Minnesota State Capitol Credit: Aine / Flickr

Always-on nuclear power plants make it tough for wind energy to compete at night when demand is low.

As Minnesota lawmakers consider a bill to finance life-extending upgrades for Xcel Energy’s nuclear fleet, an environmental advocate warns that committing to longer use of nuclear plants could hurt wind energy development.

The bill, scheduled for a hearing Thursday, allows the utility to avoid a traditional rate case process before starting nuclear plant upgrades expected to cost as much as $1.4 billion.

Howard Learner, ELPC

Removing regulatory oversight means “fundamentally that better, less expensive and more environmentally friendly energy alternatives” such as wind may not receive full consideration, said Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center. 

Wind is cleaner and cheaper than nuclear energy, he said. But that won’t matter if legislators approve Xcel’s request that the Public Utilities Commission approve expenses for Prairie Island and Monticello nuclear plants without comparing costs to alternative energy sources. Though the plants’ licenses expire between 2030 and 2034, the upgrades might improve their ability to operate longer.

Xcel’s own data reveals declining sales despite customer growth, Learner said, and he believes inexpensive wind, hydro, and natural gas along with continued energy efficiency investments could make nuclear unnecessary.

A nighttime electricity glut gets worse

The Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO), the regional transmission organization for the Midwest, has more power than demand at all hours of the day, Learner said.

The problem grows worse at night when wind energy generation skyrockets. About two-thirds of wind generation occurs at night, producing a glut of electricity. Meanwhile, nuclear power plants cannot ramp output up and down, meaning MISO must keep their generation on the grid overnight, Learner explained. The result: “must run” nuclear, hydro and wind generators sometimes receive little to no compensation for their power.

Xcel’s legislation comes at a time when “there is a huge surplus of power in the power markets, particularly at night,” Learner said.

Curtailment of wind power at night could become more common if Xcel keeps the nuclear plants operating. Wind developers may struggle to get financing because of a glut in power market, he suggested.

As the nuclear plants are being renovated over the next decade, energy efficiency such as LED lighting is expecting to continue to clip power demand by 1 percent a year, Learner said.

A growing solar-storage market “exacerbates the problem” by allowing solar to become a 24-hour power source. Wind power has no such option. “There isn’t a lot of storage being built for 400 megawatt wind farms,” he said.

Another group of potential high demand customers are electric vehicle owners. “Even the most bullish forecasts show electric vehicles are not not remotely close to offsetting the impact of energy efficiency,” Learner said.

A ‘complex situation’

Nuclear power remains a divisive topic in the environmental community because it emits no carbon but creates a long-term radioactive waste problem with no ready solution. Yet nuclear power has to remain part of the energy mix for Xcel to reach its goal of producing 85 percent of electrical generation from carbon-free sources by 2030.

When the company announced the goal last year, clean energy activists and environmentalists in Minnesota widely celebrated it even though about a third of the carbon-free power is expected to come from nuclear power.

Xcel is also a large generator and buyer of wind power. Its long-range planning calls for more than 1,500 megawatts to be built in the Midwest. But the utility will likely protect its wind generation from curtailment, Learner said, and that could hurt independent wind companies.  

Beth Soholt, executive director of Wind on the Wires, does not disagree that wind curtailment at night is an issue in the Midwest, but she said the bill comes amidst a backdrop of changes for Xcel generation.

“There are technical and market issues, the carbon reduction issue and the challenge of paying for it all,” she said. “It’s a complex situation.”

Soholt wants more details on how Xcel plans to stage several coal plant closures and construction of a natural gas, wind and solar plants. The problem of keeping nuclear plants on at night and competing with wind is just one of the many issues the utility faces as it transitions to a less carbon-intensive energy mix, she said.

Still, she’s not a huge fan of the bill as it is currently written. The nuclear bill appears “short on details,” Soholt said, and Xcel has not explained what the money will be spent on to upgrade plants. How the regulatory process would play out if the bill passes seems equally unclear, she said.

Critics have said the bill is “premature,” Soholt added, because Xcel will present a new integrated resource plan in February 2019. Legislators and advocacy groups will have a better idea by then of the company’s timeline for projects and Xcel could still bring the bill back to the legislature, she said.

The bill is scheduled for a hearing before the Minnesota Senate Energy Committee at 1 p.m. on Thursday, March 22.

Fresh Energy, which publishes Midwest Energy News, is a member of Wind on the Wires.

Frank is an independent journalist and consultant based in St. Paul and a longtime contributor to Midwest Energy News. His articles have appeared in more than 50 publications, including Minnesota Monthly, Wired, the Los Angeles Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota Technology, Finance & Commerce and others. Frank has also been a Humphrey policy fellow at the University of Minnesota, a Fulbright journalism teacher in Pakistan and Albania, and a program director of the World Press Institute at Macalester College. Frank covers the state of Minnesota.

6 replies on “Xcel nuclear bill critic says upgrades would hurt region’s wind prospects”

  1. I would argue that the only reason wind is cheaper is due to subsidies. If wind was not subsidized, it would be more expensive then nuclear.

