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March 2013 Issue

March 2013
Feature 1

"Stop us if you've heard this one before..."

Feature 2

Batteries ARE
Included

Editorial

EDITORIAL
"Gorilla in the Room"

Wisconsin Favorites
Wisconsin Favorites
"Cookin’ Up Country at
Maggie Mae’s Cafe!"

 

 

"Stop us if you’ve heard this one before..."

A Semi-new Plan To Store Nuclear Waste

 

Welcome news arrived last summer for 25 electric distribution co-ops comprising the core membership of Dairyland Power Cooperative. Over the years they had incurred major expenses because of a breach of contract by the federal government, and now they would share in court-ordered damages of more than $37 million.

The breach stems from the government’s ongoing failure to provide a permanent repository for spent nuclear fuel stored at power plants nationwide. Gradually abandoned in recent years, development of such a facility is required by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) of 1982. Under that law, the facility was to be operational in January 1998.

But the massive tunnels bored into Yucca Mountain for that purpose hold nothing hotter than the natural background radiation emitted by some of the rocks inside and the sun beating down on the surrounding Nevada desert. As things now stand, that’s all they’ll ever hold.

Renaissance on the Back Burner

It’s been 35 years since anyone brought a new nuclear power plant on line in the United States and roughly a decade since early talk, mainly within the power-generation industry, about a coming “nuclear renaissance.” By 2007, the utility-sponsored Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) opined that the nation’s 100,000 megawatts of nuclear generation capacity would expand nearly one-fourth by 2020 and reach 164,000 megawatts 10 years later.

One big reason EPRI’s growth projections haven’t materialized is that 31 years after Congress supposedly mandated a solution, the United States has not credibly confronted the problem of permanently storing spent nuclear fuel.

In retrospect, failure to open a repository on Congress’ 16-year timeline—or in the 15 years since the deadline—perhaps shouldn’t surprise anyone. Yucca Mountain is in the home state of the Senate majority leader, who vowed to kill the project. Long before that it was entangled in litigation and remains so today, even after being cut back year by year and defunded in 2010.

Now, federal planners propose to walk away from their partially completed facility and try again somewhere else.

Plan B: Multiple Sites

It’s the Department of Energy’s (DOE) responsibility to develop a storage facility, and in January departing Secretary Steven Chu endorsed a plan incorporating recommendations from a blue ribbon panel he convened in 2010. It differs from the Yucca Mountain project in requiring two additional sites for temporary waste storage during the time needed to identify and build a permanent geologic repository. If the last part sounds familiar, it’s because that is what Yucca Mountain was supposed to be.  

Another part may also sound familiar. On-site storage at power plants has always been problematic because a plant that exhausts its available space can’t go on producing spent fuel. It would have to shut down. Foreseeing trouble by the early 1990s—Yucca Mountain wasn’t designated as the repository site until 2002—several nuclear utilities formed a consortium to find places where the local populace would willingly host temporary storage while everyone waited for the government to meet its obligations. One member of the consortium was Dairyland Power, which ceased nuclear operations in 1987 but had, and still has, spent fuel in storage.

In 1996 the Skull Valley Band of Goshute Indians offered the PFS (Private Fuel Storage) consortium the use of some of its land in Utah. Federal regulatory review began the following year. State officials litigated against PFS and lost repeatedly. In 2005, U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch (R–UT) intervened and within six months claimed to have persuaded most PFS partners to withdraw. Nevertheless, on February 21, 2006, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted PFS a license to develop and operate its facility.

Things went no further because later in 2006 the Bureau of Land Management, an agency of the Department of the Interior, denied PFS a right-of-way permit needed to transport fuel canisters from a main rail line to the storage site.

Old Trick, New Dog

In January, the DOE said it “currently plans to implement a program over the next 10 years” that would have a “pilot interim storage facility” operating by 2021, would site and license a larger interim facility by 2025, and make a geologic repository available by 2048.

