A new study says it might be feasible to shut down the nuclear power plant near Richland as soon as this spring, and within two years replace the electricity it contributes to the regional electric grid using renewable sources, such as wind and solar.
Energy Northwest, which operates the Columbia Generating Station near Richland, strongly disagrees with the conclusions of the report, which was commissioned by the anti-nuclear Physicians for Social Responsibility of Oregon and Washington.
There are no plans to shut the plant down.
Physicians for Social Responsibility had utility economist Robert McCullough prepare the report after the Seattle City Council directed its electric utility in spring 2016 to move away from getting electricity from fossil fuels and nuclear energy, replacing them with carbon-neutral alternatives.
The anti-nuke group and Energy Northwest already have argued about whether it would be less expensive for utility customers to buy power from the marketplace — which would not be carbon free — or use power from the Columbia Generating Station.
The rapid drop in renewable energy costs in recent years has been shocking to everyone.
Robert McCullough, utility economist
The report, using data compiled by McCullough, states that the nuclear power plant costs ratepayers more money.
But Energy Northwest has argued that regional power planners have found that the nuclear plant reduces financial risk to customers. During the energy crisis of 2001, Columbia Generating Station saved utility customers $1.4 billion as wholesale power and natural gas prices spiked, it said.
Now, Physicians for Social Responsibility says that prices for renewable energy costs have come down enough that Northwest ratepayers could switch from nuclear power to power from renewable sources, such as wind and solar, and save money. The region has enough surplus power that Columbia’s output would not need immediate replacement, but it could be replaced by renewable sources by spring 2019, the report said.
Energy Northwest not only disagrees with the cost figures, but says that baseload power must be replaced with baseload power.
Columbia Generating Station is considered a baseload power provider because most of the time it operates around the clock, regardless of the weather, unlike wind and solar power sources.
The likelihood of your bathroom lights turning on at 3 a.m. if you rely on solar and wind is not very good.
Mike Paoli, Energy Northwest spokesman
In recent days, the wind systems with a 4,000-megawatt potential in the Northwest delivered zero megawatts to the Bonneville Power Administration because the wind was not blowing, said Energy Northwest spokesman Mike Paoli.
“The likelihood of your bathroom lights turning on at 3 a.m. if you rely on solar and wind is not very good,” he said.
Energy Northwest, which also has wind and solar projects, believes renewables have a contribution to make to a clean energy power supply. But affordable technology to store their production until it is needed is not yet available.
The proposal to shut down the nuclear power plant comes as a new study of breaching four Snake River dams is planned to satisfy a federal judge ruling on protecting threatened and endangered salmon.
The Bonneville Power Administration said that during a cold snap earlier this month, the Snake River dams were generating almost 1,300 megawatts.
The Columbia Generating Station has an output of 1,190 megawatts and is the third-largest generator of electricity in Washington state.