Think what a burden would be lifted from the collective American psyche if we no longer had to depend on foreign countries for the oil that is the lifeblood of our economy and our way of life. In a new book, "Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free: A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy," electrical engineer Arjun Makhijani contends that its possible to achieve that goal without turning to nuclear generation. The Citizen-Times interviewed Makhijani when he visited Asheville recently. This is an edited transcript of that interview.
A C-T: Is it really possible to have a carbon free and a nuclear free economy that doesn’t really change the lifestyle we’ve become accustomed to – we have electric light when we turn the lights on, we have hot water when we want it, we get to drive as far and as much as we want, we can fly to Australia on vacation?
Makhijani: I have family on three continents, so being able to fly when I want is personally very important. If you had asked me this question two years ago, I would have said no. It’s actually in the preface to my book. Dave Freeman ran the TVA in the in the ‘70s and ‘80s made a speech saying we should do this and I went up to him and said I don’t think it’s possible within economic reason. You can always spend enough money and try to do it, but it will burn a hole in the national pocketbook. I’d actually been working on reprocessing and nuclear waste and security issues around plutonium for quite a while. I hadn’t taken a good look at energy.
My friend Helen Caldicott was there, very excited, she said the planet is intensive care. We need to get rid of fossil fuels without going to nuclear power, if possible. I said, I don’t know whether it’s possible. She said, if you’ll take a look, I’ll raise the money. So that’s sort of the background of the book. I came to this as a skeptic. In 37 years of work on energy, I have never before said the answer is renewables and efficiency, 100 percent. I knew it would be a big role in any energy answer. But I did not think the technology was there to get rid of it all. It will take time, but I was actually surprised, so this is the first in 37 years of work.
The starting place for an electrical engineer like me has to be will the lights come on when you flip the switch. Without that, you don’t have an energy policy. The second point has to be, will you be able to pay the bills, because if you can’t afford to flip the switch, it’s academic, in the worst sense of the word. That’s the reason why I had not said it before. That’s the reason I went up to Dave and said you know, you’re going to send every industry we have left to China with your formula. But I changed my mind because there is a revolution in energy technology that is going on. The federal government until last year has been pretty much asleep at the switch, not completely. But spurred on by the states, by local governments, by what states like California and Texas – Texas is a leader in wind energy – and what’s been going on in other countries, Germany, Spain, Israel. The energy situation is dramatically different.
I was going to do a very different type of study to answer what kind of lifestyle changes will we need to do this. That’s where I was going to start. But I had an advisory board with Helen Caldicott, Dave Freeman, I had DuPont on my advisory board, I had a distributive grid expert. So I had quite a bit of technical help. They all said, assume that we have the lifestyle that you just said – that’ll we’ll drive as much as we want, we’ll fly as much as we want, we’ll have bigger homes if we want, we won’t do anything about sprawl, leave all of that aside. If we do those things, it will be easier and faster, but I didn’t go there. I didn’t assume that we’d ride buses more often. So the framework of my study is entirely conventional. The assumptions are drawn from the energy information administration about the square footages of houses and commercial and number of cars and amounts of miles flown and driven and so on. So I was surprised at the answer. One reason is that the wind energy revolution happened in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Wind energy today is more economical than nuclear. So you leave all the other issues aside, about waste and so on, and say, if you go to Wall Street what is easier to finance today. Nuclear is not easy to finance on Wall Street. You can’t raise the money. Both nuclear and wind have a production tax credit….
But Duke Energy can’t finance nuclear on Wall Street. They want a 100 percent loan guarantee. Wind doesn’t need a 100 percent loan guarantee. It’s low risk, it’s short lead time. You start building today and it’s done in 18 months. The biggest risk with wind is that you won’t have the transmission lines because it takes five years to build the transmission lines. Now in Texas, the reason Texas is a leader in wind energy is they’ve solved that problem. They’ve got their own grid called ERCOT, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. Under ERCOT rules when a wind project is announced, you can start investing in a transmission line and you can guarantee a rate of return, so it removed the uncertainty of what happens in the permitting process of the wind project.
