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Is there a future for base load generation? Please respond to the poll?

System operators have recently seen something rather new  – SBG – or “Surplus Baseload Generation”.  This is due to falling demand related to the current economic situation and a newer phenomenon; the displacement of base load by variable load renewable generation.

With governments everywhere and the public strongly supporting new renewable generation, primarily wind and solar; these forms of variable generation are displacing base load by being must run when the resource is available.   So the question is “Is there a future for base load generation?”.  Please respond to the poll at the bottom of this blog entry

This issue was addressed at last week’s Association of Power Producers of Ontario (APPrO) annual conference where a session was dedicated to this new phenomenon.  The following shows the amount of time Ontario experienced SBG over the past 18 months.  Excess generation of well over 1,000 MW was experienced!  This resulted in shutting down low marginal cost nuclear plant as well as spilling water at hydro plants.  The 18-month forecast by the IESO in Ontario expects SBG to continue to be an issue going forward.

Surplus Base load Generation

IESO Presentation to APPrO 2009

IESO Presentation to APPrO 2009

The variability of the wind is shown in the following chart illustrating how two days in a row the wind at the same time varied from 989 MW to 7 MW on the following day.

Wind Capacity on Consecutive Days

IESO Presentation to APPrO 2009

IESO Presentation to APPrO 2009

So what does this all mean?  In the smart systems of the future is the concept of large scale base load generation doomed?  Do you have to be able to manoeuvre to survive?  Or will policies change to ensure that low cost base load generation is not displaced for higher cost alternatives?

This is just the beginning of the discussion for this subject.  Please answer the following simple poll.  I would like to get your views.  More work is needed on this issue as we plan the systems of the future.

The precarious world of uranium supply and demand

Last month, the supply of uranium was severely interrupted when BHP declared force majeure on its deliveries of uranium as the main haulage system failed at Olympic Dam.  Production has been reduced to about 20% of nominal and it is expected to take a number of months to repair and bring production back to its full output.  Olympic Dam is a major producer of uranium, producing about 4,000 tonnes U per annum or just under 10% of global primary production.  Therefore, losing the equivalent of 3,000 tonnes per year for six months or so (say 1,500 tonnes) represents a significant event in overall production that affects the delicate balance between uranium supply and demand.

Many people do not appreciate that the supply / demand situation for uranium is somewhat unique amongst commodities.  I first gave a paper on this topic in 2007 to the Raymond James Uranium conference in New York (when the price of uranium was at its peak).

So what makes uranium so special in the world of commodities?  A few things come to mind immediately.  First, uranium is a single use commodity. Its demand is completely dependent upon how many nuclear power plants are in operation and how much fuel they need.  In recent years, the global nuclear fleet has been consistently improving its operations but now has pretty much achieved it maximum.  This means that demand cannot go up for the current fleet of nuclear power plants – there can only be negative shocks if a plant performs poorly. For example, following an earthquake in Japan, some plants were shut down for an extended period. This means that they are not using fuel so demand decreases.

As for the future of demand, the forecasts are for a dramatic growth in new nuclear plants. The WNA is projecting growth of more than 50% in the number of GW in production over the next 20 years.  This means a significant increase in demand that must be accommodated in future supply plans.  However, it takes from 10 to 15 years to implement a new nuclear project from conception so there are really no surprises in demand in the short to medium term.  We all know what plants are under construction so the projection for new demand is quite stable for the next 5 to 10 years with some uncertainty starting to appear at the 10 year mark.

So what does this mean?  It means that demand increases in a predictable fashion and that the potential is always there for negative demand shocks if existing units perform poorly or are taken out of operation for any reason.

Now for supply.  Similar to nuclear power plants, bringing new uranium mines into production takes quite some time and effort.  Many projects are delayed as companies have been having difficulty in bring on new mines.  Therefore, supply potential is also quite predictable for at least 5 years going forward.  Again, as with nuclear power, the risk is that shocks affect the system negatively as there have been a number of events over the past few years that have halted production or delayed new mines.

