15 years, the wind power industry has also enjoyed federal support, with a small amount of funding for R&D (the federal FY 2006 budget allotted $38 million for wind research) and the bulk of federal support taking the form of the Production Tax Credit (PTC) for wind power generation. The PTC has helped make wind energy more cost-competitive with other federally subsidized energy sources; just as importantly, its relatively routine renewal by Congress has created conditions under which market participants have grown accustomed to its effect on wind power finance.

However, in contrast to its consistent policies for coal, natural gas and nuclear power, Congress has never granted longterm approval to the wind power PTC. For more than a decade, in fact, Congress has failed to extend the PTC for longer than two years. And in three different years, the credit was allowed to expire with substantial negative consequences for the industry. Each year that the PTC has expired, major suppliers have had to, in the words of one senior wind power executive, “shut down their factories, lay off their people and go home.”

In 2000, 2002 and 2004, the expiration of the PTC sent wind development plummeting, with an almost complete collapse of the industry in 2000. If the PTC is allowed to expire at the end of 2008, American Wind Energy Associates (AWEA) estimates that as many as 75,000 domestic jobs could be lost as the industry slows production of turbines and power consumers reduce demand for new wind power projects.

The last three years have seen tenuous progress, with Congress extending the PTC for one and then two years; however, the wind industry is understandably concerned about these short-term extensions. Of significant importance is the corresponding effect a long-term or permanent extension of the PTC would have on the U.S. manufacturing sector and related investment activity. For starters, it would put the industry on an even footing with its competitors in the fossil fuels and nuclear industries. More importantly, it would send a clear signal to the U.S. manufacturing community that wind power is a solid, long-term investment.

PARTS: UNLEASHING THE NEXT MANUFACTURING BOOM

To fully grasp the trickle-down effects of an uncertain PTC on the wind power and related manufacturing industries, one must understand the industrial scale of a typical wind power development. Today’s wind turbines represent the largest rotating machinery in the world: a modern-day, 1.5-megawatt machine towers more than 300 feet above the ground with blades that out-span the wings of a 747 jetliner, and a typical utility-scale wind farm will include anywhere from 30 to 200 of these machines, planted in rows or staggered lines across the landscape.

The sheer size and scope of a utility-scale wind farm demands a sophisticated and established network of heavy equipment and parts manufacturers can fulfill orders in a timely fashion. Representing a familiar process for anyone who’s worked in a steel mill, forgery, gear-works or similar industrial facility, the manufacture of each turbine requires massive, rolled steel tubes for the tower; a variety of bearings and related components for lubricity in the drive shaft and hub; cast steel for housings and superstructure; steel forgings for shafts and gears; gearboxes for torque transmission; molded fiberglass, carbon fiber or hybrid blades; and electronic components for controls, monitoring and other functions.

U.S. manufacturers have extensive experience making all of these components for other end-use applications, and many have even succeeded in becoming suppliers to the wind industry. For example, Ameron International – a Pasadena, Calif.-based maker of industrial steel pipes, poles and related coatings – converted an aging heavy-steel fabrication plant in Fontana, Calif., to make wind towers. At 80 meters tall, 4.8 meters in diameter and weighing in at 200 tons, a wind tower requires large production facilities that have high up-front capital costs. By converting an existing facility, Ameron was able to capture a key and rapidly growing segment of the U.S. wind market in high-wind Western states while maintaining its position in other markets for its steel products.

Other manufacturers have also seen the opportunity that wind development presents and have taken similar steps. For example, Beaird Co. Ltd, a Shreveport, La.-based metal fabrication and machined parts manufacturer, supplies towers to the Midwest, Texas and Florida wind markets, as does DMI Industries from facilities in Fargo, N.D., and Tulsa, Okla.

But the successful conversion of existing manufacturing facilities to make parts for the wind industry belies an underlying challenge: investment in new manufacturing capacity to serve the wind industry is hindered by the lack of a clear policy framework. Even at wind’s current growth rates and with the resulting pent-up domestic demand for parts, the U.S. manufacturing sector is understandably reticent to invest in new production capacity.