So that’s one thing. The other thing is we don’t have the investment in efficiency and the rules for efficiency that we need. We need to become much more efficient. I’m not talking conservation or sweaters. I’m talking efficiency. Developers have no interest in making an efficient house. They want to make a house that you will buy and be competitive with the next developer. I’m not blaming them. I’m saying to make a level playing field – just like carbon dioxide rules, if you don’t have carbon dioxide rules, you’re not going to get reductions because you won’t get the level playing field. The guy that’s good is going to economically suffer compared to the guy that’s bad, because the bad guy’s project or product will be cheaper.
We need BTU per square foot rules by climate. This can be done by state and local governments. I think the federal government should provide incentives for it. It’s one of the clean dozen policies – I have a dozen policies I think can get us there. The final thing, is the kind of revolution that occurred in wind, which is now, at current costs, which have greatly increased from a few years ago – they’ve increased for wind, they’ve increased for nuclear, they’ve increased for coal and they’ve increased for natural gas, of course – are about 8 to 12 cents per kilowatt hour. For a new nuclear power plant, the cost based on the filings of like Progress Energy in Florida or Florida Power & Light, so this is taking the utility framework for the most recent cost assessments and actually these cost assessments are based on a very detailed study by TVA. Now I’ve translated these capital costs into cost per kilowatt hour, so that piece is mine, but I don’t think there’d be huge disagreement. It will be 13, 14 cents to 16, 17 cents per kilowatt hour for new nuclear. Most of that of course is capital costs…. So even if you add a penny for integrating wind into the transmission structures, wind is a little more costly to integrate into the grid, you can see that at most, the low end of nuclear costs are equal to the high end of wind costs, and wind is generally cheaper.
Solar thermal today, now just concentrating solar thermal power, if you look at the contract signed between Arizona Public Service and a Spanish company…, it’s almost like a fixed-price contract with very modest escalation assumptions for 14-odd cents per kilowatt hour over a 30-year period. That’s very competitive with nuclear without the risks. And you don’t have to build it in 1,000 and 2,000 megawatt increments. You can go from start to finish in three years and you can order it 200 and 300 megawatts at a time. Now one of the wonderful things about that is it comes with heat storage. So you generate electricity even after the sun is gone down. The technology actually came from the nuclear energy. In the ‘50s they had a type of reactor, it was called a molten salt reactor, a prototype was actually built at Oak Ridge, and the molten salt stores the heat. So now, instead of having a nuclear reactor heating up the molten salt, you have the parabolic concentrators heating up the molten salt and you generate electricity at night from the sun.
Now, when you look at this ensemble of technologies - plus photovoltaic cells, the cost has halved in the last two or three years - I personally believe, and this is obviously a judgment call, but it is supported by Department of Energy projections, that solar photovoltaics will be considerably cheaper than nuclear before the first nuclear power plants come on line. So we are looking to build a generation of economic lemons that, wherever they are built, will stick the community with very high costs or the taxpayers or both.
The short of it is, we can do this, the technology is here, the economics work, if we start with efficiency and build up with renewables from there and we don’t squander the limited capital we have on projects that are more expensive.
A C-T: Thousands and thousands of bats and birds are killed by wind generators. Is there some way to protect birds and bats from wind generation? There’s also the fact that in some places they are unattractive.
Makhijani: I think the bird problem has largely been solved. I wouldn’t say you could put them anywhere and not affect birds. You don’t want to put them in migratory routes of endangered species. But if you notice wind farms, you’ve seen that the blades rotate rather slowly, so that’s a dramatic change from the early years when the birds couldn’t judge what was happening and flew right into the turbines. The bird kill problem will never be completely solved. But I would say those who are concerned about birds should worry about lights on in buildings. Buildings kill orders of magnitude more birds than wind turbines. The noise problem also has largely been solved. While the area required by wind turbines is relatively large in terms of the wind farm area, the footprint of wind is actually quite small. You can graze cattle right up to the footprint of wind turbines.
