Wednesday, July 5, 2017 Blog · News

Westvaco’s last harvest. The nuclear option. Gracious criticism. Accelerating sea level rise. Improving growth on Lady’s Island. Transportation and energy. I-73 “bunk.” Wetlands and states. Protecting communities from flooding.

by Dana Beach


What a dramatic weekend it was – beautiful shifting clouds, stultifying heat and humidity interrupted unexpectedly by micro-bursts of cool air from threatening, but unrealized, thunderstorms.  Although I occasionally envy our friends who annually migrate north, (human and otherwise), Lowcountry summers are incomparable and not to be missed.

Summers and winters on the coast will forever be better because of the efforts of Ken Seeger. As this article from the Post and Courier reports, Ken just retired from WestRock, the latest corporate incarnation of timber giant Westvaco. (The article does not report that he received the Order of the Palmetto last month.)

P&C: Seeger’s retirement signals beginning of end for WestRock land development division

Ken moved to Charleston in 2007 to head the company’s land development division.  Along with career Westvacoan Mac Baughman, and with the blessing of company chairman John Luke, Ken worked with us for almost a decade to decide the fate of 75,000 acres of timber land, strategically located between the Ashley River historic district and the ACE basin.

This excerpt from our news magazine last year describes the significance of this work:

By the time you read this newsletter, an area 70 percent larger than Mt. Pleasant will have been newly and permanently protected in Charleston and Dorchester counties.  Called “East Edisto,” this landscape of forests and fields, swamps and bogs, creeks, streams and branches – in three major watersheds – extends from the Ashley River to the ACE basin.  The protection agreement represents the largest private conservation transaction in the history of South Carolina.

Ken possesses a rare combination of intelligence, integrity and creativity that allowed him to navigate a constantly changing business landscape, (three mergers and corporate restructures in 10 years), and ultimately deliver on a promise that was nothing short of transformative for the Lowcountry.  The protection of East Edisto represents the largest, and one of the most important, chapters in the three-decade-long Lowcountry greenbelt saga.  The good news is that Ken and his wife, Monica, plan to stay in town and will undoubtedly continue their excellent volunteer work in the community.

Re: last week’s email, who would have known France (and cats) were so controversial!?

Reactions ranged from: “Don’t disparage the U.S.  The French have a lot of problems too.”  (True, and especially poignant this past July 4th, but they still have a more humane, and safer, approach to road building and transportation than we do.)

Another comment, on that point…  “You should have mentioned the excellent mass transit, and especially the high-speed TGV train.”  (So true.  We took the amazing, and now somewhat aged, TGV from Paris to Avignon, and it is still a wonder of technology. Especially so when your points of reference are CARTA and Amtrak.)

And… “You should let people know that cats are bird killers, so don’t let them roam outside unattended.”  (True.  A point well made.)

And the most consequential criticism…  “Nuclear power is not the only, or the best, carbon-free energy source.”

And…  “Your e-mail was too long.”  (True.  This one will be shorter.)

Regarding nuclear power, I received an incisive, and profoundly gracious, email from Amory Lovins.  If you don’t know of him, (and very few people don’t), Amory is the founder and director of the Rocky Mountain Institute and, for decades, has served as a most prominent scientist and spokesperson for “Soft Energy Paths” (his landmark book on sustainable energy from the 1970s).

I will include the text here because it is rigorous, compelling and important.  (But I don’t include it in my word count so I can keep my promise about a shorter email.)  His basic points are:

  1. Every dollar we spend on nuclear ($14 billion and counting on one plant in S.C. alone) is a dollar we can’t spend on renewable power and efficiency.  In that respect, nuclear is harmful to the effort to transform our energy mix to the cleanest, most sustainable power options available.
  1. Building new nuclear is vastly more expensive than solar and efficiency per kWh, so we are getting a fraction of the carbon reductions for each dollar invested in nuclear that we would if that dollar were invested in renewables.
  1. Building nuclear plants takes much longer than developing solar and wind facilities.  (We have learned that the hard way.)
  1. Existing nuclear is proving uncompetitive in today’s energy markets.
  1. The investments (grid modernization) I said were needed to scale up renewable energy production are less expensive than those necessary for nuclear.
  1. The technology improvements (bulk storage) I said were needed to expand “intermittent” energy production from solar and wind are no longer necessary.
  1. There is solid analysis supporting these points, which Amory provides.

Here is the text of Amory’s email:

Your kind reply about nuclear power is understandable but overlooks some important points:

– Keeping uncompetitive nuclear plants in operation, e.g. through further subsidy, foregoes the opportunity to buy at least 2–3x more electricity-using efficiency (which displaces fossil-fueled generation) with the saved nuclear operating cost, thus saving both carbon and money, as California’s Pacific Gas & Electric Company just agreed to do. Thus prolonging uneconomic nuclear operations (at least half of US reactors) doesn’t help but harms climate protection. Many people missed this point by tracking only the carbon, not also the dollars; you need to track both to get the full picture.

