Category: Energy

Trump’s Assault on Solar Masks an Epic Crisis in the Nuclear Industry

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by Harvey “Sluggo” Wasserman

Originally published at Progressive.org on January 25, 2018

As Donald Trump launches his latest assault on renewable energy—imposing a 30 percent tariff on solar panels imported from China—a major crisis in the nuclear power industry is threatening to shut four high-profile reactors, with more shutdowns to come. These closures could pave the way for thousands of new jobs in wind and solar, offsetting at least some of the losses from Trump’s attack.

Like nearly everything else Trump does, the hike in duties makes no rational sense. Bill McKibben summed it up, tweeting: “Trump imposes 30% tariff on imported solar panels—one more effort to try and slow renewable energy, one more favor for the status quo.”

The administration’s public excuse for imposing these tariffs is to “defend American workers,” and foster the production of panels here at home. The political impetus came primarily from two manufacturers—Suniva and SolarWorld—that manufacture in the United States, but are principally owned by foreigners. Ironically, a majority of Suniva is actually owned by Chinese investors, and the company is currently involved in a tortuous debt dispute that has clouded its future.

SolarWorld’s parent company, based in Bonn, Germany, has been involved in bankruptcy proceedings that prompted its owners at one point to try to sell the company’s American holdings, primarily a manufacturing facility in Oregon.

China’s record on renewable energy is mixed. The nation has long been committed to nuclear energy, and currently has thirty-eight reactors in operation. After the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan, China staged a major re-examination of its new reactor projects, but has since committed to building another twenty.

But China has also poured immense resources into leading the world in photovoltaic cell production. It flooded the field with below-cost, government subsidized panels that helped drive the photovoltaics giant Solyndra into bankruptcy. Solyndra defaulted on a $500 million Obama loan, prompting a high-profile assault on renewables from fossil and nuclear advocates.

In 2011, then-U.S. Senator Sander Levin of Michigan charged the Chinese with unfair trade practices, saying in a statement, “China is systematically deploying an arsenal of trade distorting policies to corner the global market in green technology products, whether it be electric cars, wind turbines or solar products.’’

But in the years since, the burgeoning U.S. market for cheap Chinese panels has birthed a very large industry. More than a quarter-million Americans now work in photovoltaics, with most of the jobs in building desert arrays or perching the panels on rooftops. Except for the very marginal pressure from Suniva and SolarWorld, solar advocates have focussed on the rapid spread of low-cost panels, even if they come from China.

Powered largely by Chinese product, the cost of a solar-generated watt of power has dropped from $6.00 in the late 1990s to around $0.72 in 2016. Further drops are considered inevitable. At that price, there is virtually no economic margin for any other new energy production construction except wind and natural gas. Even gas—with its uncertain long-term supply—is on the cusp of being priced out.

Thus, the industry’s reaction to Trump’s solar panel tariff has been fierce.

“We are not happy with this decision,” Abigail Ross Hopper, president of the American Solar Energy Association, told Reuters. “It’s just basic economics—if you raise the price of a product, it’s going to decrease demand for that product.” Trump’s move is predicted to drop upcoming solar installations by 10 to 15 percent and cost some 23,000 jobs.

Sustainable energy professor Scott Sklar, in an email to The Progressive,estimated that Trump’s 30 percent tariff will, after four years, “retard the solar market by 9 percent, cause the loss of thousands of U.S. jobs, and not save the two companies that brought the anti-competitive tariff request initially. The tariff was a political statement to China rather than specifically addressing the health of the U.S. solar industry and increasing U.S. solar jobs.”


Two major developments in the nuclear power industry further illustrate the absurdity of Trump’s decision.

In California, the Public Utilities Commission has gutted a major agreement that would have kept two mammoth reactors at Diablo Canyon operating for several more years. The landmark deal—cut between Pacific Gas & Electric, the host communities around San Luis Obispo, the reactors’ union workers and two environmental groups—called for PG&E to collect some $1.3 billion from ratepayers.