As regards the views, this depends on your point of view. I’m not advocating wind farms in National Parks. But if you take the climate problem seriously, not everybody does, but I do, I think the handwriting is on the wall. Helen Caldicott says the planet is in intensive care and I agree with her. Now when you are in intensive care, you do things to yourself that you would not normally do. You do toxic things to yourself. You don’t want to do gratuitously toxic things. You don’t do toxic things that you can avoid. As so essentially I would say, regarding the view, mostly you locate them where – farmers love to look at windmills if they get $5,000 for every wind turbine on their farms – that should be the preferred kind of location. But we do have to make a choice as to whether we are going to pay the price for our energy or whether we are going to kick it down the road to future generations. So if you have a choice between plutonium - and letting our kids worry about it - and a bad view, I think the moral equation is very clear.
A C-T: Talking about the balance, what percentage would come from wind and what percentage would come from photovoltaics and from other sources?
Makhijani: I actually think we are not likely to need a large percentage of wind. I the immediate increments can come most easily from wind because it’s the most economical. That’s the assumption in my book, but technology is changing much faster than I assumed in my book. Today, concentrating solar thermal power with molten salt storage is already economical. I have a diagram of an electric grid in there with five or 10 percent concentrating solar. I would say today, I would put a much bigger percentage of electricity coming from concentrating solar …. Solar photovoltaics are really the best. On the kind of scale that’s in that picture – it’s a U.S. Navy parking lot in San Diego that photovoltaic was installed in 2002, 750 kilowatts. If you have a really efficient house like Hanover House in New Hampshire – Hanover House is thoughtfully built, it’s not expensive, $111 a square foot, South facing windows, tight insulation, high thermal mass, retains the heat when the sun shines on it in the winter, big solar water heater, nothing fancy. It uses only 8,000 BTU of electricity per square foot per year.
A C-T: How much does the normal house use?
Makhijani: And it only uses electricity as an outside energy source. The normal house when you take the electricity and gas and other sources all put together uses 58,000 BTUs per square foot. So that parking lot, that 750 kilowatts solar system, could serve 250 houses like Hanover House in New Hampshire. Now, my preferred approach to solar electricity is concentrated solar thermal and parking lots – a bumper sticker that came out of my book is “Parking lots are the answer.” Commercial rooftops and parking lots – there’s enough area to provide most of the electricity requirements. So you not only don’t need a footprint in virgin countryside where you’re destroying something, but you don’t even need the footprint of the transmission lines. At some point we’ll have to strengthen our distribution system, but that footprint is already there. You have to have the electrical engineering and communities working on how you integrate large, large amounts of photovoltaics like this and distributed sources into a grid.
A C-T: When you say you don’t need the transmission lines that’s because it’s on the roof of your own building and you use it yourself?
Makhijani: Right, right. You need the distribution system so if we fold this on commercial structures which have large areas you can supply houses with it, so you need a better distribution system eventually, but now, the Wal Mart can supply itself from its own area….
When you generate, say from say a nuclear power plant or a coal-fired power plant or concentrating solar that’s far away from consuming centers, you generate typically 13.6 kilovolts and you lose most of the electricity in the transmission over hundreds of miles so you step it up to 230 kilovolts, 365 kilovolts, very high voltage.
A C-T: So if most of the houses in Western North Carolina had some sort of photovoltaic cells supplementing their energy – you wouldn’t need quite as much energy because you don’t have to transmit it far away?
Makhijani: You can reduce the transmission losses. We lose about 8 percent of the electricity in transmission and distribution. You don’t eliminate it because you still have some distribution loses in the local site. Once you get to the city you have transformers to convert it to lower voltage and then lower voltages…. So you have to step it down. Progress Energy proposal in Florida for two nuclear units has a $3 billion provision for new transmission lines alone in a total $17 billion proposal.
