California needs more power generation within the state in order to keep electricity prices under control and increase the stability of the power grid. Where will this extra power generation come from, and where should it come from?

Currently, California imports a large percentage of its power from the hydroelectric facilities in the Pacific Northwest. However, the reserve margins there have shrunk dramatically from increased growth in that region. They cannot be expected to continue supplying all of this electricity to California when they need it for themselves.

There is currently 15,000-30,000 megawatts (MW) of generation capability either currently under construction or planned for the near future. Most of this generation will come from combined-cycle turbine plants that run off natural gas. These will help with the problem of electricity shortages but not with the price of electricity.

Natural gas and oil are both commodities whose prices can fluctuate dramatically. Last year, natural gas price was about $2 per million British thermal units (MBtu), which translated to an electrical generation cost of about $20 per megawatt-hour (MW-hr). Gas prices today are in the range of $20-25 per MBtu ($200-250 per MW-hr). It is unclear if and when the price of natural gas will go down. Even it if does go down, there is nothing to stop it from going back up.

At the current cost of natural gas, it is not economical to use it to produce electricity. Consumers cannot afford to pay that much. Besides, burning fossil fuels pollutes the atmosphere, and Californians are very worried about air quality. Also, natural gas and oil can be better utilized in making products much more valuable than electricity. So what options does that leave for the production of electricity if we attempt to do away with fossil fuels?

Option number one: hydroelectric facilities. Hydropower has many appealing aspects. First off, hydropower produces no emissions – very important when air quality is at stake. Second, there are no fuel costs associated with hydropower, since the potential energy used to turn the generators comes from rainfall. However, increasing California’s hydro capabilities is not the best choice.

Hydroelectric power plants cannot produce a reliable amount of energy. The amount of power available from these facilities depends on many factors, including rain totals, lake levels and downstream water requirements, to name a few. While they provide a nice reserve of power, they cannot be relied upon to be available when truly needed. Furthermore, building dams alters watersheds and destroys wildlife habitat for potentially thousands of acres.

Option number two: wind turbines. Like hydropower, wind turbines have no fuel costs associated with their power production, and they produce no emissions. However, they too cannot supply a fixed amount of power. Electricity is only produced when the wind blows. There are only a few places in the state where there is enough wind to make wind turbines economic. In addition, they kill hundreds of birds annually, including condors, and can be eyesores on a beautiful natural background.

Option number three: solar power. Power generated using solar cells or plants, such as Solar One/Two, also produces electricity from a clean source of renewable energy. However, power cannot be produced in large quantities on overcast days, and efficiency is rather low overall. The costs associated with producing this power make it uneconomical in today’s power market.

The previous three options are all good ideas that should be pursued, but one should realize that, because of economic or environmental reasons, they could not be used to supply California’s future power needs. There is a way, however, to produce power both cleanly and economically. That way is nuclear power.

Nuclear power currently produces electricity in the range of $20-25 per MW-hr. No power plant that purchases fuel to make electricity can make power cheaper. Unlike fossil fuels, the price of nuclear fuel is extremely stable. There is no air pollution or green house gas associated with nuclear power plants. The only undesirable byproduct is the spent fuel after it has been within the reactor core for four or five years.

However, the amount of waste that is produced is extremely small. All of the nuclear fuel used in the U.S., from the time of the first nuclear power plant until today, would only cover the area of a football field to a depth of 15 feet. If a fuel-recycling program were utilized, the amount of waste would drop to only a few cubic meters. Due to fears of nuclear proliferation, the United States is one of the few countries in the world with nuclear power plants that does not recycle spent fuel.

New nuclear plant designs are much cheaper to build, more thermally efficient and safer to operate than previous designs. This means that they have the potential to produce electricity even more cheaply than today’s nuclear power plants can. Several companies are working closely with the federal government and are looking at the viability of constructing more nuclear power plants. California needs to welcome back this technology in order to keep generation matched with demand at affordable prices.

Thomas Rhodes is a senior chemical engineering major