PowerGen pros and cons - an honest discussion

OVERKILL

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How do you know so much about electricity production?

I can see the future where most homeowners and small business are generating their own electricity through solar and battery storage as opposed to today's model. The current model is confusing as to the regulations and lack of options in who delivers the electricity to my house.

What is the incentive for the power companies to storm proof of upgrade the power grid. Many people would rather get off the grid.

The large nuclear or hydro plants are cost effective but create huge impact if they go offline. I don't know what that probability is. I don't think there's a best answer right now. Personally I'd burn the coal while we improve the decentralized green energy sources.

Overall I really like electricity but the current oligopoly of power companies is not good for consumers.

Powergen is a hobby of mine, particularly nuclear :)


To your point, back in the day before the big grids and giant utilities that's exactly what was done. We moved toward centrally managed large-scale generation because:
A) It was cheaper
B) Maintaining your own generation assets is a big job
C) Large consumers need large amounts of electricity

Actually going "off grid" and not doing the solar/battery/grid-tie setup that still leverages the grid is extremely expensive. I have a friend currently working on it and he's going to be $50K into solar + batteries + massive diesel genset and most of his appliances will be propane. He's obviously not doing it for the green, he just wants to be truly off-grid.

Solar won't power most businesses. It's main strength is depressing daytime peaking, it's not a good standalone generation source and if you are wanting to pair it with storage you need to over-build massively.

I think there's a certain allure to being "off grid" and I think that's what people get wrapped up in. Once you look into what's involved in actually doing so, your opinion may change.
 

OVERKILL

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I lived very close to three mile island for a year and a half and left there one year before the big meltdown. And at the time I had read the book "We Almost Lost Detroit" and I was aware that the larger the reactor the faster things can go wrong. And also aware that Westinghouse made the safer systems with a heat-exchanger between the reactor loop and the turbine steam side. And that the reactors at three mile island were large Babcock & Wilcox units that were not as safe as Westinghouse units. I felt very uncomfortable living on the Penn State Harrisburg campus that was a short distance from Three Mile Island. And was very glad that I was in Pittsburgh when the meltdown happened. And also thought of the fact that there had to be other college students living on that campus when the reactor melted down and there was a release for a longer than should of been time with the wind blowing the release towards the campus, and its housing, where I had lived the year before.

I know that reactor design has come a long way over the years, and the Westinghouse AP1000 is a very safe unit. And also there are some other designs from other countries that are very safe.

But unfortunately often the contract goes to the lowest bidder. And the safest nuclear plants seldom are the ones with the lowest bid.

Also the red tape and antinuke crowd make nuclear a difficult option. Maybe the only good thing about them is that in some ways there nit-picking may make the safer designs a lower over all cost option because there may be less opposition to those designs.

I would not have any worries if the local Beaver Valley plants were replace with Westinghouse AP1000 units. But if they ever are replaced again the lowest bidder will most likely win the contract.

It is a shame that with all the money Westinghouse spent on the development of the AP1000 resulting in a safe design there are not a lot of them being built in the United States.

There's the potential for events like what transpired in Texas to potentially change the course on that. Of all the sources that were impacted, and they were ALL impacted, the nukes were impacted the least. They lost one unit (down to 75% capacity) and it came back online yesterday. It was just a sensor for one of the pumps, nothing actually wrong with the unit, but with so few units in play; nuclear is only 5% of their installed capacity, it doesn't play a major role in the Texas grid when compared to fossil sources at this time.

Perhaps when the two AP1000's which are almost complete at Vogtle finally come online there may be reason to capitalize on the momentum from that build and do the next pair cheaper. STP-3 and 4 would make sense I think.
 

OVERKILL

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Thank you Overkill for writing about energy. I find it fascinating and appreciate the time and effort you put into your write-up.

I don't pretend to understand why there have been problems with electric power in Texas recently. Politics seems to muddy the technical reasons why there are such problems taking place there. I am sure it is not as simple as wind generators getting knocked off line by ice on the blades, etc.

It does seem as though environmental concerns prevent the U.S. from being able to build the infrastructure to withstand sudden changes in demand caused by weather events. Grid management and the electric market are complicated.