The cause for this reticence is depicted graphically in Figure 1. With the stop-and-go nature of the PTC regarding U.S. wind development, and the consistent demand for their products in other end-use sectors, American manufacturers have strong disincentives to invest in new capital projects targeting the wind industry. It can take two to six years to build a new factory and 15 or more years to recapture the investment. The one- to two-year investment cycle of the U.S. wind industry is therefore only attractive to players who are comfortable with the risk and can manage wind as a marginal customer rather than an anchor tenant. This means that over the long haul, the United States could be legislating itself out of the “renewables” space, which arguably has a potential of several trillion dollars of global infrastructure.

The result in the marketplace: the United States ends up importing many of the large manufactured parts that go into a modern wind turbine – translating to a missed opportunity for domestic manufacturers that could be claiming a larger chunk of the underdeveloped U.S. wind market. As the largest consumer of electricity on earth, the United States also represents the biggest untapped market for wind power. At the end of 2007, with multiple successive years of 30 to 40 percent growth, wind power claimed just 1 percent of the U.S. electricity market. The raw potential for wind power in the United States is three times our total domestic consumption, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration; if supply chain issues weren’t a problem, wind power could feasibly grow to supply as much as 20 to 30 percent of our $330 billion annual domestic electricity market. At 20 percent of domestic energy supply, the United States would need 300,000 MW of installed wind power capacity – an amount that would take 20 to 30 years of sustained manufacturing and development to achieve. But that would require growth well above our current pace of 4,000 to 5,000 MW annually – growth that simply isn’t possible given current supply constraints.

Of course, that’s just the U.S. market. Global wind development is set to more than triple by 2015, with cumulative installed capacity expected to rise from approximately 91 gigawatts (GW) by the end of 2007 to more than 290 GW by the end of 2015, according to forecasts by Emerging Energy Research (EER). Annual MW added for global wind power is expected to increase more than 50 percent, from approximately 17.5 GW in 2007 to more than 30 GW in 2015, according to EER’s forecasts. [4]

By offering the wind power industry the same long-term tax benefits enjoyed by other energy sources, Congress could trigger a wave of capital investment in new manufacturing capacity and turn the United States from a net importer of wind power equipment to a net exporter. But extending the PTC is not the final step: as much as any other component, a robust wind manufacturing sector needs skilled and dedicated people.

PEOPLE: RECLAIMING OUR MANUFACTURING ROOTS

In 2003, the National Association of Manufacturers released a study outlining many of the challenges facing our domestic manufacturing base. “Keeping America Competitive – how a Talent Shortage Threatens U.S. Manufacturing” highlights the loss of skilled manufacturing workers to foreign competitors, the problem of an aging workforce and a shift to a more urban, high tech economy and culture.

In particular, the study notes a number of “image” problems for the manufacturing industry. To wit: Among a geographically, ethnically and socio-economically diverse set of respondents – ranging from students, parents and teachers to policy analysts, public officials, union leaders, and manufacturing employees and executives – the sector’s image was found to be heavily loaded with negative connotations (and universally tied to the old “assembly line” stereotype) and perceived to be in a state of decline.

When asked to describe the images associated with a career in manufacturing, student respondents offered phrases such as “serving a life sentence,” being “on a chain gang” or a “slave to the line,” and even being a “robot.” Even more telling, most adult respondents said that people “just have no idea” of manufacturing’s contribution to the American economy.

The effect of this “sector fatigue” can be seen across the Rust Belt in the aging factories, retiring workforce and depressed communities being heavily impacted by America’s turn away from manufacturing. Wind power may be uniquely positioned to help reverse this trend. A growing number of America’s young people are concerned about environmental issues, such as pollution and global warming, and want to play a role in solving these problems. With the lure of good-paying jobs in an industry committed to environmental quality and poised for tremendous growth, wind power may provide an answer to manufacturers looking to lure and retain top talent.

We’ve already seen that you don’t need a large wind power resource in your state to enjoy the economic benefits of wind’s surging growth: whether it’s rolled steel from Louisiana and Oklahoma, gear boxes and cables from Wisconsin and New Hampshire, electronic components from Massachusetts and Vermont, or substations and blades from Ohio and Florida, the wind industry’s needs for manufactured parts – and the skilled labor that makes them – is massive, distributed and growing by the day.

