Guest Opinions

Nuclear can help power the future

The Columbia Generating Station nuclear power plant near Richland set generation records five of the last seven years.
The Columbia Generating Station nuclear power plant near Richland set generation records five of the last seven years. Courtesty of Energy Northwest

Our society must act with greater decisiveness to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and transition to a cleaner, carbon-free future. If left unaddressed, the growing threat from climate change could have devastating consequences for future generations. We cannot roll the dice and hope this problem simply goes away.

Regardless of individual views on climate change and how differently we might view the threat, I think we can all agree that cleaner air and water should be a common and achievable goal.

Our state recently adopted legislation requiring electricity in Washington to be produced by 100 percent non-carbon-emitting resources by 2045, making Washington the fourth state in the country to adopt such a standard. The legislation will eliminate coal power by 2025, require electricity generation in the state to be greenhouse gas neutral by 2030, and ultimately require a 100 percent clean electric system by 2045.

This is not an unachievable goal, but it will require planning and forethought. The law recently signed by the Governor provides a practical approach for meeting this target, without jeopardizing the reliability of the grid or greatly increasing the price of our electricity.

Washington is already one of the cleanest energy producing states in the country, thanks to an abundance of hydropower, renewable energy, and reliable, 24/7 nuclear power from the Columbia Generating Station. This is the key to attaining a clean energy future: an approach that is technology-neutral and values all carbon-free resources.

Too often the debate over climate change focuses solely on renewables, like wind and solar, and an unrealized expectation that battery storage technology will advance quickly enough to make 100 percent renewables feasible.

I believe renewables and storage have an important role to play, but they alone cannot reliably power Washington’s electric grid. The reason is simple: wind and solar only produce energy a fraction of the time and are unreliable during the hottest and coldest months of the year. If we want to have clean electricity 24 hours a day and 365 days a year, we will need energy sources that are reliable and predictable — capable of powering the electric grid when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.

This is why the inclusion of nuclear energy in the state’s clean energy standard is so critical. Nuclear power is carbon-free; operates 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week; is impervious to unpredictable weather; and already provides more than half of our country’s carbon-free electricity.

Nuclear also has the highest capacity factor of any energy resource — carbon-free or otherwise — providing clean, reliable power 92 percent of the time. Compare this to solar (25 percent), wind (35 percent), hydropower (43 percent; slightly higher in the Northwest), natural gas (51 percent), and coal (54 percent), and it becomes clear why nuclear energy is a critical solution to address climate change.

If we truly want to improve our environment and address the coming storm then we need to utilize every tool at our disposal … not simply the most popular ones. At some point in the future we may have the technology to power our world using only renewable energy, but at present this is simply not possible. However, we have the technology to create a world powered by clean energy, and Washington state is now providing a roadmap to achieve this critical transformation.

Brad Sawatzke is CEO of Energy Northwest, which operates hydro, nuclear, wind and solar facilities in Washington and Oregon.