And finally, as a fuel, uranium is also unique in that it is bought in batches.  The volume of fuel required to operate a nuclear power plant is quite small so utilities can carry a significant inventory to reduce their risk.  This means that buying and selling is not completely in step with usage.  This is different from say, coal or gas that must be consistently delivered to keep fossil generating plants operating.

In the end, uranium prices have remained rather low over the past 20 years with a short term blip in 2007.  These prices remain low because in most scenarios, supply and demand are in balance making it difficult for price increases that are needed to encourage new supply.  However, for utilities the risk remains.   Therefore, the trend is now for utilities in the east (Japan, China, Korea and India) who are fast becoming the world’s biggest users of fuel to invest in the resource itself to help them mitigate the risk.  These countries also have little domestic supply so need to rely on supply from other countries.

Events like the one at Olympic Dam demonstrate how precarious supply can be. So we should expect countries with growing demand and little domestic supply to continue to step up their efforts to invest in global resources to reduce their overall supply risk.

Have we reached peak oil?

I just finished reading Jeff Rubin’s book “Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller: Oil and the End of Globalization“.  Was a good thought provoking read.  In summary, Rubin is stating that the world has reached peak oil production and that ultimately prices will continue to increase post economic crisis and supply will continue to dwindle.  The ultimate effect of this on society is that transportation costs will increase so high that it will no longer be economic to source goods from low labour cost countries like China and others.  The cost of transportation will more than offset the lower production costs.  The result will be a return to building factories much closer to market.  So in the case of North America, jobs will return as making product locally will once again become economic.

In fact there are really two issues as I see it, combined into one.  On the one hand, he notes that transportation costs will become so high that we move jobs closer to home.  On the other hand, the high cost of oil will mean that we won’t be able to sustain our current standard of living so we will have to do with less.

I think that a good case is made with some evidence that we may indeed have achieved peak oil.   The case for the world getting smaller is somewhat more anecdotal in nature.  Rubin also accepts that people are smart and that technology may indeed come to rescue although he does not think it will come fast enough for us to avoid large structural change in our economies.   

There have been numerous reviews of this book so I will not try and do another review.  In my case, I would like to focus on making a few points that came to me as I thought about these issues.  And yes, the book does make you think.

First, while the world may try and get smaller once again as it was in the past, we cannot forget the great strides in communications technology.  So while we may not be able to travel as much, we will continue to be aware of the goings on all around the world.  The internet will continue to bring us together with increasing global collaboration.  Just imagine all of the ways that improved technology can reduce oil use.  And we know from this recession that it doesn’t take a really huge drop in demand for oil prices to fall.  Think of all of the communications technology that can reduce consumption.  For example, how much oil does it take to print and distribute newspapers?  Well, it now looks like the future will have paperless newspapers fed to us on e-readers.  How about magazines?  Books?  If we eliminate these from use (or even reduce their use dramatically as a start) what will the impact be?  No oil to ship the paper to the factory, no printing requiring energy, no packaging and most of all, no distribution.  And this is only one example.  How about business travel?  Of course, it will never go to zero but with improved video conferencing the need to travel by plane to far away places or even by car somewhere closer is being reduced.  Look at the reductions in business travel already apparent in this recession.  In these cases, it means that we will hopefully be able to use oil to transport only what needs to be transported as we get more efficient and reduce overall transportation.

He discusses climate change as well.  This is also an important point.  The global concern about carbon emissions is leading us to price carbon, thus increasing the cost of oil from its normal economic position.  The goal is to use policy to change behaviour and find ways to move off oil to more carbon friendly forms of energy.  This means that governments are working to try and encourage fuel switching BEFORE the oil actually runs out due to concerns about its current use – not due to concerns about its scarcity.  This should have a positive impact as policies continue to encourage demand reduction in advance of a global supply catastrophe.

Next, if he is right and factories once again move closer to home, yes, blue collar jobs long lost to far away places may indeed come back home to North America.   But the current trend of white collar jobs moving off shore will not be reversed.  It is ironic that the man on the factory floor may once again have a good job while the engineer designing the process may more often be in places with low cost professional labour.  Engineering, accounting and other professions in the service sector that produce mostly paper will not see their jobs return as the internet will assure that quality work can be done literally anywhere around the world.  So does this mean that in the next phase of globalization it is the higher paying jobs that will be moved away to lower cost locations while the low paying jobs return home? 