– Building new nuclear plants is many times costlier than operating old ones, so new nuclear power would provide only about 5–8 kWh per dollar spent, vs. about 30–50+ if you bought efficiency instead, or about 20–30 if you bought wind or solar power instead. New nuclear construction thus foregoes even more fossil-fuel displacement, thus further reducing and retarding climate protection.

– Building nuclear plants is also far slower than deploying efficiency and renewables. For example, when the Vermont Yankee reactor closed, the New England grid burned slightly more natural gas in the first year, but by the end of year two (i.e. 2014–16), the nuclear output had been displaced 91% by renewable growth and a further 69% by reduced sales attributable largely or wholly to more-efficient use. Worldwide in 2016 alone, wind and photovoltaic power additions, respectively 57 and 70 GW, were 12x and 14x greater than net nuclear additions (9.4 added less 4.5 GW permanently closed) in capacity, or if combined, were >5x greater in output. Modern renewables, i.e. excluding big hydro dams, added 48% more new output than nuclear’s in their respective fastest growth years (by ~336 TWh in 2016 vs. ~227 TWh in 1985) and by ~43% more in their respective fastest decades (2006–16 vs. 1978–88). 

– Proposed “Small Modular Reactors” can’t do better, for reasons summarized in the next-to-last paragraph of my December 2015 two-page review of the nuclear power industry’s global status. Its rapid decline, now punctuated by consolidations and bankruptcies of major nuclear firms, is described in an authoritative annual report.

– Nuclear power is dying of an incurable attack of market forces even in France. Électricité de France is in deep financial trouble from its nuclear overinvestment, can scarcely afford to keep fixing its nuclear plants let alone replace them as they retire, and suffers lost revenue from France’s net electricity imports from Germany (its largest foreign source) because German electricity, now one-third renewable (and, contrary to erroneous press reports, not subsidized) has cut the German wholesale power price by more than half, so it undercuts ÉdF’s largely-nuclear wholesale prices. France’s second-biggest utility, formerly called GDF-Suez, now called Engie, has joined the two biggest German utilities (EON and RWE) and the big British utility Centrica in selling off its big power stations and focusing instead on efficiency, renewables, demand response, and other customer-centric offerings. 

– You express concern about investments needed. The solar and wind investments needed to displace more, ultimately all, fossil-fueled power generation are actually much smaller than corresponding nuclear investments would be; that’s why the renewables are severalfold cheaper. Even in unsubsidized world markets, solar and wind wholesale auction prices are now around or below 3¢/kWh. 

– You’re also worried about speed. Appetite for modern renewable investments, far from “minimal,” was $242 billion (two-thirds of it private) last year—an order of magnitude more than nuclear power attracted despite its larger subsidies. Modern renewables added 139 GW of global capacity in 2016, 55% of the total additions. And last year alone, the best auction bids fell by 37% for Mexican utility-scale photovoltaics and 43% for European offshore windpower. This illustrates why renewable investment continues to accelerate: the cheaper renewables get, the more we buy, so they get cheaper, so we buy more. (In interpreting the data, don’t interpret occasional dips in investment as meaning that less renewable capacity is being added: most of such decline is due to renewables’ getting cheaper per kilowatt, not to fewer kilowatts’ being bought.)

– Finally, Dana, you say that “expanding the power grid and developing storage at the scale necessary to deal with baseload demand is expensive, technically challenging and politically difficult….” Actually, little or no bulk storage of electricity is needed even for very high renewable fractions, because eight carbon-free grid-flexibility resources can reliably integrate renewables at lower cost. My colleagues have shown, for example, how to run the isolated Texas grid in 2050 with 100% renewables, no bulk storage, only 5% of renewable output left over, and lower cost; also how to more than eliminate that grid’s “duck curve” through demand response alone (one of the eight cheaper resources) with a roughly five-month payback. – This is not just theory but also proven in practice. Even in 2014, the former East Germany’s ultrareliable utility was 49% renewably powered, three-fourths of that from photovoltaics and wind (its CEO says they can raise that to at least 70%), and four European countries with little or no hydropower met about half their domestic annual electricity needs from renewables (Spain 46%, Scotland 50%, Denmark 59%, Portugal 64%) without adding bulk storage and with superior reliability. These grids’ operators have learned to run the grid the way a conductor leads a symphony orchestra: no instrument plays all the time, but the ensemble continuously creates beautiful music. In contrast, the “baseload” concept you mention is obsolete: reliable grids need energy, capacity, flexibility, and ancillary services, but central thermal plants are no longer the cheapest way to provide those functions.

