Changes in our energy system are taking shape because of climate change challenges. A recent article said to me that the changes are more than I would have suspected.

The issues:

  1. Several utilities have said that they will bury some lines underground. There has been a segment of the public that has wanted that for years.
  2. Several utilities are giving more attention to the need for new nuclear to meet decarbonization goals. Good.

Burying lines

California utility PG&E says it will bury about 10,000 miles of power lines to prevent fires and outages of the past several years. The math makes a big difference on the decision. According to the CEO, “When I learned that we spend $1.4 billion a year in expense managing vegetation … and yet there is still 8 million trees within strike distance of our lines, I realized that we were on the wrong path.” (Source)

Burying power lines can cost six times more than overhead power lines. Because underground lines are good in one place, they are not good in every place. On the Gulf Coast, for instance, parts of the service territory is at or below sea level. Flooded underground lines are tough to repair. (Source)  So even if changes in the climate makes weather worse, it may also make the case for undergrounding worse, too.

Deciding which lines make most sense to bury will take some study. Florida Power and Light (FPL) launched a pilot program to identify cost-effective ways to bury neighborhood overhead power lines in certain communities. The utility is using its experience with Hurricane Ida as one tool – trees in contact with overhead power were the leading cause of outages in that storm.

Watch for more testing of burying lines around the country.

New nuclear

“Utilities also are funneling billions of dollars into cleaner energy resources, such as solar, wind and nuclear, while exploring new technologies,” says the S&P Global story. The big news is nuclear.

Nuclear energy problems are high profile in the news; its benefits get merely a whisper. In the debates about decarbonizing the world, maybe that is changing.

France, a nation that get 70% of its electricity from carbon-free nuclear, is taking the lead on that. President Macron is deepening France’s nuclear commitment. “Macron’s decision to stick with nuclear power looks smart to many – and it is perfectly timed. Europe is entering the bitter winter months with rocketing energy costs and shortages of natural gas; natural-gas prices have risen 400% this year,” says Fortune magazine.

Evidence about that wisdom: “Germany’s decision to cut nuclear power sent the country’s carbon emissions soaring, according to energy experts – while France kept its emissions in check.”

In the U.S., Georgia, despite the construction problems, the state will enjoy massive carbon-free power after Plant Vogtle is built.

Existing reactors in the nation are being re-licensed to maintain that emission-free power.

The next big thing in nuclear is small – modular reactors. The kind that power big ships. Utilities see small reactors as a fit to ramp up or down easily to match the ups and downs of renewables like solar and wind. Doing that is called “load following.”

Versatility takes several shapes. “In the developed world, where intermittent renewable sources are growing rapidly, a full 12-pack of [small] reactors could provide steady power to make up for the fitful output of windmills and solar panels,” reports Science magazine.

Two trends to watch – burying power lines and a whole new approach to nuclear power. What’s happening is that as we get more serious about addressing climate change, the more creative we will all be in our approach to energy.