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Department of Energy

Texas’ uncertain nuclear future

Sometimes I forget that Texas has nuclear plants.

By the standards of the U.S. nuclear energy industry, Texas’s two nuclear plants are fairly new. Neither one is more than three decades old, while many nuclear sites across the country are nearing the five-decade mark.

But as the economics of nuclear power in this country continue to slide, even the futures of the South Texas Project, near Bay City, and Comanche Peak, located 60 miles southwest of Dallas, are far from certain.

When Manan Ahuja, senior director of North American power at the research arm of credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s, recently updated his firm’s list of nuclear plants at risk of closing, he listed both Texas plants at “moderate” risk of closing as early as 2030 – despite the fact that NRG Energy recently renewed its operating license for the South Texas Project for another 20 years.

Ahuja explained that while the plants were “of a much more recent vintage,” low power prices in Texas and state regulators’ policy of not paying plants for their ability to ease power shortages at times of high demand or for generating carbon-free energy – like other states have done – left the two facilities vulnerable.

“It’s a game of chicken. Do you sit around and wait for those high prices, which could happen this summer because there’s been some (coal plant) retirements,” he said. “The prices are fairly weak, even in a fairly hot July last summer.”

Both NRG and Vistra Energy, which operates Comanche Peak, maintain the plants are economic and have no plans to close them.

“Given Comanche Peak is one of the youngest plants in the country, significant decisions on license renewal are a few years away, but the plant is currently well-positioned, and we have no plans to close the it prematurely,” a Vistra spokesman said in an email.

The situation in Texas mirrors one states across the country are grappling with, as nuclear power plants face increased pressure to reduce costs to compete with a surge of cheap natural gas and increasingly efficient wind turbines and solar plants.

I don’t know how serious that threat is, but it’s worth at least thinking about. I’ve always been of the opinion that nuclear power needs to be in the mix, as it is not carbon-generating, but it is surprisingly expensive and of course there are other risks associated with these plants. Given how prices for wind and solar are falling, and the vast potential for both in Texas, I would not advocate more nuclear power here, but neither do I want to see these existing plants mothballed or underused before their time. Whatever we can do to burn less coal is a good thing.

We can make the end of coal in Texas happen

It’s already happening. It just needs a bit of a boost.

Texas might have the perfect environment to quit coal for good.

Texas is one of the only places—potentially in the world—where the natural patterns of wind and sun could produce power around the clock, according to new research from Rice University.

Scientists found that between wind energy from West Texas and the Gulf Coast, and solar energy across the state, Texas could meet a significant portion of its electricity demand from renewable power without extensive battery storage. The reason: These sources generate power at different times of day, meaning that coordinating them could replace production from coal-fired plants.

“There is no where else in the world better positioned to operate without coal than Texas is,” said Dan Cohan an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University who co-authored the report with a student, Joanna Slusarewicz. “Wind and solar are easily capable of picking up the slack.”

[…]

Coal still generates about 25 percent of the state’s power, but its share is shrinking. Since 2007, coal used in generating electricity has decreased 36 percent. Last year, Vistra Energy of Dallas shut down three coal-fired plants in Texas, citing changing economics in the power industry that make it difficult for coal to compete.

Texas has more than 20,000 megawatts of installed wind capacity, which could rise to 38,000 megawatts by 2030, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Solar energy, however, has developed much more slowly in Texas, despite the abundance of sunshine. Texas installed about 2,500 megawatts of solar capacity in 2018.

The research article is here. Texas has done well generating wind energy, but needs to step it up with solar. The Lege could provide some incentives for this, so maybe mention to your State Rep the next time you call their office that this would be a productive thing to do.

Building a better turbine

Good to see R&D being done on improving wind energy.

Universities and businesses across Texas are expecting to spend millions in the next few years honing the blades, gearboxes and generators that make up turbines designed to harness power from the wind.

The work, including studies slated for a new University of Houston research park, as well as at a 22-acre testing operation planned near Corpus Christi, has a common goal: developing a new generation of efficient and reliable turbines.

The challenge, said Don Birx, the vice chancellor of research at the University of Houston, is building turbines out of materials strong enough to withstand tremendous pressure in heavy winds without adding more weight and stress to spinning blades that can now stretch beyond 100 yards.

Everything is “focused on the next generation of blades and designs,” and building them out of “the lightest but strongest materials possible,” Birx said.

Birx expects that when the University of Houston opens its new research facility next year, at least 10 researchers will be testing prototypes, honing new turbine designs and trying to make blades more reliable.

There’s a bunch of grant money being distributed for this kind of work, and a bill to get the Department of Energy more involved in wind power research as well. It’s good to see.