In a park, nestled in a red rock canyon outside Moab, Utah — a short drive from a giant pile of uranium tailings — a crowd gathered for a celebration. Elected officials and community members mingled, and enjoyed refreshments.
Volunteers placed pieces of yellow cake in small paper bowls.
It was a facetious nod to the gathering’s purpose: to celebrate the removal of 10 million tons of toxic uranium tailings from the banks of the Colorado River.
“You never would have thought you would have all these people congratulating themselves in the community on moving 10 million tons,” said Sarah Fields, executive director of the nonprofit Uranium Watch. “They seem to be really dedicated to getting this done.”
Before cleanup efforts began about 10 years ago, elevated levels of uranium and ammonia were showing up in the river’s water near Moab. The contamination alarmed officials downstream in Nevada and California, and they called for the Department of Energy to step in.
Getting the pile out of the floodplain became a community rallying cry as well, Fields said.
“The (Department of Energy) pretty much from the beginning realized that if they decided to leave it in place they would be standing alone because the town, the city, most of the members of the community, the state, the EPA all said, ‘Move the pile,’” Fields said.
Workers began moving the pile in 2009. The tailings are loaded into train cars, and sent 30 miles north where they’re stored away from the river in the middle of the desert. With the 10 millionth ton moved, more than 62% of the pile is gone, which means many Moabites could see completion in their lifetimes.
Moab tailings site with Spanish Valley to the south
The Colorado Court of Appeals ruled companies must reclaim uranium mines that sit idle for more than 10 years
Recent images of the Van 4 uranium mine show a dark rig towering above a sagebrush and juniper mesa. Beside the scaffolding sit piles of loose white rocks and two metal buildings, one of which drips insulation from its ruptured ceiling. The site is one of western Colorado’s active uranium mines. But it looks deserted.
The operator, Piñon Ridge Mining, LLC, a subsidiary of Western Uranium & Vanadium Corp., is waiting for the price of uranium to rebound before firing up the mine again. The last time that happened was 30 years ago.
Just how long mines like the Van 4 should be allowed to remain open — but idle — has long been a point of contention in Colorado between environmentalists and mine owners.
Environmentalists argue the site should have been cleaned up and restored to sagebrush scrub decades ago.
But the Colorado Mined Land Reclamation Board, an eight-member panel appointed by the governor that enforces the state’s mining laws, has allowed mining companies to delay tearing down their operations by granting mine owners reclamation exemptions, known as “temporary cessation” permits.
This delay has frustrated environmental advocates. They see the unremediated sites as threatening wildlife habitat, water quality and a new West End economy based on recreational opportunities. They believe companies have relied on temporary cessation permits to sidestep environmental regulations requiring them to close and clean their all-but-shuttered mining operations.
And last week, the Colorado Court of Appeals agreed with them.
The court ruled state regulatory board “abused its discretion” by granting two five-year temporary cessation permits to Piñon Ridge Mining, which owns the Van 4 site. After 10 years of sitting idle, the court said, the Van 4 operation must be terminated and the owner must fully comply with reclamation requirements, restoring the site closer to its natural condition.
Phone messages left for the operator of the Van 4 mine seeking a response to the ruling were not returned Wednesday. But the president of the Colorado Mining Association argued it’s important to consider national security risks when deciding whether to close mines.
The court’s opinion could have far-reaching consequences. Owners of the state’s 29 active uranium mines — 16 of which have been granted temporary cessation permits, according to state data — may have to begin tearing down rigs and buildings and testing for radiation. The state does not yet know how many mines are past due for reclamation, according to the court’s interpretation. But it knows there are several.
“Those sites will very likely need to be reclaimed in accordance with this order,” said Ginny Brannon, director of the Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety.
The state estimates the federal Department of Energy holds about $14.5 million in bonds that companies front to ensure resources are available to restore closed mining operations.
Radioactive material used for roads, foundations, landscaping in mid-1900s
It turns out more than 100 properties in Durango were missed during a massive, multi-million dollar cleanup in the 1980s of radioactive waste that was once used for the construction of homes, buildings and roads.