There are many similarities to what’s been tried before, but also a potentially crucial difference. The new DOE plan cites a “fundamental flaw” in that the Yucca Mountain site was mandated by Congress, whereas the new plan relies on “encouraging communities to volunteer to be considered to host a nuclear waste management facility.”

If that sounds like a tough sell, Dairyland’s experience with PFS demonstrated that attracting volunteers is not—at least was not—an impossible dream. John Parkyn, now retired, was Dairyland’s manager for nuclear and special projects and CEO of Private Fuel Storage. Six years ago Parkyn told Wisconsin Energy Cooperative News PFS considered more than 30 sites and “We didn’t even look at any sites that weren’t voluntarily offered.”

Another difference from the Yucca project is that the DOE proposes creating an entirely new entity to oversee the program. The new waste management and disposal organization—MDO in DOE parlance—is not described in detail but it’s suggested that a congressionally chartered federal corporation or new independent government agency be created.

Yet another difference is the proposed treatment of program funds. Under the 1982 law, utility ratepayers are billed an extra one-tenth of 1 cent per kilowatt-hour for energy from nuclear plants. This goes to a Nuclear Waste Fund (NWF) currently holding about $28 billion. The trouble is, like many government accounts, NWF money winds up being diverted to uses other than the advertised purpose or, as in the recent defunding of Yucca Mountain, withheld from the designated use.

The DOE’s January report calls for multiple reforms in handling NWF funds, including the most obvious one: “limiting its use to specific capital expenditures.”

This Time for Sure?

Stakeholder groups greeted the DOE plan positively but with a certain reserve. The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC), Nuclear Energy Institute, and Nuclear Waste Strategy Coalition (formed mainly to protect money paid into the NWF) jointly announced they “look forward to fully analyzing DOE’s proposed strategy,” and noted, “Many of these concepts have long been supported by our members and other experts.”

Meanwhile, DOE withdrew its license application for Yucca Mountain three years ago, but a lawsuit by the states of Washington and South Carolina, NARUC, and Nye County, Nevada—where Yucca Mountain is located— seeks to force completion of the regulatory review.

The plaintiffs argue that the DOE’s withdrawal represents yet another violation of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.—Dave Hoopman, director of regulatory affairs, Electric Division, Cooperative Network

 

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Batteries ARE Included

Co-ops Test Energy Storage Systems


One of the main obstacles to widespread use of wind and solar power production is nature itself: The wind doesn’t always blow, and the sun doesn’t always shine. But electric cooperatives are on the cusp of efforts to develop technology aimed at storing excess renewable energy for when it’s needed most.

Battery storage systems, first developed in the 1970s, have become more viable on a large scale thanks to recent chemistry breakthroughs that increase the longevity while lowering the cost of batteries. If battery energy storage at the utility level can be made commercially viable, it could result in a revolution for the aging American electric grid.

Wind and solar energy are called “intermittent” sources of power—meaning they don’t provide a steady supply of electricity like traditional generation fuels, such as coal or natural gas. Even in the best situations, wind blows on average only about 30–40 percent of the time and usually not during hot, humid weekday afternoons or extremely cold mornings when the use of electricity spikes. Meanwhile, solar energy production can dramatically drop even when a band of fluffy clouds briefly passes over the sun.

That’s where battery energy storage comes in; the electricity produced when the wind blows at night and the sun shines can be used during times of peak demand—when power use skyrockets—to avoid purchasing expensive supplemental power.

So far, a handful of electric co-ops across the country are testing various uses of batteries.

Harnessing Energy Saves Money

Battery storage systems are a big investment for any electric cooperative. The good news is, benefits exist beyond leveling out renewable energy supply.

“Properly managed battery storage systems can delay the need for building expensive transmission lines,” says Dale Bradshaw, a senior program manager with the Cooperative Research Network (CRN), the research and development arm of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA). “It also reduces wear and tear on baseload power plants and can make electric distribution systems run more efficiently. All these opportunities add up to cost savings for consumers.”

Development of better batteries could be the key to wide use of energy storage technologies.

