Monday, December 15, 2008

The Gulf of Maine - Gulf of Money - Perfect Storm of Costs

George Hart of the Ocean Energy Institute has recently proposed the building of a huge 5 billion watt generating capacity wind arrays in the Gulf of Maine. There is little doubt that New England states and the State of Maine in particular are in need of new energy resources. Winter heating is, in particular heavily reliant on heating oil. But the cost of heating oil is subject to the wild gyrations of the oil market, and the cost of home heating during cold New England winters threatens to depopulate the region. New technology, a form of air source heating designed to operate in New England winters, offers the possibility of replacing oil with lower cost electricity in New England home heating. Note that I wrote lower cost rather than low cost. The price tag that the Ocean Energy Institute has placed on the project is $25 billion. I will demonstrate that that much money is not pocket change, and the nuclear alternative ought to be given long and careful thought, before the wind option is adopted. According to the Wall Street Journal:
Ocean Energy assumes its deepwater wind turbines will have a “capacity factor” of 45%, or about half what a nuclear power plant has.
The relative capacity factors of nuclear and wind means that for every watt of electricity that Gulf of Maine windmills will produce during a year, A nuclear plant of equivalent rated capacity will produce 2 watts.  But arn't reactors more expensive than windmills?  Currently cost figures for reactors of $8 billion dollars are being discussed for reactors to be built between 2012, and 2020, but this cost is highly speculative, and assumes a rate of inflation for building costs that may never occur.  The same rate of inflation  would undoubtedly effect the cost of wind projects, and if we use the $8 billion figure for nuclear we ought to assume a similar inflation cost for wind.  

We next need to ask if the $25 Billion figure is realistic.  There is reason to think that it might be low.  An offshore wind project on Long Island Sound was cancelled in 2007 after its estimated costs reached a figure of $5.70 a watt.  Some estimates suggest that the Long Island figure might reach as high as $7.15 a watt before the project was over.   Thus we ought not assume that $5 a watt would be the upper limit of the Gulf of Maine projects' price tag in 2008.  The Gulf of Maine project proposed to float its windmills rather than construct towers down to the sea floor.   The floating windmills would be tethered to the sea floor.   This technology has been used on oil drilling platforms, and it is assumed to have cost advantages over the the conventional approach, but reliance on a relatively new technology in a location where it has never been used before adds an additional element of cost risk to the project.  

At the very least the $5 per Watt of generation capacity would appear to be the lower limits of the Gulf of Maine Project 2008 costs, and the upper limits could well run into the $7.00+ range.   The 2008 cost for nuclear plants runs somewhere between $4 and  $5 a Watt.  This would indicate that the nuclear power costs less than off shore wind in terms of rated capacity, and as I have argued the annual output of the nuclear power plant will be at least 90%  of its nameplate capacity, while in contrast the power output of of the Gulf of Maine Windmills would be at best 45% of their name plate capacity, and quite possibly less.  Wind projects rarely obtain the optimal capacity calculated for their sites prior to their construction.  The Wall Street Journal notes:
Offshore turbines exposed to stronger winds more months of the year also take a battering, which leads to downtime for additional maintenance and repairs, pushing total output back down.

The European Wind Energy Association figures offshore wind in the future could reach a capacity factor of 40%. In Britain, where the government hopes a raft of big, offshore wind farms will help the country meet its renewable-energy targets, experts figure offshore wind farms get about 33% capacity. In practice, U.K. offshore wind farms tend to produce between 25% and 35% of the listed power capacity. That’s not much better than cheaper onshore wind farms, which average about 27% in the U.K.

It is not my any means all down side for Gulf of Maine wind. Peak electrical generations is most likely to occur at night rather than during the day, and during the winter, rather than the summer, thus Maine residents and other New Englanders would have a fair assurance that electricity would be flowing to their air source heaters at night. In addition Gulf of Maine windmills would seem to nicely compliment Canadian Hydro. Still we have to look at the heavy costs.

If we assume that the current economic down turn will soon be over, then we can expect that the inflation of new power facility costs will continue into the next decade. By the time construction of the Gulf of Maine project would begin the inflated price of off shore windmills could easily reach $8 to $10 per Watt. It would appear that nuclear could easily match this cost. In addition it costs less to keep a nuclear plant running than to keep to keep off shore wind turbines running. OFf shore windmills are located in a harsh ocean environment, that is likely to corrode essential parts. Thus they are far more likely to break down than reactors. The turbines themselves need to be replaced every 20 years, while the anticipated lifespan of new reactors is is 60 to 80 years. Thus the wind mills are going to cost more to operate and will probably cost more to build.