Now, more than three decades later, the state of Colorado’s health department says these hot spots that slipped through the cracks need to be cleaned up.
“We’re now looking to raise the awareness of this potential issue in Durango,” said Tracie White, a remediation program manager for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “It’s been on our radar for a while, and we’ve been laying the groundwork. Now, it’s coming into place.”
A cheap and easy material
Durango is no stranger to the issues left behind from the town’s legacy with uranium mining.
In the 1940s, the U.S. government built a mill on the northeast side of Smelter Mountain, now the Durango Dog Park, to reprocess uranium tailings for sale to the Manhattan Project, which produced the world’s first atomic bomb.
After extracting uranium, though, what’s left behind is a gray, sand-like waste product that can be filled with radioactive components, like radium and radon. In Durango, this pile grew to 1.2 million cubic yards, enough to fill nearly 400 Olympic-size swimming pools.
Over the years, people freely used the uranium mill tailings in construction around town, said Duane Smith, a local historian and former Fort Lewis College professor. It was as easy as driving your truck up to the waste pile and taking a load…
The uranium tailings were a cheap, easy material to work with and were used for the foundation of buildings and homes, driveways and roads, including sections of Camino del Rio. The radioactive waste was even used as a substitute for sand in gardens and sandboxes.
The practice went unchecked until the tailings became a major public health concern in the 1970s, which prompted Congress to pass the “Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act” in 1978 to tackle the 24 worst uranium sites around the country.
Durango ranked in the top four.
In the 1980s, the U.S. Department of Energy estimated 122,000 cubic yards of radioactive waste had been used in and around Durango homes, businesses, public buildings, roads and parks, and that it would take years and millions of dollars to remove it all.
Greg Hoch, the city of Durango’s longtime planning director, now retired, said federal government officials went up and down Durango streets surveying for hot spots. In the end, most of the high-risk sites were removed and cleaned up, he said…
But properties were missed, not just evidenced by this recent announcement from the state health department. In 1997, it was discovered that even more hot spots beneath Durango homes and streets remained contaminated by tailings, a discovery that “unsettled” the city at the time, according to The Durango Herald archives.
Records identify 115 properties at risk
This time around, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is trying to spread the word that uranium mill tailings contamination potentially still exists on about 115 properties in and around Durango, but at this point, it’s still a bit of a guessing game.
White, with the state health department, said surveys in the 1980s estimated approximately 915 properties in Durango were believed to have the uranium waste byproduct. While most were cleaned up, there has always been an understanding that some likely escaped the effort, she said.
Recently, however, CDPHE was able to home in on which properties may still pose a risk after records from the 1990s were digitized.
“Now that the records are more easily accessible and searchable, we are able to identify properties that may still have tailings remaining,” White said.
Health officials suspect properties have been passed over for a number of reasons: tailings could have been relocated, properties could have been partially but not fully cleaned or, in some cases, the homeowner at the time refused to take part in the project.
Home buyers and sellers are not required to test for radon or uranium issues. However, if a seller is aware of an issue, he or she would legally have to share that information, said John Wells with the Wells Group.
But ultimately, state health officials can’t say for sure whether there’s a contamination problem until crews can conduct gamma radiation surveys. And in yet another wrinkle, that cannot happen until a disposal site is secured to take the waste – and there’s no telling when that will happen.
In July 2017, lobbyists from Energy Fuels Resources, a Canadian uranium mining company with operations in the United States, urged the [Administration] to shrink the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument in order to free up uranium deposits for future mining.
Some observers found it odd. After all, foreign competition and low prices had beaten the domestic uranium industry down to just about nothing, and lobbyists — including Andrew Wheeler, who has since been appointed head of the Environmental Protection Agency— had already convinced the Obama administration to leave Energy Fuels’ Daneros Mine out of the new national monument. Why would they want to go after more deposits?
