Hedge the bet on energy

The U.S. Energy Department’s recent announcement of the construction of a $14 billion nuclear power plant in Augusta, Ga. — the first one to be built in the United States in nearly 30 years — is welcome news. But it’s not enough to reverse the current trend. Nuclear plants are shutting down in every region of the country: California, Wisconsin, Florida and Vermont. The closures raise a big question — we still need the electricity, so what are the clean energy options?

Whether you hate nuclear power or love it, it’s currently delivering two critical clean-energy benefits. It provides the U.S. with 20 percent of its electricity without emitting any designated air pollutants. It also accounts for more than half of the nation’s carbon-free electricity.

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Some analysts suggest that wind and solar are fully capable of replacing the substantial base-load power that nuclear currently delivers. That’s wishful thinking. Those two renewables face significant technical challenges to economically compete. For wind and solar to replace nuclear, there would need to be a breakthrough in energy storage, followed by 400 percent growth, all within 10 years. That’s possible, but not likely.

As for natural gas, it is currently cheap and presumably plentiful, but the fact is, we don’t know its future. The amount of natural gas in the U.S. is a projection, not a certainty. The long-term extraction profiles and infrastructure costs of fracked wells haven’t been reliably determined. The projections may be good enough to replace dirtier options — like coal — but not reliable enough to replace, and lose, cleaner options like nuclear.

If we’re going to hedge for the future and be more cautious about the renewable and natural-gas projections, then here’s a question: Are current nuclear plants capable of running for another, say, 20 years?

Given the current age of nuclear plants, that would be like keeping a ’69 Mustang purring — no easy task. As nuclear plants age, they suffer from the same problems we all do: joints corrode, the skin cracks and plumbing weakens. That sounds like a daunting list, but in fact, there are no technical showstoppers to longer-term operation. Some plants can keep operating for as much as 80 years. 

Extending operating time of reactors isn’t a long-term solution. Nuclear waste builds up and the plants eventually become too old to be worth maintaining. However, the extension provides time for renewable markets to grow, natural-gas opportunities to flourish and new nuclear reactor technologies to emerge.

Long-term operation will require aggressive surveillance and part replacement, but it’s not cheap. In the case of the nuclear plant in Florida that is being shut down, Duke Energy estimated at least $1.3 billion to maintain the nuclear plant versus $900 million to build a natural-gas plant.

The problem with that type of assessment is that emissions aren’t considered. They should be. While the decision about any one plant has only modest negative emissions impact, if the trend continues and most of the remaining 100 nuclear plants are replaced by natural gas, the cumulative emissions consequences will be severe.

How can utilities be encouraged to consider emissions in their decision on whether to maintain nuclear plants? A price on carbon or a clean energy standard would have impact. While current federal intransigence makes neither policy likely, members of Congress who support clean energy can declare now their intention to credit businesses that make this kind of decision, if and when clean energy policies are enacted into law.

Those declarations from members of Congress can be supported by an additional strategy. Socially responsible investors have developed environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria that have been effective at encouraging companies to consider environmental consequences — such as air pollutants or carbon emissions — in their business decisions.

At present, institutional investors apply ESG criteria in their analysis of more than $3.3 trillion in assets, including bank and utility stocks. Investors can be provided the information about the emissions results of closing a nuclear power plant; utilities can decide if they care about the choices made by those particular investors.

These steps — extending operation of nuclear plants and establishing a favorable investment environment — don’t require a crystal ball, just transparency and judgment. 

Schwitters is a professor of physics at the University of Texas, Austin, and chairman of a committee that examined the technical feasibility of extending operation of nuclear plants. Rowe is chairman emeritus of the Exelon Corp., an energy producer, trader, distributor and owner of nuclear reactors.