by Larry F. Eisenstat
Energy policymakers must face three facts. First, for the foreseeable future the fuels for new power plants will be limited to coal (which will remain under constant attack), nuclear (which doubtless will as well), natural gas (although supplies increasingly are constrained), and renewables, primarily wind and solar (which, while viewed by some as highly desirable, are viewed by others as incapable of making a sizeable or reliable contribution to our overall electricity requirements, given their perceived economics and intermittent nature). Second, policymakers will be compelled to promote cost-effective ways of reducing greenhouse gases (GHGs). This new environmental constraint on fuel choices is already affecting infrastructure decisions, even though federal climate change legislation is still probably several years away. Third, any new generation and transmission infrastructure must operate reliably and be secure from terrorist or other threats.
Only two of these fuel options have zero GHG emissions—nuclear and renewables. So even if coal does continue to satisfy a considerable portion of future demand, the ineluctable fact is that these two zero-emission options, whether alone or in combination, must be facilitated and optimized, if not directly promoted, both at the state and federal level, in order to make good on our commitment to slowing climate change without hammering our long-term ability to compete on a global basis and breaking our collective bank.
Indeed, until we discover the silver bullet technology, we have no other serious choices, notwithstanding our fear (in the case of a nuclear plant) of sizeable construction cost overruns, waste disposal and safety problems, and shortages in specialized equipment and labor, or in the case of a renewable plant, over the continuing need for subsidies in one form or another, its sizeable land use requirements, and the fact that, primarily, it serves only “intermittent” demand.
How might this be done? For starters, although there is already considerable opposition to both nuclear and renewables, the politics could become much more favorable if nuclear and renewable facilities could be co-developed in what I’ll call an “energy park,” perhaps one that is offshore, perhaps one with coastal nuclear units and offshore wind or solar units, and in either case, possibly one that includes an LNG terminal or desalination plant. I, for one, would like to know whether this type of energy park would be more or less secure from physical attack or other reliability threats, particularly if it could be located offshore of a major load center, in which case it could potentially avoid NIMBY problems, while requiring a smaller footprint to be protected. Indeed, in the 1970s, Westinghouse set out to do just that. The concept might be worthy of a new look.
A nuclear/renewables energy park, particularly if off-shore from a major load center, could also further our national goal of maintaining a robust transmission grid by materially reducing the need to transport power over long distances and having to build transmission to alleviate inter-control area congestion. And backbone facilities that presently move power primarily west to east would be partially unloaded by power sent east to west. Moreover, nuclear facilities require significant transmission expansion while renewables have relatively modest transmission capacity needs, to the point where it might not be cost-effective to build transmission just to support their development. But, if co-developed in the same location, the renewable plant would get its capacity with no material impact on the capacity required by the nuclear plant and only at a modest “headroom” cost.
Finally, it’s also worth investigating whether renewable and nuclear facilities could complement one another in terms of their intermittent-versus-baseload characteristics. For example, if we have decided as a matter of policy to have more renewable plants, would it make sense to keep some nuclear capacity in reserve to mitigate intermittency issues? Indeed, co-developing wind and nuclear facilities, particularly in conjunction with desal and LNG facilities (both of which can operate intermittently) potentially might even increase overall grid reliability.
Larry F. Eisenstat is head of the energy practice at Dickstein Shapiro LLP. He can be reached at email@example.com.