Shale gas means few new nuke plants
Cheap natural gas, high construction costs and a disaster in Japan have combined to dim prospects for a resurgence in nuclear power — especially in Texas’ unregulated market where utility companies must bear all of the financial risk of building new plants.The nuclear plants become more competitive after they begin operations, but getting there is very costly. Texas will probably see new construction of gas plants although there will still be construction of less efficient alternative energy like offshore wind.
Because new technology has unlocked natural gas in shale formations, its price has dropped and its use as a power generation fuel has grown.
“The shale gas situation is making it difficult for utilities to justify the cost of a new nuclear plant,” said Clayton Scott, chief nuclear officer for Invensys, a global technology company that provides control and safety systems to the power industry.
Despite the challenges, the government predicts that nuclear power will have a place in the nation’s energy mix for decades. Advocates tout its lack of greenhouse gas emissions, and market analysts note that natural gas isn’t likely to stay cheap indefinitely.
Two nuclear power plants operate in Texas, providing about 12 percent of the power on the state’s electric grid. NRG Energy’s South Texas Project in Matagorda County, about 90 miles southwest of Houston, has two units with a combined capacity of 2,700 megawatts. Luminant’s Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant in Somervell County, about 40 miles south of Fort Worth, has a capacity of 2,400 megawatts from its two units.
NRG is pursuing a permit for a future expansion at South Texas, but has no near-term construction plans. Exelon, which owns the largest nuclear fleet in the country, has dropped plans for an entirely new plant in Victoria Ccounty.
New nuclear plants can take almost a decade to permit and build, and are costlier than other options.
Construction of nuclear generation capacity costs $3,900 to $4,400 per kilowatt, according to the Electric Power Research Institute, an industry research organization based in Palo Alto, Calif.
That’s more than triple the cost of natural gas capacity — $1,060 to $1,150 per kilowatt — and even outpaces costs ofbuilding photovoltaic solar or offshore wind generation capacity.
At the middle of those ranges, a nuclear plant the size the South Texas Project would cost about $11 billion, while 2,700 megawatts of natural gas generation would cost about $3 billion.