Now we know: Those same lobbyists are pushing the [Administration] to order utilities to purchase at least 25% of their uranium domestically. Such a quota would throw a lifeline to the handful of uranium mining companies still operating in the U.S. and likely spur more uranium mining in the West — including, perhaps, within Bears Ears’ former boundaries as well as near the Grand Canyon. And it would continue the federal government’s long history of propping up the uranium industry at the expense of the people and places of uranium country —and maybe, even, of the nuclear power industry.
When prospectors with Geiger counters started scouring the Colorado Plateau in the 1940s, the government supported them, building roads to potential deposits, giving federal land to anyone interested in staking a claim, and paying $10,000 bonuses to those who found uranium. When corporations arrived to develop the prospects, the government again stepped in, becoming the sole buyer of the yellowcake they produced, virtually eliminating any economic risk.
Hundreds of mines and mills popped in Wyoming and across the Colorado Plateau, many of them within or near the borders of the Wind River Reservation, the Navajo Nation and New Mexico’s Laguna and Acoma pueblos. Many, if not most, of the miners and millers — and the people who eventually suffered from radiation — belonged to those tribes.
Decades before the U.S. boom got going, researchers had firmly established that European uranium miners (before the bomb, uranium was used to make dye) got lung cancer at much higher rates than the general populace. And in 1952, U.S. scientists uncovered the mechanism by which radon — a radioactive “daughter” of uranium found in at dangerously high levels in mines and mills — caused lung cancer. And yet the miners were never informed of the risks, nor were protective measures taken. In fact, the federal Atomic Energy Commission actively withheld this information from the public in a cover-up that benefited the corporations.
The government ended its uranium-buying program in the 1970s, but by then nuclear power was catching on worldwide, and demand for reactor fuel kept U.S. mines afloat and spurred new mining in Canada, Australia and elsewhere. After the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979, though, U.S. utilities stopped building new reactors. A global glut resulted in a uranium price crash, and with cheaper yellowcake flooding in from overseas, the industry withered. As of 2017, U.S. utilities were buying only 5% of their nuclear fuel from domestic producers, and mines and mills employed just 424 people, compared to 16,000 in 1979. While the industry’s future remains in question, its past legacy endures in the form of hundreds of sick miners and millers; abandoned, contaminated mines; and the ongoing, taxpayer-funded effort to clean up giant tailings piles near communities.
Now, the industry — led by Energy Fuels and Ur-Energy — is hoping the government will once again step up, meddle in the markets, and throw it a lifeline. The 25% quota would immediately and substantially up demand — and prices — for domestic uranium, potentially raising production to levels that haven’t been seen in decades. It could breathe new life into Energy Fuels’ Canyon Mine, which is near the Grand Canyon, along with its Daneros Mine and White Mesa Mill — the only conventional mill in the U.S — both located near Bears Ears National Monument. Ur-Energy, meanwhile, would see more demand for its products from the spill-prone Lost Creek in-situ facility in Wyoming near Jeffrey City, a community that bet everything on the uranium boom in the 1970s, only to see it all crash a few years later, leaving the town a husk.
If these existing, active mines can’t keep up with demand, uranium companies could revive long-dormant ones or seek new deposits. Both can be found in the White Canyon uranium district, which was part of the original Bears Ears National Monument but was cut out by the [Administration’s] shrinkage at Energy Fuels’ request.
Late last year, U.S. Department of Commerce officials visited the White Mesa Mill, the Energy Fuels mines near the La Sal Mountains outside Moab, Utah, and other uranium facilities. This spring, they submitted their report on the quota proposal to the [Administration], which has 90 days to act. Indigenous and environmental activists, including citizens from the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe near White Mesa, Utah, are protesting the proposal. And this time, they have an unexpected ally: The nuclear power industry. That’s because the proposed quotas will drive up fuel prices for nuclear reactor operators, which are already having a hard time competing against cheap natural gas-generated power.
That puts the President…who hasn’t hesitated to interfere in the free market in order to boost the coal and nuclear power industry — between a rock and reactors.
Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster.
The Energy Transition Act could be a model for ambitious policies of the future.
