Leading US utilities are looking to a decarbonised future: Energy & Environment

June 09, 2021

As the US moves into a carbon-free future, new nuclear technologies will be needed alongside existing nuclear power plants and renewables, but they will continue to need federal and state legislative support, utility leaders said during the inaugural session of the Nuclear Energy Institute’s nuclear energy gathering Week.

(Image: NEI)

“It was an incredibly busy year – not just for our industry, but for the whole country. The pandemic has forced us to think differently, ”said the CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, Maria Korsnick, in her opening speech. “We think differently about how we want to work and live. How we can strengthen our economy and our infrastructure. And when it comes to energy, we think differently about how best to move into a carbon-free future, our message to the world is simple: Nuclear energy is the source that can make everything work – not just electricity, but also job creation, economic recovery and decarbonisation.

Nuclear power plants produce 20% of the country’s total electricity and more than 50% of its carbon-free electricity, and became the second largest source of electricity last year, Korsnick said. It has achieved this by working at more than 90% of capacity for the past 22 years while becoming even more affordable, helping build thriving communities, and creating well-paying jobs. “Our industry offers real opportunities and growth. We can accelerate our national economic recovery and really help the communities rebuild themselves better, ”she said.

Growing recognition

“During the pandemic and during sudden crises like this year’s devastating winter storms in the southern United States, nuclear workers went through unprecedented conditions. They left the lights on in the hospitals and the heating in the houses, ”said Korsnick. The US nuclear fleet is “the definition of the essential,” and an “unprecedented coalition is being built at the federal and state levels to make nuclear power the core of our clean energy system,” she added.

Nuclear power has its crucial role to play alongside other carbon-free sources such as wind, solar and hydropower, and this is recognized by Biden and state administrations, she said, citing increased Congressional funding to accelerate research, development and demonstration of new technologies and bipartisan Support for legislation recognizing the economic and clean energy contributions of nuclear energy.

“After everything we’ve built together, we’re ready to hit this moment,” she said. “We went from concept to location selection. We moved from design to demonstration. We’re not just talking about the next generation of nuclear technology – we’re actually starting to build it.

“The next generation of reactors will come in all sizes, makes and models. You will be flexible and versatile. They will be able to change their performance and combine perfectly with more variable sources such as wind and sun. “

In many cases, she said, next-generation nuclear reactors could “literally” be built on fossil fuel sites where much of the infrastructure connecting the plants to the grid already exists, and special incentives for advanced reactor construction in “coal country.” “Would get jobs in communities that desperately need them. “States like Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, Utah, and West Virginia have all shown an interest in this approach. Our industry can create clean energy capacity and economic opportunity where it is needed most, ”she said.

Continued operation

Climate goals – and a clean energy future – cannot be achieved if the current nuclear power plants are closed, she said. If all nuclear power plants threatened with decommissioning in the US were shut down this year, that would be the equivalent of all renewable energy use in 2019. “This is not decarbonization, it is throwing in the towel before the fight even starts,” said Korsnick.

Four of these units – in Byron and Dresden – were unable to open PJM Interconnection’s capacity auction last week. Exelon announced last August that it will close these units early if the state of Illinois does not pass policy reforms to support their continued operations before the end of the current session. Exelon said in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission on June 2 that its Braidwood and LaSalle plants are also likely candidates for early closure due to market rules favoring carbon-emitting power generation.

David Rhoades, President and Chief Nuclear Officer of Exelon Nuclear, said Exelon’s failure to open the PJM auction has increased the “unpredictability” of the markets. “We had several units that were not clear and for which were not recognized [their resiliency and zero-carbon attributes]which in turn requires state, and ultimately federal, legislation that recognizes these plants – the tremendous value they offer to the state and nation, “he said, making investment decisions difficult, he added.

Xcel Energy CEO Ben Fowke said losing one of the US’s old nuclear fleets – whether regulated or traded – would be like “taking two steps back before taking one step forward.” Xcel Energy will have wind and sun as the largest energy source in its mix by 2030 – away from coal – and plans to re-license its nuclear capacities in Monticello and Prairie Island. But the last 20% of decarbonization will require new, ready-to-use carbon-free technologies, including advanced nuclear power, he said.

Lynn Good, CEO of Duke Energy, said nuclear energy is critical to the clean energy transition and the company is filing for the second license renewal, starting with Oconee. “We see the continued operation of these facilities as essential to realizing this vision of clean energy,” she said.

Moving beyond 2030 to net zero requires new technology, and “advanced nuclear technology is becoming part of that conversation pretty quickly,” she said. “Sustained contribution and research and development focus this decade is essential to keep these technologies ‘ready to go’ on a commercial scale to maintain the affordability and reliability our customers have come to rely on.”

Activate transformation

Korsnick asked the panelists what markets and governments could do to encourage relicensing of existing capacity and the construction of new advanced technologies.

Brad Sawatzke, CEO of Energy Northwest, spoke about the company’s involvement in the TRi Energy Partnership along with the Grant County Public Utility District and X-energy, which aim to build a facility based on the Xe-100 reactor design from X- energy at Energy Northwest’s existing Columbia site in Washington. The US Department of Energy’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program, launched in May 2020 to help domestic private industry demonstrate advanced nuclear reactors in the US, is at the center of this opportunity, with the DOE paying 50% of the cost, he said.

Good support from the community is important when it comes to renewing a second license and ensuring that the facilities remain efficient in the future. For new nuclear energy, she called for stronger support for the importance of research and development and standards for clean energy and for nuclear energy to be part of the conversation.

Fowke agreed that aggressive targets to reduce CO2 require the maintenance of the nuclear fleet. This needs to be communicated and partnerships developed, for example within the labor sector and local communities. A broader understanding is required that the “big network” cannot be operated with renewable energies and batteries alone, and the recognition that the construction of the transmission infrastructure can take many years.

Good also pointed out the extent of the transformation in both grid infrastructure and power generation. “When you think about it, we are rebuilding the mass flow system that we have enjoyed for many decades on a large scale,” she said, transforming not only the way electricity is generated but also the grid infrastructure to increasingly Supporting renewable energies like coal production is declining and nuclear power plants are being re-approved. Sustainable policies that recognize the scale of the task and role of nuclear, renewables and natural gas are important, she said, as is the importance of developing grid infrastructure and R&D to facilitate the transition. All of this takes time, she said.

“The conversation we’re having is the right one, and we don’t just focus on the size of the ‘what’ we’re achieving, but tie that to the time frame and cost implications, and we also need to maintain affordability and reliability important, “she said.” Bringing the stakeholders into the conversation – that’s part of developing the right solution. “

Researched and written by World Nuclear News

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