But the California commission cut PG&E’s take to about $300 million. To continue running the two fast-deteriorating old reactors would require massive capital repairs. The company also has admitted that all of Diablo’s power can be otherwise produced with zero- and low-carbon green technologies.

While Trump’s tariffs may slightly alter the math, they’re not expected to make photovoltaics, wind, geothermal, or increased efficiency more expensive than the power Diablo might generate in the coming seven years. Thus, Diablo opponents like Linda Sealey of the San Luis-based Mothers for Peace are extremely hopeful for early shutdowns.

“We think this makes it likely they’ll shut as early as 2020,” she told me January 18 on California Solartopia at KPFK radio in Los Angeles. “They just can’t compete.”

A parallel fate may soon overtake Ohio’s ancient Perry and Davis-Besse reactors on Lake Erie. Because the increasingly decrepit nuclear plants have been priced out of the market and face huge capital repairs, their owner FirstEnergy has been desperately begging the Ohio legislature for massive bailouts, which it has so far resisted. As a result FirstEnergy is poised to go bankrupt, and may soon be bought out by financiers expected to insist the two reactors finally shut. A decision is expected in April.

The shutdown of four more major reactors would be a huge blow to the downwardly spiraling atomic energy industry.

The shutdown of four more major reactors would be a huge blow to the downwardly spiraling atomic energy industry. California’s booming solar business employs more than 100,000 Americans, more than are currently digging coal nationwide. The void left by Diablo’s shutdown would generate thousands of Golden State jobs and billions in renewable revenue.

In northern Ohio, massive wind potential is also poised to create far more jobs than are currently in place at the two reactors, with energy to be generated far more cheaply. Overall, the closure of these four high-profile plants would thus accelerate the already rapid run away from nuclear power toward renewable sources, regardless of any attempt by the Trump Administration to alter the course.

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Harvey “Sluggo” Wasserman’s “California Solartopia Show” is broadcast at KPFK-Pacifica 90.7FM in Los Angeles. His “Green Power & Wellness Show” is podcast at prn.fm. His History of the US and Solartopia! are atwww.solartopia.org, which will publish his America at the Brink of Rebirthlater this year.

WILL THE DIABLO NUKES SHUT BEFORE THE SAN ANDREAS RUBBLE-IZES THEM AND RADIATES LOS ANGELES?

 

By Harvey “Sluggo” Wasserman

diablo solartopia 6.23.2016

 

A major court opinion  has given safe energy advocates new hope two Diablo Canyon nukes can be shut before the San Andreas fault turns them to rubble, sending an apocalyptic cloud into the bodies of more than ten million people .

The huge reactors—California’s last—-sit on a bluff above the Pacific, due west of San Luis Obispo amongst a dozen earthquake faults, They operate just 45 miles from the San Andreas. That’s half Fukushima’s distance from the fault that destroyed four reactors there. Diablo’s wind-blown emissions could irradiate the Los Angeles megalopolis in less than six hours.

The death toll could be in the millions, the property damage in the trillions. The owner, Pacific Gas & Electric, would not be legally liable.

Last year a deal to shut Diablo’s two reactors in 2024 and 2025 was struck by the state, PG&E, the union, surrounding communities and some environmentalist groups.  Diablo’s federal licenses expire in those years, and PG&E agreed not to seek renewals. The power, they said, could be replaced with wind turbines and solar panels.

But the $1.7 billion in rate hikes stipulated in the deal must be approved by California’s Public Utilities Commission. A proposed decision by Administrative Law Judge Peter V. Allen would limit them to less than $200 million.

The CPUC must now factor Allen’s decision into how much it allows PG&E to charge. If it honors Allen’s opinion, the company must then decide whether they’ll continue to operate the two nukes, which increasingly look like money losers.

The company’s standing is not exactly sterling. Massive fires have just swept through northern California, killing at least forty-one people, turning some 5700 structures and whole forests, rural communities and much of Santa Rosa into smoldering ash. (The Trump Administration has just omitted from its latest budget any federal aid to the region).