I understand why utilities are thinking like this. They’re very conservative. They are responsible for keeping the lights on. They’re used to this way of doing things. But there’s an economic earthquake under their feet, both with new technology, which could render all of their conventional way of thinking obsolete very rapidly, with carbon dioxide regulations, with new technology for smart grids. So the electrical engineering community is talking about all of these things. This is going to happen. So it’s a question of how much money are we going to waste learning these lessons before. The last time we did nuclear and big central station plants in the middle of an energy earthquake in the ‘70s and ‘80s, we must have lost $100 billion to $200 billion learning the lessons. Now those lessons would be even more costly.
So I think the combination of efficiency, wind, solar thermal with storage - we can even accommodate electric cars, which are coming, which would be a very good thing - will go a long way toward addressing our energy security problems that we have.
A C-T: When you say it would go a long way toward addressing the energy security problems, it does seem that it would be less vulnerable to one big blow up. You could distribute the solar and wind, but more solar maybe, in a more diffuse way so there would be less likelihood that if one unit went down a whole large region would lose power. Do you think that’s right?
Makhijani: Yes, I do think so. I think the reliability of will it come on if you flip the switch can be made of the same or better. The security will be immeasurably better. Not only because you have a more distributed grid with fewer central station plants, they’re much less attractive targets. A terrorist wants to create a dramatic damage. We know that unfortunately, that’s part of their goal. If you attack a solar photovoltaic parking lot, it’s not very much. So what that does, it not only reduces the damage in case it’s attacked. It removes that whole sector from the probability of becoming a terrorist target, because there are much more attractive targets for them in their definition for what they want to accomplish than attacking the electricity system. And if you build nuclear power plants, you really multiply your targets. It’s very unfortunate, but we have to think about that.
A C-T: Let’s assume it’s doable. I just had a conversation with our Sen. Richard Burr. He sees global warming as a problem and sees that we need to be moving toward something different that doesn’t involve putting so much carbon into the atmosphere. I asked him how are we going to get there. He said he thought it had to be nuclear because he didn’t see any other way to get there. If he’s thinking that I suspect most of the Congress and Senate think that, and certainly the utility companies are putting their money on that bet. How do you turn that around? Do you have a way to convince them there’s a better way?
Makhijani: Well, we do. And that’s why I’ve been traveling around the country. We’re setting up a Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free Alliance, a network of groups around the country that will be working to accomplish this, working to convince their local utilities to consider this seriously, working to convince Congress. I have briefed members of Congress. The leading presidential candidates all have a copy of this book. Now we have to get to the point that they’ll pay attention. We’re small, but we’re growing and we’re making the effort.
I’d like to sort of differ with you about one remark you made in asking that question. The utilities are not putting their own money into nuclear. They’re putting the ratepayers’ money. They’ve been allowed to dip into the ratepayers’ pocketbook without even assuring that the ratepayer is going to get anything out of this. Normally when you buy something on installments, you get the thing first and then you pay the installments. Here you’re paying the installments and you don’t even know whether you’re going to get anything. I don’t know the numbers in North Carolina, but I did look at South Carolina. I just came from Columbia. And I calculated that it’s really like a grant of $2,000 from every household in that utility’s region – not even a loan, just a grant. That’s what they want in terms of a rate increase.
A C-T: Have they been given that rate increase?
Makhijani: No, they have not yet. I don’t know what their situation is about construction work in progress. They’ve applied for it. Here I understand it’s already been granted. Has it already been granted here, Mary?
Mary Olson: (Southeast Regional Coordinator, Nuclear Information and Resource Service) The state legislature has repealed the prohibition. The certificate of need has to be given. Right now they’re just doing preconstruction requests. But they’re going to be able to get those.
A C-T: This is for nuclear?
Olson: In North Carolina it is nuclear and coal. Both have the ability to pre-collect money.
Makhijani: And it actually disturbs the playing field a lot. It favors the most risky projects and the most long lead-time projects. So if it takes ten years to build something, you’re going to get more construction work-in-progress than if it takes you 18 months. Now that’s the difference – eight years from planning to finish for a nuclear power plant, 18 months to build a wind turbine. You can do parking lot photovoltaics in six months. …. So you are actually biasing the playing field in terms of more risky, longer lead-time projects at a time when the landscape is changing rapidly and you should be voting for shorter lead-time projects so you retain the flexibility.
