By Ian Lund
In May, the Montana Legislative Energy & Telecommunications Interim Committee heard from utilities and experts on an array of pressing energy topics. Along with refreshing spring weather, it seemed that decarbonization was in the air, as legislators dug into important questions regarding useful applications of renewable energy and battery storage, capturing the value of energy efficiency, and the costs of developing experimental nuclear technology.
Renewable Energy and Battery Storage
The first panel featured exciting emerging decarbonization technologies. Form Energy, an energy storage company founded by former Tesla employees, is developing a new “iron-air” battery that will be able to store and discharge energy for up to 100 hours. This is a significant improvement over the current best-in-market chemical storage technology, lithium-ion, which can only sustain about four hours of continuous energy delivery before needing to recharge. If Form proves that its technology meets expectations in its first demonstration project next year, it will be a significant step forward for distributed energy resources.
NorthWestern Energy’s spokesperson spoke about renewables and battery storage and inadvertently made a case for the usefulness of more advanced battery technology. He delivered typical talking points about how renewable energy could not reliably deliver adequate supply during peak events, especially in the winter. He also bemoaned the limitations of four- and eight-hour battery storage, given that they could not meet multi-day high-demand during winter cold spells. NorthWestern is not considering Form’s 100-hour battery in its current Resource Procurement Plan, but more data and continued demand for renewable energy may push it to consider better battery storage in its 2024 Resource Procurement Plan.
Advanced meter infrastructure (AMI) has the potential for two-way communication between the utility and residential and commercial buildings. Property owners get more visibility into and control over their real-time energy consumption and costs.
Chris Villarreal, president of Plugged In Strategies, presented numerous potential benefits that AMI can unlock for utility customers, while noting that almost all utilities that have deployed AMI have not maximized its benefits for end-users. The opportunities to use energy more efficiently with AMI technology are significant but if they aren’t utilitized, it could be a very expensive lost opportunity.
NorthWestern is rolling out a new line of advanced meters to measure how customers use electricity. Advanced meters collect data on energy usage in regular 15- to 60-minute intervals, whereas legacy meters must be manually read once a month. The data generated from electricity users can be very valuable in terms of grid modernization and decarbonization efforts if properly utilized. The question is, will NorthWestern develop the necessary programs to make use of the many customer and efficiency benefits that AMI offers?
John Thurmond, NorthWestern’s Director of Customer Interaction, reported that NorthWestern was focusing on operational benefits for itself, such as using the meters to improve awareness of and response to outages.
“AMI provides support for new regulat[ions] and policy to support electrification, renewables, conservation programs, distributed automation, and demand response,” Thurmond said. However, he added that NorthWestern currently does not have concrete plans to leverage AMI data to deliver benefits to customers. NorthWestern is going to conduct a conservation potential assessment, which will quantify the energy conservation opportunities in its territory. MEIC is pressuring NorthWestern to make sure that the assessment includes customer benefits from AMI.
Diego Rivas of the Northwest Energy Coalition and Weston Berg of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy advocated the development of an Energy Efficiency Resource Standard at the meeting. Energy efficiency is a low-cost alternative to building new methane gas plants for utilities. Cost-effective efficiency reduces the need to build new generation, transmission, and distribution infrastructure, and has no operating or maintenance costs. For utilities such as NorthWestern, which are concerned about having enough electricity supply to meet demand, efficiency reduces demand and the utility’s need to procure more supply. By reducing energy losses and demand, efficiency also reduces the utility’s exposure to volatile energy and gas prices. Rivas said efficiency is the fastest and cheapest to build, as well as being the cleanest resource. As the saying goes, the cleanest electricity is the electricity you don’t use.
Given the very real possibility of the Colstrip plant’s closure in the near future, lawmakers passed a bill during the 2021 Session to study the feasibility of building a small modular nuclear reactor (SMR) at the site. At this meeting, expert witnesses from all sides made their case for and against the hefty cost of building a new nuclear facility.
David Schlissel of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis and Dr. Mark Cooper of Vermont Law School spoke about the exorbitant costs and unreliable estimates for SMR projects based on their extensive experience and research. Rusty Cannon, president of the Utah Taxpayers Association, said his organization strongly opposes Utah municipal utilities spending more ratepayer money to develop nuclear power technology.
According to these speakers, SMRs are not yet a commercially viable technology. They are far from cost-competitive with fossil fuels, especially when compared to existing carbon-free resources such as wind and solar. The speakers argued that ratepayers should not have to shoulder the costs of these experiments because the SMR costs are both high and unpredictable. Schlissel focused on how the only predictable thing about nuclear power is that after a five- to 15-year construction period, ratepayers are almost guaranteed to owe far more than the initial estimates.
Ed Davis of the Pegasus Group, a consultant with the Department of Energy’s loan program, and Matt Crozat of the Nuclear Energy Institute, a nuclear industry front group, spoke as proponents for investing in nuclear energy. Davis said that nuclear power currently provides 23% of the U.S.’ electricity and more than 50% of its carbon-free energy. He also emphasized the federal government’s support of new nuclear plants as a decarbonization strategy. Crozat also leaned on decarbonization, citing a study that found that achieving 100% carbon-free energy with just renewables, storage, and transmission, would be more expensive than with including nuclear energy. He pointed out that TVA and Duke Energy both included nuclear power in their decarbonization plans. Schlissel countered, saying that TVA and Duke have 10 million and 1.6 million customers respectively, whereas NorthWestern only has about 500,000. This makes NorthWestern customers more exposed to increased rates than customers of those larger utilities.
The specter of ballooning costs was enough to make legislators think twice about whether making Montanans pay for nuclear power is a good idea. Even Sen. Terry Gauthier said he would consider supporting a “cost-cap” provision in a nuclear bill, limiting the amount of money ratepayers would be expected to pay on their energy bills for a new nuclear plant. For example, this could guarantee that ratepayers would only be on the hook for the original sticker price, but any cost overruns would be paid by the utility’s shareholders and not be recoverable from ratepayers.
It’s still unknown whether NorthWestern Energy may be interested in building a nuclear power plant, or acquiring electricity from one if it were built. It plans to model SMRs in its next Resource Procurement Plan.
This article was published in the June 2022 issue of Down To Earth.