Copper Valley Electric Ass'n considers nuclear power plant
'This could be possibly the answer that we’ve been looking for,' Copper Valley's chief executive says
Copper Valley Electric Association relies on inexpensive hydro power during the warmer months of the year, but in the winter the utility must switch to more costly oil-fired power generation. Copper Valley chief executive Travis Million says the utility has for years been trying to find a cheaper and greener alternative to its diesel- and naphtha-fueled generators.
“There’s no predictability of the cost,” he said in a recent interview. “Just this year alone, between December and January, we saw a 44 percent price increase for the diesel fuel that we use for power generation.”
Million says Copper Valley’s board adopted a policy last year to reduce the utility’s greenhouse-gas emissions, and co-op staff studied wind, solar and other renewables. He says they found none would reliably provide electricity in the winter without being backed-up by the expensive liquid fuel-fired generators. So, they turned to nuclear-powered generation.
“The technology has been there a long time,” he said, “but there just hadn’t been a way to manufacture these type of reactors.”
Specifically, micro-modular reactors – small, self-contained and self-operating reactor systems built into two 40-foot structures that can brought onto a site and replaced every 20 years for refueling. The 10-megawatt facility that Copper Valley is considering would be similar to the 5-megawatt microreactor that’s scheduled to begin operating on Eielson Air Force Base in 2027.
“With the advanced manufacturing technologies that are out there today, it now makes it feasible to where they can mass-produce these types of smaller-scale reactors,” Million said.
He says after studying the industry, Copper Valley began working with Seattle-based Ultra Safe Nuclear Corp. Company officials came to Alaska last summer to survey the co-op’s facilities and service area, which includes the Copper River Valley and areas along the Richardson Highway from Valdez to Gakona, and along the Glenn Highway from Glennallen to the Mat-Su boundary. The company’s now working with the utility on a feasibility study that’ll be completed in July, when the co-op’s board will decide whether to move ahead on the project. And he says so far, it looks promising.
“This could be possibly the answer that we’ve been looking for for decades -- a generation source that is a stable, cost-efficient way to produce electricity.”
Million says he hopes the study will show that the microreactor will help keep the cost of electricity down to somewhere around 20 to 25 cents per kilowatt hour. He estimates it would cost $80 million to $100 million to build – which compares to the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ $245 million, 17-megawatt coal-fired power plant that went online in 2018.
And, Million says, the federal Infrastructure Bill could help pay for the co-op’s microreactor.
“There was 2.4 billion dollars for demonstration projects for advanced nuclear reactors,” he said.
So there’s a lot of interest out there on Copper Valley’s proposal – especially in the utility industry.
“We’re really excited to be able to follow the progress that’s happening at Eielson and Copper River,” says Meadow Bailey, a spokesperson for Golden Valley Electric Association.
“So, (it’s) very exciting technology,” she said in an interview last week, “and if it ends up being something that is safe and reliable and cost-effective, then in the future it’s definitely something that we would consider as an option.”
If Copper Valley’s board decides to move ahead on the project, it would be Alaska’s first commercial nuclear-powered electrical-generating station. Two others were proposed in recent decades, one for Galena and Ester, near Fairbanks, but neither panned-out. The Army built a nuclear powerplant on Fort Greely that operated for about 10 years before it shut down in 1972.