By BRIAN HARTZ
The energy puzzle is a complex world of politics, big business, technology and countless environment concerns. There are many options to choose from, but which is the best? All have pluses and minuses, but one choice stands clear – nuclear power.
We realize the numerous and devastating financial impacts to the local economies and displaced individuals and their families should we close our nuclear power plants in Pennsylvania and across the United States. However, there are many other impacts to consider. How will we replace the carbon-free megawatts generated by our nuclear plants? Natural gas, coal and renewables (primarily wind and solar), are all options, but each has its own challenges.
We are blessed to have an abundant supply of natural gas in Pennsylvania. The evolution of “fracking” technology has led to low natural gas prices and the construction of many natural gas fired power plants across Pennsylvania. Although fracking has unleashed a bountiful supply of natural gas, its environmental challenges are well documented. Natural gas plants are not carbon-free; they emit greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Additionally, natural gas is a “fully interruptible” energy supply. Any interruption to the gas supply to a power plant causes the plant to shut down – immediately. There is no on-site storage of gas. Possible means of interruptions are numerous, including operational issues across the vast pipeline network, sabotage or terrorism, or pipeline constrictions. The northeast U.S. has a very high percentage of home heating provided by natural gas. During cold weather, gas supplies may be diverted from gas power plants to home heating needs, causing the plants to shut down and the need for an alternative power supply.
Coal has been the backbone of U.S. electric generation for decades. At its peak, coal generation accounted for over 50% of U.S. electric generation. Coal plants maintain a long-term fuel supply onsite in their coal yards, thus they have a non-interruptible supply of fuel and they are 100% self-sufficient. Through technological improvements, coal combustion has become much cleaner over the years, however coal plants are still a major contributor of greenhouse gases. In addition to these emission issues, coal combustion produces both fly ash and bottom ash that contain many harmful elements and must be properly disposed of to prevent further damage to our environment.
Renewable sources of electric generation (wind and solar) are clean and carbon-free. They may, someday, be the energy panacea we all hope for, once battery technology is advanced enough to store sufficient amount of electricity to “load balance” and minimize peak demands. The technological advances made in wind and solar over the last few decades is very encouraging. However, taxpayers have been funding this research as well as the construction and operations of these plants for years through the federal renewable electricity production tax credit and other similar programs. Renewables are also “fully interruptible” energy supplies. When the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining, these sources are not generating electricity. They have no on-site storage capabilities, so we need back-up, redundant, electricity sources to meet load demands.
Nuclear power is a safe, secure and cost-effective means of electric generation. The nuclear energy industry has a long and rich history in Pennsylvania. Commercial nuclear energy in the United States originated in Shippingport, a suburb of Pittsburgh. Today, Pennsylvania has the second largest nuclear power generation capacity in the U.S., with nine nuclear reactors that generate more than 38% of the state’s total electricity, compared to 20% across the U.S.
Nuclear plants run at very high efficiency rates and provide a non-interruptible source of electricity. Through the combination of power uprates, shorter outage durations, and thermal efficiency improvements, the U.S. nuclear power fleet achieved its highest capacity factor on record at 92.6% in 2018. Nuclear plants maintain a long-term fuel supply onsite and are 100% self-sufficient. They only shut down once every 18 or 24 months to refuel, making them a highly dependable, environmental friendly, supplier of base load electricity.
Reducing carbon emissions, assuring grid stability and gaining electric supply certainly are important pieces of the overall energy picture, but a key piece often not mentioned is the potentially devastating impact plant closures will have on the U.S. commercial and military nuclear programs – along with the impact to the nuclear engineering programs at our U.S. universities, including Penn State. Since the inception of nuclear power, the U.S. has maintained its world-wide dominance. Our university, military and commercial nuclear programs have worked hand-in-hand on education, technology and personnel. Retired military personnel have been a key feeder into our commercial program dating back to Admiral Rickover. Simply stated, closing U.S. nuclear plants will adversely impact our need to reduce greenhouse gases, jeopardize our position as the world leader in nuclear power, and threaten the security of our nation. We must keep our nuclear plants open and maintain our robust educational, military and commercial nuclear programs.
Brian Hartz, an Elizabethtown resident, is a senior vice president for Day & Zimmermann, the nation’s largest supplier of maintenance and outage services to the U.S. power generation fleet. He has more than 35 years of power industry experience, encompassing all forms of electric generation.