I am having a hard time with the signal to noise ratio of media coverage of the recent electric problems in Texas.

I would be interested in your take on what's happening in Texas over the last couple few days. Kind of a "Gods eye view" perspective.

My question is not intended to cause controversy or promote bad behavior on BITOG.
You are quite welcome!

I explained it at some length in the "THIS is Texas?" thread if you'd like to check it out. I made several posts and the language used, and some of the responses, were the reason for this thread.
 
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Great post. Earlier in my working life, I worked for a software company that provided trading software to power companies who bid into ISO/RTO markets. Did mostly technical configuration stuff (like a SAP consultant) and picked up some power industry knowledge but nothing close to what you know. Had one project in ERCOT back when it went live, but spent most of my time on MISO, CAISO (+EIM), and SPP.
 

OVERKILL

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Overkill, what are your thoughts on small scale nuclear? I can't remember the story, but I read something years ago about safe, small scale nuclear being designed by Toshiba or?

Lots of SMR designs currently "on the table" so to speak. I actually pot together a thread or two about them some time back.

OPG has announced the construction of two SMR's at Darlington here in Ontario, likely two different vendors is my understanding, to spread out the risk a bit. One of them I believe is NuScale, another Terrestrial Energy, but there's a way to go on that yet. They expect to break ground before 2025 is my understanding.

In the more immediate future we are looking at the GFP/USNC MMR (Micro Modular Reactor) which is a shipping container sized nuclear reactor and process heat setup that's designed to provide anywhere from 5-15MW of electrical capacity IIRC, depending on how it is configured as well as potentially district heat. This would be geared towards mining operations, remote communities...etc. The reactor side is supposed to be a swappable module, good for 25 years, doesn't need to be refuelled. This has made it all the way through the CNSC (Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission) Vendor Design Review and is currently waiting for its Environmental Assessment, which will allow them to start construction at Chalk River. This is also sponsored by OPG, so it's clear that they have a genuine interest in seeing new nuclear getting constructed.

On the economics side of things? I'm not as "warm and fuzzy" on SMR's.

While a lot of the designs are truly amazing (my favourite is the Moltex SSR, which runs on used CANDU fuel), the reason we scaled up to larger and larger units was because of the economics of doing so.

This is the same reason Bruce Power can refurbish 6 reactors at their site on a $0.077/kWh rate while OPG can't do the same at Darlington. Bruce has almost twice the installed capacity. It's the same reason Pickering is more expensive to operate than Darlington, Pickering has more, lower output units, while Darlington has fewer, higher output units.

The small single unit plants were the first ones to get shuttered in the US due to poor economics. It's the big plants that fair the best due to the economy of scale. So how is that going to work when you are going the other direction? I just don't see it as being as cost-effective as is currently being pitched, even if the staffing requirements are greatly reduce per MW and CAPEX is much lower for construction.

Now, that said, that doesn't mean there isn't a reason to build them. Russia has already built two and powering and heating a remote Siberian village with them from their barge. Yes, it floats ;)

They are now working on building stationary versions of those same units. They were, IMHO, quite brilliant with their take on how to do this, as they took an existing marine reactor design and tweaked it for shorepower and heating applications. This is the lowest cost way of doing it, but it doesn't get you all the "cool and fancy" stuff currently trending with the paper SMR solutions like molten salt, liquid fuels, thorium....etc.
 

OVERKILL

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What are your thoughts on TerraPower?
Well they, like the other SMR offerings, have their own unique spin on small, modular nuclear. I am holding my judgement on all of those designs at this point until they are actually constructed and operated.

Some of them show some real promise, but as we've witnessed with the Moltex units here working their way through the VDR, some significant changes end up being made along the way as issues come to light during the vetting, and this is still in the paper design stages! When they get constructed and operated more issues will be identified, hopefully resolved...etc and that's how you end up with, or don't end up with, a viable design suitable for deployment.

It's the same process we went through with existing designs except that new reactors based on existing BWR, PWR and CANDU technology benefit from decades of experience with that technology so new designs don't have the unexpected pitfalls and gotchas, or at least not at the same scale and frequency as will be encountered with these SMR designs. The generational reactors (C6->EC6->AFCR) are the ones where they get cheaper and cheaper to build as a given design is refined and matured. That's not the case with the AP1000, it's FOAK, but would be the case for a CANDU 6 for example.
 
