Power politics: Dairyland wisely explores zero-carbon nuclear; greens not cheering

By PATRICK MCILHERAN | March 18, 2022

One of the following two things happened this month. Guess which one didn’t:

1. Dairyland Power Cooperative said it’s exploring whether a cutting-edge miniature nuclear reactor might someday substitute for fossil fuels in generating electricity for rural western Wisconsin.

2. Environmental groups that have long declared carbon emissions from fossil fuels to be the moral equivalent of an incoming asteroid heard the news and, in joy, organized a parade to celebrate.

That’s right. You didn’t miss the parade because there wasn’t one. Greens didn’t celebrate. That’s one hell of a shame, if you think they mean what they shout about the climate.

Dairyland seems to mean it. “We’re all in on less carbon. We think it’s the right thing,” said Brent Ridge, the co-op’s CEO.

The La Crosse-based company is made up of about two dozen electric cooperatives that supply power to mostly rural homes, farms and businesses, mostly in western Wisconsin. Roughly 22% of the power is generated by wind and solar, most of it contracted from turbine farm owners. About 75% of it comes from burning coal and natural gas.

Renewables will likely be a bigger part of the mix by 2024 because a big solar project in southern Wisconsin is coming online, said John Carr, the co-op’s vice president for strategic growth.

Note that Ridge said, “less carbon,” not “no carbon.” No carbon is not an option anytime soon because the wind is fickle. At times there is enough cheap wind power available to cover 25% of Dairyland’s demand. But “in 15 minutes, it can be zero, and something has to ramp up to keep the lights on,” Ridge said.

Right now, that’s coal and gas. When wind stops, turn up the burners. If Dairyland wants to emit less carbon dioxide, it has to find some other power source that can “follow” wind the same way.

Thus, Dairyland’s memo of understanding with NuScale, the Oregon-based company that proposes to manufacture small nuclear reactors, bundle them in groups of four, six or 12, and create a nuclear plant cheaper and better than the regulatory mess that building a conventional plant has become.

There are many unknowns. NuScale won federal approval of its design last fall, but it hasn’t yet built its first commercial plant — it expects to have one in Idaho running by 2029. Dairyland has no site plans for a plant of its own, or any plans, really. Ridge said the co-op wants to see if the Idaho plant works out. “We’ll assess it and might not get to yes on it,” he said.

Still, the technology is promising. The design’s small size and the fact it needs no pumps or external power for cooling mean that even the hyper-cautious Nuclear Regulatory Commission isn’t requiring the customary 10-mile emergency planning zone. NuScale believes making the units in a factory to standard design will reduce cost overruns.

And, Ridge said, the units can be turned on in 15 minutes — individually, if needed — so Dairyland could use more wind power, confident that when the Midwest is still, Dairyland could still supply electricity.

Maybe it’ll pencil out, maybe not. If the utility can’t yet say, who am I to try?

It is encouraging, though, to see Dairyland thinking long-term. The co-op is the first Wisconsin-based utility to look at nuclear since the Legislature and the Walker administration in 2016 repealed the state moratorium on new nuclear plants.

The moratorium was a relic of the late-1970s panic after an accident at a Pennsylvania nuclear plant that killed exactly no one. In the 33 years it was in force, environmentalists’ attention turned to global warming.

The plausible scenarios in the United Nations’ latest report on climate project that such warming will add about one degree to the global mean surface temperature by the year 2100, but the committed climate alarmists claim we have only 10 years to “save the planet.”

So, you’d think they’d cheer if a utility explored a technology that displaces coal in a way that wind cannot and that emits exactly zero carbon dioxide.

Nope.

Ridge is generously diplomatic. “I was expecting a lot more negativity,” he said, especially given the flak drawn by Dairyland’s planned transmission line to bring wind-generated power from Minnesota to eastern Wisconsin. Instead, he said, there’s been little overt attack about the nuclear memo.

But not none: “Too slow, too risky,” said a Wisconsin spokeswoman for the anti-nuclear Physicians for Social Responsibility, a group that seems to conflate nuclear power plants with nuclear bombs.

The Sierra Club’s Wisconsin chapter hasn’t cheered the zero-carbon possibilities. Its website instead airily dismisses nuclear as not being “sustainable.” Inasmuch as Wisconsin’s existing nuclear plant, Point Beach, has run without problem for 50 years, two and half times the lifespan of a typical wind turbine with unrecyclable blades that must be landfilled, the Sierra Club’s basis for saying “unsustainable” is unclear.

If ending carbon emissions really is such an emergency, you’d expect a different reaction. Climate alarmists have already said we must stop eating meat, flying planes, living in suburbs and having children, such is the gravity of the crisis.

Here’s a utility exploring a zero-carbon means of powering society, something that windmills — which in 2020 supplied about 8% of the electricity that America used — cannot scale up enough to do. You’d think people who see a crisis would be pleased.

They should be. I think Ridge had it about right when he said, “Nuclear power is critical to the reduction of carbon in the United States. If you’re against the emission of carbon, you have to be in favor of nuclear power.”

Patrick McIlheran is the Director of Policy at the Badger Institute. Permission to reprint is granted as long as the author and Badger Institute are properly cited. 

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