Energy debates play out on the Great Lakes nearshore
There’s been a lot of speculation about how near-shore energy production will evolve in the coming years throughout the Great Lakes region, but especially between Detroit and Cleveland – the region’s most densely populated shoreline.
That strip of land is where one of the nation’s greatest policy debates is being played out.
That’s not only because of all of the people there. It’s also because the area, loosely defined as the western Lake Erie basin, also may have the Great Lakes region’s most myriad issues pertaining to fish and wildlife habitat, water quality, water usage and climate change effects on anything from agriculture to beach recreation.
Some changes are real and are happening now.
New federal rules on coal-fired power plants, as well as the anticipation of a global fracking bonanza, have shifted energy markets toward natural gas.
One example of that is a large natural gas plant planned in the Toledo suburb of Oregon, Ohio. If built, it could surpass FirstEnergy Corp.’s Davis-Besse nuclear plant along the Lake Erie shoreline for energy production. At present, there appear to be no major permitting obstacles.
A smattering of wind turbines exist along or near the shoreline at sites such as the Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland and Clay High School in Oregon.
They anger birders because their presence is viewed as a challenge: Many biologists don’t want turbines within three miles of a Great Lakes shoreline, at least not until more is known about how lethal they are to birds, bats and other creatures.
There’s also the anticipation of the region’s first offshore wind farm being developed three miles north of the Cleveland shoreline someday.
Wind power has gone far beyond the boutique or novelty stage, yet it is still unlikely to ever become the dominant form of energy production – especially in densely populated areas such as western Lake Erie.
One of the newest developments is the announcement that Rudolph/Libbe, Inc., plans to install massive solar arrays on a brownfield site in South Toledo and generate enough energy to cover nearly a third of the nearby Toledo Zoo’s electricity needs. The zoo’s eastern edge is practically a stone’s throw from the Maumee River, one of Lake Erie’s most important tributaries.
A lot of attention is focused on nuclear power.
In Michigan’s Monroe County, just south of Detroit, DTE Energy is still assessing market conditions and deciding whether to build a new breed of reactor, Fermi 3, on its Fermi complex along western Lake Erie.
That is likely to continue for at least a few more years, as its license application works its way through the review process. The utility will likely continue to operate its existing plant, Fermi 2, for years.
The Davis-Besse plant in northern Ohio’s Ottawa County is also cooled by the shallow water of western Lake Erie.
Despite what anti-nuclear activists say, there is little reason to believe that plant will shut down anytime soon, either.
Recent developments at the San Onofre nuclear complex in Southern California have fueled hopes of a shutdown by the opposition movement.
Southern California Edison stunned many industry observers by announcing it is giving up on plans to restart its two San Onofre reactors. The site has been fraught with problems since a radioactive steam leak caused extensive damage to its new steam generators, installed in 2009 and 2010 at a cost of $670 million.
FirstEnergy is planning to install two new steam generators at Davis-Besse in 2014.
Steam generators generate electricity from the steam that produced by pressurized-water reactors. They are among the largest and most expensive parts of a nuclear plant. They usually are only replaced once during a plant’s life.
Barring an unforeseen development, Southern California Edison’s decision to shutter its two San Onofre reactors could do more to keep Davis-Besse open than to close it.
While anti-nuclear activists are sounding an alarm, there’s no correlation between what happened at San Onofre, what has happened elsewhere, and what will happen at Davis-Besse next year – other than San Onofre had substantial problems installing its steam generators.
According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, 57 reactors have replaced their steam generators since 1980.
None, the NEI said, have experienced the same issues as San Onofre.
A U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman, Scott Burnell, said the San Onofre case had “tube-to-tube wear behavior never before seen.”
It was, in many ways, an anomaly.
Does that mean there’s been only one problem out of 57 replacement projects? No.
The Crystal River nuclear plant in west-central Florida was shuttered in February after unrepairable cracks developed in its containment when it was cut open for new steam generators.
Davis-Besse has cracks in its outer containment shield, which differs from Crystal River’s. Davis-Besse’s is a double-layered shield.
Davis-Besse’s cracks, confined to its exterior, have been attributed to wind and ice storms, especially those from the blizzard of 1978. It was weather-sealed last year.
There are numerous cases of leaking steam-generator pipes, many between the 1970s and 1990s.
But the NRC has attributed those leaks to an inferior alloy that was used when the plants were built. The metal pipes that are accessible are gradually being replaced by metal that doesn’t corrode or deteriorate as fast.
Nuclear supplies 20 percent of the nation’s electricity.
Just this year, the two San Onofre reactors, plus single ones at Crystal River and the Kewaunee nuclear plant in Wisconsin have been removed from service. The latter was largely because of economics, driven by the falling price of natural gas and other factors.
A number of other nuclear plants have been idle for an extensive time for repairs, such as the Fort Calhoun plant in Nebraska.
That means an awful lot of energy has been removed from the nuclear equation at a time America is growing and its needs are increasing.
Davis-Besse soon hopes to get its 20-year license extension, which would allow it to remain in operation through April, 2037.
There are no certainties in Great Lakes energy production.
But one could argue that the events in Southern California and elsewhere have simply raised the bar on the need for better NRC oversight and stronger industry involvement in Davis-Besse’s 2014 steam generator replacement project.
That’s an intangible worth noting when one considers that David Lochbaum, Union of Concerned Scientists nuclear safety project director, believes steam generator projects “got less and less oversight” as the NRC and the nuclear industry shifted its attention more to security issues after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the modern era of license renewals and applications to build new nuclear plants, and other more emerging issues.
No doubt the NRC and the nuclear industry are aware of what’s at stake for Davis-Besse and the Great Lakes region when the plant’s steam generators are replaced next year.
San Onofre and other events are reminders of the need for energy diversity.
Removing San Onofre “was a blow to California’s energy diversity, but is not an indicator of the industry’s larger ability to reliably supply low-carbon electricity to hundreds of millions of electricity consumers from facilities operating in 31 states,” the NEI said.
Nuclear and coal are still a big part of our nation’s energy picture. They will be for years, even if market forces continue to shift toward other forms of energy.
That transition is healthy, especially for Ohio, which for years has had more than four out of every five megawatts of electricity generated in the state come from coal-fired power plants – well above the national average.
But as the region – and the country – look for ways to gradually diversify its energy production and further protect its shorelines, one can expect some existing forms of power to remain in place to help ease the transformation.
In case you missed it
On June 20, the U.S. Senate unanimously approved legislation to protect more than 32,000 acres of Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore as wilderness. The bill, authored by U.S. Sen. Carl Levin (D., Mich.) and co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, reaffirms protections put in place in 1982. It calls for 13 years of shoreline planning efforts by area residents, the National Park Service, and Congress to be put into effect. The goal is to protect habitat from development while facilitating more access to beaches, trails, and streams.