SACE | Southern Alliance for Clean Energy
January 30, 2013
1. Solar Energy in the U.S.
The good, bad and ugly of solar in 2012, and a 2013 outlook
There were some good, bad and ugly developments for solar in 2012; though more of the same can be expected in 2013, it may be the year that the solar industry evolves out of the growing pains of a young industry and into a more mature and balanced market. The “good” last year? 2012 was a record year for annual capacity additions in the United States. Based on forecasts by SEIA-GTM Research, there were 3.2 gigawatts (GW) of photovoltaics (PV) installed in 2012, which is nearly 70% more than was installed in 2011. This brings cumulative U.S. PV capacity to about 7.2 GW. The installations were the product of low solar material costs, delayed completion of systems leveraging the 1603 U.S. treasury grant and an expansion of third-party financing in residential markets. Although the low solar material costs mentioned above contributed to growth in installed capacity, some of the growth was, in fact, related to “bad” manufacturing conditions. A boom in manufacturing – particularly in China – created a supply of panels that more than doubled what the market demanded in 2011 and 2012. As a result, prices for PV components declined exponentially, and many companies have been forced to consolidate, shut down factories and/or file for bankruptcy. These “bad” manufacturing conditions also contributed to some “ugly” finger pointing by companies, and ultimately countries, concerned with unfair trade practices. After a year of investigation, the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) voted to issue antidumping (AD) and countervailing duties to all crystalline silicon PV cells, modules, laminates and panels coming into the U.S. from China. The European Commission has launched a similar investigation of Chinese imports. In retaliation, China launched their own AD investigations into polysilicon imports from the U.S. and South Korea, as well as Europe. Analysts predict that 2013 will bring another increase (~30%) in annual installed capacity in the U.S, with additional market growth in energy storage and battery technologies as a result of the electricity-sector vulnerability felt during and after Hurricane Sandy. Though the supply chain “glut” will continue to keep prices down and force more manufacturers out of business, increased demand from the U.S., China, India, Japan and other emerging markets should help stabilize the supply-demand balance and prices by the second half of 2013. The trade wars will probably hurt more than help the manufacturing industry, however methods of circumventing new requirements may avoid major supply distortions. Although the Southeast U.S. remains a relatively small player in the national solar market, it has not been insulated from the trends discussed above. For example, Hemlock Semiconductor recently announced it was holding off production at its new plant in Clarksville, TN, “in response to significant oversupply in the polysilicon industry and the threat of potential tariffs on its products sold into China.” Conversely, Georgia Power attributes “recent declines in the cost of installations” as a key factor in launching the Georgia Power Advanced Solar Initiative this year, which will be the largest voluntarily developed solar portfolio from an investor-owned utility.
2. Southeast Coal & Coal Ash Developments
New developments and tools to move us away from dirty energy sourcesIt’s been a busy couple of months in the world of coal in the Southeast. On December 11, 2012, SACE, in partnership with Appalachian Voices, Southern Environmental Law Center and North Carolina Conservation Network, launched www.SoutheastCoalAsh.org, a first-ever comprehensive online tool that helps citizens find specific information about coal ash impoundments in their communities and around the region. On January 7, 2013 Georgia Power became the first Southern Company affiliate to make a substantial and laudable coal plant retirement announcement, with plans to take 10 coal units offline, totaling nearly 2,000 MW of power at three power plants. Georgia Power is also switching from coal to natural gas at two units at Plant Yates, totaling over 800 MW. While we are pleased with the coal retirement announcement from Georgia Power, we still have a long way to go in our region to decrease our dependence on and clean up the pollution from this dirty fuel, particularly when it comes to the silent legacy toxic coal ash poses to our health and water. The Southeast is home to nearly 450 coal ash impoundments, which hold roughly 118 billion gallons of potentially toxic waste – enough to cover 300,000 football fields one foot deep! Most are located next to waterways, and many are old, unlined and failing; threatening the water Southeasterners rely on for drinking, agriculture, recreating and fishing. Currently there are no federal regulations on coal ash disposal; oversight varies by state and in some is virtually nonexistent. These impoundments are scattered throughout the region, however they and the threat they pose to the environment and human health are largely unknown by the general public. Given these threats, we developed SoutheastCoalAsh.org in an effort to provide citizens with an easier tool to learn more about these toxic threats nearest them. The website features an interactive map showing which level of safety a particular power plant’s coal ash dams meet, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. In addition, the site offers more than a dozen informational pages detailing the health and environmental hazards of coal ash, current legislative and regulatory environment, active legal battles, links to additional articles, news and more. We are constantly updating the website in real time with an RSS news feed and social media updates – we are currently featuring a Twitter feed on all posts related to coal ash.We are very appreciative of all our partners who helped throughout the development of the site and in launching and publicizing this great resource through traditional and social media outlets. As of January 8th, over 50 media outlets have featured our new tool, and the website has had over 4,000 different visitors and 7,600 page views. Already several visitors have used our Take Action page to tell the EPA about the Southeast’s need for federal coal ash regulation, and we’re excited to see this support continue to grow over the coming months. It’s been over four years now since the Obama Administration promised to address the dangers of unregulated toxic coal ash waste in the wake of the Kingston, Tenn. coal ash disaster, but still EPA has yet to finalize a rule. Meanwhile, Congress has been making fervent attempts to undermine and block EPA’s authority to do so and this year SACE and our partners are working more diligently than ever to make sure coal ash is prioritized for effective and comprehensive regulation. The new 113th Congress is already in session – make sure Congressional leaders are aware of the need to protect our waters and communities from toxic coal ash by visiting the Take Action page on www.Southeastcoalash.org today! You can also connect with us on Twitter, @SECoalAsh, to stay updated on the latest coal ash news.
