Which way for energy?
Nuclear, clean coal or renewables—you pick!
Twenty years ago, the citizens of Sacramento voted to close the Rancho Seco nuclear plant. That decision set SMUD in a different direction. With the election of a climate-friendly president, other electric utilities will soon have to choose which new power plants to build. Fundamentally, they have three choices: nuclear, clean coal or renewables with natural gas.
Some prominent environmentalists argue, given the possibility of climate catastrophe from burning fossil fuels, that nuclear power is necessary. And indeed, some utilities have plans for new nuclear plants. During the George W. Bush years, 17 utilities submitted applications to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build 26 reactors. However, none are yet being built, even with a federal loan-guarantee program to bail out the financing of nuclear plants if something goes wrong. The one European nuclear project underway in Finland is years behind schedule, and the Finns are suing the French company building the plant. Following the nuclear path has consistently proven more costly than promised.
A second way to keep climate change in bounds is to capture carbon dioxide from burning coal before it gets into the atmosphere and then store it for a very long time. The concept is attractive since there is a lot of coal available in the United States. The devil has been in the details. An Illinois pilot project was recently abandoned by the U.S. Department of Energy as not viable. Figuring out how to capture, transport and sequester trillions of tons of carbon dioxide has proven to be mind-bogglingly difficult. For now, the clean-coal path looks like a dead end.
The third road to a climate-friendly energy future is the one SMUD embarked upon following the closure of Rancho Seco 20 years ago. This more sustainable direction is to use natural gas as efficiently as possible while developing wind, solar, biomass and geothermal technologies. There is an emerging consensus in California that we can get at least 33 percent of our power from renewable resources by 2020. Getting there will require utilities and regulatory agencies to change the way they do business.
To make wind and solar reliable, utilities will have to use natural gas differently than they have for the past 20 years. Most natural-gas plants built during that era have been combined-cycle plants, like SMUD’s Cosumnes power plant. These power plants usually run around the clock. In the future, natural-gas plants will be used to balance the electric grid rather than running flat out. This will require a different type of power plant, one that can start up quickly and adjust rapidly to the availability of wind and sunshine. It will also require a smarter grid. These technologies are within our reach.
Congress is now considering legislation that could set a new direction for energy development in the U.S. Congress would be well-advised to look at the direction SMUD took 20 years ago.