Advancing the Electric Grid: Look for Nuclear, Renewable Innovations

Innovative technologies are the key to renewable energies taking up the slack from fossil fuels as demand for energy grows exponentially.

Rising Energy Demand

According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory:

  • Solar and wind will account for about two-thirds of electrification by 2050
  • The global population will reach 9.8 billion by then and worldwide GDP will double
  • Primary power use in 2050 is projected to be around 50 terawatt, compared to less than 10 now

“Solar and wind will account for about two-thirds of electrification by 2050,” said Peter Green, chief research director at National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Peter Green

 

The global population will reach 9.8 billion by then and worldwide GDP will double, according to NREL’s forecast. Primary power use in 2050 is projected to be around 50 terawatt, compared to less than 10 now.

But NuScale Power intends to take a big bite out of future energy demand using ts innovative small modular reactors or SMRs.

 

Christopher Colbert

“The younger generation is new to nuclear,” explained Christopher Colbert, chief strategy officer. “They see nuclear as potentially a key contributor.”

The two experts discussed transformative electric technologies at an Icons of Infrastructure conference in Washington, Advancing the Electrical Grid.

Protect Our Power and the Bipartisan Policy Center sponsored the half-day conference.

NuScale Integral System Test Facility

SMRs solve many of the traditional problems associated with nuclear power, Colbert explained, from the potential of a toxic meltdown to the long planning and construction times. The 60-megawatt modules are assembled at the factor and delivered to the site. “There is no more construction on site,” Colbert said.

The reactor is 65 feet tall and 9 feet in diameter and sits in a containment vessel that is 76 feet by 15 feet. In line with simplifying the whole process, the cooling water operates on the convection principle – no pumps are needed to circulate it through the reactor.
The cascading problems of a meltdown like the one at Fukushima in Japan can also be avoided. The loss of power made it impossible for technicians to supply sufficient cooling to the large reactor.

NuScale’s modules shut down automatically when power fails. “If there’s no power, there’s no need for cooling,” Colbert said. “If you do nothing, the plant will be safe.”

Up to 12 modules can be connected to provide 720 megawatt of power, with modules added as needed. NuScale has already signed up the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS), even though the first reactor won’t be ready to go online until 2026. The nonprofit serves 45 community-owned power systems in Utah, California, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming.

solar panels
Solar panels

Similarly, new technologies in solar and wind will lead to an expanded role for these energy sources, Green said. “Already the cost for utility scale generation is cheaper than conventional sources,” the NREL official said.

Solar energy is limited by its reliance on silicon for photovoltaic generation. “Silicon is actually not the best material for solar panels,” Green said. It happened to be in abundant supply when PV panels were developed, but it is not the most efficient material. It is also expensive and harder to produce. “Crystalline silicon alone will not meet the projected terawatt power needs for solar energy,” Green said.

Perovskite, a simpler crystalline structure, is cheaper and more efficient, if less stable. However, a hybrid perovskite solar cell can be quickly mass produced and fill the need for the expansion of solar energy. “It would take three years to manufacture 25 terawatts of 15 percent-efficient HPSCs, compared to 170 years at current capacity for silicon PVs,” Green said.

Wind energy, too, requires great improvements in efficiency, Green said. Improving efficiency at the wind farm level is one of the “grand challenges” facing growth in wind as an energy source. Turbines need to be taller, and that will require lighter materials. It will also require more research into the atmosphere to better understand wind activity at those heights and how it will affect “rotating skyscrapers.” A final challenge will be to generate huge amounts of data and modeling techniques to figure out how to best leverage wind energy to service the grid.

Green feels the industry will be up to these challenges. “The drop in the cost of wind and solar tell you about the future,” he said. “We need investment to get game-changing technologies.”

Colbert seconded the notion and attributed the new acceptance of nuclear as alternative to a younger generation without preconceptions. He noted that city councils in 28 of the UAMPS municipalities had already voted in favor of the NuScale modules. “That shows there is not quite the opposition we think there is,” he said.

Even so, Colbert said three-quarters of NuScale business will be outside of the United States – in Europe, Africa and the Middle East – once the module is operational. “They have higher gas prices than the United States,” he noted, which has benefited from shale gas exploitation.

Also, many places in Africa simply don’t have the electricity resources Americans take for granted. “In some places, they shut off the electricity at night,” he said.

New technologies and greater use of renewable energy will pose its own set of challenges, Green said. Low-cost energy storage to minimize curtailment of wind and solar power will become more urgent. Artificial intelligence in the form of machine-learning algorithms will make energy use far more efficient, as will advanced power electronics.

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