A color-enhanced image of the inside of the preamplifier support structure within DOE's National Ignition Facility, located at the National Nuclear Security Administration's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. (Photo: Damien Jemison)

Back to baseloads: DOE unlocks low-carbon energy options

Photo: A color-enhanced image of the inside of the preamplifier support structure within DOE’s National Ignition Facility, located at the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. (Photo: Damien Jemison) 

Carbon-free, cost-effective, reliable power that backs up renewables like wind and solar, built by U.S. companies and owned by U.S. utilities. This “baseload” power never depends on the weather. It remains reliable even when the wind doesn’t blow, nor the sun shine. We’re talking about the holy grail of energy projects envisioned by developers in the West. 

In the face of coal-fired power plant closures, the industry needs alternative ways to serve loads. 

To stay reliable as demand surges from data centers, crypto mining and vehicle electrification, the U.S. Department of Energy is partnering with industry to develop more non-intermittent, baseload power plants that would complement variable clean energy sources like wind and solar. 

While growth in electricity demand has hovered around 0.5% per year over the past decade, projections now suggest up to 6% demand growth per year, explained DOE Undersecretary for Infrastructure David Crane at the BloombergNEF conference in New York in April. 

Adding low-carbon baseload generation with dispatchable hydropower and high levels of other renewables could allow WAPA and its customers to decarbonize further while improving grid stability. 

Doubling down on fission

Nuclear represents one option. According to the Energy Information Agency, the United States had 93 nuclear power reactors at 54 facilities operating in 2023, with a total installed capacity of nearly 95 gigawatts. This represents around 19% of U.S. electrical generation, accounting for around half of the nation’s carbon-free electricity. Making up the other half, renewables, including hydropower, currently provide roughly 21% of U.S. electricity output. 

Despite the recent cancellation of a major project, small modular reactors, or SMRs – which are envisioned as factory-made, componentized nuclear reactors – continue to advance through DOE-sponsored projects. Much smaller in size than traditional nuclear reactors, in SMR designs, each small reactor operates independently. 

“I am bullish on the future of nuclear energy,” said Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm in a recent tweet. “We are in a transformational moment where we can build advanced nuclear reactors at a pace and scale not seen since the 1970s.” 

For example, a proposed project in southwestern Wyoming, supported with nearly $2 billion from DOE’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program, aims to develop a plant capable of producing 345 megawatts of baseload electricity using liquid sodium instead of water as a coolant. 

TerraPower plans to locate its SMR facility near a retiring coal-fired power plant in Wyoming. When it enters operations, projected for 2030, the nuclear facility could hire up to 100 former coal plant workers. The developer, backed by Microsoft’s Bill Gates, submitted its construction permit application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in March. 

Modular reactors and other advanced nuclear technologies represent an exciting new area of development as the West adapts to a changing energy landscape. 

“The market opportunity for advanced nuclear right now is better than it’s ever been because of its obvious match with data centers,” explained DOE’s Crane during the recent BloombergNEF conference. “But there are other technologies as well, and so we would love to work arm in arm with the high-tech companies.” 

Refining earth power

Tapping thermal energy from below the earth’s crust has long been a renewable energy source. However, geothermal energy has remained expensive relative to cheaper power sources. Hawaii and other places with frequent volcanic activity have harnessed it for decades. 

Seeing its potential, the Department of Energy continues to move the needle forward in expanding U.S. geothermal development. DOE aims to grow geothermal generation from roughly 3,700 MW today to more than 90,000 MW by 2050. 

“The U.S. can lead the clean energy future with continued innovation on next-generation technologies, from harnessing the power of the sun to the heat beneath our feet, and cracking the code to deploy them at scale,” said Granholm in a March news release. 

A handful of states in the West are particularly suited for geothermal energy development due to the proximity of heated fluids near the surface. A DOE demonstration project in Utah, which tests innovative drilling approaches, has reported drilling speeds five-times faster than those of previous technologies. 

The current cost of geothermal energy ranges between $70 and $100 per megawatt hour. DOE believes bringing the cost closer to $60 per MWh would make it cost-competitive with natural gas, wind and solar. That would drive more private investment and development as the economics improve. 

Cultivating star-power

Fusion energy holds the ultimate prize for researchers but always (infamously) remains ten years away. It mimics the same nuclear reaction that stars unleash inside their radiant plasma cores. 

In 2022, scientists at DOE’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory successfully ignited a fuel pellet using nearly 200 lasers. For the first time, the reaction produced more energy than it consumed. That achievement represented a significant milestone toward this elusive quest six decades in the making. 

The LLNL researchers need to harness that same ignition 15 times per second to reach the level required for commercial power production. They’ve set their sights on fusion-based electric power at $50 per MWh within 10 years. 

In December, DOE funded three “fusion hubs,” leveraging capabilities across DOE’s National Laboratories, academia and industry start-ups, which are racing each other – and companies and governments worldwide – to develop a fusion design worthy of a commercial-scale demonstration project. These consortia, led by LLNL, University of Rochester and Colorado State University, will address critical science and technology gaps in the supply chain and industry to achieve utility-scale power with net-zero emissions by 2050. 

“Our goal is to help establish a long-term sustainable and flourishing scientific research enterprise for fusion energy and plasma science that will help accelerate these technologies to commercialization,” said Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, then director of DOE’s Office of Science, in a 2023 news release. 

The enduring value of hydropower

No matter what new technologies come to fruition, WAPA’s core hydropower product will continue to deliver value. Grid operators can rely on hydropower, turning dams on and off when energy markets and the grid need it most. Utilities can call on hydro to kick-start their facilities when they need a “black start” after a power outage. Organized energy markets will continue to need hydropower to firm up their variable energy mixes. 

The value of hydropower in the West will continue to evolve as WAPA changes to meet the demands of the day.

US Electricity Generation PortfolioClick here to see full size graphic

View Recent Articles

Day in the life of Power System Dispatchers

Learn about the intricate world of WAPA’s Power System Dispatchers, who ensure the safe and reliable operation of the electric grid amid complex and challenging conditions.

WAPA IT supervisor finds passion in blacksmithing

Marks Phelps is an IT supervisor at WAPA who is passionate about blacksmithing.

Desert Southwest’s Record Archival Project

Discover how WAPA’s record archival project is preserving history, optimizing space, and transitioning to digital records in a milestone effort.

Remembering D-Day

As we commemorate the 80th anniversary of D-Day, we pause to honor the bravery, sacrifice and determination of the Allied forces who undertook this monumental task.