Nuclear energy can't supply all electricity needs - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

Nuclear energy can't supply all electricity needs

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Posted: Thursday, May 21, 2009 2:13 pm | Updated: 3:08 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

Todd Landfried: Tom Patterson's May 10 commentary ("Politicians like 'green' energy; markets prefer nuclear power") presents a false choice by arguing that nuclear and renewable energy are mutually exclusive. They aren't. Anyone who really understands the power grid will tell you we need both. It's important to understand why.

Tom Patterson's May 10 commentary ("Politicians like 'green' energy; markets prefer nuclear power") presents a false choice by arguing that nuclear and renewable energy are mutually exclusive. They aren't. Anyone who really understands the power grid will tell you we need both. It's important to understand why.

Nuclear and coal power supply "base load" electricity day and night where demand is constant. According to the Arizona Public Service Resource Plan, more "base load" isn't needed until 2018 or later. Natural gas and renewable energy supply "intermediate" and "peak" loads. "Intermediate load" is the fluctuating demand occurring during the day and "peak load" is the excess demand occurring in late afternoon on hot days where there is greater need for air conditioning. Base load plants don't provide intermediate or peak power, and natural gas and renewable plants don't supply base load power.

A 2009 study by R.W. Beck for APS shows that distributed renewable energy plants actually reduce operations and maintenance costs, reduce the need for expensive transmission and distribution infrastructure, and defer the need to construct intermediate or peak load plants - all of which save the utilities money and reduce upward pressure on utility rates. For example, the study found distributed renewable energy deployment resulted in capital cost reductions at the generation level ranging from $184 million to $299 million for APS alone from decreased "fuel and purchased power requirements" and brought "associated reductions in line losses and annual fixed (operations and maintenance) costs."

Patterson wrote, "Unfortunately, the intensive search for methods to convert wind and solar power into usable energy has been fruitless so far." That isn't true. Wind generation is a mature technology. Global firms like GE, Vestas, and Siemens manufacture wind turbines and have deployed them in 76 countries, generating 121,188 megawatts and $54.2 billion in sales in 2008 (up 29 percent from 2007). Not bad for a "fruitless" technology with market opposition.

As for solar energy, the University of Delaware holds the world record for solar cell efficiency at 42.8 percent. This is a most significant advance when you consider common coal generators operate at about 37.5 percent efficiency.

Patterson talks about the economics of building nuclear plants compared to renewable plants, so let's compare the cost of constructing a new nuclear plant to the Abengoa concentrated solar plant being built near Gila Bend.

A 1,000-megawatt nuclear plant costs about $6 billion and takes 10 to 15 years to build. The planned 280-megawatt Abengoa plant will cost about $1.5 billion and can be built in three years. Were Abengoa four times larger (1,120 megawatts), the cost is the same as a nuclear plant but requires less time to build.

What about operational costs? The Palo Verde Nuclear Generating System needs about 1,000 people to run and secure the facility. A similar-sized solar plant needs about 100 employees. Assuming you spend on average $50,000 per year for each employee in wages and benefits, you're talking $50 million annually for the nuclear plant and $5 million for the solar plant.

Then there's fuel costs. Palo Verde uses about 1.6 million pounds of uranium each year. Based on the current spot market price of $46 per pound, uranium adds $74 million to annual operating costs. The cost of sunlight or solar heat is forever set at $0. There are also water contamination and fuel storage issues that add costs to nuclear plants that aren't applicable to renewable energy plants.

These "back-of-the-envelope" calculations indicate large solar plants can generate power at comparable construction and significantly lower operating costs than nuclear. But they're not base load facilities, which get's back to why Patterson's argument doesn't hold up.

At some point Palo Verde will be decommissioned, and we'll need a new plant of some type to generate our base load energy needs. In the mean time, we can begin to use renewable energy sources to supply the intermediate and peak load power we need now and defer construction of new transmission and distribution systems and generation plants, saving the utilities and ratepayers a lot of money.

That's a good thing.

Todd Landfried of Gilbert is a fromer Democratic political strategist and is marketing and government relations director for Renewable Energy Contracting, a division of IronCo Enterprises.

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