Was an enjoyable read.  I am interested in other’s thoughts on this book. Let me know what you think.

Falling electricity demand and the impact on nuclear projects – An interesting article

 Today, Bruce Power announced that reduced operations to cope with reduced demand is the new short term reality.  See the following quote from the article linked here:

“Bruce Power officials say running at reduced capacity is the new reality for the nuclear plant for the foreseeable future, despite getting the green light to return a reactor to service after a 22-day shutdown due to a provincewide slump in energy use.

“This will have an impact on us, on our machines, our people — this is an ongoing situation that we’re going to have to work through,” Steve Cannon, a Bruce Power spokesman, said yesterday.

“At the end of the year we are going to take stock of this year and determine exactly how big the impact has been on our business plan . . . when we compare it to what we expected the market to look like, what we expected our generation output to be and what we expected our revenues to be.””

Hard to imagine but true.  In the short term, demand in Ontario has fallen to the extent that baseload generation has been affected.  It will be interesting to see how long it takes to recover and the extent of the recovery in demand.  How much of the reduction is due to the economy and how much due to successful conservation?  And if the economy, is there permanent structural change?

Thought this was worth adding after last week’s entry.  Would really like to hear from others about what is going on in their jurisdictions.

Falling electricity demand and the impact on nuclear projects

During the summer I have been a slacker when it comes to contributing to my blog.  It is a time for relaxation; a good time for reading and reflection.   

As we all start the big climb out of the current economic crisis, it may be time to start thinking about what lies ahead and the legacy that this crisis will have left us.  There has been an assessment by the IEA in May about the impact of the financial crisis on energy in general and a more detailed assessment of nuclear power in the USA by Moody’s in June.  So why am I thinking of talking about this now in August?

Well, this week OPG (Ontario Power Generation) announced their second quarter results here in Ontario Canada (home for me).  They reported a 19% drop in electricity production for the second quarter.  In part this is due to lower overall demand and also is related to production by others in the market.   Now there are a number of reasons for this lower demand.  First and foremost, this has been a mild summer so the air conditioning loads are down.  Second the economy has had a big effect on industrial loads and finally, the success of the OPA conservation programs is starting to show benefits in the market.

This summer has seen some unusual things happen in the Ontario market.  Nuclear plants have had to be shut down due to the lack of load.  This is a result of low off peak demand and an increasing amount of renewables on the system that displace base load when the resource is available according to electricity market rules.  Also this summer, the government of Ontario suspended its bidding process for a new build nuclear plant.  The reasons given were the high cost of the bid and the uncertainty over the future of AECL, the lead bidder.   AECL’s shareholder; the Government of Canada, is looking to partially privatize the national nuclear vendor.  I would guess that the lower demand probably also had an impact.  Hard to think about spending large amounts of capital when demand is shrinking. 

In any case, reading about OPG made me think so I have had a look at the numbers.  Demand has decreased in Ontario since 2005.  Current projections by the IESO are for a 4% drop in demand this year and a further 0.35 drop next year.  Wow!  A far cry from even the modest 1% or so growth assumed in the current Integrated Power System Plan.  This is consistent with the IEA forecasts.  They are expecting a drop of 3.5% in 2009; the first drop in global electricity demand since the second world war!

The Moody’s report is more focused and suggests that US utilities that are considering new nuclear plants are not doing what is necessary to strengthen their balance sheets to get ready for these large projects.   Moody’s claims that the size of these projects makes them “bet the farm” projects – a term I often use when teaching project structuring for the World Nuclear University.  However, they also note on the positive side that there is a demand for new low carbon generation and that nuclear as an economic alternative can play a role.

So what does this mean for the future of nuclear in North America?  The IEA is somewhat negative and states that the crisis may hold back some programs.  It mentions South Africa as an example of one country that has delayed its new build projects for financial reasons.  On the other hand, it also states that nuclear is probably the only large scale viable low carbon generation option and that its economics improve as carbon is priced.  They also note that most programs that are in the advanced planning stages are continuing and once operating nuclear plants are viewed favourably by the financial community.