UNLEASHING THE POWER OF EVOLUTION

The wind power industry offers a unique opportunity for revitalizing America’s manufacturing sector, creating vibrant job growth in currently depressed regions and tapping new export markets for American- made parts. For utilities and energy consumers, wind power provides a hedge against volatile energy costs and harvests one of our most abundant natural resources for energy security.

The time for wind power is now. As mankind has evolved, so too have our primary sources of energy: from the burning of wood and animal dung to whale oil and coal; to petroleum, natural gas and nuclear fuels; and (now) to wind turbines. The shift to wind power represents a natural evolution and progression that will provide both the United States and the world with critical economic, environmental and technological solutions. As energy technologies continue to evolve and mature, wind power will soon be joined by solar power, ocean current power and even hydrogen as cost-competitive solutions to our pressing energy challenges.

ENDNOTES

  1. “American Wind Energy Association 2007 Market Report” (January 2008). www.awea.org/Market_Report_Jan08.pdf
  2. Energy Policy Act of 2005, Section 1323-1329. www.citizen.org/documents/energyconferencebill0705.pdf
  3. Aileen Roder, “An Overview of Senate Energy Bill Subsidies to the Fossil Fuel Industry” (2003), Taxpayers for Common Sense website. www.taxpayer.net/greenscissors/LearnMore/senatefossilfuelsubsidies.htm
  4. “Report: global Wind Power Base Expected to Triple by 2015” (November 2007), North American Windpower. www.nawindpower.com/naw/e107_plugins/content/content_lt.php?content.1478

Growing (or Shrinking) Trends in Nuclear Power Plant Construction

Around the world, the prospects for nuclear power generation are increasing – opportunities made clear by the number of currently under-construction nuclear plants that are smaller than those currently in the limelight. Offering advantages in certain situations, these smaller plants can more readily serve smaller grids as well as be used for distributed generation (with power plants located close to the demand centers and the main grid providing back-up). Smaller plants are also easier to finance, particularly in countries that are still in the early days of their nuclear power programs.

In recent years, development and licensing efforts have focused primarily on large, advanced reactors, due to their economies of scale and obvious application to developed countries with substantial grid infrastructure. Meanwhile, the wide scope for smaller nuclear plants has received less attention. However, of the 30 or more countries that are moving toward implementing nuclear power programs, most are likely to be looking initially for units under 1,000 MWe, and some for units of less than half that amount.

EXISTING DESIGNS

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the current designs.

There are many plants under 1,000 MWe now in operation, even if their replacements tend to be larger. (In 2007 four new units were connected to the grid – two large ones, one 202-MWe unit and one 655-MWe unit.) In addition, some smaller reactors are either on offer now or likely to be available in the next few years.

Five hundred to 700 MWe. There are several plants in this size range, including Westinghouse AP600 (which has U.S. design certification) and the Canadian Candu-6 (being built in Romania). In addition, China is building two CNP-600 units at Qinshan but does not plan to build any more of them. In Japan, Hitachi-GE has completed the design of a 600-MWe version of its 1,350-MWe ABWR, which has been operating for 10 years.

Two hundred and fifty to 500 MWe. And finally, in the 250- to 500-MWe category (output that is electric rather than heat), there are a few designs pending but little immediately on offer.

IRIS. Being developed by an international team led by Westinghouse in the United States, IRIS – or, more formally, International Reactor Innovative and Secure – is an advanced third-generation modular 335-MWe pressurized water reactor (PWR) with integral steam generators and a primary coolant system all within the pressure vessel. U.S. design certification is at pre-application stage with a view to final design approval by 2012 and deployment by 2015 to 2017.

VBER-300 PWR. This 295- to 325-MWe unit from Russia was designed by OKBM based on naval power plants and is now being developed as a land-based unit with the state-owned nuclear holding company Kazatomprom, with a view to exporting it. The first two units will be built in Southwest Kazakhstan under a Russian-Kazakh joint venture.