– One needn’t rely on Mark Jacobson’s analyses to make these points. Many other analyses using different methods demonstrate the practicality and cost-effectiveness of 80–90%, some even 100%, renewable power with little or no bulk storage. Two such U.S. studies you might find especially useful are the National Renewable Energy Lab’s Renewable Energy Futures and Rocky Mountain Institute’s Reinventing Fire (which used the same state-of-the-art model but allowed renewables to be half distributed rather than all centralized). I wouldn’t worry about the exact methods that markets will choose decades from now to get from 80–90% to 100% renewables; we know there are ample attractive options, they’ll keep getting better, and that’s all we need to know for now.

I hope you find these thoughts helpful. Thank you for your good work and your kind attention! 

I concede (graciously, I hope).  If Amory Lovins became Secretary of Energy, the world would breathe easier.  Maybe in the next administration…

I also received tactful criticism from Patty Pierce, former Conservation League staffer and now-lobbyist for the solar industry.  Patty said (as Amory did) that the storage problem has been solved.  She sent me this link on that point.

Utility Dive: McKinsey: Cheaper batteries present imminent threat of load defection for utilities

  • The study reports energy storage is already economical for many commercial customers at today’s prices and that with the paring back of incentives such as net metering in many states, combining solar power with energy storage is beginning to be attractive for some households.
  • Continued cost declines are moving energy storage from niche applications, such as grid balancing, to broader uses such as replacing conventional power generators for reliability, providing power-quality services, and supporting renewables integration, according to McKinsey.

But the question remains:  What should be done with SCANA and Santee Cooper’s partially built, and partially paid for, nuclear plant.  In a perfect world, or even in a world where logic and facts held some sway, I suppose the additional costs to complete the plant would be invested in carbon-free power sources.  Per Amory Lovins’ analysis, this would produce the largest climate benefit and, at the same time, lower power production costs.

But that would assume a mode of thought different than the one that got us into the current mess.  It seems more likely, and less acceptable, that the utilities would build one or more gas plants (which are comparatively inexpensive) to replace the power that would not be produced if the nuke plant is abandoned.  In any case, we should hear the fate of the project by the end of the month.

Meanwhile, the urgency of achieving a carbon-free economy grows by the day.  This article from Newsweek reports that sea level rise increased by 50 percent from 1993 to 2014.

Newsweek: Climate change causes sea level rise to accelerate 50 percent in past 20 years 

And the State reports that the negative impacts of climate change will be disproportionately felt by poorer counties in the South.  (For obvious reasons…)

The State: Climate change up close: Southern, poor counties to suffer

Although our new energy secretary, Rick Perry, (the same Rick Perry who could not remember the name of his department in an earlier presidential debate), has now inveighed against a century of climate science, there is good news. Mayors across the country, including Charleston’s John Tecklenburg, Beaufort’s Billy Keyserling, and Columbia’s Steve Benjamin, have pledged to meet (or exceed) the goals of the Paris agreement.  This is encouraging because, as I have consistently said, the rubber hits the road for energy at the local level.

For example, the question of how Lady’s Island will develop…  The pattern of development in our towns, cities and metro areas sets the stage for how much energy we use, particularly in the transportation arena.  We can either build new developments that are 100 percent auto-dependent, as Charleston, Beaufort, Myrtle Beach and most places in America have done for the past 30-40 years, or we can deploy tried and true city-building principles (a dense, connected street grid, mixed uses, residential and commercial development that is sufficiently compact [aka, dense], pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure [aka, crosswalks, bike lanes, sidewalks], and a decent mass transit system.)  This is not rocket science.  We understand both models, and we know the functional implications of each one.

This article from the Island Packet reports that the latest plan for Lady’s Island endorses some of these principles.  Hooray for Beaufort for laying out and promoting more sustainable growth on Lady’s Island.

Island Packet: Five things that would make Lady’s Island a better community

I said good urban design is not rocket science.  The Charleston City Paper illustrates this in an excellent article by Dustin Waters.  Dustin speaks to Matt Biggar of Connected to Place, a California-based consulting firm. Biggar studies the relationship between transportation and human behavior and has found that an individual’s transportation choices are guided primarily by “self-interest, as well as the feeling of comfort and safety.” (We need to be told this by an expert?  Apparently, yes.)

CHAS City Paper: A look at the future of Charleston’s transportation system

One of my favorite observations is, “We don’t think our way into a new way of living.  We live our way into a new way of thinking.”  In transportation, that means we need to build the right infrastructure and start using it, and things will snowball.

