Finding the right balance to an electricity mix is essential for power planners.

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Washington state is blessed with abundant hydroelectric resources, providing carbon-free electricity that is clean, reliable and cost-effective. Hydroelectricity is almost synonymous with the Pacific Northwest, a reputation gained over the 75 years since the Grand Coulee Dam first began generating power for the region. Currently, Washington state gets nearly 70 percent of its electricity from hydro.

So when Washington state residents were recently polled on what they believe to be America’s largest source of carbon-free electricity, the results were no great surprise. (You can make an unofficial guess below!)

The answer for 30 percent of poll respondents was hydro followed by solar (24 percent) and wind (19 percent).

A full 84 percent guessed wrong.

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The correct answer, of course, is nuclear energy, which provides about 60 percent of the carbon-free electricity in the U.S. Nuclear electricity from Columbia Generating Station near Richland, Washington provides just over 10 percent of the state’s clean energy. In the survey, only 7 percent of Washington residents picked nuclear, the same percentage that chose natural gas, a greenhouse gas emitter. Four percent said coal, which emits more carbon than even natural gas.

“As we all work to transform our electricity sector to low-carbon options, it’s important for people to know where that low-carbon electricity comes from,” says Mark Reddemann, Energy Northwest CEO. “In the U.S., and the Northwest, we can’t reach our climate goals without nuclear energy in the mix.”

One reason for that is nuclear energy overperforms. Although the nation’s 99 nuclear energy plants make up about 9 percent of U.S. electricity generating capacity, they produce about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity. States such as Illinois, New Jersey and Connecticut derive nearly all of their carbon-free electricity from nuclear energy.

Nuclear energy facilities are designed to run at 100 percent power all the time. Columbia Generating Station, for instance, has operated at a 93 percent capacity factor over the past five years (ratio of actual generation to the maximum possible output). In July, the 1,207 megawatt Columbia plant produced 6 percent more electricity than all the wind and solar resources in Washington state, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, while operating at a 103.1 percent capacity factor.

That power became critical as summer temperatures rose across the Northwest earlier this year, and the wind stopped blowing, causing thousands of megawatts of wind power to disappear from the grid for days. The incident made clear that a diverse mix of generating resources is vital to ensure electricity is there when people need it.

The German experiment

Germany has been finding that out the hard way. After vowing to reduce its nuclear energy use following Japan’s Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011, Germany has spent billions of dollars to build up its renewable portfolio, primarily wind and solar. But because both resources are intermittent, Germany has come to rely on coal to make sure its homes and businesses have the electricity they need when they need it. In a new report recently released at the COP23 climate meeting in Bonn, Energy for Humanity found “Germany is not decarbonizing as fast as other large emitters. Furthermore, by exporting electricity generated by fossil fuels, Germany is significantly increasing the CO2-intensity of neighboring countries’ electricity consumption.”

Meanwhile, Japan is working hard to restart its nuclear fleet and currently has five operating reactors with more expected to start producing power in the years ahead.

Closer to home

California has been perceived as a leader in decarbonizing its electricity sector, adding gigawatts of solar generation as well as wind power. But the loss of San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in 2013 saw the state’s carbon emissions rise in 2014. The closing of San Onofre removed 8 percent of non-carbon-emitting generation from the California in-state supply portfolio and caused a 30 percent increase in the carbon intensity of in-state generation.

2015 was lower in overall carbon output, but still above 2002 levels. While California sources 26 percent of its power from non-hydro renewables (primarily wind and solar), nearly half its power (and sometimes more) now comes from natural gas. Which is one reason, when compared to Washington state, California’s carbon-intensity from generation is more than double, according to IHS Markit and other expert energy sources, and the price of electricity is nearly double what residents pay in Washington.

A solution to the global warming problem requires reducing the absolute level of CO2 emissions. Therefore, California did not contribute toward a global warming solution from 2002 to 2015. Instead, although California generated a slightly lower share of its overall electric supply in 2015 versus 2002, CO2 emissions from in-state generation did not decline and remained around 50 million metric tons per year.

Balance is key

Finding the right balance to an electricity mix is essential for power planners and will be even more important going forward. Zerocarbon resources, particularly those also offering high reliability, have a high value in meeting electricity demand while also protecting the environment. For the Northwest, that means hydro resources and nuclear energy serve as the anchors to a lowcost, zerocarbon and reliable energy future.

Energy Northwest develops, owns and operates a diverse mix of electricity generating resources, including hydro, solar and wind projects – and the Northwest’s only nuclear energy facility. These projects provide enough reliable, affordable and carbon-free energy to power more than a million homes.