The San Jose Mercury-News  and others  have loudly speculated that PG&E may have caused the conflagration by failing to maintain power lines that were blown over in a wind storm. Local fire departments were already complaining that trees and underbrush were being sparked by poles and wires PG&E had failed to maintain as required by law.

At very least PG&E now faces a firestorm of lawsuits that will soar well into the billions. Criminal prosecution is also likely.

In 2010 a major fire killed eight people and torched an up-scale San Bruno neighborhood. The cause was badly maintained gas lines—-for which the company had been cited repeatedly. Fines exceeded $1.4 billion. Criminal prosecution remains unresolved.

Other costly lapses have plagued PG&E through the years. Some involve Diablo itself, which opened in the mid-1980s amidst America’s biggest No Nukes civil disobedience campaign, involving thousands of arrests.

Linda Seeley of San Luis Obispo’s Mothers for Peace says the company faces impossible hurdles in dealing with its thousands of tons of radioactive waste, and much more. “Many very expensive components in the two reactors must be replaced far before the proposed 2024-5 shutdown dates. Our concern is that PG&E may try to sneak through without paying to maintain the reactors even at basic safety levels.”

Dr. Michael Peck, the NRC’s in-house inspector at Diablo for five years, has warned that the reactors cannot survive a likely earthquake, and should close immediately. He has since been transferred to Chattanooga, Tennessee.

“Diablo may no longer be profitable,” Seeley has said on KPFK-Pacific’s California Solartopia Show. “The cost of wind and solar has dropped so fast it may not pay PG&E to run those plants anymore, even without doing the basic maintenance.”

Because much of Diablo’s aging workforce is retiring, or beginning to look elsewhere for job security, PG&E wants subsidies to retain skilled staff to run the place. Judge Allen specifically rejected much of the rate hike designed to meet that crisis.

The State Land Commission is also being sued by the World Business Academy of Santa Barbara over key leases granted in the 1970s . The SLC gave PG&E a waiver on doing legally-required Environmental Impact Reviews.   (Gubernatorial candidate Gavin Newsom is one of the three California Land Commissioners who voted in favor of the waiver). Should the Business Academy win its suit, or should the PUC honor Judge Allen’s decision, and PG&E alter its timetable, those leases might be revisited. Without them, Diablo would almost certainly be forced to shut.

Challenges have also been raised against approval from the California Coastal Commission of Diablo’s cooling system.

 

Seeley and other activists have asked the general public to pressure the PUC, state agencies and politicians like Newsom to get Diablo shut sooner rather than later.  “Until they can specify the exact date and time the San Andreas and those other faults will go off,” says Seeley, “nobody should feel safe.” ( additional quotes from Linda Seeley came from phone interviews this week).

 

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Those interested in helping to shut Diablo Canyon should go to www.mothersforpeace.org.

Harvey Wasserman’s Solartopia! is at www.solartopia.org. He hosts prn.fm‘s Green Power & Wellness Show, and KPFK-Pacifica’s California Solartopia.

Follow Harvey Wasserman on Twitter @Solartopia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Swamp Tales: Puerto Rico Cancels $300 Million Trump Crony Electrical Grid Rebuild Contract

by Harvey Wasserman

originally published on The Progressive on October 30, 2017

estamos de pieA flag hangs from a highway overpass in Caguas, Puerto Rico declaring “Estamos de pie,” or “We are standing.” October, 2017.