Before central station electric service came to rural America via the electric cooperative movement in the 1930s, farmers used “battery sets” that were recharged with windmills and ram pumps. Like conventional sealed lead-acid car batteries, those contraptions could go only through a limited number of  discharge-charge cycles before they were exhausted.

Developers these days are aiming for batteries that can function through 80-percent discharge for 10,000 cycles—allowing for longevity of three decades or more.

“If you’re supplementing wind or solar, you’re going through a complete cycle on a daily basis,” Bradshaw notes. “In other words, a long cycle life remains key.”

Changing the Grid

The U.S. Department of Energy forecasts that energy storage will significantly change the electric grid. Initially, energy storage systems could make renewable generation sources more financially feasible—a critical step as U.S. lawmakers contemplate ways to create a more diverse energy production portfolio.

Bradshaw concludes: “Electric cooperatives are leading the charge in researching and testing energy storage systems that will directly benefit consumers—from reduced operational costs and better service reliability to environmentally responsible power production.”—Magen Howard, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association

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EDITORIAL
by Perry Baird

Opinion polls are only as good as the questions asked, though some may yield interesting data, even if the surveys are narrowly constructed.

Late last year, the Tennessee-based Shelton Group reported findings from its national survey, noting residential electricity consumption is increasing and that consumers tend to blame their utility or their inefficient home for rising energy bills rather than putting the blame on themselves for using more power. Fingered for causing energy-bill hikes were inefficient homes (25 percent thought their homes to be inefficient), utilities (18 percent), and consumers’ own demand for energy (12 percent).

“We’re seeing an unfortunate tendency to avoid responsibility for wasting energy,” said Suzanne Shelton, CEO of the survey firm. “Instead, more people are blaming outside forces over which they feel they have little or no control.”

Legit but Narrow

She went on to say consumers increasingly are giving up on making energy-saving improvements, thinking that their efforts would yield them little benefit. Another of the survey results shows that energy bills would need to increase significantly (an average of $120) before consumers would feel compelled to make energy-efficient renovations. Assuming survey accuracy, both of these latter findings present legitimate challenges to electric co-ops and other utilities as they promote energy-saving practices and products to their consumers.

But keep in mind that the Shelton Group admits to being “entirely focused in the energy-efficiency and sustainability space.” As such, its treatment of rising electricity rates being driven by efficiency considerations doesn’t dwell on other causes for consumers’ bills growing. Unmentioned is arguably the largest contributor to rate shock: the government.

We reported here in January that our own informal survey among co-op leaders at a recent two-state annual meeting identified government regulation and legislation as the greatest threats to the success of their businesses. A large number of respondents were directors and staff of electric cooperatives, and they’ve learned how powerful an influence state and federal lawmakers and agencies have become on rates paid by electric consumers.

Influence of Initiatives, Inaction

Scanning our news archive, here’s a rundown of just a few things we’ve reported in recent years: a Wisconsin investor-owned utility doubled its rate request to the Public Service Commission due to projected compliance costs of a new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule; double-digit rate hikes for a generating co-op in North Dakota for yet another contested EPA rule on power-plant emissions; Nebraska public-power officials warning of more than a dozen EPA initiatives that would drive up costs and close power plants; state laws requiring utilities to purchase increasing percentages of higher-priced energy from renewable sources; federal agency attempts to disallow the recycling of coal ash, impeding planning and potentially driving up power producers’ costs for disposal; mounting utility expense due to the Department of Energy’s failure to take charge of spent nuclear-plant fuel (see cover story); failure of Congress to reform railroads’ discriminatory pricing of coal shipments to utilities; among other examples.

            So, while it’s interesting and useful to look at consumers’ electric rates being spurred upward by a lack of needed energy-efficiency advances, we can’t ignore the influence of government action and inaction—or fail to direct ample blame toward that 500-pound gorilla that exerts ponderous energy-rate pressure.

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There are plenty of places in Wisconsin where you can enjoy some down-home country cooking, and there are plenty of places where you can hear some down-home country music. But no place puts the two together quite like Maggie Mae’s Cafe in Oxford.

