The “energy gap” nobody wants to tussle with

By Dave Marston

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, 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 dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He lives in Colorado.

Clouds over a windmill farm near Oakley, Kansas

This column was published in the following newspapers:

01/02/2023 Vail Daily Vail CO
01/02/2023 Canyon Echo Bluff UT
01/03/2023 Summit Daily frisco co
01/03/2023 Explore Big Sky Big Sky MT
01/03/2023 Carlsbad Current-Argus Carsbad NM
01/03/2023 Whitehall Ledger Whitehall MT
01/03/2023 Yahoo sunnyvale ca
01/03/2023 Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake City UT
01/03/2023 Four Points Press Garryowen MT
01/04/2023 Jackson Hole News & Guide Jackson Hole WY
01/04/2023 Denver Post Denver CO
01/04/2023 Jolt olympia WA
01/04/2023 Craig Daily Press Craig co
01/04/2023 Montana Standard Butte MT
01/04/2023 Forest Grove News Times Forest Grove OR
01/04/2023 Tigard Times Tigard OR
01/04/2023 Columbia County Spotlight Scappose OR
01/04/2023 Beaverton Valley Times Beaverton OR
01/04/2023 Sherwood Gazette Portland OR
01/04/2023 Montrose Daily Press Montrose CO
01/04/2023 Newport Miner Newport WA
01/04/2023 Pagosa Springs Sun Pagosa Springs CO
01/04/2023 Delta County Independent Delta CO
01/04/2023 Rio Blanco Herald Times Meeker CO
01/04/2023 Wyofile WY
01/05/2023 Wyoming Tribune Eagle Cheyenne WY
01/05/2023 Helena Independent Record Helena MT
01/05/2023 Grand Junction Daily Sentinel Grand Junction CO
01/05/2023 Taos News Taos NM
01/05/2023 Moab Times Independent Moab UT
01/05/2023 Glenwood Post Independent Glenwood Springs CO
01/05/2023 Aspen Daily News Aspen CO
01/04/2023 south dakota searchlight Pierre SD
01/05/2023 Aspen Times Aspen CO
01/06/2023 Boulder Daily Camera Boulder CO
01/06/2023 Longmont Times Call Longmont CO
01/05/2023 Greeley Tribune Greeley CO
01/06/2023 Coyote Gulch Denver CO
01/06/2023 Missoulian Missoula Montana
01/05/2023 MSN.COM Seattle WA
01/06/2023 Bozeman daily chronicle Bozeman MT
01/06/2023 Mountain Journal Bozeman MT
01/06/2023 Herald-Journal Logan UT
01/05/2023 Kingman Daily Miner Kingman AZ
01/06/2023 Casper Star Tribune Casper WY
01/08/2023 Albuquerque Journal Alburquerque NM
01/05/2023 Camus-Washougal Post Record Camus WA
01/08/2023 Las Vegas Sun Las Vegas NV
01/03/2023 Lake Powell Chronicle Page AZ
01/08/2023 Billings Gazette Billings MT
01/09/2023 Daily Interlake Kalispell MT
01/07/2023 East Oregonian News Pendleton OR
01/07/2023 Idaho Mountain Express Ketchum ID
01/10/2023 Bandon Western World Bandon OR
01/10/2023 Quay County Sun tucumcari NM
01/03/2023 Park Record Park City UT
01/09/2023 Twin Falls Times News Twin Falls ID
01/10/2023 Eastern New Mexico News Clovis NM
01/10/2023 Del Norte Triplicate Crescent City CA
01/10/2023 Lewiston News-Argus Lewiston MT
01/11/2023 Steamboat Pilot Steamboat Springs CO
01/12/2023 Boulder Weekly Boulder CO
01/13/2023 Roswell Daily Record Roswell NM
01/11/2023 capital Journal Pierre SD
01/14/2023 Wenatchee World Wenatchee WA
01/11/2023 Wallowa County Chieftain Enterprise OR
01/19/2023 Judith Basin Press Judith Basin County MT
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Bruce Connery
1 month ago

Dave-Betsy-Readers,
A good reminder that we, meaning all of us that use electricity, need to be thinking about as we use electricity, push for smart energy use-development in our state, county, city, and elect representatives. It is the elephant in our work, our homes, our transportation, and our hope for healthy lives for all.

And nuclear, what ever size, is definitely one of several energies to consider as we seek answers to the future. But as with many energies, everything from extraction-transportation of raw materials to the management of waste for spent raw energy and manufacturing needs to be part of the thinking and discussion. The now devastated places were raw materials were extracted are not only eyesores, but hazards to the health of people living around and downwind-stream of such sites. Pits-ponds of highly toxic slurry are not Okay, they are lethally threatening zones of death that get to close. Storage of nuclear waste, meaning their constant management for years after their energy production use, should loom large in the thinking and social-economic discussions. And not after the energy was produced, but early in thinking and planning of each energy project. Untold millions of taxpayer dollars will be spent to seal, plug, encase defunct oil and natural gas wells in states across the west that developers walked away from when the operation was no longer financially or operationally feasible. It is unlikely that we want zoned off nuclear hazard waste sites to join the oil, coal, natural gas waste sites across our landscapes.

