Colorado has set the ambitious goal of achieving 100% carbon-free electricity generation by 2040, while simultaneously encouraging the electrification of the state’s transportation, home-heating, and manufacturing sectors to drive down emissions even further.
To have a realistic shot of meeting these goals, the state must depart from its myopic focus on solely intermittent generating sources and instead look to procure clean, baseload electricity.
Fortunately, Colorado need look no further than a new version of familiar technology to do just that.
Americans have enjoyed carbon-free electricity from nuclear fission since 1951, when the first nuclear power plant went online. As it stands today, 20 percent of the country’s total electricity and 52 percent of its clean electricity is supplied by 93 operational nuclear reactors.
But while those numbers are impressive, America’s nuclear fleet is rapidly aging, with dozens of existing plants expected to be retired in the next few decades. Making matters worse, excessive licensing and regulation costs have substantially driven up the cost of constructing new light water reactors (traditional nuclear plants) over the last few decades.
However, innovative companies such as NuScale, Oklo, TerraPower, and Rolls Royce are adapting to that reality, and have found new ways to drive down the costs and scale up the production of nuclear power plants through small-modular reactor technology.
Small modular reactors (SMRs) are, as the name suggests, advanced nuclear reactors that generally have a power capacity of less than 300 MW(e) per unit. They can be factory-assembled and transported as a unit for onsite installation, offering time and cost savings on construction.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, SMRs require substantially less initial investment than traditional large scale nuclear plants due to their size and pre-fabrication potential, are more efficient because they can be bundled with multiple units or coupled with other energy sources, are safer to operate, and theoretically produce less waste due to reduced fuel requirements.
Additionally, SMRs can be installed into an existing grid or remotely off-grid, making siting much more flexible than traditional reactors and distributed generating sources like renewables.
SMRs are the only GHG-free energy source that is both scalable and reliable for 24-hour, around the clock electricity production. This fact alone should make it appealing for advocates of grid decarbonization and electrification.
Asking Coloradans to transition from gas heating and cooling systems, appliances, and internal combustion engine vehicles is already an enormous undertaking. Doing so when the electrified equivalents are reliant on inconsistent generating capacity is a disaster waiting to happen.
Only nuclear power has the capacity factor—how often a plant is running at maximum power—to reliably accommodate a fully electrified population.
According to the US Department of Energy, “Nuclear has the highest capacity factor of any other energy source—producing reliable, carbon-free power more than 92% of the time in 2016. That’s nearly twice as reliable as a coal (48%) or natural gas (57%) plant and almost 3 times more often than wind (35%) and solar (25%) plants.”
Additionally, levelized cost of energy (LCOE) analyses routinely show traditional nuclear plants to be cost competitive with renewable resources despite the massive disparity in federal subsidies devoted to the latter.
And while commodity cost inflation, supply chain disruption, and high-profile tariff probes stand to boost costs and threaten the competitiveness of renewable projects in near future, a successful showing by SMR producers would drive down the upfront capital costs of nuclear energy, reducing its LCOE comparatively.
That would mean advanced nuclear could not only reliably provide the power necessary for an increasingly electrified state, but that it would do so with increasing affordability as well.
Communities in Idaho, Tennessee, and Wyoming are all currently pursuing SMR projects over the next decade, though none have successfully implemented the technology to date. Governments in China, Russia, Argentina, Poland, France, and the UK have all committed to pursuing SMR technology in the coming years as well.
With such ambitious decarbonization goals, combined with a growing state population reliant on greater energy needs, Colorado would be foolish not to join in on the development of the world’s largest source of carbon-free baseload power.
Jake Fogleman is an energy policy analyst at the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.
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