VK-300. This Russian-built boiling water reactor is being developed for co-generation of both power and district heating or heat for desalination (150 MWe plus 1675 GJ/hr) by the nuclear research and development organization NIKIET. The unit evolved from the VK-50 BWR at Dimitrovgrad but uses standard components from larger reactors wherever possible. In September 2007, it was announced that six of these units would be built at Kola and at Primorskaya in Russia’s far east, to start operating between 2017 and 2020.

NP-300 PWR. Developed in France from submarine power plants and aimed at export markets for power, heat and desalination, this Technicatome (Areva)- designed reactor has passive safety systems and can be built for applications of from 100 to 300 MWe.

China is also building a 300-MWe PWR (pressurized water reactor) nuclear power plant in Pakistan at Chasma (alongside another that started up in 2000); however, this is an old design based on French technology and has not been offered more widely. The new unit is expected to come online in 2011.

One hundred to 300 MWe. This category includes both conventional PWR and high-temperature gas-cooled reactors (HTRs); however, none in the second category are being built yet. Argentina’s CAREM nuclear power plant is being developed by CNEA and INVAP as a modular 27-MWe simplified PWR with integral steam generators designed to be used for electricity generation or for water desalination.

FLOATING PLANTS

After many years of promoting the idea, Russia’s state-run atomic energy corporation Rosatom has approved construction of a nuclear power plant on a 21,500-ton barge to supply 70 MWe of power plus 586 GJ/hr of heat to Severodvinsk, in the Archangelsk region of Russia. The contract to build the first unit was let by nuclear power station operator Rosenergoatom to the Sevmash shipyard in May 2006. Expected to cost $337 million (including $30 million already spent in design), the project is 80 percent financed by Rosenergoatom and 20 percent financed by Sevmash. Operation is expected to begin in mid-2010.

Rosatom is planning to construct seven additional floating nuclear power plants, each (like the initial one) with two 35- MWe OKBM KLT-40S nuclear reactors. Five of these will be used by Gazprom – the world’s biggest extractor of natural gas – for offshore oil and gas field development and for operations on Russia’s Kola and Yamal Peninsulas. One of these reactors is planned for 2012 commissioning at Pevek on the Chukotka Peninsula, and another is planned for the Kamchatka region, both in the far east of the country. Even farther east, sites being considered include Yakutia and Taimyr. Electricity cost is expected to be much lower than from present alternatives. In 2007 an agreement was signed with the Sakha Republic (Yakutia region) to build a floating plant for its northern parts, using smaller ABV reactors.

OTHER DESIGNS

On a larger scale, South Korea’s SMART is a 100-MWe PWR with integral steam generators and advanced safety features. It is designed to generate electricity and/or thermal applications such as seawater desalination. Indonesia’s national nuclear energy agency, Batan, has undertaken a pre-feasibility study for a SMART reactor for power and desalination on Madura Island. However, this awaits the building of a reference plant in Korea.

There are three high-temperature, gas-cooled reactors capable of being used for power generation, but much of the development impetus has been focused on the thermo-chemical production of hydrogen. Fuel for the first two consists of billiard ball-size pebbles that can withstand very high temperatures. These aim for a step-change in safety, economics and proliferation resistance.

China’s 200-MWe HTR-PM is based on a well-tested small prototype, and a two-module plant is due to start construction at Shidaowan in Shandong province in 2009. This reactor will use the conventional steam cycle to generate power. Start-up is scheduled for 2013. After the demonstration plant, a power station with 18 modules is envisaged.

Very similar to China’s plant is South Africa’s Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR), which is being developed by a consortium led by the utility Eskom. Production units will be 165 MWe. The PBMR will have a direct-cycle gas turbine generator driven by hot helium. The PBMR Demonstration unit is expected to start construction at Koeberg in 2009 and achieve criticality in 2013.

Both of these designs are based on earlier German reactors that have some years of operational experience. A U.S. design, the Modular helium Reactor (GT-MHR), is being developed in Russia; in its electrical application, each unit would directly drive a gas turbine giving 280 MWe.

These three designs operate at much higher temperatures than ordinary reactors and offer great potential as sources of industrial heat, including for the thermo-chemical production of hydrogen on a large scale. Much of the development thinking going into the PBMR has been geared to synthetic oil production by Sasol (South African Coal and Oil).