Nuclear presents a possible addition to our electric energy deliberations for the future, but unlike the early energy production where the waste sites, from extraction to waste piles or pits, needs to be one of the important factors in the process of deciding what, how, where to develop our electric, or all energy, future.

Keep reminding us, as we need to be present now if we want a better energy future. Thanks Dave and Betsy!

Jjosep
30 days ago

Nuclear plants have been weaponized. It is the potential energy, stored as radioactivity, creating the threat to society near and wide. Solar wind and storage (pumped hydro, gravity, spinning, chemical) will prove to be the safest lowest cost. Not something with a half life more than five generations.

Jeff Neuman-Lee
30 days ago

Getting to 80% with renewables would be a terrific victory, electrifying everything using (less than due to electrics greater efficiency) 20% fossil would push the needle. We are not ramping up nukes at scale. Gate’s project in WY may or may not work out, it’s a demonstration. But there is still time if we do scale up renewable wind, solar, and batteries asap.

Ken Davis
29 days ago

As a retired utility employee of a joint utility (gas and electric and generation) I find your article well written and factual.

two observations:
1). If the intent of electrification is to replace natural gas heating, I think the 38% increase in electricity usage is too low. Take annual natural gas therms for heating and convert to kWh.
2). Has anyone discussed locating the modular reactors at existing coal fired plant sites to make use of the existing substations and transmission lines.

Those of us connected to the utility business find the green stories on replacing existing generation and gas heating with solar and wind to be long on wishful thinking and short on actual understanding of the industry.

Winter weather and vandals batter Western power grid - Energy News Network
29 days ago

[…] advanced nuclear reactors — in addition to solar and wind power and storage — will be necessary to meet rising power demand. (Writers on the Range)More from the Energy News Network: Midwest | Southeast | Northeast | […]

Fred Porter
29 days ago

The Mountain West should look to Australia. They are proceeding sensibly towards a 85-90+ renewable electricity system, and are already there during extended periods in some states. But the dialog in this country from the beltway to the boonies has been hijacked by critics of “green energy,” in particular nuclear promotors.
First, there is no need for baseload generation and “spinning reserve” anymore. The Aussies are using batteries, pumped hydro, “synchronous condensers” and “grid-forming inverters” to “go engines off.” This has been proven at large remote mini-grids in the outback and on islands too.
Nuclear is good baseload power but does not play nice with high fractions of renewables because it can’t be cycled on and off easily, or economically. Energy storage is improving faster than nuclear. A $500 million factory for long-duration iron-air batteries was just announced in West Virginia. A company is Boulder is building a prototype iron “smelter” there which will be able to use intermittent electricity w/o coal to make a form of pig iron. Is any intermountain state trying to get any of these types of facilities.
And remember nuclear powered generators are thermal generators, they need cooling, and all the plans I’ve seen involve evaporating Colorado River Basin water for this. Hybrid cooling is possible, adding yet more expense.
I’ve been up close and personal with large wind farms and solar farms, and find most criticisms of them unfounded or solved by modern designs. They are farms; they harvest the sun and the resulting wind. They are barely “industrial” to me, compared to most other industrial facilities I’ve been around. The west has plenty of room for these to provide all our future electricity. Modular nuclear reactors might be a good fit for crowded, wet Connecticut, but not the Mountain West.

Roger Caiazza
29 days ago

The article claims that renewables are cheaper but that is only for power capacity (MW). To keep the electric grid running you need electrical energy (MWh). Solar is arguably cheaper per MW than a combustion turbine. Let’s say 100MW of solar costs half as much as a combustion turbine. However, the capacity factor of solar (actual energy produced divided by the maximum it could produce) is on the order of 20% whereas a combustion turbine can have a capacity factor of 80%. That means you need four times as solar capacity to produce the same amount of energy as a combustion turbine which means that for the same amount of energy the cost is twice as much just for the capacity. That does not include the storage necessary so that the energy is available at night. That does not consider the expected lifetime of solar is on the order of half the lifetime of a combustion turbine. But wait there’s more, if the goal is an all renewable system that the inverter based wind and solar resources have to be supplemented by ancillary services to keep the transmission system working. Renewables are not cheaper.

The “energy gap” nobody wants to tussle with - Writers on the Range - Coyote Gulch
27 days ago

[…] the link to read the article on the Writers on the Range website (David […]

Dr. paul bauman
27 days ago

Dave, your article on advanced nuclear is excellent! I work with a private foundation to accelerate clean energy. Advanced nuclear is at a crossroads. Public opposition is quickly declining. We have other related policy challenges. Could we set a call to discuss your interest, sources, and feedback you are receiving?

