Clarification: Our reference to hydropower not being renewable under California code refers to large hydro projects of over 30 megawatts, and plants completed after Dec. 31, 2005. Small hydro projects of less than 30 megawatts and plants completed before Jan. 1, 2006 can be considered eligible renewable resources along with a few other exceptions. Info: California Public Utilities Code 399.12 

Commitments to 100 percent clean and renewable electricity are a growing trend across the country, and with good reason. The prices of many renewable resources are dropping to or below those of natural gas and weaning ourselves off the fossil fuel teat has become a matter of global resilience and necessity. The wonderful thing is, today it’s an achievable goal; many different approaches can be taken to reach it based on the state of the market, technological advances, and political definitions.

With the help of hydropower (not technically renewable under California code), Aspen, Colorado went 100 percent in 2015. Here in Truckee/North Lake Tahoe, roughly one-quarter to more than one-half of local providers’ power mixes are already renewable sources such as wind and solar. To reach 100 percent clean energy, private entities are looking to a solar/battery storage combo to make the jump, while Truckee’s public utility district sees nuclear as a potential means to achieve a carbon-free grid. Residents may also be given the chance to get some skin in the game with an optional “renewable rate,” which is hoped to further increase demand for clean energy. The potential is there, and with smart action the region is in position to make state and country-wide progress timelines for renewable energy look like gross overestimations.

Driving Demand

Last fall the Town of Truckee became the 50th city in the U.S. to make a commitment to 100 percent clean, renewable sources of energy. The Town would like to see clean energy powering all its municipal buildings by 2020, supplying 100 percent of town-wide electricity by 2030, and 100 percent energy — heating, transportation, etc. — by 2050.

“We’re really trying to get a ripple effect across the Sierra. Our goal is to get communities across the region to pass this resolution,” said Jenny Hatch, executive director of the Sierra Nevada Alliance, which helped guide Truckee’s new policy. “It’s really cool to see everybody coming together on this issue in a different way than ever before … and I think because of our current administration people are way more motivated to work at the local level and are finding it to be much more effective.”

The move by the Town of Truckee, the Sierra Nevada Alliance, and others follows a wave of momentum especially in California toward renewable energy sources — a bill is presently up to bat in the current session of the state’s legislature that would require 100 percent renewable electricity by 2045.

The Town engaged Truckee Donner Public Utility District (TDPUD) to talk about ways to get clean energy to go town-wide. One idea is a “green rate” residents could elect to pay specifically for renewable and clean energy — representatives of the Town and the district said they still do not know exactly what this rate would be but they anticipate it to be higher than the current rate. Of course, there is no guarantee that the electrons making their way to a home are the same electrons being produced by the district’s wind farm in Horse Buttes, Idaho, but this premium rate helps to drive demand for the district to bolster the renewable section of its portfolio and fund clean energy projects.

Truckee Town Council Member Morgan Goodwin said that when this rate was offered a decade ago only a handful of residents signed on, but community involvement will be a big part of ensuring its success. He also mentioned that the Town will consider paying the rate for all of its municipal buildings in its spring budget deliberations.

“We wanted to make this more of a leadership approach, and if it’s available to us we wanted to make sure that it’s available to everybody,” said Nicholas Martin, administrative analyst for the Town of Truckee. “This is an option, and the more of us that buy into it, essentially that should be bringing down the price of that green rate over time.”

Truckee is already ahead of the game, in terms of state and national timelines for renewable energy — California law currently calls for utilities in the state to source half of their electricity sales from clean, renewable sources such as wind, solar, geothermal, and biopower by 2030 — but there is still a long way to go to reach 100 percent. TDPUD supplies the vast majority of the town’s electricity, and in 2016 the district’s total energy portfolio included about 61 percent renewable or carbon-free energy — about 30 percent from the Horse Buttes wind farm, and another 30 percent from mixed sources such as small hydropower, and heat recovery. According to TDPUD though, the easy part is over. Because of the intermittent nature of many renewable sources such as wind and solar, the crux to filling the last third of demand is finding a stable source of energy. A baseload supply of reliable electricity must be available when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining, and the district currently meets that supply with natural gas power purchase agreements.

Should Nuclear Fill the Gap?

With the terms of some of its natural gas power agreements coming up for review in five years, the district is looking to potentially replace that portion of its power with a carbon-free resource, said Steven Poncelet, public information and strategic affairs manager at the TDPUD. The Town’s current goal for renewables includes only those resources defined as renewable in California code, but the resolution states that they may at a later date “deem eligible other zero-carbon energy resources not currently defined by California Code.” Poncelet said the aforementioned senate bill being considered by the state legislature allows for 40 percent of the energy goal to be made up of carbon-free resources. This detail would make one of the TDPUD’s leading potential energy sources viable to achieving the Town’s goal — a relatively new technology trying to cast off nuclear power’s bad name: Small Modular Reactors (SMRs).

