Texas has more wind power than it can use, and that partly explains why NRG Energy, Inc. has backed out of a plan to build two new nuclear reactors in the state. To be clear, the stated motivation for the decision was the nuclear disaster resulting from last month’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan, which among other things has affected the regulatory landscape here in the U.S. However, it’s also clear that rapid growth in the alternative energy field is rapidly chipping away at nuclear power, helped along by new grid and energy storage technologies. This triple threat is undermining the foundational reason for investing in nuclear power, which is (or should be) to get the most abundant and reliable energy bang for the buck.
Renewable Energy Beating Nuclear
On a global scale, energy capacity from renewable sources passed up nuclear for the first time last year, which was long before the tsunami damaged Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant. The problem, of course, is to get energy from renewable-rich areas to those without. That’s a problem that certainly hasn’t stopped the fossil fuel industry, given the shipment of coal and petroleum around the world. For renewable energy, massive transmission projects like DESERTEC are at hand. The future could also bring advanced energy storage technologies that would enable renewable energy to be shipped in battery-type devices (reusable or recyclable ones, of course).
Wind Surplus in Texas
The wind surplus in Texas could have a ripple effect on energy investments in other states in the U.S., even without the development of new smart grid technology. One example is Pattern Energy, which has proposed building a 400-mile line connecting wind power from Texas to existing transmission lines that serve Alabama and several other southern states. Unlike the decades-long process involved in siting and building new nuclear facilities, the company anticipates a permitting and construction process of about five years. Also slated for Texas is a gigantic new wind power storage facility, which other states are already eyeballing for the Pacific Northwest renewable energy infrastructure.
NRG Backs out of Texas Nuclear Plants
Rebecca Smith of the Wall Street Journal notes a number of issues that factor into NRG’s decision. The primary reason is a months-long safety review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission following the tsunami in Japan, which could jack up the cost of the project due to design changes and other factors. Smith also lists uncertainty over financing, which was supposed to come from Fukushima’s owner Tokyo Electric Power. More to the point, in Texas there is no regulatory structure that would basically guarantee NRG a captive audience for its product. The two new reactors would have to compete on price along with every other form of available power.
Renewable Energy vs. High Risk Energy
For all its advantages, nuclear energy is a high risk endeavor. Those risks are becoming increasingly untenable – and incredibly expensive – as existing plants get older. New York’s aging Indian Point nuclear facility has started to raise alarm bells, for example, partly due to the virtual impossibility of safely evacuating nearby communities in case of an emergency. For that matter, another facility in New York, the Shoreham nuclear power plant, had to be decommissioned before it ever went online, partly because planners failed to account for population growth in nearby suburbs. Ratepayers were stuck with the tab and the facility still sits there, sucking up valuable real estate.
It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over
Apparently, NRG’s partner Toshiba is still intending to move ahead with the permitting process. Toshiba signed onto the project just two years ago in 2009, which is pretty much a blip on the screen in nuclear construction terms, so it’s no surprise that the company hasn’t thrown in the towel yet. However, given that wind power is set to take off not only in western U.S. states but all up and down the East Coast as well, the prospects for nuclear look pretty dim.
Image: Texas wind turbines by the russians are here on flickr.com.
- Renewable Energy Passed Up Nuclear in 2010 (cleantechnica.com)
- China to Cut Nuclear & Increase Solar Power Goals after Japan Crisis (cleantechnica.com)
Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.