Power Costs Will Increase Significantly

“If we’re going to reduce GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions, we need more wind and solar projects.” That was the topic of SaskPower’s energy education series, Power Talk that aired on June 12. The Power Talk webinars have discussed the many aspects of power generation and transmission through the province, including wind, solar, and nuclear.

In 2022, SaskPower started asking Saskatchewan residents for their input to help shape how the province is powered from 2030 and beyond. Gathered input included the values, priorities, and the consumers' preferred power supply options. This informed SaskPower’s creation of multiple scenarios that show potential future power supply mixes. One of these scenarios, known as “Renewables 2035,” is characterized by the goal of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2035 by increasing renewable options with no nuclear generation. This scenario includes hydro, natural gas with carbon capture, natural gas, imported, wind, solar, and other (such as biomass, geothermal, flare gas, waste heat, and solar net-metering from customers), costing about $57 billion in today’s dollars.

The Diverse Mix 2050 scenario is characterized by the goal of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050 through a diverse mix of power supply options. It includes using significant wind and solar with a balance of hydro, nuclear, natural gas (with carbon capture and storage), and imports. Compared with the other scenarios it reduces stress on supply chains and allows more time for technology development, but it is unlikely to comply with federal regulations. The Diverse Mix 2035 scenario is characterized by the goal of achieving net-zero GHG emissions by 2035 through a diverse mix of power supply options. However, its estimated cost is approximately $56 billion in today’s dollars compared to $53 billion for the Diverse Mix 2050 scenario.

SaskPower estimates rate increases will mean that a monthly power bill of $200 in 2023, would range from $520 to $544 in 2050, depending on which scenario is implemented.

Infrastructure is expensive, and building new power plants and transmission lines usually involves legal and environmental challenges. One of the biggest challenges as renewables become a much more significant portion of electricity sources is controlling swings in voltage that can happen when the sun or wind suddenly change. Australia is preparing to meet, at least for short periods, 100 percent of electrical demands using renewable sources. One idea they are exploring is repurposing old fossil fuel generators into synchronous condensers that stabilize those swings. (information sourced from Practical Engineering on YouTube.)

Solar panels, like batteries, work on direct current (DC). Wind turbines produce an alternating current that does not match the AC pattern on the grid. Therefore, it is converted to DC. Then the DC coming from renewables is inverted to the AC grid. The biggest benefit of an AC grid is that relatively simple and inexpensive equipment (transformers) can change the voltage, which provides flexibility between insulation requirements and the efficiency of long-distance transmission.

Things go wrong on the grid all the time and generators have to be able to make up for contingencies to keep the frequency stable. For example, if a lightning strike trips a generator sending it off-line, frequency drops and will continue dropping unless more power is injected into the system. Grid-linked inverter-based resources like solar, wind, and batteries can only follow what is already on the grid. The inverters synchronize to the grid frequency and phase and only vary the voltage to control the power flow, so if the grid is not operating, the renewables are not either, even if the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. If demand outstrips the generation capacity the frequency of the grid slows down. Equipment, on the generation and utilization sides, is designed to run on a stable grid frequency. Deviations in frequency can cause device malfunctions; motors can overheat, generators get out of sync, etc. If frequency gets too out of sync, grid operators disconnect customers to get electrical demands back in balance with generation or the available power supply.

Saskatchewan’s plan to stabilize the grid once coal-fired generation ends involves nuclear power from small modular reactors. Small modular nuclear reactors (SMR) are generally defined as nuclear plants that have a capacity of about 300 megawatts. A new report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), identifies about 80 SMR concepts currently in various stages of development globally. Titled, “Small Modular Reactors: Still Too Expensive, Too Slow, and Too Risky,” the report has assessed the feasibility of deploying small modular nuclear reactors to meet increasing energy demands worldwide. (https://newatlas.com/energy/modular-nuclear-reactors/)

The authors claim significant construction delays are still the norm and costs have continued to climb. They point to a project in Idaho called NuScale which had to be scrapped because during its development between 2015 and 2023, costs soared from $9,964 per kilowatt to $21,561 per kilowatt. Not only are the costs of building SMRs problematic in and of themselves, says the IEEFA, but the money being poured into the projects is not spent on developing other sources of energy that are cleaner, quicker to deploy, and safer. Reactor developers argue that using the IEEFA’s methodology, all program costs including all engineering, development, and initial licensing efforts are assigned to each project, similar to assigning all of the engineering and development costs of the first iPhone to successive iPhones and then claim it’s not a feasible product because it’s wildly expensive. As a new technology, many SMRs are being built using identical patterns and components, so if a component fails, it could easily affect other reactors. The study authors concluded, “Regulators, utilities, investors and government officials should acknowledge [that SMRs are too expensive, slow, and risky] and embrace the available reality: Renewables are the near-term solution.”

SaskPower is currently in Stage 4 of a 5-stage process to update the long-term supply plan. Initiated in 2022, Stage 1 focussed on learning how the public wanted to participate in the process, what options people wanted to learn more about, and what future opportunities they wanted available. Stage 2 involved sharing detailed information about different supply options and exploring the public’s values and priorities. Stage 3 explored future power supply scenarios that were shared with the public through webinars hosted by SaskPower, and still available for viewing on its website. Stage 4 included releasing the drafted long-term plan for review and critique by the public. The final Long-term Supply Plan will wrap up the process when it is released later this year.

Regardless of the final Long-Term Supply Plan, consumers will face a significant increase in power costs through SaskPower.

Carol Baldwin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Wakaw Recorder