Washington state: a pioneer for clean air

Washington state was serious about climate change before most people had heard of climate change. Well, actually, Washington state was serious about clean air. The state built most of its electric grid on hydro power, and then added nuclear energy.

grand coulee

Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River.

As it happens, if you are a pioneer against air pollution, a clean air pioneer, you are also a pioneer against climate change. Because the greenhouse gases of climate change arise from combustion processes, the same source as most air pollution. Hurray for an electric grid based on hydro and nuclear!

More Pioneering Work Ahead

Especially in the clean air technology of nuclear energy, Washington state has been a pioneer. This leadership began with war work. The Hanford Generating Project was a dual-purpose reactor, producing plutonium for the Defense Department and clean nuclear energy for the Northwest. Next, the Fast Flux Test Facility, which housed a sodium-cooled fast neutron reactor. And, of course, Columbia Generating Station, the Northwest’s only commercial nuclear energy facility.

Former WA Gov. Chris Gregoire marks Columbia's license extension, allowing the plant to operate through 2043.

Former WA Gov. Chris Gregoire marks Columbia’s license extension, allowing the plant to operate through 2043.

As Gov. Jay Inslee moves forward with work on further reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the state, the Washington legislature is considering several bills that could help that effort – and provide a boost to the state’s economy.

Nuclear as an Alternative Energy Source – Senate Bill 5091

The first bill, SB 5091, will help Washington state develop more nuclear clean air energy. This bill will recognize nuclear for what it truly is: a “qualified alternative energy resource.”

Right now, in order to promote clean energy, utilities in the state are required to purchase “alternative energy resources.” (This is under the state Energy Independence Act). Some of the resources that utilities purchase include wind turbines and solar panel output. Mostly wind. Both of these sources are low-carbon, but intermittent. They are available when the sun is shining or when the wind is blowing. When they are not available, in some instances, fossil-fired power plants (natural gas plants) must come on-line. (see graph below)


The earlier theory was that the hydro plants of Washington state would be used to come on-line when the wind died down. In general, this is what happens in this area: hydro backs up wind. But as wind energy grows, more and more hydro has had to be set aside for this balancing function, as described in a Bonneville Power document from 2011. (See page three and four of this report.)

Recent research shows that even current wind turbines are increasingly being backed up by natural gas, not hydro power. A master’s thesis from 2011 from Duke University shows that hydro availability has decreased in the mid-Columbia area, and it is expected that gas turbine usage will increase in the future, including more usage of natural gas to balance new wind projects.

Instead of building more wind turbines, and almost certainly building more gas plants and pipelines to support them, this bill gives Washington state the opportunity to use clean air nuclear energy for part of its alternative energy goals. Nuclear energy does not require fossil fuel back-up, so it is a very effective way to help our state achieve our low-carbon energy goals.

Small Modular Reactors – Senate Bill 5089

This bill would also encourage nuclear clean air energy, but specifically energy from small modular reactors. Washington’s Energy Independence Act, mentioned above, also requires utilities to buy “renewable resources.” Once again, the point of the original legislation was to encourage clean energy development and included these eligible resources listed in the statute: wind, solar, geothermal energy, landfill and sewage gas, wave and tidal power and certain biodiesel fuels. But the result has been a whole lot of wind and not much else. It was the resource easiest to build and the Federal production tax credit almost guaranteed a return on investment. As it’s written, SB 5089 would allow the use of small modular reactors (less than 50 MW per reactor) to be counted toward renewable/clean resource goals for the state.

As with the encouragement of bigger reactors, clean air is better served by nuclear energy than by too much increase of wind turbines, considering the wind turbine’s requirements for fossil fuel back up. There are even more reasons to support modular reactors, though, from the economic point of view.

Energy Northwest is working with NuScale to be among the first operators of a new type of modular reactor. Washington state can possibly become a manufacturing center for such reactors: that is the hope, anyway. With small modular reactors, Washington state could have high-paying manufacturing and engineering jobs. And clean air.

This is a post in favor of nuclear power, and not about wind turbines per se. But it should be remembered that the major wind turbine makers (Vesta, Iberdola) are in Europe, and they aren’t going to move their manufacturing to this country. For the U.S., there are construction jobs at installation, but comparatively few jobs when the facilities are running. I visited a twelve-unit, 24 MW wind turbine facility in New Hampshire and it employed about five people. According to James Conca in Forbes, using U.S. Department of Energy data, per megawatt of installed capacity, nuclear provides five times as many jobs as wind.

In contrast, we can consider small modular reactors. Washington state in particular has a strong, proud background in nuclear energy innovation. We can build the reactors here, with manufacturing jobs. Then, it will take a fair number of high-paying jobs to run the SMRs. With small modular reactors, the state can have clean air and a growing economy. That’s a win-win, for sure.

What you can do

To encourage clean air without fossil fuel backup but with economic growth, read the bills (linked below). I believe very strongly that nuclear supporters must speak out about the virtues of nuclear energy. Opponents of nuclear energy will probably testify that wind/renewables is all we need. In fact they are planning to say this. Some anti- nuclear energy folks have published a “Hot List” for testimony about this bill: the list trots out the well-worn fallacies about nuclear energy and blindly disparages SMR technology. If only they were as enlightened as the conservationists who write: “Yet, given the urgency of the global environmental challenges we must deal with in the coming decades, closing off our option on nuclear energy may be dangerously shortsighted.” That view was supported by dozens of other conservation scientists in an open letter to environmentalists.

Nuclear supporters need to be vocal about the reality that nuclear power provides low carbon energy right now, and that wind energy is not infinitely expandable without backup power.

Despite the assertions in the Hot List, in the world as it actually exists, wind is an intermittent resource, and hydro power is not an infinite resource. If we expand only wind energy in order to meet our goals, in the Northwest that means more carbon, not less. In this world, there is no utility-scale way to store power, except pumped storage.

Meanwhile, in the world of reality, you can take action. Let your voice be heard in favor of meeting our clean energy goals.

Links to bills:

SB 5091

SB 5089

(See also SB 5114)

(Post by Meredith Angwin)

3 thoughts on “Washington state: a pioneer for clean air

  1. Pingback: Carnival of Nuclear Bloggers – Feb 1/2015 #246 | The Energy Reality Project

  2. Pingback: If more wind is the answer, what was the question? | Northwest Clean Energy

  3. Pingback: If more wind is the answer, what was the question?

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