Battery Storage Steals The Spotlight At Nuclear Power's Birthday Party

It was nuclear power's birthday bash, but Exelon CEO Chris Crane, head of the nation's largest nuclear operator, named energy storage the most promising technology of the future, one that could render nuclear power unnecessary.
"In our view the long-term viable technology that will drive a cleaner future is economic storage," Crane said at "Reactions: New Perspectives on Our Nuclear Legacy," the University of Chicago's commemoration of the first manmade nuclear reaction 75 years ago under the stands of its abandoned football stadium.
Crane's comments departed from those of former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who, delivering the event's closing keynote, insisted the United States must continue to pursue nuclear energy for reasons of both climate and national security.
Crane, who was Exelon's chief nuclear officer before he became CEO, still defended his company's 24 existing nuclear plants, because he contends energy storage hasn't arrived yet.
"Why can't we just do without it?" asked moderator Gretchen Helfrich, the "it" referring to nuclear power. "Why not just put solar panels everywhere and do without it?"
"Well, when we have an economic storage mechanism we might be able to go to that, but today the reliability, the resiliency and the environmental benefits of these central station baseload plants are not replaceable economically."
Even though the cost of lithium-ion batteries has dropped precipitously and promises to continue to do so, Crane contends storage hasn't arrived because lithium-ion does not provide all the features the energy market needs.
"Storage is becoming much more economic, but those are one-hour and four-hour discharges, and they only have a life cycle of so long," he said. "We need days of discharges."
So Crane is betting on whatever the national labs develop for next-generation energy storage.
"What we need to do is continue with the labs and continue the research that's going on: what is life beyond lithium ion, what is the storage mechanism that we can harness more renewable energy in that form?" he said. In the meantime, existing nuclear plants should be kept open, with license renewals and fairer financial terms, he said, but with the understanding that they are "transition assets."
Both Crane and Moniz concede new nuclear plants are unlikely to be built, at least new nuclear plants that resemble the ones Exelon operates today.
Economist Michael Greenstone described calculations in which he removed all the "interferences" in the electricity market caused by subsidies and policies that favor one energy source or another. With the playing field thus leveled, new nuclear power costs about 10.5¢ per kilowatt hour, said Greenstone, director of the Energy Policy Institute at Chicago, not accounting for the kind of cost overruns that have been lately occurring in construction. A new natural gas plant can offer electricity at 5¢-6¢/kWh.
"In this country it seems very unlikely today that we will see another 1,000 Watt-plus plant being built, at least in my lifetime, it would seem," Moniz said. "So we need some innovation here if nuclear power is to play a role in this very low carbon environment."
Moniz and Crane both also expressed uncertainty about the prospects of the likely form that innovation will take: small modular reactors.
"I don't know if all of this will come together to give an effective, attractive source, but we're never going to find out if we don't get there," Moniz said. "It's the kind of thing that we've got to find out if that dog hunts. Is it going to perform economically? It's got great safety characteristics. There are reasons to be optimistic from the point of view that if you have a much smaller plant you don't have the capital at risk. You may get better financing."
Crane pitted small modular reactors against energy storage:
"Is it the small modular reactor that can be economic in ten to 15 years that we can start to replace these assets with, or is it a storage medium that will be economic that we can commercialize with the support of the labs and create a different energy profile for the country?"
Then, moments later, Crane complained about just that kind of comparison:
"We're sitting here debating what is the best technology versus debating what is the best outcome, and the best outcome around those economics. And it's distractive conversation that we've all been pushed into," Crane said. "We need to come up with what is the outcome that we want and then how do we get there."

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