NREL sees path to triple nuclear capacity by 2035, but there’s more to the story

September 19, 2022, 4:58PMNuclear News
(Photo: DOE)

Examining Supply-Side Options to Achieve 100% Clean Electricity by 2035 was written by research staff at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, so its reliance on solar and wind energy to decarbonize the grid by 2035 is not surprising. But that’s a big ask for any variable energy technology, especially if the nation’s largest source of clean power—nuclear energy—is relegated to a supporting role. Massive additions of solar and wind energy on the order of 2 TW would require a supporting infrastructure of new transmission lines, as well as batteries and hydrogen for daily and seasonal energy storage that would drive demand and capacity requirements higher.

In the NREL report, released August 30 by the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy (DOE-EERE), accelerated demand electrification (ADE) is evaluated in four scenarios: All Options, Infrastructure Renaissance, Constrained, and No Carbon Capture and Storage. In two of those scenarios, no new nuclear power would be added to the grid, but one—the Constrained scenario—acknowledges that “restrictions on renewable energy and transmission deployment make nuclear more cost-competitive.”

Once the model is tweaked to add those constraints, “the model builds about 200 GW of new capacity by 2035, even with modeled restrictions against deployments in 11 states.” Add today’s light water reactors, and the grid could have about 290 GW of nuclear capacity by 2035. Significantly, NREL’s modeling was based on federal and state policies that were current in October 2021, and the Biden administration and Congress have signaled increased support for nuclear energy in the year since.

Winds are shifting in Washington: As DOE-EERE acknowledges, the report was written before the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) became law, which—together with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL)—is expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, partly through support for existing and new nuclear generation. “None of the scenarios presented in the report include the IRA and BIL energy provisions, but their inclusion is not expected to significantly alter the 100 percent systems explored—and the study's insights on the implications of achieving net-zero power sector decarbonization by 2035 are expected to still apply,” said the DOE-EERE in an August 30 press release.

More has changed in the two weeks since the report was released. Diablo Canyon received legislative support in California to run until 2029 and 2030, and both Diablo Canyon and Michigan’s Palisades, which shut down in May, are in the running for civil nuclear credits. The DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy (NE) on September 13 released a report saying that up to 250 GWe of new nuclear could be deployed on retiring coal power plant sites. Congress is weighing supplemental funding to secure a reliable nuclear fuel supply, while Bloomberg reports that a separate deal could be in the works to speed federal approvals for certain energy projects, including gas pipelines and the transmission infrastructure that would be needed to support a major solar and wind buildout. The time is right to take a closer look at the report.

Ramping up: NREL modeled the “least-cost” generation, energy storage, and transmission investment portfolio under each of four scenarios and concluded that wind and solar energy provide would provide 60–80 percent of electricity generation in 2035, while overall generation capacity would grow to roughly three times the 2020 level by 2035. Meeting that goal would mean increasing the annual deployment of both wind and solar by more than four times current levels.

In all scenarios, significant transmission infrastructure is added around the country, most notably to link the wind-rich regions in the Midwest to areas of high demand in the eastern United States (see graphic). As modeled, new interregional transmission lines totaling from 13,000 miles in the Constrained case to about 91,000 miles in the Infrastructure Renaissance case would increase total transmission capacity from one to almost three times today's capacity by 2035.


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