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I think nuclear and hydro are the answer, at least where I am.

We aren't utilizing hydro enough here, though. We have many municipal water supplies with dams and reservoirs, but no power plants on them - seems like we're missing a pretty large opportunity. Last summer was the most dry summer in probably 20, 25 years and even at that, there would have been enough flow through our rivers that a reasonable level of power would have been maintained. Water is a relative constant here.

As for wind/solar, I think solar is a bit better. Most homes up here are heated with gas or oil. The highest demand on the grid comes in the summer on those stale, humid 95 degree sunny days. Perfect for solar, not so much for wind. Sure, in the winter we don't get a ton of son, but the load on our grid isn't that much during the winter compared to the summer months.
 

OVERKILL

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I think nuclear and hydro are the answer, at least where I am.

We aren't utilizing hydro enough here, though. We have many municipal water supplies with dams and reservoirs, but no power plants on them - seems like we're missing a pretty large opportunity. Last summer was the most dry summer in probably 20, 25 years and even at that, there would have been enough flow through our rivers that a reasonable level of power would have been maintained. Water is a relative constant here.

As for wind/solar, I think solar is a bit better. Most homes up here are heated with gas or oil. The highest demand on the grid comes in the summer on those stale, humid 95 degree sunny days. Perfect for solar, not so much for wind. Sure, in the winter we don't get a ton of son, but the load on our grid isn't that much during the winter compared to the summer months.

Sounds like your area is similar to ours. Locally we have 5x run-of-river hydro dams. They aren't huge, but they provide meaningful power round-the-clock for the local area and have, for some of them, done that for more than a century. That said, there are more than 5x overall dams, so definitely still room to add hydro to existing dams that don't have any generating capacity. Those were one of the projects I alluded to being cancelled as a result of the policies on subsidy where those actions resulted in projects that made more sense getting cancelled.
 

OVERKILL

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I’m with Miller88 on thinking nuclear is a good idea, but in my area supplemented with solar+battery backup on a home level.

Yup, I'm actually not opposed to solar + storage in moderate capacity as long as:
A) it's not subsidized
B) its sizing is limited so as to serve the purpose of peaking depression and it doesn't impact the economics of large baseload plants

Unlike wind, with solar you really only have to worry about covering the morning/evening ramps, so doing so with batteries is reasonably viable. It also tends to naturally track with summer demand quite well (AC loads), which is the total opposite of wind.
 

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I appreciate the post very informative.

Can you explain more peaking and following? I know they seem relatively easy to understand based on their names but I am asking how it is done. Such as the technical side and realities, how peaking is determined and handled and what happens when they get it wrong (both over and under) I know that seems simple but I know the reality is greater. What exactly is following? Is that when output is able to ramp up and down easily based on load?

Me I am very pro nuclear, but it has such a stigma attached to it. When I try to discuss it with people they answer with chernobyl.
Sorry for the basic questions. I am actually just starting to learn about power generation and the grid. It is something I never really thought about but feel I should know more. The recent green at all costs has me wanting to be able to discuss pros and cons of all sources of power and their pros and cons.
 

4WD

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Power generation is a very complicated and difficult business … stellar as they are … the first time I heard of Ontario Hydro was in TapRooT training (root cause analysis) …
 

OVERKILL

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I appreciate the post very informative.

Can you explain more peaking and following? I know they seem relatively easy to understand based on their names but I am asking how it is done. Such as the technical side and realities, how peaking is determined and handled and what happens when they get it wrong (both over and under) I know that seems simple but I know the reality is greater. What exactly is following? Is that when output is able to ramp up and down easily based on load?

Me I am very pro nuclear, but it has such a stigma attached to it. When I try to discuss it with people they answer with chernobyl.
Sorry for the basic questions. I am actually just starting to learn about power generation and the grid. It is something I never really thought about but feel I should know more. The recent green at all costs has me wanting to be able to discuss pros and cons of all sources of power and their pros and cons.