    I would further argue that wind is not cleaner then nuclear when you take all the factors into account. Wind uses far more steel and concrete then nuclear, wind takes far more land out of production and creates more habitat loss for local critters. I will concede that there is a waste problem with nuclear. However, I would like to point out that if we re-precessed the waste, we could solve some of that problem.

    Nuclear power is the largest source of carbon free electricity in the United States. It is far better for the enviornment then any fossil fueled power plant. And as I already pointed out, one reactor on less then 1/2 a square mile has more energy density and causes less enviornmental impact then any wind or solar field.

    I’m not saying there isn’t a place for wind and solar. But with the push to de-carbon the economy, and add more electric vehicles on the roads, you could blanket the entire country with wind and solar and still not have enough carbon free energy. If we want to achieve a carbon free economy, nuclear power has to be part of the energy mix.

    1. Lots misconceptions to dispel here. Where to begin…

      From https://inovateus.com/2017/08/03/many-square-miles-solar-panels-take-power-u-s-smaller-think/ :

      begin quote——————-

      ““If you wanted to power the entire United States with solar panels, it would take a fairly small corner of Nevada or Texas or Utah,” he explained. “You only need about 100 miles by 100 miles of solar panels to power the entire United States…. The batteries you [would] need to store the energy, so you have 24/7 power, is 1 mile by 1 mile. One square-mile.”

      —————-end quote

      That’s for an all-solar + battery, no wind solution, not exactly a call “…blanket the entire country with wind and solar …” scale.

      NREL’s rooftop survey in 2016 showed that there is sufficient existing suitable roof top to cover 38.6% the power use in the US. See Table ES1:


      In other words, covering nearly 40% of the entire grid energy source could take up as little as 0% of new real estate (not that it’s being proposed.) By being sited at the load, there is also minimal grid distribution infrastructure overhead cost to roof-mounted solar, as compared to getting the power from gigawatt nukes to the load.

      Grid infrastructure more than generator failure is the reliability weak point, which means distributed resources such as rooftop solar (with or without battery) add considerable resilience to the grid in ways that large scale nuclear cannot.

      The levelized cost (no subsidy, lifecycle cost) of new wind is $30-$60 /Mwh, which at the lower end (upper midwest wind belt) is competitive with just the operating & maintenance cost of existing nuclear, and well under the $112-$183 estimated levelized cost of new gigawatt class lightwater reactors (based on the projections for SCANA and Vogtle, before the Westinghouse bankruptcy.)


      Theoretically new LWR nuclear could be built in the US with an LCOE in the $54-$77/Mwh range assuming a discount rate between 3-7%. But the financial risk is really too high for the private sector to take on (with good reason, given the SCANA/Vogtle experience.)


      I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for nuclear, but cost and energy density aren’t exactly the best features of nuclear. Energy density is a liability for grid reliablity rather than an asset, and the ongoing fuel & maintenance cost is high relative to projected costs for new wind, new solar (even new wind + battery), given the double-digit learning curves of wind & solar (and battery) technology.

      Building nuclear is more akin to infrastructure projects and takes considerable time to plan & build, whereas wind & solar (and battery) are technology, technology that is still rapidly improving in cost & performance, and more scalable to local loads. The future of nuclear in the US in it’s present form will be at best limited to the already existing (or nearly finished) plants, and will have to prove themselves on a cost basis to stay open.

      Whether there is ever going to be a market for small modular reactors still remains to be seen. The first small modular reactors to be built in the US won’t be on the grid until 2025 at the earliest, and by the time they load the first fuel the levelized cost of solar and wind will likely be half (or less) what it is today, given the learning curves of those technologies.

      1. Let’s address each of these points one at a time:

        1. M.Z. Jacobsen’s Model (which is severely flawed as shown by Clack et. Al. 2017) would require the equivalent of the entire US Northeast’s land area to be covered in Wind Turbines and Solar Panels, from West Virginia to Maine. This is assuming the absolute best Turbines and Panels on-market are utilized, as shown in his paper. It also includes complete utilization of off-shore wind in the Atlantic and Great Lakes.

        2. Solar generation has been curtailed at between 9 and 13% by EVERY country seeking to transition to renewables, including Germany (where it has an abysmal 11% Capacity Factor) and now California (which announced it will stop building renewable infrastructure earlier this year). This is due to overgeneration and grid instability, as when Solar accounts for approximately 11% of total generation it results in massive fluctuations of generation from 0 to 100%. This also occurs with wind, although its threshold is much higher due to a higher capacity factor (as sufficient wind speeds are more common than the maximum light intensity needed for solar generation.

        2. Levelized Cost of energy is still relatively ineffective in compariston. Recent modelling accounting for uncertanties has shown that LCOE of Nuclear is lower than the LAZARD. Furthermore there comes the problem of plant lifespan. Although LCOE accounts for this, shorter plant lifespans still result in increased cost. When comparing Solar with its LCOE of $46 per MWh (low) and Wind with its $30 (low) to Nuclear with its $112 (low), that seems like a much better deal. But Wind farms need to be replaced every 12-15 years (they are currently invested on a 20-25 year lifespan) and Solar Farms about every 25 years. Since you have to build three plants within the same lifespan of a single nuclear power plant, the costs end up about the same.

