By Hudson Sangree
SALT LAKE CITY — Regulators and industry experts from across the West last week heard about cyberattacks and natural disasters, having enough renewable energy to meet demand, and the possibility of using compact nuclear reactors to backstop wind and solar.
The spring joint meeting of the Committee on Regional Electric Power Cooperation and the Western Interconnection Regional Advisory Body (CREPC-WIRAB) focused on grid reliability and protecting crucial infrastructure. The conference spread across three days, with roughly 16 hours of panel discussions and approximately 175 people in attendance.
It opened with a panel on small modular nuclear reactor power plants, in which NuScale Power showed its design for a 60-MW reactor that is far more compact than traditional nuclear units. NuScale is working with the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) and the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) to develop a working module by 2026. (See With Big Nukes Dwindling, Supporters Focus on Modular.)
The NuScale unit looks like a 75-foot-tall, 15-foot-wide torpedo. Twelve of the units could be combined to form a 720-MW power plant covering 35 acres, much less ground than is usual today, said Chris Colbert, NuScale’s chief strategy officer.
“We’ve moved a number of components into the reactor pressure vessel, and what that allows us to do is to get rid of the piping and the pumps” that occupy much of the area in a traditional nuclear generating station, Colbert said. “When you go to a smaller design, you’re able to eliminate over two-thirds of the systems and components you find a in a typical reactor.”
That makes the unit simpler, with “less to operate it, less to maintain it and less things that can go wrong,” he said.
Colbert and his fellow panelists acknowledged the public blowback that’s likely to greet any proposal for a new nuclear plant.
“Obviously we’ve got a lot of risk here,” UAMPS CEO Doug Hunter said.
The developers said they are planning to build the first generator at the Idaho National Laboratory, a nuclear research site larger than Delaware, with construction slated to start in 2023. They’re hoping the isolated site and lots of public outreach “will allow a new generation of reactors to exist,” said George Griffith, an INL relationship manager.
Colbert said the units will be needed to ensure reliability as older fossil-fuel generators are retired and a fast-growing number of states and cities establish carbon-free mandates. Wind, solar and hydroelectric may not be enough to keep the lights on because of varying weather and rainfall, he said.
“For those of you who’ve ever lost power for more than a day, you know what that can be like,” Colbert said. “Imagine if it did it all the time.”
Resource Adequacy Concerns
The same scenario was on the minds of state regulators and utility representatives who spoke at the meeting.
In a panel on Western resource adequacy and market purchases, Rick Link, vice president of resource planning and acquisition for Pacific Power, said diminished demand in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis had created surpluses and made it relatively easy to depend on market purchases to supply needed power.
The thinking went, he said, that “it may be cheaper to do that, as long as [the power’s] there, than spending $700 million to build a new gas facility.”
But supply is tightening, and the situation is changing, he said. Those tasked with ensuring grid reliability can no longer just talk about economics and the best use of existing resources. Instead, they need to look at the development of new resources and innovative responses.
“It’s great timing to have this discussion,” Link said. “We may be transitioning into a period where we at least have to ask the question, ‘Will [the electricity] be there?’ So, it is more one of reliability, and that needs to be pushed front and center.”
Panelists focused on the need for a regional entity to coordinate purchases and generation throughout the Western Interconnection and having sufficient transmission capacity. States will have to play a bigger role in regulation and coordination, they said. And utilities need to be able to share information about their activities to avoid conflicts, some contended.
Washington Utilities and Transportation Commissioner Ann Rendahl said regulators are concerned that utilities are overly reliant on market purchases, putting consumers at risk of rising prices in times of high demand and tight supply.
“What we don’t know is whether [the utilities are] all basically relying on the same resources,” Rendahl said. That would become clear in a cold snap or heat wave when supply tightens and prices shoot up, she and others said.
“There’s increasing uncertainty that there is sufficient resource adequacy in the next five years, creating an increasing possibility of a regional capacity condition” in the Pacific Northwest, Rendahl said. “Everyone is agreeing that we’re approaching this point.”
The “capacity surplus is quickly dwindling,” she said, “and the utilities … are not stepping forward to build capacity, leading to this very tight capacity market.”
Other panels at the meeting dealt with electric vehicles and the need to protect utility infrastructure from terrorist attacks. (See Western EIM Looks to Expand Its Authority.)
The discussion returned repeatedly to the theme of making sure the lights stay on.
During a presentation on the Initiative for Resilience in Energy Through Vehicles (iRev), panelists — including Laura Nelson, executive director of Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s Office of Energy, and David Terry, executive director of the National Association of State Energy Officials — discussed EVs in the context of catastrophes. EVs could allow evacuations in situations where gas is unavailable and could ensure emergency workers have vehicles that run, they said.
Most areas only have a week’s worth of gas on hand at a given time, they said. Terry showed a photo of cars crowding a gas station after Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
Natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area had shown the potential for the grid to go down for extended periods, said Doug Little, senior adviser in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Electricity.
“Imagine if you had to live for a week without electricity. It’s pretty scary,” Little said during his talk on protecting defense-critical electric infrastructure in the West.
“Katrina got pretty ugly” in New Orleans, and San Francisco lost power for several days after Loma Prieta, he said.
“Now we have to worry about destruction by terrorists that have become more and more resourceful,” Little said. “We could see casualties and effects on security and economy from a cyberattack that would be comparable to weapons of mass destruction.”
Russia, China and Iran represent potential cyber-terror threats, he said. (See Senators Call for Urgency on Energy Cybersecurity.)
The federal government’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy is investigating longer-duration battery storage to power the grid from 10 to 100 hours during disasters, Little said.
“If there was ever a time for megawatt-scale storage to be important, this is it,” he said.