As aging coal plants are retired, electric cooperative and municipal members of Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems plan to fill the void with a first-in-the-nation small modular nuclear reactor project. The Carbon Free Power Project features 12 modules, each capable of producing 60 megawatts of energy on demand.
The $4 billion facility—which has financial support from the U.S. Department of Energy—will be sited at the Idaho National Laboratory near Idaho Falls.
It is expected to be operational by 2027.
Nuclear will join wind, hydropower, solar, waste heat and fossil fuels in the resource portfolio of UAMPS, which provides wholesale electric energy to 47 municipals and cooperatives in California, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.
“Our members are very much committed to replacing coal power with carbon-free electricity, with renewables and nuclear power,” says UAMPS spokesman LaVarr Webb. “There’s a very strong commitment to reduce pollution, to reduce carbon emissions and to go carbon free.
“The challenge, of course, is that renewable energy is intermittent. The wind doesn’t blow all the time, and the sun doesn’t always shine. We need firm 24/7, 365-days-a-year energy that will be on all the time and that can really complement and enable the solar and wind projects. We do plan to do more renewable projects, but we have to have that backed up by energy that is 24/7.”
That’s where the small modular reactors come in. Each of the 12 modules will sit in its own containment vessel, sharing a water-filled, below-ground pool, ready to operate independently on demand. If only a little power is needed to back up a wind project, one can be activated. All 12 can be fired up for maximum output of 720 MW.
“It is challenging to integrate intermittent renewable energy into a system that requires energy to be available, on demand, at all times,” says Doug C. Smith, general manager for Lassen Municipal Utility District, based in Susanville, California. “Batteries may be a part of the solution, but they are not practical for supplying energy for long periods of time when intermittent resources are unavailable, and there are still environmental and safety concerns with current technologies.”
Smith says small modular reactors can fill this gap, ramping up quickly when renewable resources are not available.
As UAMPS members investigated avenues to secure nuclear power, Webb says they quickly ruled out building the gigantic plants of the past. They turned to NuScale Power—an Oregon-based company developing small modular reactor systems.
“It is vastly different than the traditional large, gigantic nuclear projects that cost tens of billions of dollars,” Webb says. “Very few of those are being built anymore. This is the next generation nuclear, which is smaller and safer.”
The U.S. Navy uses similar devices to power submarines and aircraft carriers.
“They have safety features built into the projects,” Webb says. “If something really bad happened—say, like a major earthquake, and the plant had to shut down—it would cool automatically and wouldn’t require any operators or outside electricity.”
UAMPS member utilities can choose to participate in specific projects. Not all are part of this project.
Idaho’s Lost River Electric Cooperative joined UAMPS about a year ago specifically to participate in the Carbon Free Power Project, says LREC Manager Brad J. Gamett.
As a full-requirements customer of the Bonneville Power Administration, 100% of LREC’s wholesale electric power needs are supplied via BPA contract—most, if not all, generated outside Idaho, Gamett says.
Citing the Energy Information Administration, Gamett says more than two-thirds of Idaho’s power comes from out of state. Producing more power closer to home is a draw, he adds.
Although LREC likely will continue to get the bulk of its power from BPA, the co-op wants to diversify its resource portfolio and support the project because of its proximity to the co-op’s service territory.
“It would be a game changer for eastern Idaho,” Gamett says. “It would be the largest single generation source in the state of Idaho and a major employer regionally.”
The plan has had some critics, particularly a clean air group in Utah, which prefers renewables and criticizes the economics of the small modular reactors. But Gamett says he hasn’t seen much public resistance to the plan in Idaho.
“There’s been a shift in public perception of nuclear power in general,” he says. “A lot of major environmental organizations are starting to shift support toward nuclear because the environmental footprint is actually smaller than it is overall with solar and wind installations.”
Ken Dizes, general manager of Salmon River Electric Cooperative, says member reaction to the project essentially in “the backyard” of the Challis, Idaho, cooperative has been far more favorable than negative.
As a full-requirements customer of BPA, SREC already is predominantly carbon-free, thanks to its reliance on hydropower.
Dizes says participation in the UAMPS project is inspired by more than just the goal to reach for carbon-free options.
“We believe that nuclear energy should be part of the energy resource portfolio embraced by the world,” he says.
LMUD Looks to Boost Reliability, Reduce Costs
Lassen Municipal Utility District currently has one point of connection to the electric grid, and “We experience frequent outages, sometimes lasting for several days or even weeks,” says General Manager Doug C. Smith.
Usually, LMUD turns to the Honey Lake biomass generator to avoid extended customer outages, but Smith says adding a new interconnection to the eastern side of its service territory will improve reliability—and, through a supply arrangement with Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems—reduce long-term costs.
“Because there are a large number of members, UAMPS can achieve an economy of scale that we cannot,” Smith says. “Their business model allows each member to choose whether or not to participate in each individual project, as well as the level of their participation. They also provide power scheduling and resource planning services that have value for us. They have a lot of expertise on their staff that we, as a small utility, can take advantage of.”
Smith says that is vital to his Susanville, California-based utility—especially in an ever-changing California utility market.
“Costs have increased dramatically for a lot of utilities, especially smaller ones,” Smith says. “Our transmission costs have increased about 400% over the past 15 years, and it appears that trend will continue, especially given that transmission improvements are necessary to address wildfire issues. The expertise UAMPS provides is important to help us navigate that changing landscape without passing unnecessary costs on to our customers.”
Smith says LMUD likely will end its power supply relationship with the Western Area Power Administration once the new interconnection is completed.
“They have been a great partner for us,” Smith says. “It’s ironic that we will be giving up a low-cost, carbon-free resource when we stop taking deliveries from the Central Valley Hydro Project. This is a below-market-priced resource, but the reality is that the cost of transmission to get the energy delivered to us is now higher than the cost of the energy. We believe there will be more economical opportunities through the new interconnection.”