The swampish saga would be hard to invent. In early October, Puerto Rico’s Energy Power Authority awarded a $300 million tax-funded contract to reconstruct the island’s hurricane devastated power grid to a two-person, two-year-old firm based in the small Montana hometown of Trump Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. The company is financially backed by a major donor to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
About eighty percent of Puerto Rico is still without power. Many hospitals are still dark. Local citizens needing medical treatments such as surgeries or dialysis have been forced to flee to places where electric power is available.
Puerto Rico’s power grid centers on antiquated oil, gas, and coal generators, the median age of which is forty-four years. Just two percent Puerto Rico’s juice came from wind and solar. One wind farm, on the south side of the island, survived Hurricane Maria largely intact, as did at least one small commercial solar array.
For Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million residents, restoring power is a matter of life and death. But the $300 million dollar contract was handed, with no public hearings, legislative discussion or long-term planning, to Whitefish, an obscure company from rural Montana.
At least one Zinke relative—his son—has worked on part-time contract for Whitefish. Zinke claims he had nothing to do with the deal.
Anti-Trump sentiment is rampant throughout the island, fed by a lack of concern expressed by the President for Puerto Ricans’ dire situation, and capped by a recent visit in which he pitched paper towels to a crowd of bewildered local residents. When San Juan mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz questioned the contract with Whitefish, the company threatened to stop work, then apologized.
The Puerto Rican power company’s contract astoundingly exempted Whitefish from official audits, stating, “In no event shall [governmental bodies] have the right to audit or review the cost and profit elements.” It also waived “any claim against Contractor related to delayed completion of the work,” meaning Whitefish was empowered to pretty much take as long as it wanted to complete the job.
Whitefish wasted no time deploying a gold-plated battalion of high-priced contract workers into the island. Each was granted $1,000 travel expenses for each flight to and from the island. The workers’ contracts called for $80/day in food expenses and $332/day for lodging. Wages were set at $240/hour for a foreman and $227/hour for linemen doing jobs for which prevailing U.S. wages are about $43/hour for supervisors and $23/hour for linemen. In other words, the deal reeked of Trump-era crony capitalism. When word spread, angry locals showered Whitefish workers with rocks and bottles.
But that was not the worst of it. Whitefish appeared to be rebuilding the wind-ravaged grid along exactly the same lines that existed prior to the storm. In other words, the company was reconstructing what was wiped away a month ago, and what would be virtually certain to be wiped away again by the next hurricane.

Since Maria, a lively public dialog has erupted over how to rebuild the island’s power system with sustainable design. Tesla’s Elon Musk sent in a shipment of Powerwall batteries designed to service solar-powered arrays. Tesla also installed a solar/battery/micro-grid array to make the Hospital del Nino entirely self-sufficient.
Musk has been in discussion with Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rosselló about rebuilding the region along renewable lines, with windmills and photovoltaic panels powering a network of micro-grids that would give towns, neighborhoods and buildings a resilient safety net capable of weathering the inevitable next storm.
Multi-billionaire Richard Branson, whose private Necker Island was ravaged by recent storms, has also called for a “Green Marshall Plan” to rebuild the Caribbean with renewable energy. In a recent New York Times op-ed, coauthored with green energy guru Amory Lovins, Branson wrote that by solarizing and decentralizing the region’s grids, “we can stop blackouts caused by monster storms while also saving fossil fuel and reducing emissions of the greenhouse gases that warm the planet and make these storms more likely and destructive.”
Since Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria roared through Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean, smaller nonprofits and activist organizations have also been focused on the vision of a totally green-powered master plan.
On Sunday, October 29, amidst a firestorm of local and Congressional inquiries,The New York Times reported that Governor Rosselló had canceled the Whitefish contract. The company claims to have already spent millions. The court cases will undoubtedly churn up numerous storms of their own.
But the uproar should also focus on the growing demand that the electric power systems in Puerto Rico and the rest of the Caribbean be reconstructed around renewables and microgrids, rather than fossil-fired central distribution networks.
Most likely those systems will not be built by Trump cronies flown in at huge expense, who then must dodge rocks and bottles being thrown by angry locals.

