Saturday, July 18, 2009

Sen. Lamar Alexander’s nuclear energy speed run

Is there climate change compromise coming in the Senate?

lamar_alexanderEven if you’ve been ignoring energy issues being debated in Congress, you are unlikely to have missed the repeated media reports that Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) (right) is advocating the U.S. build 100 nuclear plants in the next 20 years. Just so you get the complete picture of what he is talking about, consider that 100 1,200 MW nuclear power plants equates to 120 GWe of electrical power which basically doubles and more the current size of the U.S. nuclear reactor fleet of 104 plants.

During his speech (text, video) at the National Press Club on Monday July 13, Sen. Alexander raised hopes that his call for 100 new nuclear power plants, or at least as bakers’ dozen, would open the door to compromise in the Senate with an ambitious and complicated climate bill passed by the House last month.

Counting votes in the Senate

In the final vote on the House bill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) lost 44 of her Democratic colleagues who voted against the bill. This is a number that can only be described as “way too many.” In the Senate, Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) cannot afford to lose a comparable block of votes on the Obama Administration’s premier environmental and energy initiative.

In a final vote on a conference committee draft, both Democratic leaders will need every Democrat they can get plus Republicans. The stakes could not be more significant. A looming global climate change conference to take place in December requires the U.S. show up with climate legislation in place. This is necessary to be taken seriously by the G8 group as well as China, India, and other developing nations.

It is for this reason that hopes were raised by Alexander’s calls for new nuclear nuclear plants echoed by Sen. Lisa Mirkowski (R-AK) and others at a hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee last week. However, these hopes were dashed by harsh, and for now, uncompromising language by Sen. Alexander. He called the House Climate bill “unfixable,” a “job killer,” and a “contraption of taxes.”

Of course Alexander is no hard liner so some of his heated rhetoric might be just that and open to change. Of course he is in a comfortable position relative to other Senate Republicans who are also are hot about the tax issues in the House passed climate bill. They’ll have time to cool off during the August recess.

SenBarbaraBoxerSen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) (left) who is leading the climate change legislative effort in the Senate has postponed action on the bill until September. According to wire service reports, the outcome lies with 15 Democratic moderates, many of whom fear that a vote for climate-change legislation could hurt their re-election chances.

Boxer is reportedly trying to round up Republican votes to offset opposition from Democrats Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska. She’ll need to add Alexander to the list on the Republican side.

Energy density matters

Alexander’s speech shares some interesting common themes with views expressed by former VP Al Gore. In a "moon shot” speech" on energy policy made in July 2008 in which he said . . .

"We are borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the planet. Every bit of that has to change."

While both Gore and Alexander hail from Tennessee, that’s about the point at which further common threads come to an end. In his speech, Alexander goes after renewable energy sources with critical reviews in several fronts.

  • First, as variable energy sources, they can’t light our cities or power out factories.
  • Second, wind farms and solar arrays chew up land at an alarming rate, and third, and
  • Third, and more importantly, there is the issue of energy density.

In the world of base load demand, Alexander populates his speech with information about the remarkable energy potential of a handful of uranium fuel pellets (U235 at 5%) compared to a ton of coal, three 55-gal drums of oil, or enough natural gas to keep your backyard cooking daily chicken BBQs for the next couple of summers.

post_20th_centThe energy density issue is well known to anyone who has compared the energy of a gallon of kerosene in a diesel electric locomotive to a pound of coal in one powered by steam.

Next time you fly from Chicago to New York consider the energy density of jet fuel which gets you there in under three hours compared to the requirement for a 16-hour coal-fired train ride in the 1930s. In those days the New York Central 20th Century Limited was considered to be a top-of-the-line speed run between the two cities.

For more in-depth reading on energy density at work, without the math, see William Tucker’s book Terrestrial Energy which explains the concept quite well. See the video below.

Can the Republicans make a deal? Do Democrats care?

Alexander isn’t the only voice on nuclear energy and climate change on the Republican side of the aisle in the Senate. Sen. Lisa Murkowski has forged bipartisan legislative efforts with Senate Democrats for a Clean Energy Bank that would expand loan guarantees for nuclear power plants. She is the ranking member of the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee. A review of speeches by Senate Republicans shows more than a little diversity of opinion on the issue of support for nuclear energy as an element of a climate change bill.

Building a business from scratchNote there is also considerable support in the House for a measure that would remove energy loan guarantees from the Department of Energy and create a separate agency for that purpose. So the question is whether nuclear energy is a part of the deal making process between the House and Senate for a climate bill?

The best place to start is a long and incisive analysis by Katherine Ling of Climatewire published in the NY Times on July 17. Ms. Ling’s take on the issue is that there will be something in the Senate’s version of a climate bill this September, but how much it will really benefit the industry remains unknown.

Even the Democrats, who sometimes dance way too enthusiastically to the tune of the green wing of their party, acknowledge this is a likely outcome. The article quotes Sen. Tom Carper, (D-DE) who told reporters if the committee draft doesn’t carry enough water, he will add to it on the floor. The rest of the article is well worth your time.

After Labor Day the question will be whether the Republicans will put party interest ahead of global climate change. Another will be whether the Democrats will give up their environmental fervor to pass a workable bill that puts wind in the sails of President Obama in December in Copenhagen?

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Here are William Tucker’s slides on Terrestrial Energy.

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