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Puerto Rico - SMRs or Fossil Fuels?

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Nevelyn Black's picture
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Nevelyn Black is an independent writer with a background in broadcast and a keen interest in renewable energy.  In the last few years, she transitioned from celebrity interviews and film shoots...

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  • Jun 3, 2020

In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico reaches toward grid modernization with dueling proposals.  Despite the previous scandal including shady contractors and the arrest of two FEMA officials, the island still needs a working infrastructure.  The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, (PREPA) is the island’s sole electric utility and is in dire need of repairs and restructure.  New Fortress Energy (NFE) announced that it had been shortlisted by PREPA, to fill the gap left by damage to Costa Sur.  For one year, NFE would supply the 500 MW worth of generating capacity that PREPA says they need temporarily.   However, there is talk of this becoming a permanent purchasing agreement.  At a cost of $70 million a month, it sounds steep but FEMA would be footing the bill.  PREPA CEO, José Ortiz, has been in discussions with FEMA regarding a grid modernization plan.  The island’s renewable energy goals are also being considered; 40% renewable energy generation by 2025, 60% renewables by 2040 and 100% renewables by 2050.  Queremos Sol, a platform for clean energy development and climate justice, argues that new investments into fossil fuels would conflict with recommendations that Puerto Rico invest in rooftop and community solar and distributed microgrids.  The organization believes these technologies would also fare better in earthquakes and hurricanes than centralized fossil-generated power. Battling for a seat at the table, nuclear supporters have encouraged the utility to consider SMRs and microreactors as a solution.   

Last month, a study to evaluate the potential for nuclear power in Puerto Rico was completed by engineers working on the Nuclear Alternative Project (NAP).  Key findings of the study show that residents need a steady baseload power plant to handle the demand rather than intermittent renewable sources like solar and wind. The group believes nuclear could complement the intermittency of renewables.   The challenges of SMRs and micoreactors in PR are much like any other place, residents are skeptical.  Public concerns, policy and engineering are the other challenges the study revealed.  A survey of 3,000 residents found that 94% are interested in nuclear power as an option.  Since the utility expects to retire 74% of its generation fleet in the next decade, researchers reviewed capacity and are confident that SMRs and microreactors can support the retirement of an ageing fleet. 

After comparing the two, the study showed that the cost of delivery of SMRs and microreactors versus natural gas for mobile gas units are comparable and competitive.  Further considerations must include installation costs, extreme weather, grid modernization, emission levels and which plan can be executed most effectively.  Whispers of scandal aside, should Puerto Rico pursue nuclear energy over fossil fuels?  What additional pros and cons are they facing?

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jun 4, 2020

A challenge comes from the timing as we still need those SMRs to reach commercialization-- the schedule looks good for the coming years, but until it's actually in place it's not 100% and the other places SMRs are being looked at aren't in as desperate need for new generation ASAP as Puerto Rico is. That said, successful implementation of SMRs on an island like Puerto Rico-- especially when officials sign off on the safety of them in a hurricane-prone region-- could be a huge perception and practice win for the future of SMRs

Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Jun 10, 2020

It would be a terrible idea to use Puerto Rico as a testing ground for SMRs.  Using what is essentially a type of colony for purposes such as this is just wrong.  As Matt points out, Puerto Rico needs a dependable source of electricity asap, not after SMRs manage to deal with teething problems, if they ever do.  Puerto Rico is at the mercy of US politicians, with no electoral votes at stake.  For the nuclear industry to take advantage of that relationship would be a cynical abuse of power, part of a long history of abuse.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jun 10, 2020

Nevelyn, NuScale's first multi-module power plant is scheduled to go live in Utah in 2025. Shortly thereafter, NuScale will begin mass-producing the modules for ~$300 million each, or about 1/3 the cost of 3rd-Gen "mainframe" plants.

Unlike solar and wind farms, they'll be able to provide power before, during, and after tropical storms due, in part, to our half-century-long detour with renewables. More importantly - they won't require fossil fuel backup.

So in answer, yes - NuScale's Small Modular Reactor (SMR) would be a perfect fit for Puerto Rico: affordable, clean energy which can be expanded as needed.

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