Energy in the news: Friday, April 15

Friday, April 15, 2016

What happens when a nuclear power plant is shut down
Detroit News, feat. Catherine Hausman

Most climate debates have focused on cutting the use of coal in electricity production. But besides a few high profile scuffles over the transition to cleaner energy, political leaders have ignored nuclear power as a necessary component of an effective climate strategy.

Within the past two years, nuclear plants have been shut down in six states, and there are a number of other states — including Michigan — which have nuclear plants that are at high risk of premature retirement.

A recent study indicates that closing a nuclear plant has substantial energy-replacement costs and significant, if usually unacknowledged, environmental consequences. The twin-unit San Onofre nuclear plant in Southern California was shut down in 2012. According to a study by two economists, Lucas Davis of the University of California-Berkeley and Catherine Hausman of the University of Michigan, electricity generating costs rose by $350 million during the year following San Onofre’s closing.

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Breaking boundaries through interdisciplinary collaboration
feat. Huei Peng and Alec Gallimore

Engineering faculty are  crucial partners in an effort to develop driverless car technologies – including the vehicles, road and traffic infrastructure, and transportation policy. With involvement from over 55 companies since its launch in 2013, the Mobility Transformation Center (MTC) is already one of the largest industrial partnerships at U-M.

“The college and university have a long history at the forefront of automotive and mobility technology, and this initiative strengthens that position,” said Huei Peng, the Roger L. McCarthy Professor and director of MTC. 

Computer simulation and the handling of big data sets are becoming critical tools for scientists of all stripes. Engineers apply advanced computing to solve problems and also enable more effective simulations and data analysis. Engineering is a supporting pillar of two new data science institutes, launched in 2015: the Michigan Institute for Data Science and the Michigan Institute for Computational Discovery and Engineering.

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Detroit considers tougher rules for pet coke
Detroit News

The city is weighing a measure that would strictly regulate the handling of petroleum coke and other bulk solid materials to protect the health of its most vulnerable residents.

The proposed rules come several years after an uproar over 30-foot piles of pet coke — a byproduct of petroleum refining at the recently expanded petroleum refinery in southwest Detroit — were stored by a company along the Detroit River, blowing onto the water and neighboring properties.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, the city’s executive director of public health, said the proposed ordinance aims to minimize dust exposure in the air and water and protect residents from “anything that can potentially harm them.”

“We owe it to the 700,000 people who live in our city to think about what the consequences of allowing hazardous material into the air might be,” said El-Sayed, noting the city’s 48217 ZIP code is the most polluted in the state, with residents suffering from higher rates of asthma and disease.

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The most important mystery about US climate change policy
The Washington Post

On the surface, it looks like extraordinarily good news. The United States isburning less coal — less of the fuel that contributes the most carbon dioxide to the atmosphere when burned. Instead, we’re swapping in cleaner burning natural gas, which could serve as a “bridge” to an era in which wind and solar provide the bulk of the nation’s power. And carbon dioxide emissions are already lower as a result.

Yet there’s a nagging problem here that just won’t go away. Environmentalists have charged for some time that the fracking boom — the rise in unconventional natural gas that is the key driver of all of this — has a dark underbelly. Natural gas’s principal component is methane, which is also a greenhouse gas. And if it gets to the atmosphere unburned, it has a much larger warming effect than carbon dioxide does, over a period of about 10 years.

So if there are enough leaks from the new wave of unconventional oil and gas drilling operations, it is possible to substantially undermine the climate benefits that accrue from less burning of coal — and moreover, to do so over the crucial next few decades, when all the key changes have to be made if there’s any hope of averting the worst climate damage.

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Ohio bailout plan part of larger debate over nuclear’s future

Midwest Energy News

An Ohio utility’s pursuit of a lifeline for an aging nuclear plant comes at a time when both economics and public opinion are aligning against nuclear power.

On March 31, the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio ruled that all FirstEnergy utility customers should guarantee sales for all electricity produced by the Davis-Besse plant along with certain coal generating plants in which FirstEnergy Solutions has an ownership interest.

The public debate around the plans has largely focused on fairness to consumers and competitors, but has occurred with a larger national discussion about nuclear power's role in a low-carbon future in the background.

Poll numbers released by Gallup last month show that, for the first time, a majority of Americans are opposed to nuclear power. The results follow “a downward trend in public approval of nuclear over the last six or seven years,” said Tim Judson, executive director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service in Takoma Park, Maryland.

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Analysts blame natural gas, not 'war on coal,' for Peabody's demise
E&E News

Cheap and plentiful natural gas, as well as an oversupplied market of inexpensive coal -- not environmental regulations -- are the primary forces behind Peabody Energy Corp.'s bankruptcy and others in the U.S. coal industry, a wide range of financial experts said.

Peabody, the largest coal company in the country, filed for Chapter 11 protection yesterday. Its demise comes on the heels of that of Arch Coal Inc., the nation's second-largest mining company. Alpha Natural Resources Inc., Patriot Coal Corp. and Walter Energy Inc. have also filed for bankruptcy protection.

Industry leaders and many lawmakers have laid the blame largely at the feet of a federal "war on coal" -- specifically the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan to curb power plant emissions. But analysts who follow the coal industry say that while government standards have increased costs for Peabody and other producers in recent years, they are not the leading cause of the bankruptcies plaguing the industry.

"The kind of collapse that we're seeing in the coal industry right now" is primarily due to natural gas competition, said Anna Zubets-Anderson, who covers the coal industry for Moody's Investors Service. Coal prices are too low for many mining companies to survive, and overseas competitors are closer to countries where demand is high, she said in a recent interview.

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