If nuclear is not in the future US energy mix, what will replace it?
The decision to not go forward with the V.C. Summer nuclear plant because of cost overruns and construction delays shows the 1960s dream of “too cheap to meter” nuclear-generated electricity is more like a financial nightmare today.
Policy specialists say significant new nuclear generation is unlikely for a decade or more. Many also agree existing nuclear plants should not be replaced by natural gas plants. They split, though, on crucial questions about nuclear power’s future, such as whether existing plants should get subsidies like zero emission credits or be replaced, when they should be replaced, and what they should be replaced with.
A report from Mark Cooper, senior research fellow at the Vermont Law School Energy and Environment Institute, was part of the proceeding that led to the decision by SCANA Corp and Santee Cooper in South Carolina to stop work on the Summer facility.
“Summer was 100% excess capacity for those utilities,” he told Utility Dive in an interview. “If they need new generation, the best approach is buying the smallest increments at the lowest price, and that’s efficiency, wind, and solar. The capital cost of renewables is between 12% and 25% of what Summer was costing.”
The Summer decision bolstered the economic argument against nuclear. Newer to the debate is the controversial question of nuclear’s role in the climate fight.
The MIT Energy Institute’s Jesse Jenkins, co-author of a recent review of research on deep decarbonization in the power sector, said nuclear is too important a source of emissions-free electricity to abandon.
“Using renewables to replace nuclear represents an opportunity cost because we are not using those emissions-free MWh to replace fossil fuels,” he argued. “We have very little time to waste and, at best, replacing nuclear with renewables is running in place.”
Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies (CEERT) Executive Director V. John White said neither national policy nor ideology should determine nuclear’s future. “It is a regional question.”
But the aging U.S. nuclear fleet is an increasing safety risk and “it is not prudent to keep reactors in service just because we aren’t sure how to replace them,” White said. “It is a plant by plant decision and a matter of economics, public safety and available resources.”
Utilities and the need for nuclear
Cooper said Summer’s fate foreshadows the future of the only remaining U.S. nuclear project under construction, Georgia Power’s 2,430 MW Vogtle facility. It is now seven years behind schedule and projected to cost at least twice its original estimate.
“Our schedule, cost-to-complete, and cancellation assessments for the Vogtle expansion remain underway,” Georgia Power spokesperson John Kraft reported. “We expect to complete them and file with the Georgia Public Service Commission by the end of the month.”
That will begin a consultation process with regulators “to determine the best path for customers,” Kraft added.
Arizona Public Service (APS) has no plans to replace its 3,942 MW Palo Verde facility, said spokesperson James McDonald. The 2017 APS Integrated Resource Plan reports continued operation of Palo Verde “will anchor APS’s energy mix.”
Florida Power and Light (FPL) has two nuclear plants and NextEra Energy, its parent company, has three others. FPL continues to pursue licenses and approvals for two new nuclear units, said spokesperson Peter Robbins. “But that is all we are doing.”
FPL “recognizes that building nuclear is extremely complex with a lengthy construction period,” Robbins said. “The Summer decision had no impact on our efforts but we are watching it and the Vogtle project closely and seeing valuable lessons.”
Market forces have changed for nuclear but “the economics are only one piece,” Robbins said. “They are emissions-free, reliable power with stable fuel costs and they have been helping keep customer bills low for decades.”
There have been closures or planned closures of 14 reactors at 11 plants since 2012. Dominion Energy’s 556-MW Kewaunee plant was the first.
Dominion “was not able to acquire additional nuclear units in the region that would have lowered operating costs through economies of scale,” said nuclear fleet communications manager Richard Zuercher.
Dominion shuttered the facility after the Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator concluded the remaining resource mix would sustain reliability.
Duke Energy took the 860 MW Crystal River nuclear facility offline in 2009 for maintenance and found it unsafe to restart.
“We need approximately 2,200 megawatts of generation by 2018,” Duke Energy spokesperson Heather Danenhower emailed Utility Dive. The utility decided the $1.5 billion 1,640-megawatt “highly efficient” combined-cycle natural gas plant is its most cost-effective replacement option,” Danenhower said. The utility expects to have the entire capacity online by the end of 2018.
Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) shuttered its 476 MW Fort Calhoun facility at the end of 2016. The utility needs to replace only “about 40%” of its capacity, according to spokesperson Jodi M. Baker. OPPD is “acquiring replacement energy from incremental wind generation” and will supplement that through the Southwest Power Pool electricity market.
Subsidies for nuclear, renewables
MIT’s Jenkins said the “economic headwinds” that ended the Summer project and forced other closures threaten “a substantial fraction of the U.S. nuclear fleet, “which accounts for only 19% of our electricity but over 60% of our low carbon electricity.”
Jenkins supports the current renewables expansion but suggested a thought exercise. If the 6% to 7% of U.S. electricity now coming from wind was tripled, it could replace the entire nuclear fleet. “But that would mean that all of the wind capacity built to date was used to produce exactly zero reductions in emissions,” he said. “That puts it in pretty stark terms.”
Public policy is needed to change this, Jenkins said. States like Illinois and New York recognize the importance of existing nuclear plants by offering zero emission credits (ZECs) to subsidize nuclear, just as renewable energy credits (RECs) support renewables.
“For most nuclear plants, that is cheaper per MWh than subsidizing renewables to replace them,” Jenkins said, citing New York’s $17/MWh ZEC price versus its $25/MWh to $35/MWh REC prices.
The use of ZECs as a subsidy was only recently initiated in New York and Illinois. It may not be a workable solution where there is political opposition to subsidies.