TDPUD gets its power through a partnership with Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS), a collection of 46 western utilities that is currently looking to install 12 of these nuclear SMRs to create a 600-megawatt facility near Idaho Falls, Idaho, as part of its Carbon-Free Power Project. (According to California Information Systems Operator 1 megawatt is roughly enough electricity to power 750 homes at once). These reactors — small enough to be transported by semitruck — have been a concept for over almost two decades, but only a concept. They are, however, based on similar designs to those used in nuclear submarines for more than 70 years. The company that would build the reactors, NuScale, is the first in the U.S. to even submit a Design Certification Application for an SMR — a pivotal step in the licensing process — which the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is still reviewing. During the four-year licensing phase this assessment requires, Poncelet says the district can opt out at any time and be reimbursed in full. The TDPUD would currently be responsible for about 4 out of 600 megawatts, or 2.18 percent of the project’s development cost. If the licensing is successful and the district opts to go with the SMR project, they would have to fully commit around 2022/23, and the project would be projected to be operational by 2027.

“The reason that the UAMPS members are interested in the Carbon-Free Power Project is that it provides the opportunity or the possibility of a baseload carbon-free resource that would be at the same price as natural gas,” Poncelet said.

While Poncelet and NuScale claim the SMRs are cost effective, especially compared to other nuclear projects, UAMPS plans to spend about $5 million per megawatt on the facility — an Energy Department study found that costs per megawatt for natural gas and solar were $1.1 million and $2.2 million respectively. UAMPS and Poncelet say the cost savings will occur on the operations side of the project and the simplicity of its design.

M.V. Ramana, a physicist at the University of British Columbia and former researcher at Princeton University’s Nuclear Futures Laboratory, says the economies of scale of SMRs compared to full size reactors inhibit them from being cost competitive with other power sources such as solar, wind, and gas.

“I think that there are good reasons to be very skeptical of this proposal,” Ramana told Moonshine Ink, adding that making mass manufacturing of the SMRs profitable would take the sale of hundreds or thousands of the units — far beyond the 12 currently requested by UAMPS. “I find it very difficult to imagine that NuScale will be able to lower the cost to a point where it’s even competitive with large nuclear plants, let alone with other alternative sources of energy.”

In terms of safety, always a hot button issue when the word nuclear comes up, the SMRs are apparently much more reliable than full size reactors. The SMRs utilize passive cooling instead of a pump system, and the NRC actually approved NuScale’s design claims that their reactor can safely run without an emergency backup power source. Waste is still an issue however, and something Poncelet said will factor into the TDPUD’s final decision.

From the district’s perspective, if the project fails to get built, TDPUD gets off scot-free and will have to reevaluate its options — the only resource lost is time. If it succeeds however, and becomes a safe and cost effective nuclear power source, the district will be at the forefront of a groundbreaking carbon-free technology.

Big Solar and a Battery Baseline

Elsewhere in North Lake, Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows has teamed up with Liberty Utilities and Tesla with the goal of hitting 100 percent renewable electricity for the resort by December 2018. This plan is also based off a renewable rate structure that Liberty Utilities would charge Squaw Alpine and make available to all of its clients as soon as the rate is approved by the California Public Utilities Commission. Liberty supplies power to many residents in Olympic Valley, North Lake Tahoe, and a small portion of Truckee.

“We’re the number one client of Liberty Utilities in the private sector, and they’re listening to their customers,” said Andy Wirth, president and CEO of Squaw Valley Ski Holdings. “We’re already a generation or two behind on climate change, so what are we doing right now? Solar energy and renewable energy is affordable and available right now, as is the energy storage, so let’s do it right now.”

Liberty’s portfolio differs from TDPUD’s, in that its renewable energy is primarily solar powered, whereas the district’s is primarily from wind. The private utility’s solar sector, powered by the 50 megawatt Luning Solar facility in Nevada, currently makes up about 25 percent of Liberty’s grid power. Liberty is also in the process of building a new solar field, the 10 megawatt Turquoise Facility in Nevada, that is slated to come online by this spring.

The intermittency of solar power is still one of its main weaknesses, and Greg Sorensen, Liberty Utilities California president, says that the utility is looking to battery storage as a main partner for its renewable energy use moving forward. Sorensen said that the utility does not currently have the storage to prop up their existing renewable portfolio, and if their supply of renewable falls short of demand, the utility would have to purchase additional clean power through NV Energy.

This is where Tesla comes in. In addition to the 100 percent commitment by Squaw Alpine, the resort plans to build a battery storage facility called the Olympic Valley Microgrid Project near the Gold Coast area at Squaw Valley. The facility would provide up to 8 megawatts of storage for Olympic Valley’s residential and commercial customers, just enough for four to six hours of backup power in the event of an outage, but Wirth and Sorensen both say it would also be sufficient to pad fluctuations in the power grid, a practice called “peak shaving.”

Liberty’s total renewable energy will compose about 30 percent of its power mix following the construction of the Turquoise Facility, with the rest made up of natural gas and some geothermal, but Sorensen says they are committed to exploring clean energy not just for environmental reasons, but also economic reasons. The plain fact is renewables are getting cheaper. The main catalyst for both Liberty and TDPUD to grow their renewable sectors will be demand, not just from the Town of Truckee and Squaw Alpine, but residents and everyday people across the region. The renewable rates potentially offered by Liberty and TDPUD will be available for all of their customers, and as Jenny Hatch, executive director for the Sierra Nevada Alliance said, “It’s not to say that it’s not without challenge, yeah that’s true, but it’s basic economics. When there’s a demand, the source will be found.”