A C-T: You said you have briefed members of Congress. Have you had an opportunity to brief the presidential candidates?
Makhijani: No, I have not personally briefed the presidential candidates. They all have copies of my book, but we have to go to the next step and get to them and get them to read it. There was somebody from Progress Energy there last night to hear my talk. We are working at the state level to have utilities take this much more seriously. We’ve been working in Utah. I went to (a power company that supplies) five states in that region, very big like Duke, owned by Warren Buffett’s group actually. Did you know that Warren Buffett’s group considered a nuclear unit in Idaho and then they abandoned it as not an economically sensible proposition? So I would ask, what does Warren Buffett know that they don’t know here yet.
So we’ve just begun this effort. I think the leadership will come from the states. I think, actually, many utilities will be the leadership of it. You look at Austin Energy, you look at Southern California Edison. Southern California Edison announced a project of 240 megawatts of solar photovoltaics only on commercial rooftops and parking lots. They’re just going to do that. There’s a very large solar thermal power plant going to be built in San Luis Obispo, Nev. There’s a contract in Arizona, which I’ve already mentioned.
I think there’s a change in Congress… Whatever you view, say, is of the Lieberman-Warner bill which has been considered in the Senate. Congressman (Ed) Markey (D-Mass.) recently introduced a bill – I don’t know if it’s been introduced, but it’s been published and maybe introduced, he’s the head of the global warming committee in the House. He … introduced a set of principles of energy legislation. I have some differences with them, but if you look at them overall, they’re pretty good and I think if you look at those principles very closely, they’re about greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide from energy is about 82 percent of the U.S. greenhouse gases, but the most easily controlled piece, the biggest piece - if you look at those principles, in my opinion, if you way 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gases, which is what that say, relative to 1990, i f you look at where are today we will have to eliminate 90 to 95 percent of our carbon dioxide emissions from energy by the middle of the century. That’s pretty much a carbon free system.
I think the seriousness of this on Capitol Hill is hitting the utilities, depending on who they are, at different rates. But they all understand. Mr. McCain has said mandatory CO2 reductions, Obama has said mandatory reductions, there’s the Lieberman-Warner bill, there’s the Markey legislation. They’re all pretty tough. They’re varyingly tough, but they’re all tough. That’s why coal-fired power plants have suddenly become very hard to finance on Wall Street, just like nuclear. There were 140-odd coal-fired plants on the drawing boards maybe 18 months ago. Today, many or most of them are gone.
A C-T: There’s a Duke effort to build a coal-fired plant in Cliffside. Their argument for it, assuming you’re not going to be carbon-free, nuclear-free in the next little bit, is that this plant will be cleaner and if you don’t build this plant they’re going to keep running dirtier plants that they will be able to shut down if this plant is built. If you don’t yet have the photovoltaics – they’re doing this or this and this is dirtier than this, but this plant is going to be up and running for years and years - where do you come down on that?
Makhijani: Well, I met Congressman (Heath) Shuler’s (D-Waynesville) staff person last night and we chatted. And I said why don’t you invite Nanosolar to build a photovoltaic plant in North Carolina. Nanosolar is today building the cheapest solar cells with the most expensive labor on the most expensive real estate in United States in Silicon Valley. They’re not importing them from China, they’re building them in Silicon Valley, Calif.
A C-T: Could they be built here?
Makhijani: Of course they could be built here. There are similar technologies in other companies. I don’t think we need to make a choice between dirty and dirtier. That’s not a sensible choice. Moreover, dirty for 50 years and dirtier for five years – let’s put it differently - if they’re ready to retire existing coal-fired plants, we have carbon dioxide restraints coming. I’ll tell you what (the company owned by Warren Buffett) is considering in its revised planning for carbon dioxide prices. They have a reference of where we are today, which is zero. They’re considering $50 a ton and $100 a ton. What does $50 a ton mean? Fifty dollars a ton means 5 cents a kilowatt hour for coal. You look at a new coal-fired power plant and it’s going to cost you $3,000 a kilowatt if you have the fancy technology to make it less dirty. Coal prices have shot up. It’s the new China syndrome.
