Think Out Loud

Eugene utility considers nuclear power to meet future electricity needs

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
Aug. 23, 2023 4:10 p.m.

Broadcast: Friday, Sept. 1

About 40 organizations, including the Sierra Club, recently outlined actions that the Eugene Water & Electric Board could take to continue the utility’s transition to clean and renewable energy. The letter follows an analysis by the utility that suggests the need for different sources of low-carbon energy, including the use of small modular nuclear reactors. The analysis is part of the utility’s Integrated Resource Planning process which forecasts future electricity needs. We check in on the plan with Aaron Orlowski, a spokesperson for the Eugene Water & Electric Board.


The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. About 40 organizations including the Sierra Club recently outlined actions they want the Eugene Water & Electric Board (EWEB) to take to continue the utility’s transition to clean and renewable energy. That followed analysis by the customer-owned utility that suggests the need for different sources of low carbon energy, including the possibility of small modular nuclear reactors. Aaron Orlowski is a spokesperson for EWEB. He joins us once again. Welcome back to the show.

Aaron Orlowski: Thanks for having me, Dave.

Miller: So we last talked in January and since then, you released a new analysis over the summer focused on the need for more low carbon on-demand electricity. Can you just remind us about the process that this is a part of?

Orlowski: Sure, Dave. This is part of our integrated resource planning process or IRP process. Essentially what we’re doing is we’re forecasting future electricity demand 20 years into the future and then we’re using modeling software to analyze what combinations of energy resources we could find to meet those needs. And the model incorporates dozens of different types of resources, different types of wind from different states (Wyoming, Montana, Oregon), different types of solar. And yes, it also includes small modular nuclear reactors, different kinds of natural gas plants and hydropower. But all that goes into the stew and we figure out using the model to see what potential combinations of resources could maybe meet our needs.

Miller: Why is on-demand electricity such a key piece of this forecasting?

Orlowski: Earlier this year, we released some new analysis that looked specifically at what happens to the suggested portfolio when demand rises quickly. So what happens when conditions are a bit more extreme? Essentially what it found is that we might need something in addition to the renewable base that we have right now. Right now, EWEB has mostly hydropower as our base. About 80% of our energy comes from hydropower. And then the on-demand resources come into it to help meet the needs, especially when those needs are very high. So think about extended cold snaps when people are running their electric heaters nonstop for days or extended heat waves like we just experienced last month or a couple weeks ago.

Miller: What have you heard from ratepayers and community members about two of the options that are under discussion: the biomass plants that would burn woody material and small modular nuclear reactors?

Orlowski: Well, we did hear from customers on those resources and a lot of customers have some concerns about the nuclear component in particular. But I’d like to emphasize here kind of a bit more about how the model works. Because it gets a little bit into the weeds. But I think it’s important. Essentially what we did is we told this model to incorporate three core values that we hold and that our customers hold. And so the first one of those values is reliability. So every portfolio that the model suggested had to be reliable. It’s essentially a no-blackouts policy. The second core value that we incorporated was affordability. So every portfolio that the model suggested has to keep rates low so think of it as no unnecessary expenses. And then the third value is environmental responsibility. Every portfolio has to be 95% carbon free by 2030. That’s a little bit more carbon free than we are currently because our portfolio is about 90% carbon free. So we just have a little bit more to go to get to 95. But once you factor in those variables, it does guide the portfolio options in particular directions.

Miller: In 1980, Oregon voters instituted a ban on nuclear power plants until a permanent waste storage facility has been built. They also said that voters would have to approve the new power plant. Can you imagine voters today changing those laws to embrace nuclear power?

Orlowski: Well, that’s a really tough question to answer, but what I can say is that Oregonians already get a certain amount of their power from nuclear power today even though there aren’t any facilities in the state. So for instance, at EWEB, about 8% of our energy comes from nuclear and that’s via the Bonneville Power Administration, which is a federal agency that sells power to local utilities such as EWEB. And Bonneville gets that nuclear power from the Columbia Generating Station, which is a large commercial nuclear power plant in Washington State. So we already get a certain amount of our energy from nuclear. And it just happens to come across state lines before it gets here.

Miller: Just a few weeks ago, we talked about the really big technological breakthrough that was announced for commercial scale geothermal projects. They basically borrowed drilling techniques from fracking for oil and gas and, and the boosters for it in Nevada and other places say that this could be a game changer. Does that factor into your thinking about the future?

Orlowski: Absolutely. When we modeled small modular nuclear in our port in the analysis process, essentially it stood in for an on-demand zero carbon resource and we were able to model it because there’s some pricing data available and because there are projections that it’ll be commercially viable by around 2030. We didn’t get a chance to model geothermal, but it is a super exciting technology. As you mentioned, there have been tech technological breakthroughs in just the last couple of months.