The question then is whether the residents of Maine and the rest of New England are romantic or practical. The romantics, of course want the windmills in the Gulf of Maine, while practical people would probably wish for the lower costs power flowing from reactors.

My readers know that I much prefer Generation IV nuclear technology to Generation III+ technology. Generation IV technology has a real chance of lowering the costs of building lowre cost nuclear electrical generating facilities, and would cost far less than the projected costs of solar and both land based and offshore generating facilities. But even Generation III+ nuclear technology, offers a great deal more at its price than renewables do.


DW said...

Another one for the DailyKos, Charles


Anonymous said...

Wise many use reason to plot the optimum course, but the ordinary man goes to the school of hard knocks. It is best that these big disruptive machines be sited out of sight and out of mind, until it dawns on these people all the problems entailed in their technology. In due course, the sea will recycle them into oblivion very effectively like so many other follies of mankind.

Robert Hargraves said...

I Googled "air source heater" and was astonished to see that they are nearly all from China.

The only price I could find was $456 for a Soleus 11,200 BTU, 1,180 KW unit.

Because these units obtain heat by cooling outside air, they produce thermal energy at about 3X the electrical energy consumed. A coal fired power plant produces electrical energy at 1/3 the thermal energy consumed. So the net efficiency is only ~1 if you use coal power. If your electricity comes from an oil powered plant, you'd be better off to burn the oil in your furnace.

The air source heat pump is a great way to use nuclear power. Remember the days when the power companies were promoting "electric heat" with resistance heating, consuming 3X the electric power of a heat source pump?

Charles Barton said...

Robert, there is an air source heating system manufactured in the United States that is suitable for cold New England and Canadian Winters. Ground source heat pumps are even more efficient, but they are very expensive to repair if there is a problem with the underground loop. Air Source heat pumps are really glorified air conditioners, so the current AC manufacturing, sales and service structure in the United States will allow a rapid transition to Air Source Heat pumps by conversion of existing air conditioners into air source heat pumps. Air source heat pumps still provides air conditioning. Thus there are very considerable practical advantages of air source heating rather than ground source heating in much of the United States. I have more discussion of heat pumps in Nuclear Green.

DW said...

Out west, are not most central air conditioning/heating systems the same thing?

I'm rather ignorant of this myself, living 1/2 mile from the Pacific Ocean south of San Francisco...we use neither heat nor air conditioning :)

Can you explain in a little more detail this all works?


Anonymous said...

Robert, if you can justify the added expense a ground source heat pump can be significantly better still.

A few metres below the ground the temperature is "annualized" by the slow conduction of heat. The annual average temperature is about 7 degrees celcius where I live and winter temperatures pretty much keep in the -20 to 10 degrees celsius range. Lakes are also quite popular sources for heat exchangers; a little colder at around 4 degrees celcius but it's much easier to extract heat from a lake.

Given that you take heat from a sufficiently large volume of Earth with a heat exchanger(usually liquid filled plastic coils) a ground source heat pump can get a coefficient of performance of about 4 to 5.

If a house is made air-tight and ventilation is done centrally through a heat recovery ventilator, you can reduce heating or cooling requirements arrising from ventilation by over 90% with a wellmade(cellular, not flat plate) counter-current heat exchanger.

You can potentially do the same trick with hot gray water(waste water from washing machines, dish washers, shower drains...). What you'd need to do is develop a counter-current heat exchanger that won't easily get clogged with hair, grease etc. and pre-heat incomming cold water before it enters the hot water heating tank. I can't imagine that it would make sense in an existing house because you'd have to do a lot of replumbing to move gray water to a heat exchanger before disposing of it.

Here in Sweden we had expensive heating oil, fairly cheap electricity from hydro and nuclear and a very underdeveloped natural gas network(~1% of primary energy). Ground, air and lake heat pumps really took off, as well as district heating for the larger cities with a variety of sources(wood waste, waste heat from industry, waste incineration, giant heat pumps powered by off-peak nuclear and spring surplus hydro, heavy oils, coal, peat...).


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