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Long-time Progressive contributor Harvey Wasserman is a safe energy activist and radio talk host based in Los Angeles. Tune in for California Solartopia on Thursdays at 6:30 pm on 90.7 KPFK-fm in Los Angeles.  Harvey’s Solartopia! Our Green-Powered Earth is at www.solartopia.org. and you can follow Harvey in Twitter @Solartopia

 

In Maria’s Wake, Could Puerto Rico Go Totally Green?

by

Originally published by The Progressive on September 28, 2017

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The ecological and humanitarian destruction of Puerto Rico has left the world aghast. But there is a hopeful green-powered opportunity in this disaster that could vastly improve the island’s future while offering the world a critical showcase for a sane energy future.

By all accounts Hurricane Maria has leveled much of the island, and literally left it in the dark. Puerto Rico’s electrical grid has been extensively damaged, with no prospects for a return to conventionally generated and distributed power for months to come.

In response Donald Trump has scolded the island for it’s massive debt, and waited a full week after the storm hit to lift a shipping restriction requiring all incoming goods to be carried on US-flagged ships. (That restriction is largely responsible for the island’s economic problems in the first place.)

The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority is a state-owned operation that hosts a number of solar and wind farms, as well as a network of hydroelectric dams. But the bulk of its energy supply has come from heavy industrial oil, diesel and gas burners. It also burns coal imported from Colombia at a plant in Guyama.

The fossil burners themselves apparently were left mostly undamaged by Maria. But the delivery system, a traditional network of above-ground poles and wires, has essentially been obliterated. Power authority officials say it could take at least 4-6 months to rebuild that network.

And of course, there is no guaranteeing such a pole-and-wire set-up would not then be obliterated by the next storm.

Among the most serious casualties have been the island’s hospitals. According to reports, 58 of Puerto Rico’s 69 medical facilities have been blacked out. At least two people died when intensive care units went dark.


But therein lies the opportunity. With solar panels and battery backups, every one of those hospitals could be energy self-sufficient. Throughout the U.S. such technology is now being applied at medical facilities, data processing and storage facilities, and other critical units.

According to Mark Sommer, a California-based energy expert, Puerto Rico could safeguard such critical facilities and far more quickly restore its power by letting go of the old paradigm of central-generated and distributed electricity, and moving instead to a decentralized network of green-based micro-grids.

In terms of cost, immediacy, immunity from the next hurricane and long-term sustainability, this is a tragic but unique opportunity.

Micro-grids are community-based networks that power smaller geographic and consumer areas than the big central grids like the one that served Puerto Rico. Mostly they are based on decentralized generation, including networks of roof-top solar panels. As Sommer puts it: “renewably powered microgrids are a relatively simple and already mature technology that can be deployed in months rather than years and once the initial investment is recovered deliver dramatically lower energy bills.”

Because Puerto Rico is mountainous and hosts many small, remote villages, the island’s best hope for a manageable energy future is with decentralized power production in self-sustaining neighborhoods. Built around small-scale wind and solar arrays, with battery backups protected from inevitable floods and hurricanes, Puerto Rico could protect its electricity supply from the next natural disaster while building up a healthy, low-cost energy economy.

The island is also a good source of sugar cane and other fast-growing tropical vegetation, making a strong case for bio-mass sources like ethanol. Much of Brazil’s automobile fleet runs at least partly on fuel produced by fermenting bagasse, a by-product of the country’s huge sugar cane crop.

With local financing and ownership, the prospects for a sun-drenched eco-system like Puerto Rico’s to go to renewable-based micro-grids are overwhelming. In terms of cost, immediacy, immunity from the next hurricane and long-term sustainability, this is a tragic but unique opportunity.

There is little precedent for an entire geographic entity to lose 100% of its grid. We can expect a deaf ear on this from a Trump Administration dominated by the fossil fuel and nuclear power industries.

But to rebuild Puerto Rico’s electric grid in a traditional centralized fashion would only prolong Maria’s agony while leaving the island deathly vulnerable to the next big wind storm.

Puerto Rico’s best hope for a safe, prosperous, sustainable energy future is to take control of its power supply with a mix of renewable generation, protected backup storage, and a decentralized, local-based network of community-owned microgrids.

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Follow Harvey Wasserman on Twitter: @Solartopia

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