The 'energy gap' nobody wants to tussle with


Many Western states have declared they will achieve all-renewable electrical goals in just two decades. Call me naïve, but haven’t energy experts predicted that wind, sun and other alternative energy sources aren’t up to the job?

Alice Jackson, the former CEO of Xcel energy’s Colorado operation, was blunt at a renewable energy conference in February 2020: “We can reliably run our grid with up to 70% renewables. Add batteries to the mix and that number goes up to just 72%.”

Grid experts now say that Jackson’s number is 80%, but still, how will that utility and others produce that missing power?

Bill Gates and a raft of other entrepreneurs see the answer in small, modular nuclear reactors, pointing to the small nuclear engines that have safely run America’s nuclear submarines for decades.

Here’s what we know about these efficient reactors: They’re built in factories, and once in operation, they’re cheap to keep going. Each module is typically 50 megawatts, self-contained, and installed underground after being transported to its site. The modular design means that when more power is needed, another reactor can be slotted in.

Breakthrough features include safety valves that automatically send coolant to the reactor if heat spikes. This feature alone could have eliminated disasters like Fukushima or Chernobyl, where water pumps failed and cores started melting down.

If small nuclear modules don’t fill the renewables gap, where else to find the “firm power” that Jackson says is needed? The Sierra Club calls on pumped hydro and geothermal as sources of reliable electricity you can just flip on when renewables slow down. But the best geothermal spots have been taken, and pumped hydro has geographic limits, and environmental resistance.

Another proposal is linking grids across the country for more efficiency. The idea is that excess wind blowing in Texas could be tapped after the sun goes down on California’s solar farms. This holds incremental promise but progress has been routinely blocked by conservative lawmakers.

There’s also the cost argument — that renewables are cheaper. In a fossil-fuel-dominated grid that’s true. However, MIT points out that as renewables dominate the grid, on-demand forms of power rise in value.

The extreme danger to the grid is the dreaded “dunkelflaute,” a German word for cloudy, windless weather that slashes solar and wind power generation for weeks.

So the problem remains: To avoid rolling blackouts, we need reliable power at the right times, which are usually from 5-8 p.m. That’s when people come home and fire up their gadgets and appliances.

The increasing demand for electricity only adds to the problem: A 2020 Washington Post article predicted that electrification of the economy by 2050 would result in a usage bump of 38%, mostly from vehicles. Consider Ford’s all-electric F150 Lightning, cousin to the bestselling gasoline F150. The $39,000 entry-level truck was designed to replace gasoline generators at job sites, meaning vehicle recharge happens when workers go home, just as renewables flag.

This calls into question what many experts hope car batteries can provide — doing double duty by furnishing peak power for homes at night.

Longer-lasting storage batteries have long been touted as a savior, though Tara Righetti, co-director of the Nuclear Energy Research Center at the University of Wyoming, has reservations. “There are high hopes that better batteries will be developed. But in terms of what is technically accessible right now? I think nuclear provides an appealing option.”

Meanwhile, small nuclear reactors are underway, with Bill Gates’ TerraPower building a sodium-cooled fast reactor in the coal town of Kemmerer, Wyoming. One 345-megawatt reactor, which generates enough electricity for 400,000 homes, will be paired with a molten-salt, heat storage facility.

Think of it as a constantly recharging battery in the form of stored heat. In the evening as renewable power flags, it would pump out 500 megawatts of power for up to 5 hours.

These reactors also tackle the little-known problem of cold-starting the electrical grid after an outage. In 2003, suffering a blackout, the Eastern grid could not have restarted with renewables alone.

However we choose to close the energy gap, there’s no time to lose. Wild temperature swings have grid operators increasingly nervous. California has come close to rolling blackouts, and temperatures in the West now break record after record.

As our climate becomes more erratic, reliable electricity is becoming a matter of life and death.

Dave Marston is the publisher of Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit news organization dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He lives in Colorado.


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  • jimlazar

    There are so many errors in this post that it is difficult to know where to start.

    I do not rule out the prospect that small modular nuclear units will become feasible, but they do not exist today, and it will be more than a decade before any are expected to be operational. The estimated cost is more that twice the cost of solar, wind, and batteries to deliver the same level of power supply and system reliability.

    Bill Gates' firm, Terrapower, is indeed actively pursuing a Wyoming site, but they are nowhere close to "building" a unit there. Their design has not even been submitted for approval to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. A different company, NuScale, is closer to starting construction at an Idaho site, but their costs have soared, and many of the utilities expected to buy the power are reconsidering.

    Nuclear power has something in common with wind and solar: much of the power is produced at times when it is not needed. For this reason, utilities across the country have built big "pumped hydro" facilities to take power from nuclear plants during nights and weekends, when power demand is lower, and store it for use in early morning and late afternoon hours, when power is needed. The same kinds of storage "batteries" can be used for storing power from wind and solar, which is MUCH cheaper than new nuclear plant power.

    The base model F-150 Lightning DOES NOT include the jobsite power supply functions; that is in the much more expensive versions of the truck. And Ford has increased the base price for the Lightning from $39,000 up to $55,974. And good luck finding one of those: the cheapest F150 Lightning listed in Western Washington on cars.com is $73,109, up in Bellingham.

    The Pacific Northwest is in the best position of any part of the US to adapt to a 100% renewable energy power supply. We have the largest "batteries" in the US, in the form of Grand Coulee Dam and other hydro reservoirs. When the sun is shining, we can use solar power; when the wind is blowing, we can use wind power. When neither is available, which is only a small percent of the time, we can rely on power from the hydro system storage reservoirs.

    Yes, small modular nuclear may have a place in the future energy choir. But it will not be a big part of the solution, and it will definitely be very expensive. Best to start with cheap energy efficiency measures, cheap wind, cheap solar, and careful use of the existing hydro system reservoirs.

    Tuesday, January 3 Report this

  • psterry

    To think we will rely on wind and solar for our power generation is a pipedream. They are too inefficient in terms of energy output per square foot of land or sea. Countries which rely on 'green energy' pay a lot more than Americans do or are willing to pay for energy. The future lies in innovation and most probably will include nuclear energy. We should not dismiss any innovation that has promise. We should keep an open mind and understand the economics of energy output. Otherwise, we will relegate ourselves back to rather more primitive conditions.

    Wednesday, January 4 Report this

  • Southsoundguy

    Renewable energy as the basis for our grid, as a concept, is a self-licking ice cream cone. We need to produce power, not restructure reality such a that all we are doing is trying to capture more and more energy, just to turn around and expend it on trying to capture even more. Just build nukes. The only reason prices sky rocket on those things is because of regulation. The technical aspects have been studied for decades.

    Wednesday, January 4 Report this

  • H_Wheatley

    Marston sure doesn't make a case for building more nukes in the northwest where there is ample hydropower.

    Where does the nuclear waste from a Small Modular Reactor go? It seems that the answer is that it stays on site. That's the key to profitability -- offloading the cost of cleanup onto the public and future generations, like always. Those who tout the safety of SMRs don't talk about the waste, which ultimately includes the reactors themselves.

    The most likely builder here would be NuScale, not TerraPower. NuScale SMRs still use water for coolant.

    Thursday, January 5 Report this