With new state mandates imposing carbon neutral energy requirements, some utilities are evaluating an emerging energy technology which may have the potential to provide system stability for renewable energies such as wind and solar. However, several questions regarding capital costs, market demand and public perception must be answered before a final determination is made.
Small modular reactor (SMR) technology is now being explored by Energy Northwest, a consortium of energy utility companies throughout Washington, as one possible way to meet the requirements of the Clean Energy Transformation Act (CETA) which mandates that utilities must generate or provide 100 percent carbon neutral energy by 2035 and 100 percent clean energy by 2045.
The state legislature passed the measure during the 2019 session, however, a major concern raised by utilities during those committee hearings was that shifting from coal and natural gas to renewable energies such as wind and solar could threaten system reliability and stability.
“If we’re really going to be serious about the carbon issue…then we have to also be able to make sure the electricity and energy are going to be reliable,” Energy Northwest’s Energy Services and Development General Manager Greg Cullen told Lens. “We can’t do that with renewables and battery storage alone.”
After CETA was passed, Energy Northwest conducted a study exploring the systems’ future stability. Released in January, the study concluded that “very deep electric emissions reductions in the region can be achieved at manageable costs, provided firm capacity is available.” One potential way to provide that capacity is with the use of SMRs, which generate 300 megawatts compared to 1,000 MWs from a nuclear power plant.
If the technology is found to be feasible, Energy Northwest would have the SMR support its Columbia Generating Station, a nuclear energy facility 10 miles outside of Richland. The mobile nuclear reactor could eliminate some of the need to install additional wind and solar farms as part of its portfolio. As a result, Northwest Energy’s recent study estimated SMRs could reduce costs associated with CETA by $8 billion annually.
“What we’re really talking about is resource adequacy,” Director of Government Affairs Jason Herbert said. “We don’t want to get to 2030 and have rolling brownouts.”
Although SMRs would likely be more expensive to build compared to other energy sources, they offer two critical advantages the others lack. Not only do they provide a continuous flow of electricity like a nuclear power plant or hydropower, but operators can transfer that energy to other parts of the region when renewables aren’t operating or to meet increased demand.
“It (SMR) is predictable and dispatchable,” Washington Policy Center Environmental Director Todd Myers said. “Wind and solar are neither of those things. The wind blows when it blows. The sun shines when it shines. If you want to replace coal or natural gas, you can’t do it with wind and solar. Nuclear could help address that.”
Cullen said that SMRs make it much easier to follow the (energy) load, and pair well with renewables. He added that these benefits must be accounted for in the evaluation when weighing the capital costs of SMRs with other energy sources.
“The challenge is the inability to just rely on renewables when you need them,” he said. “That firmness has to be factored into the equation; the cleanness (of SMRs) has to be factored in when comparing it to natural gas.”
Oregon-based SMR designer NuScale Power is currently working on an SMR in Idaho through a public-private partnership, with tentative plans to begin operation in 2026. SMRs have also drawn the interest of the federal government for national security purposes. A 2017 study conducted for the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Nuclear Energy found that “SMRs, coupled with transmission hardening, could provide highly reliable, non-intermittent, clean, and carbon-free power,” noting that the modules can store up to two years’ worth of fuel.
“No other power source can provide that much certainty to a land-based defense facility,” the study stated.
SMRs also don’t require the same infrastructure as traditional power plants, Cullen said. “Your nuclear construction at the site is just a big rectangle building that holds the modular. It takes a lot of the construction risk and cost out. If you ever watched a nuclear plant being constructed, it has to be coordinated. Everything is very sequential and that leads to a lot of challenges.”
However, the 2017 DOE study noted that SMRs represent “significant expenses and risks that may be challenging for a project to bear without any financial support from the intended end user.”
“The biggest thing we have to be careful about is the cost,” Cullen said. “That’s what will, in the end, dictate the schedule.”
Some state lawmakers have tried to incentivize the development of SMRs. Republican Deputy Leader Sharon Brown (R-8) last year sponsored SB 5629, which would have added SMRs to the state’s clean energy strategy and exempt manufacturing and sales from the business and occupation (B&O) tax. Although the bill failed to clear its original committee, Herbert said “we don’t have to have that legislation pass for this project to be successful, though it would it help, absolutely.”
Another factor Energy Northwest will consider are public concerns about nuclear power, though Cullen and Herbert said that SMRs have made significant safety advancement in recent years. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) last year became the first U.S. utility to receive a permit necessary to build an SMR. While traditional nuclear power plants require evacuation plans for the surrounding area in the event of an emergency, TVA only had to complete on-site plans.
Yet Cullen said public concern “is one of our major focuses. We want to reach out to stakeholders in the region. It’s not our intention to jam anything down anyone’s throats.”
“Because this is a new technology and new extra concern over nuclear, I think it (the process) goes more slowly,” Myers said.
The feasibility evaluation is expected to take 1-2 years.