Clark County’s electricity provider has put its support into a study to look at how new nuclear power technology could benefit it and the region as the state transitions away from greenhouse gas-emitting fuels.
The Clark Public Utilities Board of Commissioners voted unanimously on an agreement to commit $200,000 toward a study of small modular reactor nuclear power generation. The study is being coordinated by Energy Northwest, a joint agency of 28 public utility districts and municipalities in Washington, including CPU.
Energy Northwest is primarily known for the Columbia Generating Station in Richland, Energy Northest CEO Bob Schuetz said at the meeting. The power plant is the Pacific Northwest’s only commercial nuclear energy facility. CPU currently gets about 6% of its total electricity from the plant, according to the utility’s website.
The study comes as the region is expecting a need to seek more sources of power generation. The Pacific Northwest Utility Conference Committee recently released a report showing an 8 gigawatt energy capacity shortfall in the next 10 years, Schuetz said.
For the past two years, Energy Northwest has been investigating new nuclear energy generation in Washington, Schuetz said. Now, the joint agency has done as much as it can do internally and needs to expand its work into looking at new nuclear power, he said.
“We need to get down to the brass tacks,” Schuetz said.
The study will look at risks and mitigation, developing a cost modeling tool and identifying funding, Jared Knode, an energy and professional services manager with Energy Northwest said.
Number one among considerations for the projects is the avoidance of a bond default, Knode said. He acknowledged the history Energy Northwest has, as the agency defaulted on $2.25 billion in municipal bonds in 1983.
“That’s really what the starting point (is) for us, is how do we create a pathway for a project that is not reliant on municipal bond financing, at least for the bulk of the project,” Knode said.
The study also has a goal to align with a successful clean energy transition by 2030 in accordance with the state Clean Energy Transformation Act, he said.
“That’s where the sense of urgency around continuing to keep this project moving is really based in,” Knode said.
Knode believes looking into more nuclear power in Washington is a necessary step to address the change in what sources the state can use. Although the state is investing in renewable sources like wind and solar, load carrying capacity is a concern.
He said the effective load carrying capability of wind power is 7% and it’s 12% for solar.
“That does not mean those are bad resources. It just means we need to have a system that’s flexible enough … that we can rely on when those (sources) are not available,” Knode said.
If the study began later this year, Schuetz believes a nuclear project could be delivered by 2030. He noted delays could lead to a longer postponement as other agencies make their own moves.
“If we wait a year or two to make this decision, we may find ourselves at the end of a 10-year line,” Schuetz said.
The first-choice site for the project is near Richland and has already been licensed for a reactor, Schuetz said. The design Energy Northwest is eyeing was selected in part due to its scalability. Initial buildout could be 320 megawatts, but the project could approach 1,000 megawatts if expanded, he said.
The consideration brought out several members of the public, most of whom opposed the expansion of nuclear power. Among concerns of the safety and storage of waste from the site, several who testified questioned if the investment for the study was worth it given the alternatives.
Committing CPU funds to the study was unwise as it might not yield results, Don Steinke said.
“Money spent on this is money that can’t be spent on a sure thing” like a solar project, Steinke said.
He pointed to existing direction on energy sources from the Northwest Power and Conservation Council’s most recent five-year plan as an alternative to the study.
“They may recommend nuclear in the future, but for now they say conservation and renewables are the best way to go,” Steinke said.
Cathryn Chudy felt it was too soon to make a commitment given a number of unknowns.
“This still feels rushed, on the economics, unspecified timeline, lack of clear guarantee for Clark (Public Utilities) ratepayer benefit, and the opportunity cost for investment in other available resources,” Chudy said.
Commissioner Nancy Barnes said joining the study is a necessity given the future energy needs of CPU.
“I am a believer that we cannot reach the aggressive mandates that have been set by the state of Washington without a clean baseload source of power,” Barnes said.
She took issue with characterizing the small modular reactors as similar to the types of plants that led to catastrophe in Chernobyl and Fukushima.
“This is an investment in studying a new technology that would be better than the nuclear energy that most of us have learned about over years and years,” Barnes said.
Both Barnes and commissioner Jane Van Dyke noted CPU will still pursue other forms of clean energy.
“But it is important to realize that no matter how much solar and wind we build, we don’t have a 24-7 resource from those resources,” Van Dyke said.