Fredrik
27 days ago

Good article. Given current technology, nuclear is really the most valid option capable of accelerating “clean” (i.e. not petro/coal) energy goals. Wind and solar are neat but erratic……while pumped hydro in the high, dry & cold of the mountain west is just foolish and often the product of a concept shyster with a charismatic sell pitch to investors seeking to earn a salary on a long-term project that is unlikely to ever be built. Here’s a fun question: what does the solar&wind system look like that is capable of keeping a standard 3-4 bedroom home in Phoenix AZ cool in summer or alternately, a standard 3-4 bedroom home in Jackson, WY warm in winter? When I ask wind&solar proponents this question they usually deflect immediately to topics like the need for increased urban density (sure, i’ll trade quality of life for your climate fabulism), population controls and future technology that will make it possible and in the meantime, we should all move out of the mountains and forests and into the city. Really, it should be simple: what would the solar and wind system to keep a 3000sf home in Jackson Hole warm in the winter look like/cost?

eric johnson
26 days ago

Well, I did take a look at Australia, right here: https://www.energy.gov.au/data/renewables. As of 2020-2021 renewables accounted for just 8% of Australia’s energy consumption. Of that 8%, wind and solar were less than half, meaning they were less then 4% of energy consumption. They account for a greater percentage of electricity generation true, but I believe that carbon emissions are more proportional to net energy consumption.

Meaning a ways to go. But one has to ask, how important is Australia,emitting just about 1% of the worlds carbon?

Because unless China and rest of the developing world, busy building more coal power plants, do not follow Australia’s lead, then the answer is not important at all.

And will probably not follow Colorado’s lead either.

That being said, we must explore all options, including nuclear power, because a true global solution, something that will replace the coal power plants in poor countries will have to be cost-effective, safe and reliable. Energy solutions for first world countries are probably economically or politically untainable for China and developing countries, and that is where most of the future emissions are coming from. They are going to increase their energy consumption, and who are we to say they cannot? Or that they must delay?

Ruling out nuclear power, while so much is still unknown, seems to be extremely short-sighted. Let our scientist and engineers work in this area, give them the funding they require to succeed. Don’t subsidize just part of the potential solution.

Like anything else, there are tradeoffs.

David Bowers
25 days ago

Great article on the continued struggle between the environment and the energy we will require. However, the one element that you missed in your discussion is hydrogen. I highly recommend reading “The Hydrogen Revolution” by Marco Alvera, where he describes how H2 will allow renewables to move closer to 100% of our energy sources. H2 is the most prevalent molecule in the world and it is easily separated from water via electrolysis and then stored for future use, similar to a battery. While the efficiency in creating and utilizing H2 is not as high as batteries, our environment and lack of lithium will offset the need for more renewable energy resources to power the H2 world. H2 semi-trucks are much lighter than battery-powered trucks and they will replace diesel due to environmental concerns. H2 trains, ships, and airplanes will be other major users along with power backup systems and material moving systems, which are already in use by Amazon, Walmart, Home Depot, and several other major companies. The federal government recognizes the future the H2 brings and they are already supporting its expanded use through the Inflation Reduction Act, which pays both the manufacturers and users of H2 generous tax incentives. Plug Power, an early pioneer in H2, is a good company to research to show the explosive growth in this energy storage solution.

Cass
19 days ago

Rocky Mountain Institute has the most up-to-date, reliable energy information going, although! RMI is plainly on the side of human survival and probably will be the last to turn to SMRs. Bloomberg News is similarly forward-looking, and publicized this: https://www.powermag.com/press-releases/advanced-modeling-tool-demonstrates-cost-effective-24-7-renewable-power-strategy/

But then I am biased, because I live whistling distance to the nuclear fuel from the failed Trojan plant, and my town draws its drinking water at the mighty Columbia, downstream from Hanford, CGS, and INL.

David
14 days ago

Although you make very good points about baseload power generation for cloudy periods, and for evening power usage spikes, I think you’re giving short shrift to the possibilities of Vehicle-to-Grid (V2G) from PV panels both on the home and at work. EVs are going to take over in the coming decade (despite what fossil fuel proponents say), and a smarter grid, allowing for V2G (as well as other innovations), combined with “Megapack” type utility scale batteries storing up power during peak-renewables output will augment the natural growth of our energy grid. EVs are actually in use perhaps 5% of the time; the rest of the time, they are sitting … mostly in the sun. Solar parking canopies will charge them as they sit, and also keep them cool on sunny days. Some EV manufactureres are even installing PV on the skin of the cars, allowing for trickle charging. When the driver gets home, they then have upwards of 100kWh of energy to use … more than enough to run the house for several days.

Yes, it may make sense to have some reactors for baseload power; if safety and HUGE cost concerns can be overcome, But wouldn’t it be cheaper and safer to have home-based solar roofs (such as with GAF or Tesla style solar shingles)? As my old asphalt shingles continue to decay in the hot sun of Western Colorado, I’m saving up for the day when I can replace them with power producing shingles that have the same warranty as regular shingles. Decentralized power will increase security, and lower strain on the electrical grids.

All that’s missing is the willpower to make it happen; along with corporations that make money off of our dependence on fossil fuels.

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