On March 23, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed into law the Energy Transition Act, a complex bill that will move the state toward cleaner electricity generation, clear the way for the state’s biggest utility to shutter one of the West’s largest coal-fired power plants in 2022, and provide mechanisms for a just transition for economically affected communities.
The bill has the support of the state’s biggest utility — Public Service Company of New Mexico, or PNM — as well as environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, Western Resource Advocates and the San Juan Citizens Alliance. National media are hailing it as a mini-Green New Deal.
Here’s a breakdown of what the bill does — and doesn’t — do:
Perhaps most significantly, the bill mandates that New Mexico electricity providers get 80 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2040, and 100 percent from carbon-free sources by 2045. Those are ambitious goals that will result in huge cuts in greenhouse gas emissions in a state that currently gets half its electricity from coal and a third from natural gas.
That said, it’s important to remember that “carbon-free” and “renewable” are not synonyms. The 20 percent of carbon-free electricity can include nuclear, since no greenhouse gases are emitted during fission, as well as coal and natural gas equipped with carbon capture and sequestration technologies. Carbon capture is prohibitively expensive — and unproven — but nuclear power is readily available from Palo Verde Generating Station in Arizona, where PNM currently gets about 18 percent of its power.
Also, “electricity” and “energy” are two distinct concepts — a common source of confusion. This bill applies only to electricity consumed by New Mexicans and has no direct bearing on the state’s burgeoning oil or natural gas production. Meanwhile, the Four Corners Power Plant, located in New Mexico but owned by Arizona Public Service, can continue to burn coal under the renewable standards as long as the electricity is exported to other states. But PNM plans to divest its 13 percent ownership in Four Corners Power Plant in 2031, leaving the plant on shakier economic ground.
The bill helps pave the way for the planned closure of San Juan Generating Station, located just north of the Navajo Nation in northwestern New Mexico.
The station’s owner, PNM, announced two years ago that it would likely shut down the plant in 2022 because it was no longer economically viable. Many aspects of this bill are a direct reaction to the pending closure, particularly the sections that allow the utility to take out “energy transition bonds” to cover costs associated with abandonment. Those bonds will be paid off by ratepayers, but not taxpayers.
This has irked New Energy Economy, a Santa Fe-based group that has been pushing PNM to clean up its act for years. The group, a critic of the bill, would rather see PNM’s investors shoulder the cost of the bonds. After all, the investors are the ones who have profited handsomely off the power plant for nearly half a century, even as it pumped millions of tons of climate warming gases into the air, along with acid rain-forming sulfur dioxide, health-harming particulates, mercury, arsenic and other toxic materials.
While the bill does not specifically force the plant’s closure, it does mandate the creation of standards that limit carbon dioxide emissions from large coal-burning plants to about half of what coal emits per megawatt-hour — effectively killing any possibility of keeping the generating station operating.
The energy transition bonds will help fund a just transition away from coal. Some 450 jobs— about one-fourth of them held by Native Americans — will be lost when the San Juan Generating Station and the associated San Juan Mine close, together with an estimated $356 million in economic activity annually.
The bill allocates up to $30 million for reclamation costs, and up to $40 million to help displaced workers and affected communities, to be shared by the Energy Transition Indian Affairs Fund, Economic Development Assistance Fund and Displaced Worker Assistance Fund. The Indian Affairs Fund will be spent according to a plan developed by the state, in consultation with area tribal governments and with input from affected communities, and the economic development fund will help local officials diversify the local economy. The bill also requires PNM to replace a portion of the area’s lost generation capacity, in the process creating jobs and tax revenue.
The new bill has some missing elements. There’s no provision for making amends to the people who have lived near the plant for years and suffered ill health, such as high asthma rates, as a result. It won’t stop Four Corners Power Plant, located just 10 miles from San Juan Generating Station, from belching out pollution (though it does provide for a just transition away from that plant if it closes by 2031), and it doesn’t address the massive climate impact from oil and gas development or transportation. The act is merely an official acknowledgment that coal is dying, and that coal communities could die, too, without help.
