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More Options Necessary to Meet Electric Demands

By: Kenneth J. Reuter, Jr.

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.  This same notion also applies to the demand side of electricity as well.  For example, mandating EV’s by a certain date is also misguided.  Electric supply and demand must evolve and be driven by available and under-development technology. We also need to understand that our electric grid currently lacks the capability and stability to support a rapid, forced transition. Facts and science must shape our path forward to transition to our electric energy future. This article focuses on how best to address electric generation to support future US demand.

The US generates electricity from four sources distributed approximately as follows: Natural Gas (40%), Renewables (22%), Coal (20%) and Nuclear (18%) with coal as 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 US 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.   It is, however, abundant, and inexpensive.  China’s reliance on coal gives them a huge economic competitive advantage over the US.  As a result, China is also by far the world’s single largest polluter. 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 by a wide margin does.  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. If you   compare the cost of building a Combined-Cycle (CC) natural gas plant versus an Offshore Wind Farm, (OSW).  A 600 MW CC natural gas plant can be built for approximately $750 Million.  A 600MW Offshore Wind Farm costs in excess of $2 Billion and with much higher maintenance costs.  And remember, all these costs are built into the rate base which drives cents per KW at the meter.  The US 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.

In order to provide consistent base-load electric power to meet future demand we must also revisit nuclear! Nuclear power is clean, emits no pollutants and can run base-load full power for extended periods without the need for refueling.  Most operators elect to refuel every 18-24 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 MW 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:

  • Small – physically a fraction of the size of a conventional nuclear power reactor.
  • Modular – making it possible for systems and components to be factory-assembled and transported as a unit to a location for installation.
  • Reactors – harnessing nuclear fission to generate heat to produce energy.

Many of the benefits of SMRs are inherently linked to the nature of their design – small and modular. 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 US demand for electricity and strive to reach a Zero carbon emissions goal by 2050.

Kenneth J Reuter, Jr., has a BS In Economics and Business from the University of Delaware and  an MBA in International Finance from Northeastern University. He has worked for the past 40 years in the electric industry dealing with all methods of generation, transmission, and distribution. He has held positions as an engineer, Director, VP and CEO in global energy companies. He continues to consult globally through his business, Resilience Energy, LLC.