To lead on climate, lean on nuclear

Every day there is a new article or study proclaiming an urgent need for climate action, with myriad proposed solutions praising renewables as the cure-all.

However, the realities of decarbonizing the electric grid are often far more complicated and nuanced than portrayed.

Wind, solar and battery storage technologies are important, and deployment of these resources is underway, with Energy Northwest investing in and developing new utility-scale solar and storage projects.

However, we recognize renewables alone cannot solve the climate change problem and maintain a reliable supply of electricity, regardless of advances in energy storage technology.

Why? The answer is simple: reliability.

Wind and solar generate electricity inconsistently, yet we consume energy 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Electricity is generated, transmitted and consumed simultaneously. Supply must always equal demand.

If demand increases and supply cannot rise to meet it, then there is potential for rolling blackouts.

Conversely, if supply suddenly decreases then, absent another generator idling online, a blackout could occur.

As a result, for every megawatt of wind or solar on the grid, other non-intermittent generation or energy storage must be available to cover an unplanned loss of output.

This is why utilities focus on “resource adequacy,” planning to ensure sufficient energy is available to meet future demand.

In the Northwest, we are approaching an inflection point.

The states of Washington and Oregon have adopted comprehensive clean energy policies requiring 100% carbon-free electricity in the next two to three decades. This is a worthwhile goal and with proper planning and investment we are well positioned to achieve it.

However, thousands of megawatts of coal-fired electricity will be retired over the next few years and natural gas plants are being retired in the long run.

With no plans to replace this firm generation, the region will be unable to meet future demand.

If this doesn’t sound concerning, consider the impact of weeks without electricity during summer highs and winter lows. This is not a theoretical exercise.

In recent years, there have been major energy shortfalls and electricity crises in the United Kingdom, European Union and California, to name a few.

Access to reliable electricity is the best global indicator of economic prosperity. Electricity is life!

In the U.S., our economic success is intrinsically tied to electricity being available when and where it’s needed.

Strain on our electric system will mount as our economy and population grow. Greater adoption of electric vehicles will exacerbate the problem – anything with a battery needs to be charged.

How will we keep the lights on without coal and natural gas? In the Northwest we are blessed with abundant hydropower, which integrates well with renewables (when wind and solar output increase, hydropower can back down, store water and release it when electricity is needed).

Unfortunately, we lack the capacity to build ample new hydroelectric resources in the region.

Fortunately, we are seeing the emergence of new nuclear energy technologies, which are designed to fill the void.

The existing fleet of U.S. nuclear power plants accounts for 20% of the nation’s electricity but more than 50% of our carbon-free power.

Our future clean energy needs will require smaller, versatile designs: small modular and advanced reactors.

These new-design reactors are state-of-the-art, flexible yet reliable, safe, cost-effective, and can provide not only abundant carbon-free electricity but also high-temperature steam for industrial applications. They truly embody American innovation.

As market penetration of wind and solar grows, advanced reactors can pair with these resources to provide balance: a reliable electric grid and dependable, predictable electricity.

Many new nuclear energy technologies are on the threshold of commercialization, and their deployment promises to usher in a new era of innovative, zero-carbon electricity that can form the foundation of our future clean energy economy.

As we look ahead, the challenges are evident, but so are the solutions.

We can continue operating existing nuclear and hydroelectric facilities while we grow the fleet of available renewable resources and energy storage systems.

The importance of existing nuclear power, and its value to energy security and independence, has become increasingly apparent: plants once slated for premature closure – in California, Germany, Belgium, Japan – are now being restarted or indefinitely kept online.

However, more generation will be needed to anchor the grid, and small modular and advanced reactors are a viable option. Bringing carbon-free nuclear plants online – as coal and natural gas go offline – is imperative to both the transition to clean energy as well as the long-term sustainability of a clean energy system.

The good news is there is growing support for new nuclear technologies.

Many countries – from Canada, France, and the U.K. to Poland and Estonia – are investing heavily in new reactor technologies as part of their climate mitigation plans.

In the U.S., the federal government is spurring commercialization of modern reactor designs, while many states are actively exploring policies to expedite the build out of new nuclear energy facilities. There is also increasing public support for nuclear energy.

In a recent statewide opinion poll, three-fourths of Washington residents said they favor nuclear energy as one of the ways to provide electricity, and 82% believe nuclear energy will be important for meeting our future energy needs.

Energy Northwest is partnering with several advanced nuclear companies and last year joined X-energy and Grant PUD in forming the TRi Energy Partnership. Our goal is simple: to deploy advanced nuclear technologies in central Washington and provide the Northwest with new sources of clean, reliable energy.

Meeting future energy demand with 100% clean electricity is feasible if our efforts are directed toward the practical and the possible.

Priority must be given to maintaining existing carbon-free resources – from wind and solar to nuclear and hydropower – while we embrace innovation by pursuing new clean energy resources.

Clean and reliable electricity are not mutually exclusive, and we have the opportunity in Washington to prove it.

Bob Schuetz is CEO of Energy Northwest, which operates hydro, nuclear, wind, solar and storage facilities in Washington and Oregon.

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