The "glue" that holds the grid together is frequency, so maintaining frequency is done using, as I believe as Shannow has affectionately called them, "big spinny things" in describing a large turbine, which acts as a flywheel and provides inertia. These absorb rapid changes in load (up and down) and act as buffers for when adjustments are required in output and the time in which those adjustments are made.

Load following is exactly what it sounds like: Sources that can rapidly increase or decrease their output to respond to demand shifts. These are usually smaller turbines that run regularly. Small hydro turbines are an excellent fit and example here as they can ramp/curtail output very quickly (far faster than a massive 800MW nuke turbine) but they are not as good at absorbing frequency changes as a big unit due to their lower mass and inertia. Smaller Gas Turbines are another example here. Most load following in Ontario is done with hydro, though Bruce Nuclear has, in the past done a bit of it, but this is done in "chunks". The facility can provide up to 2,400MW of flexible output by using steam bypass, but this is of course slower at responding than GT's or hydro.

Peaking is very similar to load following except these plants run less frequently, some of them may not even run at all during certain seasons. There are different types of peaking capacity depending on what's being responded to, so they are not always fast-ramp, though most think of fast-ramp when they think of peaking capacity coming online to deal with a load spike from AC usage for example. We have a plant here in Ontario called Lennox, which is a big dual fuel gas/oil plant that has a capacity factor of 1.5%, so clearly it does not get run often. It is not a fast-ramp plant, and is actually quite old, but it is peaking capacity. If we get a particularly hot summer day wind will be totally AWOL and if we have a nuke unit out for maintenance or something we may plan on meeting that demand peak with Lennox, so it will fire up well in advance and be ready to start filling as the load increases.

Operators plan ahead for both peaking and load following capacity to be available beyond baseload and even if they need to curtail baseload if demand looks to be low enough. Actual response is basically in real-time as those planned sources are used to respond to those demand shifts and maintain frequency.

Because the "big spinny things" want to keep frequency around the grid standard, so for here, that's 60Hz, there's a natural tendency to keep things stable. Where the wheels come off is when capacity can't meet demand, frequency goes far enough out of spec and then it collapses, this is what is attempted to be avoided when rolling blackouts are triggered, forcefully reducing demand. Going the other direction, capacity is easily shed in response to demand drops, so that's less of an issue.
 

OVERKILL

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Power generation is a very complicated and difficult business … stellar as they are … the first time I heard of Ontario Hydro was in TapRooT training (root cause analysis) …
Was that over the Beck II link fail triggered grid collapse?
 

4WD

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Was that over the Beck II link fail triggered grid collapse?
I don’t recall a name … the subject was a mistake was made … bunch of equipment was blown to pieces … and they spent many days threatening people while trying to figure out what happened.

Allegedly, an employee admitted his mistake but only after retirement - saying I would have owned up to it and saved many folks the grief if management had not gone postal over the event.
 

OVERKILL

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I don’t recall a name … the subject was a mistake was made … bunch of equipment was blown to pieces … and they spent many days threatening people while trying to figure out what happened.

Allegedly, an employee admitted his mistake but only after retirement - saying I would have owned up to it and saved many folks the grief if management had not gone postal over the event.
OK, that KINDA sounds like the Beck II grid collapse? There's actually a Wiki on it: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northeast_blackout_of_1965
 
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It seems that all the focus from the green side is on wind and solar. Hydro is a natural way to produce electricity but the dams are a target. There must be better ways to implement hydro without disturbing fish runs? Geothermal is another but limited to certain regions.
 

OVERKILL

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It seems that all the focus from the green side is on wind and solar. Hydro is a natural way to produce electricity but the dams are a target. There must be better ways to implement hydro without disturbing fish runs? Geothermal is another but limited to certain regions.

Run-of-river is less disruptive, but all hydro is going to have some impact on water flows and the life that exists within them.

Here's a local run-of-river dam, it's the one that I noted was ~150 years old, it's the London St. Generating Station which has a 10MW nameplate capacity:
Screen Shot 2021-02-20 at 2.05.05 PM.jpg

Going by the above orientation:
- Bypass is on the bottom (flow through, there's your "minimal impact on fish")
- Turbines are in the centre
- Control dam (water height/flow) on the top
 
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