Ralph Develops and Interest in Fusion Energy
Q: Tell me about the Public Service Enterprise Group and how you got there?
A: Ralph Izzo is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Public Service
Enterprise Group (PSEG), one of the ten largest utilities in the United States. PSEG
provides regulated service to states along the NJ turnpike and provides merchant power
across the US ranging from Hawaii to Maryland. Ralph went to Columbia for
Mechanical Engineering and later became interested in the intersection between
mechanical engineering and energy. Growing up during the 1973 Oil Embargo made
energy a fascination for Ralph, as he recalls waiting in gas lines for an hour or two. For
him this was a recognition for things to change. Ralph eventually became interested in
fusion energy research because fusion energy was viewed to be the path to steer away
from petroleum and fossil based fuels. He was able to do so as Columbia University had
a small fusion reactor with unique operating conditions that had high potential for
commercial development. Once he finished his degree at Columbia he went to
Fission versus Fusion (3:15)
Q: What was the appeal of fission over fusion?
A: The nuclides that come out of fission have a longer half life than those that come out
of fusion. The byproduct of commercial fusion was deuterium and tritium and when you
smash them together you have helium so you don’t have a waste problem. But fission
wasn’t seen as dirty, it was viewed as a terrific technology with a role to play. However,
there were unfulfilled promises in fission such as the "too cheap to meter" promise.
Additionally, only recently have the fleet been operating at above 95% capacity, when
they were promised to be efficient earlier on. These promises, of low cost and efficiency,
changed after shale gas revolution. Nuclear is low cost, but in the absence of a price on
carbon, nuclear looks expensive as compared to fossil fuel.
Ralph Izzo's Early Career (6:07)
Q: What did your early career look like?
A: Ralph Izzo's PhD work focused on resistive magnetohydrodynamics (MHD). MHD
combines the principles of fluid mechanics and Maxwell's equations; Ralph attempted to
model the dynamics of a plasma (ionized gas) using fluid mechanics. Afterwards, Ralph
worked in the Department of Defense Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory from 1981-
1986. Around this time, President Ronald Reagan announced the initiative,
Strategic Defense Initiative.Then he went to work For NJ Senator Bill Bradley because
the lab was consistently debating the funding and president Reagan had announced his
star wars initiative. People like Sydney Drell from Stanford started to give their input and
this is when he realized how important public policy was to securing funding for fusion
labs. It was an eye opening experience because so many people have different
perspectives on what a good public policy approach to scientific debates, you had to
understand the socio-political dynamics associated with the science and technology.
Whether or not the Strategic Defense Initiative was a good idea became a sociopolitical,
rather than scientific, debate and this really changed Ralph's perspective.
After working for Senator Bill Bradley, Ralph went back to the lab for about 6 months
before he realized that the timelines for research and development projects were longer
than he wanted. He then worked with Senator Tom Keane as a science policy advisor
and got involved in environment and energy issues. Three months into the job, he
worked on the Hope Creek Nuclear Generating Station. The construction of the Hope
Creek Nuclear Generating Station was managed by PSEG and completed in 1986,
grossly over budget at $4.9 billion (as compared to the projected $500 million). During
this time, there were high interest rates, Three Mile Island occurred, and the Nuclear
Regulatory Commission was reviewing and changing standards. Ralph helped worked
on the solution the Public Facilities Board would use in response to this over budget
project. The Hope Creek Nuclear Generating Station eventually did go into service, and
has been operating for 30 years. It was producing relatively low cost electricity up until
the shale gas revolution occurred.
Costs of Nuclear & the Valuation of Carbon (12:46)
Q: How does the cost of nuclear power, in the long term, compare to other sources?
A: Typical national averages for nuclear power is $28/Mwh. Comparatively, today’s most
efficient natural gas plant runs at a heat rate of 6,500-7,000 BTU/Kwh which, depending
on the price of natural gas, could be anywhere from $13/Mwh to $28/Mwh. But there
hasn’t been a price put on carbon. Natural gas emits half a ton of carbon per Mwh. The
National Academy of Sciences says the social impacts of carbon are worth about
$40/ton. If natural gas is producing half a ton of carbon per Mwh, then natural gas
should be burned at a cost of $33/Mwh to $41/Mwh. Natural gas is more expensive than
nuclear, but without the carbon price being valued, it looks less expensive.
Secretary Perry has mentioned we need on site fuel capability. In this arena, nuclear is
comparable to coal, with both storing the fuel on site. During the periods of extreme cold
in places across the United States, delivering the natural gas through pipelines is
limited. If you can’t get natural gas to the plant, you could burn oil in a natural gas plant.