Nevertheless, the Energy Transition Act is remarkable in that it promises to totally decarbonize electricity in a state that has leaned heavily on fossil fuel for decades, while also lending a hand to communities that would otherwise be left behind. It is a good template, or at least a decent sketch, for a national Green New Deal.
Extra: Listen to High Country News Contributing Editor Cally Carswell’s new Hot & Dry Podcast for even more context on New Mexico’s Energy Transition Act:
Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Where coal-state Sen. John Barrasso got it wrong in a recent New York Times op-ed.
In December, after world leaders adjourned a major climate conference in Poland, Sen. John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican, penned an opinion piece in the New York Times headlined “Cut carbon through innovation, not regulation.”
Those first two words were enough to get me to continue reading. After all, when was the last time you heard a conservative Republican, particularly one who represents a state that produces more than 300 million tons of coal per year, advocate for cutting carbon?
“… the climate is changing,” he wrote, “and we, collectively, have a responsibility to do something about it.” What?! In one sentence he not only acknowledged the reality of climate change, but also admitted, obliquely, that humans are causing it — and have a responsibility to act. I had to re-read the byline. Had someone hacked the senator from Wyoming?
Unfortunately, no, as became clear in the rest of the op-ed. The “responsibility” thing was just the first of three “truths” that Barrasso gleaned from the climate conference. He continued: “Second, the United States and the world will continue to rely on affordable and abundant fossil fuels, including coal, to power our economies for decades to come. And third, innovation, not new taxes or punishing global agreements, is the ultimate solution.” Ah, yes, there’s the sophistry we have come to expect from the petrocracy.
Translation: We’ve got to stem climate change, but we have to do it by plowing forward with the very same activities that are causing it. And we have to take responsibility by, well, shirking that same responsibility and hefting it off on “innovation” instead.
Fine. Meanwhile, I’ll be over here getting rid of my growing love handles while I continue to eat three pints of Chunky Monkey per day.
Aside from the abstract answer of innovation, Barrasso offers two specific solutions to take the place of regulations or carbon taxes. The first is nuclear power. Aside from the waste and the uranium mining and milling problems, nuclear power can be a great way to cut emissions — as long as it displaces coal or natural gas, which doesn’t seem to be what Barrasso has in mind.
His primary solution, however, is carbon capture and sequestration. It sounds great. Just catch that carbon and other pollutants emitted during coal or natural gas combustion and pump it right back underground to where it came from. Problem solved, without building any fancy new wind or solar plants. But there are currently only 18 commercial-scale carbon capture operations worldwide, and they’re not being used on coal power plants, where they’re most needed, because of technical challenges and high costs.
Once the carbon is captured from a facility, it must be sequestered, or stored away somewhere, perhaps in a leak-free geologic cavern. Most current carbon-capture projects, however, pump the carbon into active oil and gas wells, a technique known as enhanced oil recovery. This widespread method of boosting an old well’s production usually uses carbon dioxide that has been mined from a natural reservoir, the most productive of which is the McElmo Dome, located in southwestern Colorado under Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.
Using captured carbon instead makes sense. It obviates the need to drill for carbon dioxide under sensitive landscapes, and it can help pay for carbon capture projects. But none of that changes the underlying logical flaw in the whole endeavor, which amounts to removing carbon emitted from a coal plant only to pump it underground in order to produce and burn more oil and therefore emit more carbon.
Barrasso writes: “The United States is currently on track to reduce emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, … not because of punishing regulations, restrictive laws or carbon taxes but because of innovation and advanced technology…” And he’s right. Carbon emissions from the electricity sector have dropped by some 700 million tons per year over the last decade. But it wasn’t because of carbon capture, or more nuclear power. It was because U.S. utilities burned far less coal, period.
Sure, innovation played a role. New drilling techniques brought down the price of natural gas, and advances in solar- and wind-power did the same with those technologies, making them all more cost competitive, displacing some coal. But Barrasso seems not to understand whence that innovation comes. It doesn’t happen in a vacuum. More often than not, innovation is driven by money, regulations, or a combination of both. Fracking was a way to increase profits in old oil and gas fields. Renewable technologies moved forward in response to state energy requirements. Carbon taxes would encourage renewables, nuclear and, yes, carbon capture, by making them more competitive with fossil fuels.
