The news has been increasingly bleak for U.S. nuclear power, replete with failed projects and proposed bailouts of unprofitable reactors.
In Minnesota, though, nuclear power is still a bedrock of the state’s electricity production, and it looks like it will stay that way until the 2030s.
For Xcel Energy, nuclear energy is critical to meeting its carbon reduction goals, particularly as it slowly jettisons its greenhouse-gas belching coal generators.
“Nuclear plays a huge role,” said Ben Fowke, CEO of Minneapolis-based Xcel, which owns the state’s three atomic power generators. “It will also increasingly play a major part in providing grid quality, which supports reliability.”
In other words, as Xcel in the 2020s moves from coal to wind and solar — which are inherently intermittent sources of electricity — nuclear will be a key source of “baseload,” or constant power.
“What we are advocating for is to run the [nuclear] plants to the end of their license life,” Fowke said. “We are not advocating for an early shutdown, and we are not advocating for life after 60 at this point.”
Xcel’s three Minnesota nuclear reactors would be 60 years old when their federal licenses expire between 2030 and 2034.
The reactors, one in Monticello and a pair at Prairie Island near Red Wing, have long been regional economic anchors. In Monticello, Xcel employs 450 people; at Red Wing, 600. By contrast, Xcel’s largest coal plants employ 90 to 160 people, and gas and renewable energy generators need even fewer workers.
Xcel is Minnesota’s only nuclear power producer, and Prairie Island and Monticello generate 30 percent of the company’s electricity in the Upper Midwest. Coal constitutes 29 percent of Xcel’s generation mix; wind and other renewables, 25 percent; and natural gas, 16 percent.
Including nuclear power, 55 percent of Xcel’s current power generation is carbon-free. The company wants to hit 85 percent by 2030. Xcel already plans to close two big coal-fired generators in Becker by 2026. Look for further coal power reductions from Xcel in Minnesota before any exit from nuclear power.
“I think Xcel’s main plan is to get out of coal-fired power,” said Michael Noble, executive director of Fresh Energy, a St. Paul renewable energy research and advocacy group. “Any pre-emptive closing of nuclear power plants could disrupt or delay that goal, and it’s a priority for everybody who cares about climate change.”
Nuclear power by far accounts for the bulk of the country’s low carbon-energy production. But it’s underappreciated, according to a recent report by Travis Miller, a Morningstar stock analyst.
“Its low carbon-emissions profile and reliability make it a critical contributor to meeting state and federal environmental policy goals,” Miller wrote. “The market underestimates the nuclear power industry’s positive [environmental and social] attributes.”
Investors, not just environmentalists, increasingly expect lower carbon emissions from the electricity industry, he said.
Still, it’s costly to upgrade old nuclear plants. Xcel has invested $630 million at Monticello since 2011, and $800 million since 2012 at Prairie Island, with another $500 million due to be spent at the latter through 2020. Nuclear plant costs were a major factor in Xcel’s last rate hike request.
Also, nuclear power comes with a big asterisk to environmentalists.
That’s because nuclear power’s age-old problem — how to store highly radioactive waste for the long term — has yet to be resolved. And while nuclear accidents are of very low probability, when they occur, they come with very high risks.
Indeed, talk of a “nuclear renaissance” began to fade after a 2011 earthquake caused a meltdown and radioactive release at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan. A nuclear comeback eroded further as the 2010s progressed and the economics of power production were increasingly upended.
The U.S. fracking revolution led to surging supplies of natural gas. Consequently, low gas prices sparked a rush by power companies to build gas-fired plants, which emit about half as much carbon dioxide as coal plants. Xcel plans to build an $800 million natural gas-fired plant in Becker in the 2020s to help make up for lost generating power.
Meanwhile, wind and solar power lured investors with tax credits, and renewable energy technology advanced while its costs fell rapidly.
“Ten years ago, I would never have predicted these [current] price points we can deliver for our customers,” Fowke said.
Xcel has been the nation’s leading wind-power utility for over a decade, and is in the midst of a five-year, $2 billion wind farm build out.
The rise of gas-fired power and renewables has increasingly priced out nuclear power in wholesale electricity markets, at least in the Chicago area and the Northeast. Those markets — unlike Minnesota and the Upper Midwest — are largely unregulated, leaving nuclear plants there more vulnerable. (Regulated utilities can recover costs through rate cases.)
Illinois and New York have passed laws granting “zero (carbon) emission credits” — subsidies, basically — to unregulated nuclear plants. Other states are also considering such credits.
In recent months, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has developed a “cost recovery mechanism” — i.e., a possible subsidy — for nuclear and coal-fired power plants that are hurting in wholesale electricity markets.
Meanwhile, one of the most historic companies in the nuclear energy business, Westinghouse, filed for bankruptcy protection in March. Its financial descent was amplified by delays and huge cost overruns at four new nuclear reactors, two each in South Carolina and Georgia.
The South Carolina project was abandoned by its owners in July after they had spent $9 billion, backed by ratepayers. The Georgia Public Service Commission voted last month to go ahead with a $23 billion project, even though its own staff concluded it was no longer economical.
After those debacles, “nobody is going to build a new nuclear plant unless you have a death wish,” said Arnie Gundersen, a nuclear engineer with Fairewinds Energy Education, a Vermont-based nonprofit consulting group. “It just makes no economic sense.”
With little new generation coming online, nuclear power is expected to fade over the next three decades as federal reactor licenses — like those Xcel has — expire. Analysts don’t expect that utilities or regulators will be keen on extending the life of America’s nuclear fleet from 60 years to 80 years.
Accordingly, the U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts that nuclear power’s share of the nation’s electricity generation will fall from the current 20 percent to 11 percent by 2050.
Morningstar’s Miller is more optimistic, partly due to nuclear energy’s importance for curbing carbon emissions. “We forecast that U.S. nuclear-generation capacity will remain mostly flat during the next two decades,” he wrote.