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South’s New Power Push: Natural Gas and Tiny Nukes

In the South, electricity comes mainly from three sources: Coal-fired power plants, large nuclear reactors and natural gas plants, with some hydropower added to the mix.

Now, there's a push to build a new kind of nuclear power plant — tiny underground nuclear reactors — and for natural gas to eclipse coal as ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions below the Mason-Dixon line.

Credit: Public Service Commission of Wisconsin

Three prominent voices in electricity generation in the South spoke at the the Society of Environmental Journalists annual conference in Chattanooga, Tenn., last weekend about how they envision the region's power production evolving during the next 25 years to become more climate-friendly. 

While all of those voices advocated for continued development of renewable energy sources, one of the region’s most vocal advocates for renewables said he envisions a future where both natural gas and distributed power generation — that is, rooftop solar and other renewables — will unseat King Coal in the South.

The South is heavily dependent on coal for electricity generation, but, with the exception of Texas, not as dependent on coal as some northern states, particularly Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and West Virginia, many of which are also among the nation's biggest coal producers. 

“We’re kind of where, for some of the utilities, they’re going to be looking at what the digital camera did for Kodak — we’re seeing this kind of accelerating pace of transformation (which is) really going to define how we produce and consume energy in this country,” said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which vehemently opposes the construction of new nuclear power plants in the South.

Natural gas is the power source of the immediate future, he said.

“Being overly reliant on natural gas isn’t a problem,” he said. “It’s really not hurting anybody to be dependent on gas.”

Natural gas prices are likely to be less volatile than other energy sources because of the large amount of domestically-produced natural gas coming on the market. It also works well with renewables because natural gas-fired power plants are better able than coal plants to handle the fluctuations in power generation inherent in renewables.

However, with concerns about the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and methane leaks in the natural gas distribution system, natural gas is not a benign power source.

Advancements in fracking and horizontal drilling technology are among the reasons previously economically inaccessible shale gas has come on the market in recent years, raising concerns about how fracking affects, among other things, surface and groundwater quality.

Along with the natural gas boom areas in Colorado and Pennsylvania, the South has seen interest in natural gas drilling in the recent past, including drilling the Chattanooga shale in northeast Tennessee. Drilling in Tennessee has slowed because of low natural gas prices, but may pick up again when prices improve. 

“The fracking issue is one we’ve struggled with as an organization,” Smith said, adding that methane leakage is among the biggest problems with natural gas production. “I think there needs to be a more aggressive regulatory regime on fracking. I think we’re seeing mixed signals from industry about whether they’re going to accept that.”

Responding to questions about the environmental impacts of natural gas production and what that means for utilities’ increasing use of natural gas for power generation, American Gas Association analyst Richard Meyer said a “fact-based” conversation about the impacts of fracking is necessary, and the carbon dioxide reduction benefits of burning natural gas must be part of that discussion.

“Gas is going to become the dominant resource,” Smith said, calling nuclear power a “high risk” energy source akin to coal production and offshore oil and gas drilling. “The nuclear renaissance will disappear completely.” 

The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy opposes the construction of new nuclear power plants in the South because of fears of releases of radioactive waste, the high cost of building and operating nuclear plants and the potential for a disaster similar to Fukushima in Japan. 

Credit: Climate Central

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a U.S. government corporation that supplies power to 9 million people in seven states, is betting on the opposite happening with nuclear power.

Dan Stout, TVA senior manager for small modular reactor technology, said the TVA is beginning a nearly decade-long permitting process for up to four small modular nuclear reactors, the first of which would generate 180 megawatts of electricity entirely underground at the TVA’s Clinch River site near Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Putting nuclear reactors underground helps insulate them from terrorism threats, and making them modular — more standardized, with components for a reactor’s steam systems made in factories and shipped to the construction site — means nuclear power plants may be easier and faster to build in the future, he said. 

The Department of Energy envisions such modular reactors as ideal for small electrical markets and areas with limited water resources. 

The TVA, which currently operates six large nuclear reactors, expects the first of its small nuclear power plants to be operating by 2022 barring legal and other challenges and delays, Stout said.

Fracking May Be Polluting River with Radioactive Waste
Small Modular Reactors: Safer and Cheaper?
Fracking May Emit Less Methane Than Previous Estimates
Nuclear Power Cannot Compete with Cheap Shale Gas
Limiting Methane Leaks Critical to Gas, Climate Benefits


By Dave (Basking Ridge, NJ 07920)
on October 8th, 2013

It is one thing to be wary of a smoldering crippled 60’s era design nuclear reactor which is located in a truly severe tsunami/earthquake zone. It is quite another to cast the same sentiment onto advanced generation 2000’s and 2010’s era small reactor designs which in any case will be located out of harm’s way below ground and not on the Japanese coast. With all due respect, I suspect that Smith is guilty of this.

Today’s designs are very different from those of yesteryear reactors like those at Fukushima and there is a range of different modern advanced designs. In among them, the small modular reactor concept in the context described here is quite modern. The small size and modularity comes about because it offers some inherently interesting overall economic and safety features compared with traditional, large plants.

I personally think that the net environmental and health/safety benefits of advanced nuclear SMR designs, whether it is the particular design described here or a different potential future (generation 4) SMR design, could very likely outstrip those of large and especially early design nuclear power plants and thereby far exceed the comparable net health/safety risks of all fossil energy types just based on the relative impacts on air and water quality. This benefit is of course magnified when one then considers the vastly different relative climate impacts between nuclear and fossil, which, aside from hydropower, remain the only two basic choices for reliable base capacity energy production that we currently have. As far as I’m concerned TVA made a very smart choice.

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By Robert
on October 9th, 2013

Full Steam Ahead!
Nice Lip Service To Natural Gas Dangers!
Let’s Combine Natural Gas And Radiation For The Best of Both Worlds!

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By Robert Hargraves (Hanover)
on October 9th, 2013

You wrote “Natural gas prices are likely to be less volatile than other energy sources because of the large amount of domestically-produced natural gas coming on the market.” History shows that the prices are very volatile, as displayed by the DOE,

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By Eric Peterson (Front Royal, VA 22630)
on October 12th, 2013

Dave, thanks for giving that perspective.  It seems to me that the writers on this blog will present a negative view of just about anything that would lead to greater comfort for a greater number of people.

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