VIEWPOINT: More energy options needed to meet electric demands
Influential voices who have the ears of policy makers are advocating solar and wind generation to provide electricity supply to meet our country’s demands. But it is important to respect the fact that technology must drive electric generation supply solutions, not government mandates.
The U.S. generates electricity from four sources: natural gas (40%), renewables (22%), coal (20%) and nuclear (18%) with coal being the most polluting. As solar and wind technology emerge and evolve, we are expanding their deployment. Both are renewable and neither emit pollution.
As beneficial as these emerging renewable sources have become, they will not solve the growing and massive U.S. demand for a reliable supply. Generation cannot be dependent on daily amounts of sun and wind. Primary generation must be supplied by predictable, reliable, and cost-effective power plants also known as base-load plants. We know that coal is the most problematic with respect to pollution. Clean coal and scrubbing solutions are under refinement. But there are better solutions that can be further expanded or in development that show great promise.
If we want to meet the very aggressive goal of zero emissions by 2050, coal is not the answer. But we are in a global competitive environment and cost is very important to ensure our competitive place in the world economy.
Natural gas, by a wide margin, produces a fraction of pollutants than that of coal. And when designed in combined-cycle (CC) configuration, meaning using that fuel to spin a generator and then capturing the heat emitted to spin another generator, is very cost-effective producing significantly lower pollutants to the atmosphere.
In highly populated coastal environments, wind has been proposed as a source of electric generation. But while a 600-megawatt CC natural gas plant can be built for about $750 million, a 600-megawatt would cost in excess of $2 billion and come with much higher maintenance costs. All of these costs are built into the rate base which drives cents per kilowatt hour at the meter.
The U.S. has been expanding natural gas CC plants and decommissioning plants that are coal-fired. We have seen greater than a 65% drop in overall emissions from 2005 to 2019 and a 32% drop in CO2 emissions shifting from coal to natural gas. We need to continue the transition from coal to natural gas.
To provide consistent base-load electric power to meet future demand, however, we must also revisit nuclear power, a clean source that can run base-load full power for extended periods without the need for refueling. Most operators elect to refuel every 18 to 24 months. Nuclear technology is safe, effective and by far the cleanest, most efficient and the most non-polluting answer for us to reach our goal of zero-carbon emissions by 2050.
Small modular reactors (SMRs) are advanced nuclear reactors that have a power capacity of up to 300 megawatts per unit, which is about one-third of the generating capacity of traditional nuclear power reactors. SMRs, which can produce a large amount of low-carbon electricity, are a fraction of the size of a conventional nuclear power reactor and modular, making them capable of being factory-assembled and transported as a unit to a location for installation.
Given their smaller footprint, SMRs can be sited on locations not suitable for larger nuclear power plants. Prefabricated units of SMRs can be manufactured and then shipped and installed on site, making them more affordable to build than large power reactors, which are often custom designed for a particular location, sometimes leading to construction delays. SMRs offer savings in cost and construction time, and they can be deployed incrementally to match increasing energy demand.
No one generation solution is the answer. The right answer? All of the above, driven by technology, is the right mix of generation to meet both the growing U.S. demand for electricity and strive to reach a zero-carbon emissions goal by 2050.
Kenneth Reuter Jr. has worked for the past 40 years in the electric industry and now consults globally through his business, Resilience Energy.