But at some point, you’ll need to drive in supply trucks to do so. Because of this issue
with getting natural gas or oil to the plant, you’ll need a source of power (such as coal or
nuclear) where the fuel is on site for these extreme cold weather events. So based on
these factors, PSEG isn’t anti-natural gas (they have natural gas plants) but they value
the fuel diversity and low carbon impact of nuclear.
PSEG’s Stance on Climate Change (16:14)
Q: Climate change is a big issue for PSEG right?
A: It is. The two most important things are to (1) keep the existing nuclear fleet running
and (2) energy efficiency. The existing nuclear fleet is responsible for 60% of the carbon
free energy today. But, right now, nuclear is losing to natural gas because of the
perceived cost. Energy efficiency can reduce carbon at a negative marginal cost, to the
extent that theres low hanging fruit (incandescent vs LED lighting, old AV systems
versus higher efficiency units), you can install technology to lower customers bills that
will also help them use less energy. Solar and off shore wind are important, but we’re
too focused on them when we should be focused on nuclear power and energy
efficiency because of the price point.
We compare the busbar cost of electricity from nuclear, gas, and coal plants versus
wind or solar. However, the first three (nuclear, gas, coal) are dispatchable, meaning
you can control when they operate. This is different than wind and solar, because we
can’t control the fully supply for wind and solar. To compare them we would need battery
storage for wind and solar. But this battery storage would have a carbon footprint as
well. Renewables sound great because the fuel source is free but the capitol needed is
very high and the capacity factor is critical because of that. Ralph wants to see a future
where people use less energy than they use today because the hardware they use is
more efficient and the supply is cleaner. This goal can be realized by preserving the
existing nuclear fleet, looking into advanced nuclear technologies, having a renewable
energy supply, and using clean electricity to electrify the transportation sector. The fours
things Ralph thinks should be done include energy efficiency, a clean energy supply,
electrifying the economy, and investing in the grid.
Communicating Energy Goals to the Public (20:55)
Q: How do we communicate these goals to the public?
A: There are already changes in the way people are speaking; there’s increased talk of
rapid decarbonization and the importance of preserve the existing nuclear fleet. Holding
global warming to 1.5 degrees c is a probably a lost cause but it would be a disaster if
we got up to 2, 3 or 4 degrees celsius. To prevent this, it’s important to take an “all of the
above” approach to add less carbon to the atmosphere.
The Edison Electric Institute has an international meeting every summer, where utilities
come together to discuss these issues. However, the United States will always be the
biggest contributor, on an emissions per capita basis, of carbon emissions. Nuclear is
important for reducing our carbon emissions in the United States, and for maintaining
our competitive advantage in nuclear technologies to Russia and China.
Exploring New Technologies (25:09)
Q: On the rise to the top of PSEG, did you work on any new technologies?
A:Ralph started out as the Director of Research and Development at PSEG in their battery
energy storage technology center. They performed information technology research on how to
better control the grid and flexibly redirect power flows by changing the impedances of the
network. The industry has always had an interest in research and development through (1) the
Electric Power Research Institute and (2) with the equipment manufacturers (such as General
Electric, Siemens and ABB) in guiding their product development efforts.
Private Innovation & PSEG (26:38)
Q: How would energy entrepreneurs get in touch with big utilities like PSEG for
A: Energy entrepreneurs can provide creative solutions on additive processes that
PSEG doesn’t focus on such as lubricants, diagnostic tools, coatings to improve life
expectancy of blades, and information sciences (monitoring diagnostics and sensors).
Entrepreneurs can especially bring new insight on data analytics, which is something
the industry hasn’t necessarily focused on. So entrepreneurs can help provide
innovative ways for the industry to focus on correlation (versus causation) by looking at
the data we collect in the value chain and using it for predictive and preventive
maintenance and predicting energy consumption. The nuclear industry is still in its
infancy in analyzing these data. Right now, most of the industry is putting its moonshots
around advanced fuel cycles and nuclear and allowing the market pull associated with
policy subsidies to bend the cost curve on wind and solar.
A new area that could be worth exploring is biology. What if there are biological
processes that are much more efficient at converting natural resources into an energy
supply? It’s important to explore new ideas but the issue will always be of energy
intensity, even if you compare biologic to atomic processes the atomic processes will be
more energy dense.
Why Solve Climate Change (31:37)
Q: Why should we solve climate change?
A: Ralph finds the calamities that we’re setting up for future generations saddening, he
wants to use his educational background to take action on climate change so that we
can be the second greatest generation and not the greedy generation.