“People across the world,” Barrasso writes, “are rejecting the idea that carbon taxes and raising the cost of energy is the answer to lowering emissions.” He mentions France, and the Gilet Jaune, or Yellow Vest, movement, the members of which have passionately protested against higher taxes on fuel, among other things. But the yellow vests aren’t opposed to carbon-cutting or environmental regulations. They were demonstrating against inequality, and against the fact that the fuel tax was structured in a regressive way, hurting the poor far more than the rich. The lesson is not that regulations are bad, but that they must be applied equitably and justly. That, in turn, will drive innovation, and hopefully more thoughtful op-eds.
Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster. Email him at email@example.com.
Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva is pushing to make a temporary ban on the filing of new mining claims in the Grand Canyon region permanent.
He’ll be joined Saturday by tribal leaders at the Grand Canyon to talk about legislation he plans to introduce next week.
The Obama administration put about 1,562 square miles (4,045 square kilometers) outside the boundaries of the national park off-limits to new hard rock mining claims until 2032.
Grijalva wants to make it permanent…
Grijalva says he’ll introduce the Grand Canyon Centennial Protection Act on Tuesday when the park celebrates its 100th anniversary.
Via the USGS
Fog-filled Grand Canyon
Fog-filled Grand Canyon
Grand Canyon from Grandview Point January 24, 2009 via the National Park Service
Crystal Rapid via HPS.com
One efficient and effective form of collaboration on the Colorado River, in the Grand Canyon. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism.
Map of Grand Canyon National Park via the NPS
Peter McBride at the oars and camera Grand Canyon June 2015
The confluence of Havasu Creek with the Colorado River (river mile 157) is a popular place for boaters to stop and admire the striking blue-green water of Havasu Creek. The turquoise color is caused by water with a high mineral content. At the point where the blue creek meets the turbid colorado river there often appears a definite break. NPS photo by Erin Whittaker.
Brighty the pancake-loving donkey: Bobby McKee rides his trusty partner, Brighty, while fetching water for residents at the Wylie Way camp in the Grand Canyon in 1918. (Photo courtesy of Marth Krueger)
Energy analysts used power demand data from the Midwest’s January deep freeze and wind and solar conditions to find the gaps in an all-renewable power grid.
In the depths of the deep freeze late last month, nearly every power plant in the Eastern and Central U.S. that could run was running.
Energy analysts saw a useful experiment in that week of extreme cold: What would have happened, they asked, if the power grid had relied exclusively on renewable energy—just how much battery power would have been required to keep the lights on?
Using energy production and power demand data, they showed how a 100 percent renewable energy grid, powered half by wind and half by solar, would have had significant stretches without enough wind or sun to fully power the system, meaning a large volume of energy storage would have been necessary to meet the high demand.
“You would need a lot more batteries in a lot more places,” said Wade Schauer, a research director for Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables, who co-wrote the report.
How much is “a lot”?
Schauer’s analysis shows storage would need to go from about 11 gigawatts today to 277.9 gigawatts in the grid regions that include New England, New York, the Mid-Atlantic, the Midwest and parts of the South. That’s roughly double Wood Mackenzie’s current forecast for energy storage nationwide in 2040.
Energy storage is a key piece of the power puzzle as cities, states and supporters of the Green New Deal talk about a transition to 100 percent carbon-free energy sources within a few decades. The country would need to transform its grid in a way that could meet demand on the hottest and coldest days, a task that would involve a huge build-out of wind, solar and energy storage, plus interstate power lines.
The actual evolution of the electricity system is expected to happen in fits and starts, with fossil fuels gradually being retired and the pace of wind, solar and storage development tied to changing economic and technological factors. The Wood Mackenzie co-authors view their findings, part of a larger analysis of utility performance during the polar vortex event, as a way to show, in broad strokes, the ramifications of different options.
We’ll Need More Than Just Today’s Batteries
A grid that relies entirely on wind and solar needs to be ready for times when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining.
