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Will Big Stone II also be replaced by renewable power?

The cancellation of the proposed Big Stone II coal-fired power plant brings back memories of the cancellations of the proposed power plants at Durand, Wis.

Northern States Power Co. (NSP, now Xcel Energy) in 1973 proposed that the “Tyrone Nuclear Park,” initially with two 1,150 megawatt (MW)* reactors, be built at Durand, Wis., at a time when a national debate was raging over the acceptability of nuclear power. This debate had begun when it was shown that NSP’s Monticello Nuclear Power plant would release what the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, in 1969, ruled to be excessive radioactive pollution to the air and to the Mississippi River. (After some fun and games involving the courts, demonstrations and the like, the federal Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was forced to tighten its radiation pollution regulations to the levels proposed by Minnesota.

The proposed Tyrone nukes provoked spirited discussions both in Wisconsin and in Minnesota. The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC, created after congress abolished the AEC in 1974) issued a construction permit for the Tyrone plants in 1977.  However, in 1979, the Wisconsin Public Service Commission denied a permit on the grounds that there would be insufficient demand for electricity.  NSP canceled the project on Dec. 23, 1979 (perhaps hoping that the news would not be noted during the excitement of Christmas Day). A few years later I was told, but did not personally see, that there was a little shrine in NSP’s headquarters commemorating the Tyrone plant cancellation and the saving for NSP of considerable cost and further embarrassment.]

Xcel Energy later proposed building a 750 megawatt (MW) coal-fired power plant at the Durand, Wis., site. This proposal, like the earlier proposed nuclear plant, brought heavy criticism. The public opposition focused on the need to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions — coal produces more greenhouse pollution than any other conventional fossil fuel.  The regulatory opposition was focused on health impacts of pollution from the plant, primarily small particulate pollution produced by coal burners.

Tyrone plant canceled in 2006
Like the nuclear plant before it, the proposed Tyrone coal plant was canceled — in 2006. Xcel then filed an application with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission for a 375 megawatt combined Manitoba Hydro and wind power package.

There seem to be some lessons here. Nuclear power was touted in the 1960s and 1970s as being “too cheap to meter” and as being a “clean” way to avoid “dirty coal.” Work done in Minnesota and elsewhere showed that atomic energy was not clean, that there seemed to be no way to dispose of the radioactive waste, and that expansion of civilian atomic energy presented the opportunity for national atomic bomb programs. “Too cheap to meter” was a dream that brought several electric utilities to the brink of bankruptcy. No U.S.  nuclear power plant ordered after 1973 has operated.

Utilities then returned to coal — big time. Within a few years “clean coal” was forced by  concerns with the health and environmental impacts of acid rain — most of which was caused by sulfur dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants. The electric utilities’ knee-jerk response was to scream that sulfur removal was just too expensive, but experience was to show the cost to be low and the benefits high.

But acid rain was just the tip of the iceberg of coal’s environmental costs.

The greenhouse effect and global warming have been understood since the 1890s. The explosion of carbon dioxide pollution plus the availability of computers powerful enough to run credible climate models showed, by the 1970s, that climatic change was a very real threat, not just a hypothetical risk for future generations. Controlling global warming is now on the top of the international energy/environment policy agenda. All responsible actors now accept that emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases must be greatly reduced if we are to avoid what appear to be catastrophic adverse global impacts. Hence, new coal-fired power plants are simply not acceptable — unless they would employ the as-yet untested carbon capture and storage. 

Two major factors
The necessity of curbing carbon dioxide pollution plus a slowing demand for electricity, in large part because of increasing efficiency with which electricity is used, spelled the doom of the Big Stone coal burner and many of its siblings. Yet, as it was with controlling sulfur dioxide pollution, most utilities, including Xcel, are claiming that reducing carbon dioxide pollution would be much too expensive and would result in lost jobs. Some things do not change.