MODULAR CONSTRUCTION

The IRIS developers have outlined the economic case for modular construction of their design (about 330 MWe), and it’s an argument that applies similarly to other smaller units. These developers point out that IRIS, with its moderate size and simple design, is ideally suited for modular construction. The economy of scale is replaced here with the economy of serial production of many small and simple components and prefabricated sections. They expect that construction of the first IRIS unit will be completed in three years, with subsequent production taking only two years.

Site layouts have been developed with multiple single units or multiple twin units. In each case, units will be constructed with enough space around them to allow the next unit to be constructed while the previous one is operating and generating revenue. And even with this separation, the plant footprint can be very compact: a site with three IRIS single modules providing 1000 MWe is similar to or smaller in size than one with a comparable total power single unit.

Eventually, IRIS’ capital and production costs are expected to be comparable to those of larger plants. however, any small unit offers potential for a funding profile and flexibility impossible to achieve with larger plants. As one module is finished and starts producing electricity, it will generate positive cash fl ow for the construction of the next module. Westinghouse estimates that 1,000 MWe delivered by three IRIS units built at three-year intervals financed at 10 percent for 10 years requires a maximum negative cash flow of less than $700 million (compared with about three times that for a single 1,000-MWe unit). For developed countries, small modular units offer the opportunity of building as necessary; for developing countries, smaller units may represent the only option, since such country’s electric grids are likely unable to take 1,000-plus- MWe single units.

Distributed generation. The advent of reactors much smaller than those being promoted today means that reactors will be available to serve smaller grids and to be put into use for distributed generation (with power plants close to the demand centers and the main grid used for back-up). This does not mean, however, that large units serving national grids will become obsolete – as some appear to wish.

WORLD MARKET

One aspect of the global Nuclear Energy Partnership program is international deployment of appropriately sized reactors with desirable designs and operational characteristics (some of which include improved economics, greater safety margins, longer operating cycles with refueling intervals of up to three years, better proliferation resistance and sustainability). Several of the designs described earlier in this paper are likely to meet these criteria.

IRIS itself is being developed by an international team of 20 organizations from ten countries (Brazil, Croatia, Italy, Japan, Lithuania, Mexico, Russia, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States) on four continents – a clear demonstration of how reactor development is proceeding more widely.

Major reactor designers and vendors are now typically international in character and marketing structure. To wit: the United Kingdom’s recent announcement that it would renew its nuclear power capacity was anticipated by four companies lodging applications for generic design approval – two from the United States (each with Japanese involvement), one from Canada and one from France (with German involvement). These are all big units, but in demonstrating the viability of late third-generation technology, they will also encourage consideration of smaller plants where those are most appropriate.

The Power of Prediction: Improving the Odds of a Nuclear Renaissance

After 30 years of disfavor in the United States, the nuclear power industry is poised for resurgence. With the passage of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the specter of over $100 per barrel oil prices and the public recognition that global warming is real, nuclear power is now considered one of the most practical ways to clean up the power grid and help the United States reduce its dependence on foreign oil. The industry has responded with a resolve to build a new fleet of nuclear plants in anticipation of what has been referred to as a nuclear renaissance.

The nuclear power industry is characterized by a remarkable level of physics and mechanical science. Yet, given the confluence of a number of problematic issues – an aging workforce, the shortage of skilled trades, the limited availability of equipment and parts, and a history of late, over-budget projects – questions arise about whether the level of management science the industry plans to use is sufficient to navigate the challenges ahead.

According to data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA), nuclear power comprises 20 percent of the U.S. capacity, producing approximately 106 gigawatts (GW), with 66 plants that house 104 reactor units. To date, more than 30 new reactors have been proposed, which will produce a net increase of approximately 19 GW of nuclear capacity through 2030. Considering the growth of energy demand, this increased capacity will barely keep pace with increasing base load requirements.

According to Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Dennis Spurgeon, we will need approximately 45 new reactors online by 2030 just to maintain 20 percent share of U.S. electricity generation nuclear power already holds.

Meanwhile, Morgan Stanley vice chairman Jeffrey Holzschuh is very positive about the next generation of nuclear power but warns that the industry’s future is ultimately a question of economics. “Given the history, the markets will be cautious,” he says.