During the Jan. 27 – Feb. 2 polar vortex event, a 50 percent wind, 50 percent solar grid would have had gaps of up to 18 hours in which renewable sources were not producing enough electricity to meet the high demand, so storage systems would need to fill in.
The grid would have to be designed to best use wind and solar when they’re available, and to store the excess when those resources are providing more electricity than needed, a fundamental shift from the way most of the system is managed today.
“In a modern power grid, all these advanced technologies are driving the need for more flexibility at all levels,” said David Littell, principal at the Regulatory Assistance Project and a former staff member for Maine’s utility regulator. Grid operators have to meet constantly changing electricity demand with the matching amount of incoming power. While fossil fuel power plants can be ramped up or down as needed, solar and wind are less controllable sources, which is why energy storage is an essential part of planning for a grid that relies on solar and wind.
Much of the current growth in energy storage is in battery systems, helped by plunging battery prices. A large majority of the existing energy storage, however, is pumped hydroelectric, most of which was developed decades ago. Other types of systems include those that store compressed air, flywheels that store rotational energy and several varieties of thermal storage.
Schauer points out that advances in energy storage will need to be more than just batteries to meet demand and likely will include technologies that have not yet been developed.
And that won’t happen quickly. He views the transition to a mostly carbon-free grid as possible by 2040, with the right combination of policy changes and technological advances. He has a difficult time imagining how it could be done within the 2030 timeframe of the Green New Deal.
‘This Is a Solvable Problem’
The larger point is that such a transition can be done and is in line with what state and local governments and utilities are already moving toward.
Feasibility is a key focus of the research of Mark Jacobson, a Stanford University professor, who has looked at how renewable energy and storage can provide all of the energy the U.S. needs.
He says an aim of using all renewables by 2030 is “an admirable goal” but would be difficult to pull off politically. He thinks it’s more realistic to get to 80 percent renewables by 2030, and get to 100 percent soon after.
“This is a solvable problem,” Jacobson said, adding that it must be solved because of the urgent need to reduce emissions that cause climate change.
Local politics may be the most challenging part of quickly making an all-renewable electricity system, Schauer said. To handle a big increase in wind, solar and storage, communities would need to be willing to host those projects along with the transmission lines that would move the electricity.
Interstate power lines are essential for moving electricity from places with the best solar and wind resources to the population centers. As more solar and wind farms are built, more lines will be needed. Schauer’s analysis assumes that there would be enough transmission capacity.
“I’m not here to say any of this is impossible, but there are some basic challenges to pull this off in a short period of time, mainly NIMBYism,” he said, referring to the not-in-by-backyard sentiment that fuels opposition to transmission lines.
Another important element is managing electricity demand, which is not discussed in the Wood Mackenzie report. Littell says some of the most promising ways to operate a cleaner grid involve using technology to reduce demand during peak periods and getting businesses to power down during times when the electricity supply is tight. Energy efficiency improvements have a role, as well.
Nuclear Power Would Lower Storage Needs
In addition to the 50-50 wind-solar projection, Schauer and co-author Brett Blankenship considered what would happen with other mixes of wind and solar power, and if existing nuclear power plants were considered as part of the mix.
By considering the role of nuclear plants, the report touches on a contentious debate among environmental advocates, some of whom want to see all nuclear plants closed because of concerns about safety and waste, and some who say nuclear power is an essential part of moving toward a carbon-free grid.
The Wood Mackenzie analysis shows that continuing to use nuclear power plants would dramatically decrease the amount of wind, solar and storage needed to get to a grid that no longer burns fossil fuels. For example, 228.9 gigawatts of storage would be needed, compared to 277.9 without the nuclear plants.
“If your goal is decarbonization, then nuclear gets you a lot farther than if you retire the nuclear,” Schauer said.
While the report focuses on a few cold days this year, Schauer has also done this type of analysis based on data for all of 2018, including summer heat waves. The lessons are similar, underscoring the scope of the work ahead for the people working for a cleaner grid.
“It gets even more challenging when you extrapolate to the entire year,” he said.