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Governor Polis Again Downplays Nuclear Energy…But with a Catch

Governor Polis Again Downplays Nuclear Energy…But with a Catch

Colorado’s Governor may not be a huge proponent of nuclear energy, but he at least isn’t ruling it out either.

Fresh off his resounding reelection victory earlier this month, Governor Jared Polis took to the national stage with an appearance on the popular HBO political talk show “Real Time with Bill Maher” last week.

During the show’s “Overtime” segment, Maher asked Polis a viewer-submitted question about the climate policies he intends to support moving forward.

“We’re going to be 100% renewable energy by 2040 in Colorado,” the Governor said, “80% in just seven-and-a-half years by 2030.”

Maher then asked Polis what he meant by “renewable.”

“It’s solar, wind, a little bit of hydro, and geothermal I’m very excited about,” he said.

Co-panelist Robert Costa then chimed in to ask Governor Polis where he stood on nuclear energy.

“We’re open to it if the economics work. I mean, I think the big question is how will the economics work. Right now, it just hasn’t proven out yet, so let’s see where the technology goes over the next five or ten years,” Polis responded.

Maher, seemingly perplexed by the economic critique of nuclear, asked Polis to explain.

“So where a lot of the technology is driving is toward sort of smaller-scale, modular nuclear,” he said. “It doesn’t quite cost out. It always seems like it’s one of these technologies that’s like ten years away. But there’s a lot of promising stuff on drawing boards, engineers working on it. It wouldn’t be these large plants that you have in the past.”

“Terra-nuclear is promising,” progressive House Democrat Ro Khanna (CA.-17) interjected, ostensibly referring to the Bill Gates-backed SMR start-up TerraPower. “That’s something we should be looking at.”

“And I would say that geothermal is really cool, too,” Polis added. “The heat beneath our feet, right? Just tapping into this existing power source of the Earth for passive cooling and for electric.”

Here are a few things I took away from the exchange:

  • I’m heartened by the Governor’s expressed openness to the idea of nuclear, though his economic critique is slightly misguided for a few reasons. While it’s true that the upfront costs of traditional nuclear plants have been a significant problem for the industry over the last couple of decades (see Plant Vogtle in Georgia), small-modular reactors (SMRs) were specifically invented to solve this very issue. With scaled-down physical footprints, lower fuel requirements, and a replicable construction process, SMR start-ups are poised to save billions on building new nuclear facilities. His critique that these SMRs “don’t quite cost out” is odd, considering that such projects are still in the demonstration phase, and the projected costs per megawatt hour (Mwh) are actually quite promising. Even with inflation impacting steel prices, and rising interest rates threatening to boost the financing costs for the first SMR demonstration, the worst case scenario cost of $100/Mwh isn’t unreasonable for a first-of-a-kind deployment—especially to fill the desperately needed niche of carbon-free dispatchable power. Many of the first solar and wind installations were built at a cost exceeding $100/Mwh, with the understanding that innovation and building out economies of scale would reduce costs over time. That same grace should be extended to early SMR projects while they attempt to prove cost improvements along the learning curve.

 

  • I’d like his expressed openness to nuclear energy to manifest into tangible policy moves. He could call for pro-nuclear legislation or lend his support to legislators trying to introduce such bills. For example, just this last legislative session, Senator Bob Rankin (R.) introduced a bill calling for a feasibility study of SMRs in Colorado. Polis could have voiced his support for that simple measure rather than allowing it to toil in a Senate kill committee. Likewise, a 2018 bill signed into law by then-Governor Hickenlooper 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.” Polis could take steps to urge the Energy Office to fulfill its legislative mandate from SB 3. Heck, even just using the bully pulpit more often to express support for nuclear would be a positive move. No one’s asking him to impose nuclear projects on the state by government fiat. But by simply taking some tangible steps to show a demonstrated openness to nuclear innovation in Colorado, he could do a lot to attract private investment and help gather public support for a vital tool in the fight to procure clean, reliable power.

 

  • I actually share Governor Polis’s optimism about geothermal energy, particularly in the electric sector, and I commend him for continuing to tout it in multiple public forums. Exciting innovations in the world of Enhanced Geothermal Systems seek to essentially bring the drilling technologies long associated with fracking to the world of procuring heat and steam from beneath the Earth’s surface. The benefit is that this power would be both carbon-free and dispatchable. Colorado just so happens to be geologically blessed with some of the best geothermal resources in the country. It also possesses a talented local labor force consisting of geologists, engineers, and drilling operators from decades of fracking knowledge gained during the shale boom that can be put to good use. I would only encourage the Governor to consider that much of the potential benefits of enhanced geothermal systems are also in early stages, meaning some innovation still needs to take place to demonstrate feasibility and affordability at scale. I would simply ask that the Governor place the same faith he has in the eventual innovations and feasibility of the geothermal industry into the burgeoning advanced nuclear one as well.

 

  • Regarding Congressman Khanna’s remarks, it’s great to see a progressive Democrat—from California no less—expressing optimism toward TerraPower SMRs. This is a minor takeaway and not as relevant here in Colorado. But given California’s recent history with nuclear power and the fervent anti-nuclear sentiment that animates many of the most prominent progressive environmental groups, that a Bay Area Democrat would say anything nice at all about new nuclear is telling.

 

Readers can watch the full exchange for themselves. The relevant discussion occurs during the first two minutes of the clip.