To answer the question – the current economic climate may delay some new nuclear projects, however it is expected that most will continue and that they will be able to raise the necessary financing as the economy starts to improve.   Most likely, investor-owned utilities in North America will look to strategic partnerships to share costs and risks.  The lower demand may also buy the industry some time to ensure that it plans and executes new projects with the necessary diligence and oversight to ensure project success.  Given the relatively high capital costs and long project schedules of a nuclear plant, projects currently in the preparation phase will be in service towards the end of the decade.  And of course, continued focus on implementing new projects on budget and on schedule will be key to a successful future.

The New Politics of Uranium Supply

After two weeks of modest increases, this week the uranium price jumped by $3.00 to $53.00. These few weeks of increase follow a downward trend and are in part due to recent political events that can impact future supply.

The biggest impact is due to events in Kazakhstan. It is now a few weeks since Kazakhstan announced that it is investigating past sales of the country’s uranium assets to foreign companies. The former Soviet republic, which is home to a fifth of global uranium reserves, has accused a former head of state-owned uranium producer Kazatomprom, Mukhtar Dzhakishev, of illegally selling deposits to foreign companies. Dzhakishev and other executives have been removed from the company and been replaced by new government appointees.

In Africa, the President of Niger dissolved parliament in an attempt to secure a change to allow him to run for another term in office. As Kazakhstan is poised to become the world’s largest supplier of uranium in 2009, and that together Kazakhstan and Niger produced about a quarter of the world’s uranium in 2008, this is very troubling news for the industry.

Uranium Production by Country

 

2007 TU

2008 TU

Australia

8,611

8,430

Canada

9,476

8,980

Kazakhstan

6,637

8,521

Namibia

2,879

4,366

Niger

3,153

3,032

Other

10,523

10,601

Total

41,279

 43,930

Source: WNA

While there were modest increases in price over the last two weeks since these events started to unfold, it is interesting that this week’s increase was the largest in some time.  This is after Kazatomprom assured their customers late last week that production will be unchanged and that it would honour all existing agreements; and following the Uranium One announcement that the Russian ARMZ will take a 17% stake in the company for half a uranium mine in Kazakhstan. 

And there are also issues for potential future production.  The acquisition of Western Prospector by CNNC in Mongolia is at risk as the government of Mongolia has temporarily suspended Western Prospector’s mining licenses.  This is of interest as it represents a recent investment in potential future production by China.

So what does this all mean for the nuclear industry?  Clearly, one of the strengths of the industry is the fact that uranium is available from very politically stable countries, primarily Canada and Australia.  With production now increasing in Kazakhstan and Africa where there are deeper political issues, is there now an increased risk to future supply?  Well, so far if we use the uranium price as a proxy for international concern, it appears that there is some concern.  But with the need for uranium supply and demand to be in good balance for the industry to move forward and build the many new nuclear plants under consideration, as a minimum, we would suggest that the bigger nuclear markets carefully review their supply strategies and ensure that they are sufficiently diversified to minimize their risk.  Each uranium producing country has different political issues – and none are immune.  Therefore diversification is an essential part of long term strategic uranium supply strategy.

MIT Report Update “The Future of Nuclear Power”

This week MIT released an update to its 2003 report, “The Future of Nuclear Power”.  Back in 2003 this report brought the economics of nuclear power in the United States to the forefront.  It supported new nuclear as a low carbon option for electricity generation and considered a scenario that would see the increase in capacity by a factor of 3 (meaning building about 200 new units) by the middle of this century.  It is commonly accepted that this report was an important input into the policy that followed with respect to nuclear power including the nuclear power 2010 program and the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

This update looks at progress over the past 6 years and of most interest, updates the economics.  The following table from the report shows the new versus old analysis.

Click on table to enlarge

Click on table to enlarge

As can be seen, the costs have increased significantly over this time period with the projected costs of nuclear increasing faster than the costs of the coal and gas alternatives.  However, the authors draw the same conclusions as they did in 2003; that nuclear is competitive with the alternatives. The report continues to assume a higher project risk for nuclear than fossil.  This translates into a higher cost of capital and the highest cost of electricity.  Assuming the same cost of capital as the alternatives results in nuclear being extremely competitive.

