Last month I talked about how wind and solar are part of the solution to get us to carbon pollution-free by 2035. We also realize wind and solar are intermittent energy producers, so we need to find baseload power that is available all the time. I continue to reference a Princeton University Study—Net-Zero America—for this series of columns. This month we’ll look at how the study addresses baseload power in relation to two types of production facilities.
The first scenario is retrofitting more than 300 750-megawatt natural gas combined cycle power plants with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technologies. Since 2013 we have used this publication to update readers on the progress with this technology, which in simple terms, captures CO2 emissions from coal and natural gas fueled power plants and injects the CO2 at high pressure in deep underground permanent storage. There have been extensive investments through the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) for engineering and design studies for the technologies to capture CO2 from natural gas sources. According to the Global CCS Institute’s report Global Status of CCS 2020, only five power plants in the United States will be utilizing carbon capture technology for CO2. Four of these power plants burn coal, and one burns natural gas.
One proposed project, Cal Capture, is at a natural gas-powered 550-megawatt Elk Hills power plant in Tupman, California. This natural gas plant is anticipated to be the first carbon capture and sequestration plant when the technology goes on-line in 2024. It is designed to capture as much as 4,000 tons of carbon dioxide per day. Still, the challenge for all electric cooperatives and the country, in general, is this plant doesn’t even come on-line until 2024. Converting another 299 power plants by 2035 with unproven technology to comply with carbon pollution-free by 2035 will be very challenging, to say the least.
If we look at the other four CCS coal plants, none of them are operational yet. The Petra Nova facility near Houston, Texas, was operational but closed on May 1, 2020. The big question: Will we have the technology ready so we can do the conversion by 2035?
The second type of power plant the Net Zero report recommends is nuclear power. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, as of May 2, 2021, we have 55 commercially operating nuclear power plants in the United States. The report recommends we build 250 new 1-gigawatt nuclear reactors or 3,800 small modular reactors (SMR). Nuclear power can provide safe and reliable baseload power. However, it is more expensive, and we would still have to dispose of the spent fuel.
Additionally, we anticipate local opposition to siting 250 additional nuclear power plants across the country or 3,800 small modular reactors. Small modular reactors are factory-made nuclear power plants. Generally, they are 300 megawatts or smaller, and a microreactor is small enough to be transported in a semi-truck. It can produce from 1 to 20 megawatts of thermal energy that could be converted to electric power. According to the Office of Nuclear Energy at the DOE, these microreactors could be installed and generate power within a few months or even weeks of delivery. The problem is that SMRs are still being developed. The anticipated timeline for demonstration is sometime in the next seven years. It would also take additional time to complete the licensing and regulation process with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and our individual states.
In my estimation, the most logical way to meet our baseload power needs and accomplish the Biden Administration’s carbon pollution-free goal by 2035 is more investment in the traditional nuclear power plant. Technology will continue to develop for both the SMR and the microreactors for nuclear power. At some point, we will perfect carbon sequestration that will work for natural gas-fired power plants and possibly coal. No matter which type of baseload power plants we move forward with, there will be regulatory perils and public opposition.
We encourage Wisconsin’s electric co-op members to consider all types of baseload generation and the cost and reliability issues associated with each as we move to a new energy future.