As shown in Figures 1-3, nuclear power is cost competitive with other forms of generation, but its upfront capital costs are comparatively high. Historically, long construction periods have led to serious cost volatility. The viability of the nuclear power industry ultimately depends on its ability to demonstrate that plants can be built economically and reliably. Holzschuh predicts, “The first few projects will be under a lot of public scrutiny, but if they are approved, they will get funded. The next generation of nuclear power will likely be three to five plants or 30, nothing in between.”

Due to its cohesive identity, the nuclear industry is viewed by the public and investors as a single entity, making the fate of industry operators – for better or for worse – a shared destiny. For that reason, it’s widely believed that if these first projects suffer the same sorts of significant cost over-runs and delays experienced in the past, the projected renaissance for the industry will quickly revert to a return to the dark ages.

THE PLAYERS

Utility companies, regulatory authorities, reactor manufacturers, design and construction vendors, financiers and advocacy groups all have critical roles to play in creating a viable future for the nuclear power industry – one that will begin with the successful completion of the first few plants in the United States. By all accounts, an impressive foundation has been laid, beginning with an array of government incentives (as loan guarantees and tax credits) and simplified regulation to help jump-start the industry.

Under the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the U.S. Department of Energy has the authority to issue $18.5 billion in loan guarantees for new nuclear plants and $2 billion for uranium enrichment projects. In addition, there’s standby support for indemnification against Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and litigation-oriented delays for the first six advanced nuclear reactors. The Treasury Department has issued guidelines for an allocation and approval process for production tax credits for advanced nuclear: 1.8 cents per kilowatt-hour production tax credit for the first eight years of operation with the final rules to be issued in fiscal year 2008.

The 20-year renewal of the Price- Andersen Act in 2005 and anticipated future restrictions on carbon emissions further improve the comparative attractiveness of nuclear power. To be eligible for the 2005 production tax credits, a license application must be tendered to the NRC by the end of 2008 with construction beginning before 2014 and the plant placed in service before 2021.

The NRC has formulated an Office of New Reactors (NRO), and David Matthews, director of the Division of New Reactor Licensing, led the development of the latest revision of a new licensing process that’s designed to be more predictable by encouraging the standardization of plant designs, resolving safety and environmental issues and providing for public participation before construction begins. With a fully staffed workforce and a commitment to “enable the safe, secure and environmentally responsible use of nuclear power in meeting the nation’s future energy needs,” Matthews is determined to ensure that the NRC is not a risk factor that contributes to the uncertainty of projects but rather an organizing force that will create predictability. Matthews declares, “This isn’t your father’s NRC.”

This simplified licensing process consists of the following elements:

  • An early site permit (ESP) for locations of potential facilities.
  • Design certification (DC) for the reactor design to be used.
  • Combined operating license (COL) for the certified reactor as designed to be located on the site. The COL contains the inspections, tests, analyses and acceptance criteria (ITAAC) to demonstrate that the plant was built to the approved specifications.

According to Matthews, the best-case scenario for the time period between when a COL is docketed to the time the license process is complete is 33 months, with an additional 12 months for public hearings. When asked if anything could be done to speed this process, Matthews reported that every delay he’s seen thus far has been attributable to a cause beyond the NRC’s control. Most often, it’s the applicant that’s having a hard time meeting the schedule. Recently, approved schedules are several months longer than the best-case estimate.

The manufacturers of nuclear reactors have stepped up to the plate to achieve standard design certification for their nuclear reactors; four are approved, and three are in progress.

Utility companies are taking innovative approaches to support the NRC’s standardization principles, which directly impact costs. (Current conventional wisdom puts the price of a new reactor at between $4 billion and $5.5 billion, with some estimates of fully loaded costs as high as $7 billion.) Consortiums have been formed to support cross-company standardization around a particular reactor design. NuStart and UniStar are multi-company consortiums collaborating on the development of their COLs.

Leader of PPL Corp.’s nuclear power strategy Bryce Shriver – who recently announced PPL had selected UniStar to build its next nuclear facility – is impressed with the level of standardization UniStar is employing for its plants. From the specifics of the reactor design to the carpet color, UniStar – with four plants on the drawing board – intends to make each plant as identical as possible.