Right now, we’re at the stage where we’re getting ready to start the analysis process for our next integrated resource plan and that’s going to be published in 2025. And so we’re going to update some of the data and the inputs and the assumptions. We’re really hopeful that we can include geothermal in that mix because it would meet a lot of the same needs for the grid that something like small modular nuclear could also do. We just need to be looking closely at those on-demand sources of energy that are also low or zero carbon to help maintain that grid reliability while also achieving a zero carbon grid.


Miller: In my intro, I mentioned that a few dozen organizations and individuals recently signed on to a letter calling on EWEB to do a few different things, among them expanding programs and heading to speed up the transition to clean energy in a just way. And they also want you to take more advantage of historic funding through the IRA and the Infrastructure Act. What’s your response?

Orlowski: Well, we received that letter and essentially our response is we’re excited, too. We have a good working relationship with the Sierra Club and other environmental groups in Eugene (350 Eugene, Fossil Free Eugene) and we’re in communication with them pretty frequently. So we’re taking a look at the details in their letter. They had some specific recommendations about how to adjust some of our low income programs to ensure that our low income customers are able to meet their energy needs. They had some suggestions around ramping up electrification incentives. And those types of incentives would build on things that we’re already doing. So, for instance, right now, we have a raft of incentives to help customers reduce their electricity usage. One of the best ones, in my opinion, is an $800 rebate for residential ductless heat pumps. So that’s something that is available to all our customers. We also offer up to $1100 for a residential rebate for heat pump hot water heaters. And we also have rebates that go to some of our business customers as well like a rebate or to cover the cost of commercial lighting upgrades.

So we’re really excited about some of the programs that we have there and looking forward to working with the local groups on those.

Miller: The letter writers also asked you to build your own renewable energy generation and storage projects. How do you think about that in terms of what’s best for your ratepayers, your customers, building your own projects or buying energy from the market?

Orlowski: There are definitely trade offs to doing both of those approaches. And there are a lot of factors to consider, for instance, building a local renewable energy project. If you just take, for instance, maybe solar for example, the benefit of having some sort of solar facility here locally would be that it’s here locally. If something happens to transmission lines further away, then it’s available in those times of need. At the same time, the sun shines a lot more in Eastern Oregon. And so we could get more energy for a lower cost from a utility scale solar facility in that kind of location. So that’s one of the types of things to bear in mind.

Then also, with going to the market, there’s an aspect of local control there. So if we own the generating resources, then we have more control of them, we have more control over the carbon content of that energy. So a lot of times on the market, you can’t always control how much carbon emissions that electricity is producing when you’re just going to the market, when you need electricity. So there are tradeoffs to both approaches.

One of the good things about what we’ve been doing with this modeling process is that we’ve been essentially improving our skills to make sure that as these opportunities arise for a project locally, here in town or for a project somewhere else in the state, that we have the tools to be able to really do the math, run the numbers and see how much it costs, what are all the trade offs. And that’s something we really pride ourselves on is being a really analytical organization and approaching things from that perspective.

Miller: Speaking of analytics, a couple weeks ago, we talked to somebody from PGE who talked about demand response programs. These are voluntary programs that customers can take part in to reduce their use of electricity, especially at times, like his example was late afternoon when people want to turn their AC’s up which increasingly is a huge draw on the system. And he said going from 70 to 72 [degrees] could make a big difference. Do these programs work these voluntary programs to reduce demand?

Orlowski: Well, Dave, I’m really excited that you asked about that because we actually had some really exciting events transpire for the grid in just the last couple of weeks. During that mid August heat wave, essentially EWEB, we did something we’ve never done before. We issued a voluntary call to conserve energy to our customers. So we sent an email to every single customer. We posted on social media and it was informal. It was voluntary and because that was a time when the grid was potentially strained with these 100 degree temperatures.

Miller: Right, that’s when we were talking with him.

Orlowski: Yes, and PGE had great success as well. And our customers responded, they cut energy use by 10 to 15 megawatts, which is the equivalent of approximately 10 to 15,000 window air conditioning units.

Miller: Do you know what they were doing or what they weren’t doing?

Orlowski: It’s hard to dig into the numbers exactly like that. But we asked people to delay charging their electric vehicles. So if you’re an electric vehicle owner, that’s one of the easiest things you can do. Just delay it until overnight, turn up the setting on your thermostat a couple of degrees, like you just mentioned a minute ago or even delay the use of major appliances. Our customers, I’m sure they did a combination of all those things, whatever kind of worked for their household.

What we’re optimistic about from this really encouraging response is that one of the things that we took away from the integrated resource planning process is the need for more of these demand response programs. We don’t have any formal ones here in Eugene right now, but it’s something we need to institute in the future. So this voluntary call to conserve was very encouraging. We’re going to be conducting a formal study to see what types of programs exactly would be the best fit for our community. And that’s something we’re going to be doing in the next couple of years.

Miller: Aaron Orlowski, thanks very much.

Orlowski: Thank you so much, Dave.

Miller: Aaron Orlowski, spokesperson for the Eugene Water & Electric Board.

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