3. Power Sources on Google Earth
Is that a coal plant? A nuclear plant?Have you ever been driving around, seen some sort of big, smoky, factory-looking thing and wondered, “Hey, what is that?” Well, Google Earth can usually help narrow down some suspects to help you know what’s based in your community – especially with power plants. Coal power plants are probably the easiest to identify in Google Earth, with nuclear power plants coming in as a close second. Both tend to exist closely to waterways – mainly for water extraction purposes, but also frequently for transportation of fuel and resources for facilities; both also have extensive transmission infrastructure built up nearby and they also have fairly easily recognizable generator buildings. Though a nuclear plant can usually be identified by a set of cooling towers, an onlooker could easily confuse a nuclear reactor with a coal-fired power plant that also uses hyperboloid water-cooling towers. So how do you tell the difference?Identifying Coal Plants
Generally, coal plants have four major features that are pretty easily identifiable – a huge coal pile, smoke stacks (you usually have to look for the shadows cast by these towers), a major water body nearby (for making steam, cooling the steam, and transporting coal), and a generation station.Identifying Nuclear Plants
There are usually at least three attributes visually separating a coal-fired power plant that uses hyperboloid cooling towers and a standard nuclear power plant: a coal pile, smoke stacks and the reactor dome. (Note: some reactor designs, such as Plant Hatch in Georgia and the Fukushima Dai-ichi reactors in Japan, are boiling water reactors, and look different than pressurized water reactors.) Since nuclear power plants do not burn coal for electric generation, if you see a large pile of coal nearby, chances are, you’re not looking at a nuclear power plant. Additionally, coal-fired power plants need smoke stacks to direct the soot and other air pollutants, whereas nuclear power plants tend to not have the extremely tall cylindrical smoke stacks nearby. One way to positively identify a nuclear power plant is by its reactor. The reactor structure tends to look like a short, squatty, circular dome located near the cooling towers.
Compare the (above) image of the Vogtle Nuclear Power Plant along the Savannah River to the (below) image of a coal-fired power plant using hyperboloid cooling towers.Google Earth also has some promoted “tours” and other materials that you can download. Open Google Earth, click on “Layers” in the lower left hand corner (if it’s not open already), then click on “Earth Gallery” and do a search. For example, you can check out the Coal River Wind tour. Just search for “Coal River Wind” in the Google Earth Earth Gallery. The tour takes you through West Virginia’s mountain top coal removal activities, and the group’s innovative approach to stopping this extremely destructive form of mining. For nuclear tours, Google Earth also contains a “historical imagery” feature under the “View” menu. Turning that feature on, and going back in time, shows the devastation caused by the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan and its Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power complex. Physicians for Social Responsibility have also developed a mapping tool for concerned citizens to find out how close they live nuclear power plants here in the U.S., specifically in case of accidents. To use all the features discussed in this article, download Google Earth here. For more information on identifying coal plants, nuclear plants and even wind farms using Google Earth, make sure to check out our blog series.
4. Issues Plague Vogtle Reactors
America’s top reactor project continues to face problemsThe lead new reactor project in the U.S., the proposed two new Toshiba-Westinghouse AP1000 reactors at Southern Company’s Plant Vogtle along the Savannah River near Waynesboro, Georgia, remains plagued with problems. In some ways Vogtle is no longer the lead project – coming in second to SCE&G’s nuclear expansion of V.C. Summer in South Carolina in several regards. From schedule delays, cost increases, design changes, site challenges, lawsuits among the partners, wrangling over the $8.3 billion federal nuclear loan guarantee offer and strange events and ‘mishaps’, this poster child for the so-called “nuclear renaissance” still faces many hurdles nearly a year after receiving federal licensing approval from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The 7th semi-annual Vogtle Construction Monitoring docket is underway at the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) and much has changed since 2009 when the Commission approved the project and the state legislature passed anti-consumer legislation to charge customers in advance for financing costs. Southern Alliance for Clean Energy has intervened in all of the monitoring dockets. Here are a few highlights (or low points): • Cost increases/overruns
The estimated cost to complete the project is currently at just over $14 billion. Georgia Power’s portion, the current certified cost, is $6.1 billion. The partners, Oglethorpe Power, MEAG and Dalton Utilities, share in the remaining costs based on percentage of ownership. However, less than a year since the NRC’s license approval, a dispute over additional costs between the utilities and the consortium (Westinghouse, Shaw) has arisen to the tune of nearly $900 million. Multiple lawsuits have been filed and it has yet to be determined who will be responsible for what amount. If Georgia Power and its utility partners lose, then customers will shoulder the costs—and either way, Vogtle’s final price tag will increase. • Schedule changes/delays
Originally, the proposed new Vogtle reactors were to come online in April 2016 and April 2017 respectively. Those target completion dates continue to change. According to December 2012 testimony from Dr. William Jacobs, the Independent Construction Monitor (ICM), estimated in-service dates are now at least 15 months later, or July 2017 for the first new reactor. Since then, the critical first nuclear concrete pour has slipped yet again and Southern/Georgia Power anticipates submitting yet another License Amendment Request for their respective projects. Jacobs has even recommended evaluating the impacts schedule delays of 24, 36 and 48 months could pose to the Vogtle project. • Unique challenges
A massively complicated, many-year project such as Vogtle is bound to experience problems along the way. But an incident on December 15, 2012 certainly appeared unexpected – and it took nearly a month before the public even heard about it. A specially designed rail car to ship the critical, 300-ton reactor pressure vessel, which took three years to build by a Korean manufacturer, experienced problems upon leaving the Port of Savannah. The railcar was less than a mile into the long trek to the site when engineers decided to return it to the port where the reactor pressure vessel now sits. Its fate and that of the project remain uncertain.