        Not to mention that Nuclear isn’t as expensive as most people perceive. Existing Nuclear operates at an LCOE of about $22 per MWh of generation, lower than wind. Furthermore, new nuclear at Vogtle, VC Summer, and Hinkley Point C is showing to be the exception and the result of the dearth of management and construction skill for these plants in the US in Britain. For example, the Barakah Nuclear Plant, construced by KEPCO, is about to bring its first 1400MW unit online after a 6-year construction period (compared to Vogtle’s 10-11 years) and at a cost of $6 Billion per reactor (with an LCOE of $69 per MWh, half the LAZARD predictions). Its second reactor will be finished later this year, its 3rd next year, and 4th in 2020. It is expected to produce 25% of the UAE’s fossil fuel.

        A similarly priced 10 reactor unit has just been announced in Indonesia (not constructed by KEPCO, Rosatom is building this one), which will be the largest powerplant in the world, at over 10 GW. It is expected to cost about 25 Billion, for an LCOE of $39 per MWh. That’s lower than Solar and comparable to wind.

        3. NuScale is expected to finish the NRC licensing process in 2020 and begin construction that same year of its first 600MW 12-module (50MW each) power plant. Its estimated build time is expected to be 3 years, meaning it will begin generating in 2023. This unit will be constructed at Idaho National Lab, and will start with a single 50MW unit but will be expanded over time (as the factory built reactors can simply be shipped, inserted, and brought online).

        That being said a NuScale SMR is expected to cost 2.85 Billion for the entire completed 600 MW plant. This is an LCOE of $74 per MWh, comparable to the Barakah Plant and about the same as Natural Gas.

        4. In terms of grid infrastructure vs generator reliability, this is actually a major issue in many regions. The US Southeast is regularly exposed to hurricanes, which tear renewable power generation apart. In Harvery and Irma, the only generation sources that were able to be left online were the Southeast Texas, Turk Point, and St. Lucie Nuclear Power Plants. Solar Panels and Wind Turbines were damaged beyond repair: the gusts snap the blades off of wind turbines and well, 2×4’s travelling at over 100 miles per hour shatter solar panels like glass.

        Duke Energy just invested 6 Billion at Crystal River to build a 700MW Solar Facility. Not only is the cost outrageous (a new AP-1000 like those at Vogtle or V.C. Summer, on budget, is 5.8 to 6.2 Billion, which is what was planned to be constructed originally), but it will generate 1/6th the output. By comparison, the Desert Sunlight, Solar Star, and Topaz Farms (550, 594, and 550 MW) were each approximately 1.5 Billion.

        And the instant the next major hurricane rolls around, possibly during its construction this fall, that Solar Farm will be shredded.

  2. The Senate Committee abruptly and at the last minute cancelled the 1 PM hearing which they were supposed to have today, exclusively on this bill of concern in this article. And even that hearing had been originally supposed be this part Tuesday. The likely reason is that State Senators have been getting a large number of messages in opposition to SF 3405 and did not feel they could justify it. The new time for the committee hearing will be next Tuesday at 1 PM and be on the lookout for modified language. I heard they were modifying the language to make the bill a bit less brazen than it had been in regard to undermining PUC oversight but still undesirable in something akin to raiding Renewable Development funds for nuclear plant projects.

  3. “Wind is cleaner and cheaper than nuclear energy, he said. ”

    Not true. An Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) study found that the lifecyle GHG emissions of nuclear power were better than solar, and better or equal to wind.

    “The problem grows worse at night when wind energy generation skyrockets.”

    That’s due to poor planning and not due to nuclear power. Building too much wind without the energy storage needed when it overproduces is a big problem regardless of other energy sources on the grid. Even if the grid where powered on nothing but wind, the same problem would occur.

    “Energy efficiency such as LED lighting is expecting to continue to clip power demand by 1 percent a year, Learner said.”

    Apparently Learner is unfamiliar with the need to electrify most everything that runs on fossil fuels, including cars, which will significantly increase electricity in the future. It appears that Learner cares far more about wind power than mitigating climate change. After all, the IPCC has made it clear that we need to ramp up all sources of low-GHG energy.

    “. . .but creates a long-term radioactive waste problem with no ready solution.”

    Simply not true. The “radioactive waste problem” has been created by the anti-nuclear power movement by their success in blocking all methods of dealing with the waste. The result is that Russia and China are moving ahead of the U.S. and will become the dominant suppliers of nuclear energy to some 30 countries currently planning to add nuclear energy to their energy sources.

    Russia’s combined use of thermal and fast neutron reactor technologies will enable Russia to use nuclear fuel waste over and over again in a closed fuel cycle until the long-lived radioactive elements are used up, making the fuel useful for perhaps 1000s of years while getting rid of the waste “problem”.

    I’m afraid the U.S. might someday have to buy reactors from Russia or China thanks to the successful anti-nuclear movement here. (The U.K. is already buying reactor technology from China.)

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