Experts say more renewable energy production, greater reliance on nuclear power and adoption of electric vehicles could help reduce volatility in energy markets and achieve clean energy goals. 

“As we and Europe and our allies and partners all shift to clean energy, we become less vulnerable to terrible tragedies like what’s happening in Ukraine,” RENEW Wisconsin Executive Director Heather Allen said yesterday during a webinar hosted by WisPolitics.com and WisBusiness.com. 

She joined a panel of experts to discuss the future of the Midwest energy landscape as gasoline prices around the country hit record highs, driven in part by the conflict in Ukraine. 

“The faster we shift to clean energy, the less we will be vulnerable to things like this,” Allen said. 

But Paul Wilson, the department chair and Grainger professor of nuclear engineering in UW-Madison’s Department of Engineering Physics, noted the difficulty with reaching carbon-free energy using renewable resources and storage innovations alone. 

While energy storage and renewable energy generation are becoming less expensive, he pointed to the “spans of low wind and solar periods” as a challenge, highlighting the need for “some sort of firm low-carbon” energy supply. 

“I don’t think nuclear is the next thing to be built in Wisconsin,” he said yesterday. “I think solar and wind are the obvious next choices. But we do need to keep our eye on the prize down the road of getting to very high penetrations of low-carbon technologies; we’ll need to start adding in things other than those sources to really make it all come together.” 

He explained two nuclear reactors in Point Beach are providing about 15 percent of the state’s electricity and are looking to extend their licenses for 20 more years. While he said “there’s not [an] immediate urge” to build more nuclear plants in the state, he noted La Crosse-based Dairyland Power Cooperative recently announced a partnership exploring new nuclear technologies with a company called NuScale Power. 

Xcel Energy, which provides about 250,000 Wisconsin residents with electric and gas service through Northern States Power Company, also recently announced a potential arrangement with NuScale to operate a small-scale reactor being built in Idaho. These small modular reactors are designed to be less expensive, require little to no downtime for refueling and require less emergency planning for potential evacuations in case of emergency, Wilson said. 

“I think all of those things put together make it a very attractive technology, but it’s brand new and nobody’s built one before, right? And so there’s a lot of uncertainty still,” he said. 

Aaron Annable, manager of foreign policy and diplomatic services at the Canadian Consulate General in Chicago, said his country’s government is “very actively looking at small modular reactors.” He said the Canadian Ministry of Natural Resources has created an “SMR action plan, to keep us on track toward accelerating progress” in that area. 

Both Annable and Wilson highlighted the potential role for these technologies in remote and indigenous communities as an alternative to burning diesel fuel. Annable said this application is “probably still a few years off” but said related discussions with these communities have begun. 

Meanwhile, Xcel Energy Manager of Energy & Environmental Policy Kathryn Valdez discussed the company’s goals of reaching carbon-free electricity for customers by 2050 and 80 percent reduction by 2030. Plans for doing so involve cutting coal from its Midwest operations by 2030, “significant renewable additions,” and extending nuclear plant assets, she said. 

“But that doesn’t get us all the way there, so the day we launched that vision, we also began to really dig in on what are the 24/7 technologies that we’ll need in addition to those wind and solar solutions,” she said, pointing to “aggressive” research into zero-carbon fuels such as hydrogen or a synthetic gas. 

In the short-term, Allen noted solar and wind power have been “beating coal economically,” and while natural gas has also been cost-competitive in recent years, rising prices for natural gas are incentivizing more wind and solar development. 

Valdez said Xcel’s Wisconsin customers “may want to be prepared” for higher energy bills due to the cost of natural gas being driven upward by the war in Ukraine. Still, she said only around 20 percent of the electricity the company provides comes from natural gas, providing “some cost protection” for customers. 

Wilson added “not all of the state is as lucky as Xcel’s customers” and relies more on natural gas for electricity. 

“I think many parts of the state are going to see increased electricity prices, increased gas prices … for most of the rest of the state, we’ve been growing natural gas pretty dramatically as we turn off some of the other supply,” he said. 

Both Allen and Wilson touted the importance of transitioning to electric vehicles, noting everyone in society benefits from lower emissions. Plus, they said electric vehicles are becoming even more environmentally friendly as more of the energy grid draws from renewable resources. 

“Once you own an EV, if you can hold onto it for 10 years, you’re going to get to take advantage of the grid getting cleaner day by day,” Wilson said. “Every time a new solar field is put up, every time a new wind farm is put up, your car gets cleaner and cleaner without you doing anything.” 

–By Alex Moe

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