Commentary: An important new electricity source for Texas


Texas has a mixed bag of fuels to generate the state’s electricity.  This includes natural gas (55 perent), coal/lignite (24 percent), wind (14 percent), nuclear (6 percent), and solar (1 percent).

But this mix will keep changing since Houston and some other Texas cities are  “nonattainment” areas regarding air quality.  So, carbon emissions will still need to be reduced whether you are concerned about “climate change” or not. Not good news for coal, particularly.

Dr. J. Winston Porter is an energy and environmental consultant, based in Savannah, Ga.  Earlier, he was an EPA assistant administrator in Washington, D.C. He is a native of Baytown.

Another key factor: The Trump administration is likely to cut back on taxpayer subsidies for wind and solar.

So let me suggest an important addition to Texas fuel mix considerations, namely a new nuclear technology called small modular reactors (SMRs).  These units are a fraction of the size of existing nuclear power plants.

Compared with the large plants, SMRs can be installed much faster, better matched to electricity demands, and are expected to be less expensive and safer.

Now consider an SMR being developed by NuScale, an Oregon-based nuclear company, which recently submitted the first application for certification of an SMR to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The NuScale design is for a reactor that would generate 50 megawatts of electricity – smaller than one that powers a nuclear submarine.  The SMR is designed so that it can be built in a factory, and shipped by truck, barge or railroad to a nuclear site for final assembly.

As demand arises for more power, the owner could simply order additional modules.  Up to 12 modules could be located alongside one another, producing 600 megawatts of electricity.

What’s more, each module would operate individually, so that when one is taken offline for refueling or maintenance, the others would continue generating power.

The SMR is a concept that appeals to Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. At a hearing last year, Murkowski said she has “long supported and advocated for the development and deployment of small modular reactors,” with generating capacities of 300 megawatts or less.  She said the use of SMRs could be a “game changer ” for the power business.

The major advantage of an SMR is its ability to produce a large amount of energy from a small amount of fuel. A 50-megawatt SMR has 1/20th as much fuel as a typical nuclear plant.  And nuclear reactors, regardless of their size, generate electricity without carbon emissions or other air pollutants.

Also, safety matters.   The NuScale SMR is designed with a safety system that uses natural forces like gravity and convection instead of pumps, enabling the reactor to automatically shut down, without the need for emergency supplies of water or electricity.

Nuclear power can be a major adjunct to natural gas for most of our electricity needs, but those who look to natural gas as the overwhelming fuel for electricity generation ignore the fact that there is no guarantee that cheaper and plentiful gas will last indefinitely.  And keep in mind also that a very large amount of natural gas is needed in petrochemicals production and to heat our homes and businesses.

While wind and solar energy will have a role in providing electrical energy in some locations, they are far too variable to provide, 24 hours a day every day, the large amounts of base-load energy needed.

In Texas, now is the time to act to avoid future problems such as electricity shortages or excess carbon emissions. With the new SMRs, it seems possible we can have both inexpensive energy and a clean environment.