Can Wind Energy Serve As Baseload Power? The First Circuit Agrees with the NRC That, For Now, The Answer Is “Not Yet.”

In an interesting decision issued last Friday, the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, in Beyond Nuclear v. NextEra Energy Seabrook, affirmed the decision by the NRC rejecting a challenge to Seabrook’s relicensing posed by a coalition of environmental groups.  The decision seems clearly correct, but raises an important policy issue that is likely to recur as renewable energy technologies advance, so seemed worth mention.

The issue in the case was that the environmental groups, known collectively as “Beyond Nuclear,” contended that the relicensing proceeding should include wind as a “reasonable alternative.”  The NRC rejected BN’s contention on the ground that, because Seabrook provides baseload power, any alternative must also do so.  The NRC further concluded the intermittent nature of wind power means that it cannot be considered baseload without effective energy storage mechanisms, and that storage technology is “not sufficient demonstrated at this time.”

But what does it mean not to be sufficiently demonstrated?  As the Court noted:

The Commission explained that, because of the difficulty inherent in predicting the viability of technologies decades in advance, in most cases reasonable alternatives are those that are “currently commercially viable, or will become so in the relatively near term.”

On that standard, the Court determined that, on the record before it, the NRC had reasonably decided that wind energy could not provide baseload power “in the relatively near term.”

However, all hope is not lost for renewable energy backers.  The Court concluded by stating that:

If new information about the technical and economic feasibility of offshore wind as a source of baseload power, which differs materially from that which was available when the contention at issue was filed, becomes available prior to Seabrook’s license renewal, NRC regulations would permit the filing of a new contention, if timely submitted.

It will be interesting to see how the development of the storage industry affects these types of cases going forward.

One thought on “Can Wind Energy Serve As Baseload Power? The First Circuit Agrees with the NRC That, For Now, The Answer Is “Not Yet.”

  1. The cost of storage is the challenge. You can estimate the cost of storage as about $1/watt for the capacity of the electronics for converting power between AC and DC and back. Then there is the cost of the battery. The best cost I have seen so far is about $.40 per watt hour. If you were to use these numbers you would find that a very large storage system is really very expensive, much more expensive than the wind itself, when you consider that several days storage is needed to truly make wind reliable for base load power. There is also a seasonal problem, in some locations the wind blows in off peak months and then during the summer the winds are light. There is no way to store enough energy to smooth out the seasons with battery power. Possibly massive hydro might work for seasonal storage but I doubt it could be financed or even enough locations for storage of large amounts of water. One problem with trying to store a lot of energy for a long time, is there is a continuous leakage of the energy in batteries. This means that the larger you make the battery the more energy is lost in leakage. The modern high capacity batteries you purchase off the shelf have far too much leakage for long term storage. I am beginning to believe there will never be a battery technology that is low cost enough and can store large amounts of energy and do so with nearly no leakage losses.

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