Reactor designers and construction companies are adding to the standardization with turnkey approaches, formulating new construction methods that include modular techniques; sophisticated scheduling and configuration management software; automated data; project management and document control; and designs that are substantially complete before construction begins. Contractors are taking seriously the lessons learned from plants built outside the United States, and they hope to leverage what they have learned in the first few U.S. projects.

The stewards of the existing nuclear fleet also see themselves as part of the future energy solution. They know that continued safe, high-performance operation of current plants is key to maintaining public and state regulator confidence. Most of the scheduled plants are to be co-located with existing nuclear facilities.

Financing nuclear plant construction involves equity investors, utility boards of directors, debt financiers and (ultimately) the ratepayers represented by state regulatory commissions. Despite the size of these deals, the financial community has indicated that debt financing for new nuclear construction will be available. The bigger issue lies with the investors. The more equity-oriented the risk (principally borne by utilities and ratepayers), the more caution there is about the structure of these deals. The debt financiers are relying on the utilities and the consortiums to do the necessary due diligence and put up the equity. There’s no doubt that the federal loan guarantees and subsidies are an absolute necessity, but this form of support is largely driven by the perceived risk of the first projects. Once the capability to build plants in a predictable way (in terms of time, cost, output and so on) has been demonstrated, market forces are expected to be very efficient at allocating capital to these kinds
of projects.

The final key to the realization of a nuclear renaissance is the public. Americans have become increasingly concerned about fossil fuels, carbon emissions and the nation’s dependence on foreign oil. The surge in oil prices has focused attention on energy costs and national security. Coal-based energy production is seen as an environmental issue. Although the United States has plenty of access to coal, dealing with carbon emissions using clean coal technology involves sequestering it and pumping it underground. PPL chairman Jim Miller describes the next challenge for clean coal as NUMBY – the “Not under my back yard” attitude the public is likely to adopt if forced to consider carbon pumped under their communities. Alternative energy sources such as wind, solar and geothermal enjoy public support, but they are not yet scalable for the challenge of cleaning up the grid. In general, the public wants clean, safe, reliable, inexpensive power.

THE RISKS

Will nuclear fill that bill and look attractive compared with the alternatives? Although progress has been made and the stage is set, critical issues remain, and they could become problematic. While the industry clearly sees and is actively managing some of these issues, there are others the industry sees but is not as certain about how to manage – and still others that are so much a part of the fabric of the industry that they go unrecognized. Any one of these issues could slow progress; the fact that there are several that could hit simultaneously multiplies the risk exponentially.

The three widely accepted risk factors for the next phase of nuclear power development are the variability of the cost of uranium, the availability of quality equipment for construction and the availability of well-trained labor. Not surprising for an industry that’s been relatively sleepy for several decades, the pipeline for production resources is weak – a problem compounded by the well-understood coming wave of retirements in the utility workforce and the general shortage of skilled trades needed to work on infrastructure projects. Combine these constraints with a surge in worldwide demand for power plants, and it’s easy to understand why the industry is actively pursuing strategies to secure materials and train labor.

The reactor designers, manufacturers and construction companies that would execute these projects display great confidence. They’re keen on the “turnkey solution” as a way to reduce the risk of multiple vendors pointing fingers when things go wrong. Yet these are the same firms that have been openly criticized for change orders and cost overruns. Christopher Crane, chief operating officer of the utility Exelon Corp., warned contractors in a recent industry meeting that the utilities would “not take all the risk this time around.” When faced with complicated infrastructure development in the past, vendors have often pointed to their expertise with complex projects. Is the development of more sophisticated scheduling and configuration management capability, along with the assignment of vendor accountability, enough to handle the complexity issue? The industry is aware of this limitation but does not as yet have strong management techniques for handling it effectively.

Early indications from regulators are that the COLs submitted to date are not meeting the NRC’s guidance and expectations in all regards, possibly a result of the applicants’ rush to make the 2008 year-end deadline for the incentives set forth in the Energy Policy Act. This could extend the licensing process and strain the resources of the NRC. In addition, the requirements of the NRC principally deal with public safety and environmental concerns. There are myriad other design requirements entailed in making a plant operate profitably.

