Renewable energy usage by Washington state electric utilities is ratcheting up slightly, as required by law. That will be reflected in some of the official compliance reports submitted next month. Yet due to availability and cost constraints, key renewables including solar and wind power are in a weak market position now and can only go so far in coming decades. The state may need to take a much closer look at next-generation nuclear power.
One opportunity could come through an emergent pathway toward the siting of small modular reactors (SMRs). A report to the Washington legislature earlier this year said if siting issues can be resolved they’re a viable way to add carbon-free electric generation capacity. Plans are unfolding for a pilot installation of SMRs at Idaho National Laboratory (INL), pending approvals.
The technology has been in use for years on the U.S. Navy’s nuclear submarines, including those based in Kitsap County.
High capital and operating costs for larger and more traditional nuclear power plants are driven in part by regulators. A drop in peak-hour wholesale electricity prices and tumbling costs for natural gas have also hurt the finances of today’s nuclear power plants, according to researchers from the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Michigan.
Against this backdrop, the concept of smaller SMRs are gaining traction globally.
Solar And Wind Power Limited
A January 2016 snapshot from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) shows that two-thirds of Washington state’s electricity comes from hydropower. Just more than six percent comes from other renewables including wind and solar, 13.8 percent from natural gas, nine percent from nuclear power, and four percent from coal. Although clean hydropower is a signature energy source in Washington, it is not counted toward mandated renewable energy usage targets the state imposes on electric utilities.
Gaming The Definition Of Renewable Energy
Renewables in Washington are defined as wind, solar, geothermal, tidal, biodiesel and biomass, landfill gas and gas from sewage treatment facilities. Washington voters made that choice and others by approving Initiative 937 in 2006. It was codified in the state’s Energy Independence Act, or RCW 19.285. The law requires that electric utilities serving 25,000 customers or more must provide three percent of their customer load via renewables by 2012, nine percent by 2016 and 15 percent by 2020.
In 2015 compliance reports to the Washington State Department of Commerce, all 17 qualifying utilities met the three percent threshold, 10 of them exactly at the required minimum and three at levels above the 2016 standard of nine percent.
Hydro And Energy Intensity
Thanks largely to its abundant hydropower, Washington state nearly cracks the top quintile nationally in controlling the carbon intensity of its economy. EIA data show that for the most recent year reported, 2013, Washington emitted 5,600 British Thermal Units (Btu) of carbon dioxide per chained 2009 dollar. That CO2 energy intensity is the 11th best of the 50 states. Only seven states best Washington in lowering CO2 intensity of the economy on an annual average percentage basis from 2000 to 2013.
But hydroelectric dams are not a growth industry in Washington due to the state law on renewables, plus pressure from environmental groups and tribes concerned about their effects on salmon. Dams have even been removed. Meanwhile, electric utilities not only face the I-937 renewable portfolio mandates.
Some utilities by next year, and more later, will have to comply with an emerging state Clean Air Rule. It is being advanced administratively without any legislative approval by Governor Jay Inslee and the state Department of Ecology. A revised version of the rule was to be released Thursday May 18.
Opportunity For ‘Significant Carbon-Free Baseload Generation’
The January 2016 report to lawmakers from Washington state’s Energy Facilties and Siting Evaluation Council (EFSEC) describes SMRs as “nuclear power plant modules of 300 megawatts or less” made offsite and featuring “self-contained fuel, power generation and cooling, multiple module operation, and passive core failure protection that requires no action ensure core integrity in the case of an accident.”
The EFSEC report adds that, “SMR development…has the potential for significant carbon-free baseload generation.” EFSEC noted that suitable SMR locations might be found around the Tri-Cities, the Columbia and Snake Rivers, and the I-5 corridor, but any site proposal would be subject to detailed vetting by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).
The U.S. Department of Energy earlier this year issued a permit for an SMR pilot project within the grounds of INL. Modules would be provided by the leading SMR company, NuScale. The site would be operated by Energy Northwest, which runs Washington’s one larger-scale nuclear power facility called the Columbia Generating Station. Up to 12 50-megawatt units in two batches of six are envisioned for the SMR project at INL.
According to a recent report in the publication Energy Collective political opposition in Idaho could be intense but NuScale hopes to open by 2024 and Washington may push hard for in-state location of pre-assembly manufacturing.
Clean Energy And Jobs for Washington
Said Washington State Sen. Sharon Brown (R-8), “We need an ‘all of the above’ approach to baseload power generation. Wind and solar are part of the mix but not consistent; so “you need something to shore up the other sources of power.” SMRs are “a clean source of energy generation” and the jobs they would bring to Washington are substantial, Brown said. She added she has letters from former Gov. Chris Gregoire and current Governor Jay Inslee in support of SMRs.
“We’ll see a lot of these in other countries first, such as China. It’s a logical development from current nuclear technology,” Brown added.
Perhaps supporting her contention are U.S. EIA base case projections for energy consumption by global region and source for 2012-2040. They show a striking uptick in nuclear energy use in developing nations of Asia, South America and The Middle East, far outpacing other sources.
According to January testimony to the House Technology and Economic Development Committee by the manager of the EFSEC report, Grant Bailey of Golder Associates in Redmond, two SMRs have opened in China. France and about five other countries are pursuing them, and England is spending the equivalent of about $500 million for early phase SMR work, Golder added.
Built-in Safeguards ‘A Huge Shift’
State Rep. Gael Tarleton (D-36) during the committee work session said the automatic shut-down safeguards of SMRs represent “a huge shift” but she is still concerned about siting them on land, as opposed to their use aboard nuclear subs, away from population centers
A bill introduced earlier this year in the state Senate by Brown, SB 6224, sought to expedite the site certification process in Washington for SMRs. Brown said she chose not to move it through the chamber because there was little support in the House.
In an interview last month with Energy Northwest’s blog, Dr. Jim Conca, a geophysicist who has held positions with two national laboratories, NASA and Washington State University, said, “our environmental goals will not be met without significant nuclear and hydroelectric power..political and ideological anti-nuclear stands..prevent media from pursuing objective reporting and..prevent public schools…from providing the scientific truth about nuclear energy…”
Other critics say the government has done much to distort the truth about the risks of low-level radiation from nuclear plants, and this has driven up construction and operational costs for nuclear power, ultimately making CO2 emissions control more difficult in the U.S.
“In high doses, radiation is deadly, with effects ranging from burns to cancer to organ failure. However, much of the time and money involved in building a nuclear power plant goes toward keeping radiation in check at much lower levels, a practice that some scientists say is not supported by their research. At issue is the ‘linear no-threshold’ model for radiation safety, which measures the harm from high radiation doses and extrapolates in a straight line to zero, giving rise to the argument that there is no level of exposure below which radiation is harmless, let alone helpful.
The model emerged as a standard in the early days of the nuclear energy industry, when radiation’s impact on health was uncharted territory. ‘They basically said there was no lower radiation limit that wouldn’t cause damage,’ said Carol Marcus, a professor of radiation oncology, nuclear medicine and radiological sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles, medical school. ‘As the years have gone by, you can imagine the amount of bureaucracy that’s grown up to protect you from a single atom.’
Marcus said the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which licenses and oversees safety in nuclear power plants in the United States, has become bloated from an unfounded fear of low-level radiation.
How clean our future energy will be depends in no small part on the right degree of oversight, one which does not favor hoped-for winners with subsidies while escalating the costs of others with regulatory overkill.
The aim instead should be to foster competition on a level playing field. Whether politicians and regulators let well-sited SMRs proceed apace will reveal much about the capacity of the state and nation to balance economic growth with environmental quality.