Thursday, June 11, 2009

Toward a Low-Emission Electricity Standard

McDermott International, Inc. announced yesterday that its Babcock & Wilcox subsidiary will begin marketing a 125 MW small-scale nuclear power plant design. Their press release also indicated that the company has a letter of intent from the Tennessee Valley Authority and a group of municipal utilities to use this technology. This development looks particularly interesting in the context of the debate over the proposed national Renewable Electricity Standard (RES) in the Waxman-Markey Bill, along with another version of an RES in a new bill from the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee. However, if we really want to address climate change on a meaningful scale, then both bills should focus not on renewable electricity but on low-emission electricity.

When I looked at the proposed RES a month ago, I was frustrated by its narrow list of included technologies, and in particular by the way it excluded our largest current renewable electricity source, existing hydropower installations. Nuclear power wasn't even mentioned. Since that posting, the RES target in Waxman-Markey was revised downward, and nuclear power has apparently been included in an odd, backhand way. If I understand it correctly, an electricity supplier’s “base amount” on which the RES would apply would shrink as it brought on new nuclear capacity. While that might alleviate a small part of the financial burden of investing up to $10 billion in a new nuclear power plant by requiring the generating company to build somewhat less renewable capacity, in order to comply with its RES target, this seems a paltry incentive for our largest low-emission energy source by far—a status nuclear seems likely to enjoy for many more years.

So how would small reactors fit into this equation? Mainly by reducing the sheer scale of investment required to bring new nuclear capacity online, and presumably by making nuclear project timelines more manageable by replacing much of the time-consuming onsite construction activity with more efficient offsite manufacturing. So even under Waxman-Markey, a utility would benefit from small nuclear that arrived in increments every year or two, instead of having to wait a decade or more for a new large-scale plant to be approved, funded and built—all the while having to add a larger quantity of wind, solar or other “qualified” renewable power.

Of course, if the Congress saw fit to reconfigure the RES as a low-emission standard, or LES, including all low-greenhouse-gas technologies on an even playing field, a small nuclear reactor might look especially attractive. Assuming that the 125 MW version could be run as reliably as its 10X-larger cousins—and a half-century of nuclear naval propulsion argues that case pretty effectively—then a mini-nuke such as McDermott’s “mPower” reactor would provide as many annual kilowatt-hours of generation as a 400 MW onshore wind farm or a 500 MW solar installation in a sunny location, while doing so more predictably and dependably, and for a similar investment cost. Nor is McDermott the only company with a horse in this race. Veteran nuclear vendors such as GE-Hitachi and Toshiba-Westinghouse are pursuing small-scale reactors, and Hyperion, a start-up out of Los Alamos National Laboratory, has designed a 25 MW plant. There’s even a regular reader of this blog with his own small-nuclear start-up.

So when you see those full-page ads from the American Wind Energy Association promoting “Global Wind Day” next Monday and exhorting you to support a strong Renewable Electricity Standard, remember that wind is only one of a number of energy options we can deploy against global warming, and that the renewable energy distinction ought to matter much less than low emissions, regardless of the source.

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