When you add it all up, you’re going to be creating lots of pollution, you’re going to be paying carbon dioxide fees. This is not if or even when, it’s going to happen in a year or two. But before this coal plant is done, there are going to be carbon dioxide fees. If it’s five cents average over the life of the plant…when you add it all up, you’re in the same price as nuclear and you’re in the same price as concentrating solar.
A C-T: For the same amount of energy?
Makhijani: For the same amount of energy. …The city of Seville in Spain has decided they’re going to be completely solar. That’s their goal. They’re actually implementing that. That’s not a Greenpeace goal. These are goals being adopted by people who are responsible for making sure the lights stay on. Because today you can do concentrating solar with 20-hour storage, much faster than what I thought would happen. It’s stunning. So the climate scene is deteriorating very rapidly, but the good news is, the technology scene is improving very rapidly.
Utilities are not known for being nimble. The price of not being nimble today is not going to be low. I don’t have a perfect crystal ball, nobody does. But if you look at the scene fairly, if you look at what has the Department of Energy said about the forecast for solar photovoltaic – you have to take the DOE forecasts with a grain of salt – but occasionally I happen to agree with them. They’ve said five to 10 cents per kilowatt hour total cost for solar photovolataics by 2015. I think five cents is a little bit extreme, I think it’s probably going to be more like 10 cents. But 10 cents is still a lot cheaper than a new nuclear power plant. And if you do it in parking lots and commercial rooftops, you save the three, four or five cents from transmission and distribution costs. You’re talking economic obsolescence before the nuclear power plants or coal-fired power plants come on line. Coal-fired power plants will become economically obsolete by CO2 prices.
A C-T: That may be, but I suspect we’ll still be paying for them.
Makhijani: That’s where you’re compromising the economic future of your state. I would say those who made bad decisions on electricity – then how can you go to the manufacturing companies and say, come to our state, we’ve got expensive electricity.
So, if the political system and the economic system that runs the state, your congress people are serious about saying OK, we’re losing manufacturing jobs, workers are hurting, more today than they were a few years ago, then we must be nimble about energy, acknowledging that nobody has got a perfect crystal ball. I would say if you have to be nimble, flexibility has to be a pretty high objective. If you commit to a 10-year, $15 billion to $20 billion project that might become economically obsolete before it’s switched on, that’s the exact opposite. In the middle of a crisis, Wall Street will tell you, keep your cash.
A nuclear power plant is the exactly the opposite of that. You are spending your cash before you’ve raised it. You are compromising the taxpayers, you are compromising the rate payers and you are compromising the economic future of your state. So build something that has an 18-month lead time or a six-month lead time. And would have a cheaper interest rate attached to it because it’s lower risk.
A C-T: And it is your conviction that you would be able to get enough energy from photovoltaics, from wind, from those sources to meet the current needs or the needs that would have been met by this coal-fired plant in Cliffside or a nuclear plant that Duke wants to build somewhere else?
Makhijani: I have done a national study. What I would advocate here is that Progress Energy and Duke Energy do a serious integrated resource plan that has much heavier components of efficiency – you know that says, if we actually have rules for developers, if we say when existing buildings are sold there will be some efficiency rules so the cost of improving efficiency can be rolled into the new mortgage, that’s the best way to do it – and then we add wind and solar and so on, what will that cost structure look like, where will it be put, what will be the transmission requirements, what are the risks, what’s the downside if you are wrong. So to translate what I’ve done.
In fairness, I can’t say you can’t say you don’t need Cliffside. I haven’t done a North Carolina study. If I’m honest on my word that my first goal is to keep the lights on when you flip the switch, then my first advocacy has to be that the Public Utilities Commission ask the utilities to do integrated resource plans that tap into the efficiency potential that’s real. Not as an afterthought.On the Web: