Electric grid reliability is on the forefront of everyone’s mind following a sobering report from the country’s grid overseer.
The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), a regulatory body overseeing grid operations across the United States and Canada, warned last month in its latest summer reliability assessment that vast swaths of the West and Midwest face an elevated risk of blackouts due to insufficient electricity to meet high consumer demand this summer.
The report highlighted that the U.S. Western Interconnection—the region encompassing Colorado—faced a particular risk of electricity shortfalls in the late-afternoon and early evening hours this summer when high demand is expected to meet reduced generating capacity from renewable sources.
“The reason the risk is greater in these hours is that solar resource output is diminishing with the setting sun while demand is still near its daily high,” the report reads.
It’s a warning that could become the new norm unless due consideration is given to securing a reliable energy portfolio in the state’s quest to confront climate change.
The risk of electricity shortages is rising throughout the U.S. as traditional power plants are being retired more quickly than they can be replaced by renewable energy and battery storage. Power grids are feeling the strain as the U.S. makes a historic transition from conventional power plants fueled by coal and natural gas to cleaner forms of energy such as wind and solar power.
Colorado has set the ambitious goal of achieving 100% carbon-free electricity generation by 2040, while simultaneously encouraging the electrification of the state’s transportation, home-heating, and manufacturing sectors to drive down emissions even further.
To have a realistic shot of meeting these ambitious climate goals, Colorado must depart from its focus on solely intermittent generating sources and instead look to procure clean, baseload electricity. Fortunately, the state need look no further than a new version of familiar technology to do just that.
Not Your Grandfather’s Nuclear Plant
Americans have enjoyed carbon-free electricity from nuclear fission since 1951, when the first nuclear power plant went online. As it stands today, 20 percent of the country’s total electricity and 52 percent of its clean electricity is supplied by 93 operational nuclear reactors.
And while those numbers are impressive, America’s nuclear fleet is rapidly aging, with dozens of existing plants expected to be retired in the next few decades. Making matters worse, excessive licensing and regulation costs have substantially driven up the costs and construction time associated with building new traditional light water reactors.
However, innovative companies such as NuScale, Oklo, TerraPower, and Rolls Royce are adapting to that reality, and have found new ways to drive down the costs and scale up the production of nuclear power plants through small-modular reactor technology.
Small modular reactors (SMRs) are, as the name suggests, advanced nuclear reactors that generally have a power capacity of less than 300 MW(e) per unit. They can be factory-assembled and transported as a unit for onsite installation, offering time and cost savings on construction.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, SMRs require less initial investment than traditional large scale nuclear plants due to their size and pre-fabrication potential, are more efficient because they can be bundled with multiple units or coupled with other energy sources, are safer to operate, and theoretically produce less waste due to reduced fuel requirements.
Additionally, SMRs can be installed into an existing grid or remotely off-grid, making siting much more flexible than traditional reactors. This is particularly true for microreactors, which are a subset of SMRs designed to generate electrical power typically up to 10-20 MW(e), according to the International Atomic Energy Association. Microreactors have smaller footprints than other SMRs and could be better suited for rural, island, and other remote regions where grid-scale electricity generation is less feasible.
Communities in Idaho, Tennessee, and Wyoming are all currently pursuing SMR projects over the next decade, though none have successfully implemented the technology to date. Governments in China, Russia, Argentina, Poland, France, and the UK have all committed to pursuing SMR technology in the coming years as well.
And while the technology has not yet been commercially proven for civilian electricity generation, it has experienced success in proof-of-concept for decades with the U.S. Navy. Since 1955, the Navy has deployed nuclear powered submarines utilizing reactor technology similar to today’s SMR offerings. To this day, small-scale nuclear reactors produce electricity, heat, and propulsion for 86 naval submarines and aircraft carriers.
A Path for SMRs in Colorado
Colorado has not generated any nuclear power since the troubled Fort Saint Vrain plant was decommissioned in 1989, but recent developments have left the door open for a possible nuclear resurgence in the state.
Senate Bill 3, signed into law by then-Governor Hickenlooper in 2018, directed the Colorado Energy Office (CEO) to “work with communities, utilities, private and public organizations, and individuals to promote cleaner energy sources such as biogas, biomass, and nuclear” (emphasis added).
Unfortunately, the energy office appears to be asleep at the wheel in fulfilling that mandate.
“As it turns out, we actually do not have any reports or studies on nuclear power potential for Colorado from any point in the last three years,” Dominique Gomez, deputy director of the Colorado Energy Office, told the Denver Gazette earlier this year.
While the energy office appears not to have realized the potential of advanced nuclear electricity generation just yet, others in government around the state have publicly expressed interest in pursuing the technology.
Senator Bob Rankin (R.) introduced a bill this past session that would have directed the state to conduct a feasibility study for future SMR deployment in Colorado. Senator Dennis Hisey (R.) has also voiced public support for the technology.
Additionally, leaders from Pueblo County, where the Comanche 3 coal power plant is expected to be shuttered near the end of this decade, proposed replacing the plant with a nuclear power station utilizing small-modular reactor technology late last year.
“Such an investment would more than replace the current tax base and employment base provided by Comanche 3 by creating 200 to 300 good paying jobs in our community,” Garrison Ortiz, a Pueblo County Commissioner, told the PUC. “It would also provide PSCO with at least 750 MW of zero emission firm dispatchable generation by 2030.”
Commissioner Ortiz’s interest is well founded, as research has found modern nuclear technology offers great promise for transitioning coal towns. A 2021 report found that a small modular reactor plant could provide jobs “well in excess of a typical coal plant.” It also suggested that many SMR plant jobs would require skills similar to those of a typical coal plant.
“These jobs would require some retraining, but they would not require wholesale repurposing of the workforce to a totally different job type,” the report found.
Additionally, SMRs provide the potential for more than 70 jobs for which there is no coal plant equivalent, but that could become a development opportunity for coal workers to advance and prosper.
“Jobs, such as reactor operators or radiation protection technicians, do not have a coal plant equivalent, but they are in fact potential developmental paths for current coal workers,” the report explained. “This opens the door for the coal plant workforce to progress and develop into higher-paying jobs.”
The fact that SMRs offer job replacement to displaced coal workers, with minimal retraining and an opportunity for career advancement, should be highly appealing for those in the state who would have us undertake a “just transition” away from coal power.
And if small-scale nuclear’s “just transition” potential isn’t enough to sway hesitant minds, perhaps its electrification promise will.
SMRs are the only GHG-free energy source that is both scalable and reliable for 24-hour, around the clock electricity production. This fact alone should make it appealing for advocates of grid decarbonization and electrification.
Asking Coloradans to transition from gas heating and cooling systems, appliances, and internal combustion engine vehicles is already an enormous undertaking. Doing so when the electrified equivalents are reliant on inconsistent generating capacity is a disaster waiting to happen.
Only nuclear power has the capacity factor—how often a plant is running at maximum power—to reliably accommodate a fully electrified population.
According to the US Department of Energy, “Nuclear has the highest capacity factor of any other energy source—producing reliable, carbon-free power more than 92% of the time in 2016. That’s nearly twice as reliable as a coal (48%) or natural gas (57%) plant and almost 3 times more often than wind (35%) and solar (25%) plants.”
Additionally, levelized cost of energy (LCOE) analyses routinely show traditional nuclear plants to be cost competitive with renewable resources despite the massive disparity in federal subsidies devoted to the latter.
And while commodity cost inflation, supply chain disruption, and high-profile tariff probes stand to boost costs and threaten the competitiveness of renewable projects in near future, a successful showing by SMR producers would drive down the upfront capital costs of nuclear energy, substantially reducing its LCOE comparatively.
That would mean advanced nuclear could not only reliably provide the power necessary for an increasingly electrified state, but that it would do so with increasing affordability as well.
With such ambitious decarbonization goals, combined with a growing state population reliant on greater energy needs, Colorado would be foolish not to pursue the world’s largest source of carbon-free baseload power.
An abbreviated version of this essay originally appeared in Complete Colorado.