Up the coast, the Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce is working overtime so that we may live our way into an old way of thinking.  Specifically, the proposition that more lanes – facilitated by investing $2 billion or more in Interstate 73 from I-95 to Conway – will cure traffic congestion in the area, not to mention create astronomical numbers of jobs and grow the economy.

The problem, as this article from the Nerve reports, is that the numbers and the study the Chamber uses to justify the road are “bunk.”  Here are two example to illustrate the point:

Tom Stickler, a retired engineer from Pawleys Island, heard that hoopla six years ago. “In my work as an engineer,” he says now, “you kind of have to say, let’s look at the numbers beneath this report — and this report just didn’t smell right…  “There were two big errors. The first was when Chmura said you’ll save one to two hours of travel time on this new highway. Well, that’s 45 miles. It’s kind of hard to save one to two hours on 45 miles.”

…The second error, he says, compounded the first by assuming every visitor to Myrtle Beach would come on I-73. A state DOT study found that if I-73 were a toll road, as is contemplated, at a cost of 12 cents per mile, fewer than 10 percent of drivers bound for Myrtle Beach would use it.

Extrapolating from the initial errors, Stickler concluded that the estimate of new jobs that would be created “is off by a factor of 40.”

“Keep in mind the old maxim, garbage in, garbage out,” he says. “It doesn’t matter how sophisticated your computer program is if the data that you input is garbage.”

The new permanent jobs created could be more like 550 — not 22,000, he says.

The Nerve: I-73: One giant step forward, same old error

Sadly, even errors on this scale don’t seem to make any difference, leading one to conclude that the study was nothing more than window dressing for a pre-ordained conclusion.  But $2 billion is a lot of money to raise, and the future of I-73 is anything but certain.

Finally, more bunk.  The latest in the cavalcade of attacks on the environment, this article from the Post and Courier reports that the Trump administration is withdrawing protection for “intermittent and headwaters” wetlands.  More specifically, this means the Clean Water Act will not protect:  Carolina Bays, vernal pools, depression meadows, pocosins, streams that are not full of water year-round, and generally any body of water that is not connected directly and continually to a major river.

This is a problem, to put it mildly.  It involves millions of acres of wetlands nationwide, including some that are the nation’s most ecologically sensitive and most important to aquatic health and clean drinking water.  Lewis Ocean Bay, for example…  Or the headwaters of the Ashley and Edisto rivers… or cypress ponds surrounded by longleaf pine savannahs…

P&C: EPA moves to give clean water regulation to South Carolina, the rest of the United States

The complicated but (partially) good news is that in eight coastal counties, the Coastal Zone Management Act, administered by OCRM/DHEC, protects these critical habitats.  But that’s not the case in the state’s other 38 counties.

Which brings us back to “bunk.”  This article from the State reports that South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson applauds the Trump Administration’s actions.  He and other opponents of wetland protection have argued that these regulations stifle economic growth.

But the fastest growing places in the state – indeed, the three fastest growing on the eastern seaboard – are Myrtle Beach, Charleston and Beaufort.  In every one of those areas, these wetlands are protected by the law.  So, I say a good definition of “bunk” is a statement that contradicts easily obtainable evidence.

The State: S.C. attorney general glad wetlands rule will dry up

Similarly, Congressman Mark Sanford, long a champion of local control, (a worthy cause in many circumstances), praises the shift of control over wetlands to the states.  But the effect in South Carolina, and in most states, is not that the state will assume responsibility for protecting these wetlands, (in 38 of our 46 counties, for example), but that no one will.

Facebook: Sanford response to Waters of U.S. repeal

To Congressman Sanford’s point that local control is appropriate for the wetlands, rivers and streams of the nation, I would point out that the biggest river systems in South Carolina – the Santee, the Pee Dee and the Savannah – all originate in North Carolina.  What if North Carolina chooses not to protect their (and our) river systems? (And they do not currently protect them…)

It seems to me that a reasonable principle of government is that local control over natural resources is appropriate where that resource is entirely within the local (or state) jurisdiction.  Where it crosses borders, a broader level of oversight is required.  This is clearly the case with wetlands.

Finally, one place where local control is completely justified is flood protection.  One of the reasons there is so much foolish building on the beaches and in flood plains is that the federal government subsidizes flood insurance, to the tune of billions of dollars, thus shifting the risk from the homeowner to the taxpayer.

As the Post and Courier reports, Senator Tim Scott has filed a bill that requires communities to invest in flood protection, in response to the massive deficit the flood program has accumulated from Sandy and other catastrophic storms.

Senator Scott deserves our support for promoting this important reform.

P&C: South Carolina’s U.S. Sen. Tim Scott files bill to require flood communities to invest in protections

Speaking of storms, the latest blast of cool air, sans storm, has passed, making it safe to go outside.

I hope you enjoyed a wonderful 4th!  Vive la (American) revolution!


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