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Some experts say nuclear pilot planned in Wyoming is risky

Proponents of a nuclear demonstration project in Wyoming described as having advanced technology has drawn great interest from local communities, with coal plants scheduled to close, as well as from state officials.

Bill Gates has money in the proposal by TerraPower, and U.S., Department of Energy and the utility giant PacifiCorp are also involved. Gov. Mark Gordon called it a “game-changing and monumental in Wyoming.”

In a 3,500-word piece, WyoFile found several well-informed individuals who think it’s anything but a game changer. They say the technology actually isn’t altogether new. Designs of today, said Edwin Lyman, the nuclear power safety director for the Union of Concerned Scientists, are largely descended from decades-old models.

“There may be some variations on them, but you know it’s not like this hasn’t been tried (in) many different countries for many decades,” he said.

Colorado’s Fort St. Vrain power plant, located along the South Platte River near Platteville, was one of these ancestors of plant being planned for Wyoming. It operated from 1979 to 1989 before being retrofitted to burn natural gas. It was, says Wikipedia, one of two high-temperature gas-cooled power reactors in the United States.

This demonstration plant would employ molten salt, boosting the capacity to 500 megawatts.

“It would be quite a feat to pull off,” said Allison Macfarlane, chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 2012-2014.

Risk comes in various forms, and Macfarlane said a key one is that valuable resources will be funneled to nuclear energy that could go elsewhere in the climate crisis fight.

“We can’t pin our hopes on [nuclear] as the thing that’s going to get us out of the next 20 years, and the next 20 years are absolutely crucial,” she said. “And so we absolutely have to just throw what we have behind renewables … because we know that technology works.”

Why utilities merger in New Mexico should occur

New Mexico’s PNM, the state’s largest utility, wants to merge with Avangrid. Go for it, says Steve Michel, deputy director of the Western Resource Advocates Clean Energy Program.

“Avangrid is the world’s largest developer of renewable energy,” he writes in the Santa Fe New Mexican. “It’s committed to combating climate change. The terms we have negotiated with Avangrid show that commitment. Unlike other utilities I’ve dealt with over the years, Avangrid fully embraced what we asked them to do on climate change and understood the importance of it.”

If the merger goes through, Avangrid will work to decarbonize PNM’s electricity fully by 2030, a decade sooner than state law requires.

And what about locally owned public power? Michel poo-poos that. Such efforts by Albuquerque and Las Cruces in the 1990s only resulted in years of litigation and millions wasted on legal fees. “And public power does not necessarily mean clean power,” he added. “Many municipal utilities happily rely on fossil fuels.”

Electrify everything? Not so fast, say New Mexico right-leaning group

Support by U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat from New Mexico, of electrification of transportation and buildings provoked a sharp attack by the non-partisan but reliably right-thinking Rio Grande Foundation.

“Just a decade ago, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups supported natural gas as a cleaner-burning alternative to coal,’ write the Rio Grande Foundation’s Paul Gessing. “Now, Heinrich, counter to the economic interests of the state he represents—New Mexico is a major natural gas producer—and against the expressed preference of consumers who use such appliances, is pushing to eliminate natural gas.”

He cites a Wall Street Journal story in reporting that Sacramento recently became the 46th U.S. city to begin “phasing out natural gas in new buildings.” But it’s not just California: Seattle, Denver, and New York City have all enacted or proposed measures to ban or discourage the use of the fossil fuel in new homes and buildings.

Why so few solar farms in windy Wyoming?

A 97.8-megawatt solar farm completed in 2018 remains Wyoming’s only utility-scale solar farm, although another 30,000-panel array has been proposed.

Why so little solar, wondered the Casper Star-Tribune?

“Solar is good here, but it’s affected by latitude, simple as that,” said Connie Wilbert, director of the Wyoming chapter of the Sierra Club. “We’re a northern state. And the farther north you go, the more seasonal difference you see.”

Bruce Parkinson, a professor of chemistry and energy resources at the University of Wyoming, points out that wind and solar could be complementary on transmission lines. “Wind in Wyoming is pretty much late evening, early night—and solar, of course, is only during the day. And so any extra transmission capacity can be pretty optimally used if you have both wind and solar connected to it.”

Allen Best
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