Energy Northwest is considering whether there is a need and regional interest for adding a small modular nuclear reactor system near the Tri-Cities.
Energy Northwest already operates the only commercial nuclear power reactor in the Northwest, Columbia Generating Station near Richland, in addition to small solar and hydroelectric projects and a wind farm.
The public agency currently generates the electricity for more than 1.5 million customers in Washington state.
Now it plans to spend up to $2 million to look at the feasibility of small modular reactors that might be added near its existing reactor.
The study will look at the electricity that will be needed in the Northwest in coming decades and where it will come from.
“We want to make sure that the utilities agree there is a need for this [and] that the politicians and the public believe this is something they want, because they care enough about the climate and carbon that they want this as a solution,” said Greg Cullen, Energy Northwest’s general manager of energy services and development.
They are just starting to talk with officials and the public about the possibility of adding small modular reactors near the Tri-Cities, he said.
Cullen emphasized to the Tri-City Herald that Energy Northwest is exploring all options to meet future electricity demand, and if its electric utility members want more wind turbines, for example, it would also be open to that.
Energy Northwest provides electricity at the cost of generation to 27 public power member utilities across the state.
The interest in a small modular reactor system comes as the Washington Legislature has passed the Clean Energy Transformation Act, which sets new clean energy standards that will build to 100 percent carbon-free electricity use in the state by 2045.
The intent is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Nuclear plant licensed through 2043
“That’s an ambitious and worthwhile goal, so we have to start planning today to ensure the people of Washington state have the right mix of energy sources tomorrow,” said Brad Sawatzke, Energy Northwest chief executive. “And it’s our job to make sure that mix is not only reliable, but affordable.”
The act aims to end electricity production from coal by 2025 and natural gas generation of electricity by 2045.
Both have the advantage, like nuclear, of being “firm,” or capable of being turned on or off as needed to meet changing demand, unlike renewable sources such as wind and solar, Cullen said.
Energy Northwest hired Energy + Environmental Economics, a San Francisco-based consulting group, to study the best ways to achieve deep reductions in carbon emissions in the Pacific Northwest while maintaining economical and reliable electricity generation.
Energy Northwest was particularly interested in what role nuclear could play, given its unique experience in commercial nuclear generation in the Northwest.
But the study also looked at other electricity-production resources that could meet demand as coal and natural gas production ramps down.
The study concluded that deep electric emission reductions in the Northwest were doable at reasonable costs, if enough on-demand capacity, including the Northwest’s existing nuclear plant, is available.
Energy Northwest has already publicly discussed the possibility of applying to extend the 1983 license of the Columbia Generating Station for a second time, with no decision made.
Its current extension will expire after 2043, just as the Clean Energy Transformation Act takes full effect.
Columbia Generating Station provides enough carbon-free power generation to rank as the state’s third-largest producer of electricity, according to Energy Northwest. It has a gross output of 1,207 megawatts, or enough energy to power a city the size of Seattle plus part of its metro area.
Some clean energy expensive
The study found that to replace the existing nuclear plant with a combination of wind generation and storage that would operate reliably would require a large number of wind turbines.
Because the wind does not blow reliably, 10 to 15 times the number of wind turbines would be needed than if the turbines could consistently operate at full capacity.
They would need to be built in multiple locations to have the best chance to catch wind blowing somewhere, Cullen said.
One of the issues with wind is that it typically peaks in Eastern Washington in the spring and fall, when demand for electricity for heating and cooling is lower.
Although batteries are being developed to store energy, they are not yet available to hold large amounts of energy for significant time periods at a reasonable cost.
Adding so many wind turbines, financed over time, would be expensive for electricity users, according to a study.
It found that operating Columbia Generating Station beyond 2043 to provide the same amount of on-demand electricity as wind and battery systems would cost $1.35 billion less a year, according to the study.
It also found that to ensure on-demand electricity needs without any gas or coal generation, small modular reactors should be part of the lowest-cost generation package in addition to continued operation of Columbia Generating Station.
Small modular reactors that could be operated on demand would not replace renewables, like wind, but could support them to provide the most economical, clean electricity production, Cullen said.
“It really facilitates a build-out of renewables, but at a reasonable cost,” he said, because fewer wind turbines would be needed if on-demand production is available to back them up during times when the weather is less windy but demand for electricity is high.
Small modular reactors are new
Small modular reactors are a new technology, with none yet operating.
NuScale Power of Oregon is expected to be the first company to have a system commissioned.
It has signed up the Utah Area Municipal Power System as a customer for its first plant, expected to be in Idaho.
Energy Northwest has the first right to operate the plant there, which could provide experience for operating a plant near Richland on leased land on the Hanford nuclear reservation.
The Idaho plant is projected to be ready to operate by 2024.
NuScale is proposing building small reactors at a factory and then shipping them to locations where they would be operated. The electricity produced would depend on the number of reactor modules, each capable of generating 60 megawatts of electricity.
A NuScale power plant could house up to 12 small modular reactors, for a total facility output of up to 720 megawatts, which would be more than half the output of the Columbia Generating Station.
The study commissioned by Energy Northwest concluded that if all electricity supplied to customers in Washington state must be carbon free, small modular reactor generation would cost $8 billion per year less than generating electricity through what Energy Northwest called “a large overbuild of renewables.”
“Completing this study is simply the first step in a much larger decision-making process,” Sawatzke said. “Any decision to invest in new resources will take time, and will only be done in the best interest of our member utilities, the people of Washington and, of course, the environment.”