The bigger risk is that the core strength of the industry – its ability to make significant incremental improvements – could also serve as the seed of its failure as it faces this next challenge. Investors, state regulators and the public are not likely to excuse serious cost overruns and time delays as they may have in the past. Utility executives are clear that nuclear is good to the extent that it’s economical. When asked what single concern they find most troubling, they often reply, “That we don’t know what we don’t know.”

What we do know is that there are no methods currently in place for beginning successful development of this next generation of nuclear power plants, and that the industry’s core management skill set may not be sufficient to build a process that differs from a “learn as you go” approach. Thus, it’s critical that the first few plants succeed – not just for their investors but for the entire industry.

THE OPPORTUNITY – KNOWING WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW

The vendors supporting the nuclear power industry represent some of the most prestigious engineering and equipment design and manufacturing firms in the world: Bechtel, Fluor, GE, Westinghouse, Areva and Hitachi. Despite this, the industry is not known for having a strong foundation in managing innovation. In a world that possesses complex physical capital and myriad intangible human assets, political forces and public opinion as well as technology are all required to get a plant to the point of producing power. Thus, more advanced management science could represent the missing piece of the puzzle for the nuclear power industry.

An advanced, decision-making framework can help utilities manage unpredictable events, increasing their ability to handle the planning and anticipated disruptions that often beset long, complex projects. By using advanced management science, the nuclear industry can take what it knows and create a learning environment to fi nd out more about what it doesn’t know, improving its odds for success.

Microsoft Helps Utilities Use IT to Create Winning Relationships

The utilities industry worldwide is experiencing growing energy demand in a world with shifting fuel availability, increasing costs, a shrinking workforce and mounting global environmental pressures. Rate case filings and government regulations, especially those regarding environmental health and safety, require utilities to streamline reporting and operate safely enterprise-wide. At the same time, increasing competition and costs drive the need for service reliability and better customer service. Each issue causes utilities to depend more and more on information technology (IT).

The Microsoft Utility team works with industry partners to create and deploy industry-specific solutions that help utilities transform challenges into opportunities and empower utilities workers to thrive in today’s market-driven environment. Solutions are based on the world’s most cost-effective, functionally rich, and secure IT platform. The Microsoft platform is interoperable with a wide variety of systems and proven to improve people’s abilities to access information and work with others across boundaries. Together, they help utilities optimize operations in each line of business.

Customer care. Whether a utility needs to modernize a call center, add customer self-service or respond to new business requirements such as green power, Microsoft and its partners provide solutions for turning the customer experience into a powerful competitive advantage with increased cost efficiencies, enhanced customer service and improved financial performance.

Transmission and distribution. Growing energy demand makes it critical to effectively address safe, reliable and efficient power delivery worldwide. To help utilities meet these needs, Microsoft and its partners offer EMS, DMS and SCADA systems; mobile workforce management solutions; project intelligence; geographic information systems; smart metering/grid; and work/asset/document management tools that streamline business processes and offer connectivity across the enterprise and beyond.

Generation. Microsoft and its partners provide utilities with a view across and into their generation operations that enables them to make better decisions to improve cycle times, output and overall effectiveness while reducing the carbon footprint. With advanced software solutions from Microsoft and its partners, utilities can monitor equipment to catch early failure warnings, measure fleets’ economic performance and reduce operational and environment risk.

Energy trading and risk management. Market conditions require utilities to optimize energy supply performance. Microsoft and its partners’ enterprise risk management and trading solutions help utilities feed the relentless energy demands in a resource-constrained world.

Regulatory compliance. Microsoft and its partners offer solutions to address the compliance requirements of the European Union; Federal Energy Regulatory Commission; North American Reliability Council; Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2000; Environmental, Health and Safety; and other regional jurisdiction regulations and rate case issues. With solutions from Microsoft partners, utilities have a proactive approach to compliance, the most effective way to manage operational risk across the enterprise.

Enterprise. To optimize their businesses, utility executives need real-time visibility across the enterprise. Microsoft and its partners provide integrated e-business solutions that help utilities optimize their interactions with customers, vendors and partners. These enterprise applications address business intelligence and reporting, customer relationship management, collaborative workspaces, human resources and financial management.