The Nuclear Regulatory Agency just approved its first new reactor in decades and JFK Airport is installing a massive solar minigrid 

The U.S. approved a new nuclear reactor

Despite supplying one-fifth of the U.S.’s electricity, nuclear power is often exiled to the island of misfit toys. The disasters at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima loom over the history of nuclear energy, making it an unpopular choice for many that are focused on climate change.

In the energy industry itself, nuclear power is synonymous with massive cost overruns. For example, as Georgia Power’s new nuclear facility at Plant Vogtle continues to delay going online, its customers will be forced to defray $16 billion in cost overruns over the coming decades. The total bill — $34 billion for an expected capacity of 2.3 gigawatts.(1)
To put that in scale —  $34 billion worth of solar panels would have a capacity well over 10 gigawatts.

But because solar and wind power are intermittent, and nuclear power is both consistent and largely carbon free, it’s seen as an important part of decarbonizing energy generation. And the growth of nuclear power took a big step forward last month. On January 20th, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission certified NuScale Power’s small modular reactor design. The design, a big departure from massive projects such as Vogtle, is only the seventh reactor design approved by the commission.

Power Plant

More compact and self-contained than the massive plants with iconic cooling towers, small modular reactors (SMR) are the prefab, tiny home of nuclear power. The NuScale base module clocks in with a 50-megawatt capacity and is designed to be built in a factory and shipped to the plant site.

One of the advantages of the modular system is scalability. Although each reactor is small, additional reactor modules can be added to a plant footprint as energy demand rises for its service area. NuScale’s VOYGR SMR model plant is designed to host as many as 12 of the modules.

Perhaps an even bigger change than size is the overall makeup of the reactor. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, SMR designs are simpler and are centered around passive systems that make them inherently safer. (2) Their cooling system is passive, making the likelihood of an actual meltdown much more remote.

Now that the design of the reactor has been approved, the race to build an  SMR is on.
The Carbon Free Power Project at the Idaho National Lab is far along in the planning stages and is expected to be operational by 2030. That project, in the tradition of other nuclear plants, recently signaled a large change in its expected costs. According to the 2016 proposal, the expected cost to produce a megawatt hour was $58. After recent revisions, that number is now pegged at $89 per megawatt hour.

On January 27th, an energy/construction coalition announced it intends to have North America’s first SMR online in 2028.(5) The project site, in Clarington, Ontario, will have a capacity of 300 megawatts. Site preparation has already begun.

JFK Airport is going solar in a big way

JFK Airport in New York is going solar in a big, big way. When the international hub’s new Terminal One goes online in 2026, it will sport 13,000 solar panels on its roof, enough to generate 7.7 megawatts of clean electricity. (1)

The rooftop array is part of the airport’s new ultra-green 11.3 megawatt microgrid, which will also boast gas fuel cells and battery storage. Waste heat from the fuel cells will be used to chill and warm water for use in the terminal.

Although the project is designed to minimize the new $9.5 billion terminal’s environmental impact, the inspiration is also partly the result of a push for increased resilience. After Delta Airlines booked a $40 million income loss due to an 11-hour power outage at their hub at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in 2017, other airports have been exploring the value of having more control of their power supply. The JFK Terminal One project is by far the largest solar rooftop airport project in the world and will be the largest solar array in New York.

JFK Airport

Most airports rely on backup diesel generators, but those hulking apparatuses generally do not allow for fine tuning the energy use within the facility in the same way a microgrid does. With this microgrid, Terminal One operators will be able to direct power where it’ is most critical.

Microgrids are a growing trend in the energy industry. With increasing  energy uncertainty, hospitals, airports and entire communities have embraced microgrids as a way to keep essential and sometimes life-saving services powered during disruptions.

The Terminal One microgrid isn’t designed to be able to fulfill all of the terminal’s energy-intensive needs, but it’ll allow it to keep the essentials going in the case of an outage. The microgrid will be divided into four “islands” that can operate independently. The backup fuel cell generators that are included will initially be driven by natural gas but are designed to switch to non-fossil fuels as they become more available in the market.

The Weekly Sunsong

Happy February, everyone! Despite being the shortest month of the year, February can stretch on forever for those enduring the late winter doldrums. To those people, we can only offer one of the sweetest grooves in recorded music history.