The second noteworthy observation is that the projected electricity demand has been decreasing as people and firms take advantage of the abundant cost-effective ways to use electricity more efficiency.  The 1970s “Tyrone Nuclear Park” was to satisfy a new demand for 2,300 MW of power generation. By the 1990s the proposed “need” for new generating capacity at the Tyrone site had shrunk to 750 MW.  The plan now is for c:a 375 MW of renewable electricity.  I suspect that the so-called shortfall in electricity supply because of the cancellation of the 500 MW Big Stone coal plant will be met with a modest increase of wind power.

Finally, as with almost all major reforms, the movement to more sustainable power has been the result of actions taken by individuals and by states — Washington continues to reluctantly follow, not to lead.

Energy remains the ultimate resource and, at the same time, the ultimate pollutant. The path toward a sustainable energy system is being taken, but it will be a long trip.

* 1 megawatt (MW) of generating capacity would produce the amount of electricity used by about 1,000 residences.  A typical new large coal or nuclear-fired plant is rated at about 1,000 MW. A new windpower unit is rated at about 1 MW.

Dean Abrahamson is professor emeritus at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota. Abrahamson holds degrees in physics and mathematics, as well as a doctorate in medicine. He has worked as a reactor physicist with the Babcock and Wilcox Co. and as senior research scientist with Honeywell, Inc. He has consulted with many state, national and international firms and agencies.

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by rolf westgard on 11/06/2009 - 02:16 pm.

    Replacing 500MW of coal power will take at least 1200-1300MW of wind PLUS some backup gas plant power. This summer, Texas 8000+MW of wind actually delivered a little over 700MW due to the erratic nature of wind. Wind provides about 1% of Texas 72,00MW of demand. Using wind for base load is a pipe dream.
    And nuclear power is clean with the highest capacity factor of any fuel source, and there is no radiation in the surrounding atmosphere.Once amortized, nuclear plants are gold mines for the utilities because of their low total operating cost.

  2. Submitted by Mark Snyder on 11/10/2009 - 08:47 am.

    I think Mr. Abrahamson’s point was that if a 2,300 MW nuclear plant was supposedly replaceable with a 375 MW hydro and wind power package due to decreasing demand, then the 500 MW Big Stone II plant could very well be met with 100 MW of wind power given that demand continues to slow as we invest in more efficiency upgrades.

  3. Submitted by david granneman on 11/12/2009 - 02:25 pm.

    hello all
    A typical new large coal or nuclear-fired plant is rated at about 1,000 MW. A new windpower unit is rated at about 1 MW.

    The idea that wind energy will ever replace our present coal fired power plans is impractical and a total pipe dream. HOW MANY WINDMILLS WOULD BE REQUIRED TO REPLACE ONE 1000 MW POWER PLANT.
    Each windmill = 1MW
    Each power plant = 1000 MW
    Decades of studies in large European wind farms has shown windmills produce
    Between 30% to 50% of rated power output – this means to replaced a coal
    Fired power plant would require 2000 TO 3000 WINDMILLS.
    These windmills would require over a hundred square miles of land.
    a spider web of power lines would be needed to interconnect each willmill.
    Since only 1 of 4 days have enough wind to generate power an expensive natural
    Gas quick response power plant would be needed to backup the windmills.
    As t.bone. pickens found out, that having the windmills is still not enough as our present
    Power grid would need to be totally rebuilt to a expensive SMART GRID as our present grid is not able to integrate varialble unreliable power sources.
    AS YOU CAN SEE THAT ANYBODY SAYING WE CAN DEPEND ON RENEWABLE WIND ENERGY IS DOES NOT KNOW THE REAL FACTS.
    THE COST WOULD BE ENOURMIOUS AND CAUSE OUR ELECTRIC BILLS TO SKYROOKET.
    GLOBAL WARMING IS HOAX PERPETUATED BY PEOPLE GETTING RICH BY DESTROYING OUR PROSPERITY AND WAY OF LIFE.
    TAKING MONEY OUT OF YOUR POCKET AND PUTTING IT IN AL GORE’S POCKET WILL SURLEY SAVE THE PLANET.

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