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Georgia officials were right to keep the nuclear door open

  • By The Newnan Times-Herald
  • |
  • Aug. 20, 2016 - 6:35 AM

The Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) recently decided to maintain the nuclear energy option for the state while also increasing renewables-based power generation. This represents long-term integrated resource planning that’s in sharp contrast with states that have allowed their beliefs in renewable energy to override the realities and limitations of nature and engineering.

Over the past decade, CO2 emissions in Georgia’s electricity sector have decreased 25.2 percent, primarily due to a shift from coal to natural gas. While this represents great progress, energy resource planning must also account for reliability and affordability, and this will require a robust portfolio of fossil, nuclear and renewable resources with diverse characteristics pertaining to storability, dispatchability, flexibility and carbon content. 
The tendency in some states has been to set standards for high levels of intermittent renewables, but this is proving to be a nearsighted, counterproductive, and risky prospect. Consider California and New York, both having proposed 50 percent renewables-based power generation by 2030.

California hopes to meet this renewables goal while also eliminating storable, dispatchable coal and nuclear. California’s ongoing experimentation with its power sector has resulted in the country’s eighth highest residential rate (17.74 cents/kWhr) along with recurring threats of rolling blackouts due to over-dependency on interruptible natural gas supplies. The state imports 33.5 percent of its electricity from out of state and is in near proximity to states with some of the richest solar, wind and hydro resources in the U.S. 
Georgia has no such geographic advantage. Moreover, outsourcing power generation constitutes a loss of in-state revenue and reduces state’s energy independence.

New York’s residential rate of 17.73 cents/kWhr is the ninth highest in the country, and the state doesn’t intentionally preclude nuclear power in its policy. However, its merchant-market model combined with its aggressive renewable energy goals have power merchants chasing short-term marginal investments (e.g., natural gas and subsidized renewables) to the exclusion of zero-carbon nuclear. 
After climate scientists and industry experts expressed their deep concerns, the policy was critically analyzed, and New York’s PSC realized they couldn’t attain the renewables standard without adding fossil fuel capacity to offset the loss of nuclear. Their renewables standard would have actually increased carbon emissions.

While California experiments with its power sector and New York corrects bad policy, Georgia’s PSC has taken a forward-thinking approach that doesn’t lock the state into unprecedented renewable standards with unknown consequences. Not the least of which could impact Georgia’s 11.51 cents/kWhr residential rate (1.61 cents below the national average). 
Instead, the commission has embarked on a resource planning approach that actually is integrated as it grows nuclear and renewables together, rather than forcing one or the other out of the resource base, and maintains flexible natural gas. 
The commission clearly recognizes that intermittent renewable energy requires dependable backup baseload energy, and that mandating high levels of renewables to the exclusion of zero-carbon, storable, baseload nuclear power, whether intentionally or as a market casualty, is impractical, threatens system reliability and is counterproductive for reducing carbon emissions. Their leadership sent a signal that Georgia is positioning itself to reduce carbon emissions while providing a secure energy future that will attract industry and grow our economy. 
Immediately following the PSC decision, I received input from across the country saying: “Perfect conditions for large-scale industrial manufacturers”; “Industry will flock to Georgia”. This, from individuals concerned about carbon.

The Georgia PSC went counter to the false hope that renewables alone can reduce carbon and sustain affordable, reliable power. As such, it should be applauded for its long-term planning approach, its foresight and its decision to take calculated steps with nuclear and renewables rather than unprecedented leaps into the unknown.

David K. Gattie is an associate professor of environmental engineering in the College of Engineering at the University of Georgia in Athens. The views reflected here are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the University of Georgia. He can be contacted at his blog: https://davidgattieblog.wordpr...