Tom Farrell doesn’t get it. Dominion Power, the utility of which he is CEO, has been all about building natural gas plants for the past couple of years, as it rushes to take advantage of cheap fracked gas. Out with the aging coal plants that had been its first love, in with the next cheap thing, and never mind the pollution! Then suddenly two weeks ago, faced with a question about climate change, Farrell told reporters the answer is more nuclear plants.
Mother Earth to Tom Farrell: The correct answer is “renewable energy.”
Most of the rest of the country gets this. Wind supplied more new electric generation than natural gas did in 2012. More people work in solar energy than in coal mining. Renewable energy has overtaken nuclear worldwide. Almost no one is building nuclear plants, partly because—here’s an inconvenient truth for you, Tom—they cost too much. Almost three years ago a Duke University study found that power from new nuclear plants is more expensive than solar energy, and the cost of solar has only gone down since then.
But Farrell is convinced wind and solar can’t provide reliable electricity to power the whole grid. You’d think he’d been reading propaganda from the Koch Brothers and had come to believe that if there are solar panels somewhere and a cloud crosses the sun, the whole grid crashes.
Can I just point out here that Dominion’s own North Anna nuclear reactors shut down suddenly in 2011 following an earthquake in Virginia, and the grid did not crash? Even though nuclear is one-third of Dominion’s Virginia portfolio, and North Anna represents more than half of that? And even though, while weather forecasters are pretty good at predicting regional cloud cover, no one can yet predict an earthquake?
The reason the grid didn’t crash is that grid operators make sure there is enough surplus generation available to keep supplying power even at times of catastrophic failure. And note that the nuclear plants didn’t come back online when the clouds cleared off, either. They were down for four months.
If nuclear power is more expensive than renewables, and it has to be backed up 100% with other forms of energy, for much longer time periods, where is the place for new nuclear?
As the CEO of a utility, Tom Farrell should know better. He should also know about the new study demonstrating that renewable energy alone—onshore wind, offshore wind, and solar energy—can power the entire grid 99.9% of the time. The study authors show that doing this would actually cost less than conventional sources of electricity, assuming you include in the price the “external” cost society pays for the use of fossil fuels. That is, if you factor in the cost of climate change, it’s cheaper to build renewable energy than new fossil fuel plants.
Climate aside, there’s other evidence for the superior value of renewable energy in providing price stability for customers and a whole range of benefits for the grid. And of course, for meeting demand at the cheapest possible cost, you can’t beat energy efficiency.
It’s time to face reality, Tom Farrell. If all you care about is making money for Dominion today, your natural gas strategy probably makes sense. But if you care about tomorrow—or even about the big picture today—it doesn’t. Either way, there’s no room in the picture for expensive new nuclear plants.
And if you’re sincerely concerned about climate change, now would be a good time for Dominion to invest in energy efficiency, wind and solar.
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Note to readers: Willett Kempton, one of the authors of the study cited above on powering the grid with renewable energy, will be speaking at a townhall meeting sponsored by Sierra Club and Environment America this Wednesday, March 13, at the MetroStage Theatre, 1201 North Royal St., Alexandria, VA. The meeting is open to the public (Tom Farrell is especially invited). To RSVP, contact Phillip Ellis at email@example.com or 571-970-0275.