I want to comment on the costs and assumptions.  I have to admit, that back in 2003, when I worked for a nuclear vendor, I was not happy with this report assuming nuclear at $2,000 /kW.  At that time we all believed that we were making strides to lower the cost of new plants and we wanted to see that reflected in the analysis.  Well, I was wrong.  Today the cost of nuclear power has increased and I do accept that $4,000 /kW is a reasonable assumption to make in today’s world.  Does that mean that I think that it is OK for nuclear plants to cost $4,000 /kW?  I definitely think that more work needs to be done to bring these costs down but that is the subject for another discussion.

On the other hand, things have evolved so that the other assumptions do need to be challenged.   While it may have made sense to assume different costs of capital in 2003, this is no longer the case.  The argument in the report is based on the industry’s poor track record of building on time and on budget.  It states that issues with new plants since that date confirm this and that the risk premium can only be eliminated with proven plant delivery performance.  While I do agree that the industry needs to prove it can deliver a new fleet of plants to budget and schedule, things have changed since 2003.

In the current environment, the majority of new plants under consideration in the United States are with regulated utilities.  These plants will be financed on balance sheet so they will be financed at the cost of capital of the utility itself, no different than if it were to build a coal or a gas plant.  And now that the cost estimates have escalated significantly, it is reasonable to assume that part of this increase is due to utilities being more conservative and taking the risks into account in the cost estimates themselves.

Also, the risks of the alternatives have changed significantly.  The risk of new climate change initiatives being put into place after the coal or gas plant is committed has increased.  This means additional costs to the utilities to implement new carbon control requirements or charges due to additional costs for releasing carbon are likely.  Is $25/t sufficient?  At this stage nobody knows meaning higher risk.

And finally, it is interesting how the success of carbon capture and storage (CCS) is assumed, even though the technology has yet to be demonstrated while the success of building a new nuclear plant is consistently challenged.  The MIT study itself recognizes that CCS is not proven. The costs of CCS seem to go up every time a new estimate is made, yet they assume that nuclear has a higher risk profile and cost of capital than coal with a yet to be proven technology attached to it.

In the case of a merchant plant, should there be one; it will very likely only be implemented under the US government loan guarantee program.  This means that they can achieve the 80/20 debt/equity ratio assumed for the other technologies with even a lower potential cost due to the benefit of the government guarantee.

All that being said, the timing of this update is useful.  Their conclusion that more needs to be done is important.  As stated “The sober warning is that if more is not done, nuclear power will diminish as a practical and timely option for deployment at a scale that would constitute a material contribution to climate change risk mitigation.” It will be interesting to see how both government and industry respond.

Welcome to MZConsulting Inc

This is the beginning.  MZConsulting Inc was started about four years ago.  We are in the clean energy business.  We work with technologies that are low carbon.  This means renewables such as wind and solar and nuclear power as the major large scale low carbon option.  Our primary business is advising companies and governments with respect to new build nuclear projects.  Our experience is mainly related to the commercial aspects of energy generation projects so our focus is on energy economics and competitiveness. 

We also advise companies looking to make investments in the uranium sector.  This is focused on companies in Asia as major users given their growing nuclear programs.  We are not investment advisers in the sense of recommending stocks; we recommend and work with companies who have a need for uranium and help them find and implement suitable investments that meet their requirements.

We do have a web site at www.mzconsultinginc.com that summarizes our capability and records all of our public presentations and papers.  So why start a blog?  I have been thinking about it for some time now and what pushed me over the edge was recently reading a book by Jeff Jarvis called “What Would Google Do?”  I thoroughly enjoyed this book as it made me think of how quickly things are changing and the direction that world is moving.  I want to be part of the change.  I want to contribute and get feedback from others to help me shape my own company direction for the future.  Energy issues are certainly high on many people’s agenda these days and the interaction between energy and the environment is crucial to creating the low carbon future that we seek.

I don’t want to make this first post too long so I will stop about now.  I hope to provide input on a somewhat regular basis on a number of energy related topics and get some interesting discussion going.

So as I said at the top “Welcome to our Blog”.

Milt