At Maggie Mae’s, guests are served home-cooked food and treated to toe-tapping tunes sung by Maggie herself, a country musician who performs live in the cafe she owns with her husband, Roger Hilliard.

Country music fans may already be familiar with Maggie Mae and her band, Heartland Country. They’ve recorded seven CDs and performed at sites all over the Midwest. Maggie regularly sings at venues ranging from local nursing homes to the big stage in Branson, Missouri.

What some of her fans may not know, however, is that despite her extensive resumé, Maggie Mae is not a product of Nashville who’s reached the top after a lifetime of climbing. Her roots are right here in Wisconsin; she grew up on a farm in Tomah and lives on the farm she and Roger own and operate in Oxford.

Surprisingly, she’s only been singing—at least for others—for about a dozen years. As Maggie tells it, she and Roger opened their cafe in 2001 with a dining room that sat 25 or 30 people and a staff of just three—a cook, a dishwasher, and Maggie.

Maggie would sing along happily to the radio as she worked. Roger noticed the guests in the dining room really liked her singing, and he suggested she sing for them as they ate. She was intrigued, but not yet convinced.

Then one day, Maggie was chatting with the regulars at what she affectionately calls the BS (Big Spender) table when she mentioned she’d like to learn to play guitar. One of the customers had a guitar in his truck; he brought it in and played some Hank Williams songs that took Maggie Mae back to her childhood. She decided right then that she wanted to sing country music, and that very night she ordered a guitar over the Internet.

As Maggie learned to strum her guitar and began singing for her customers, one thing led to another. People just kept coming; eventually she and Roger had to build on to the cafe to seat them all. Now the cafe seats between 60 and 70 guests, and during the summer months a staff of 18 or 20 works there. The cafe has been featured prominently in Discover Wisconsin promotional videos and was even a Discover Wisconsin Restaurant Pick of the Month.

It’s not just the cafe that grew. Maggie Mae began performing with a band, and at customers’ urging she made her first CD at a recording studio in New Lisbon. The studio owner connected Maggie with a producer in Nashville, which led to more opportunities. Five of her seven CDs have been recorded in Nashville; the latest made it through the first nomination process for a Grammy award.

In addition, Maggie began performing regularly on the Midwest Country Music Theater, a Saturday evening TV show filmed in Minnesota and broadcast on RFDTV across the country. Her appearance on this show led to an invitation to perform in Branson, where she has since performed five or six times. Her next Branson show is scheduled for October.

One of Maggie’s latest ventures is hosting musical/sightseeing bus trips for her fans. Last fall, about 100 fans joined Maggie on a seven-day trip to Nashville. This year’s trip will be a Caribbean Cruise October 16–25.

But there’s no need to punch a ticket to Branson or book a tour to hear Maggie Mae sing. She regularly performs at fairs, festivals, and theaters throughout Wisconsin. She’s even provided entertainment at a couple of Adams–Columbia Electric Cooperative’s annual meetings.

In addition, Maggie and Roger host barn dances at their Oxford farm on weekends in May, June, and September for as many as 700 people.

They also host dinner shows at the farm for busloads of tour guests, who travel from throughout the country for a buffet dinner, music, and dancing. Guests must have reservations to attend a dinner show.

And of course, there’s always the cafe. Despite Maggie’s busy schedule, she makes time to sing at the cafe two or three days a week.

“If all these other opportunities ended tomorrow, I’d still be able to do what I love the most, and that’s singing at the cafe and doing the barn dances,” Maggie Mae said. “We’re just so thankful to be doing what we’re doing.”
Mary Erickson

Maggie Mae’s Cafe is located on Highway 82 in Oxford. Call ahead, (608) 586-4881, to find out when Maggie Mae will be singing there. For more information about her performances, dates and details about the barn dances and dinner shows, as well as directions to the cafe, visit www.maggiemaecountry.com.

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©2013 Wisconsin Energy Cooperative News