Energiewende and Caliwende – the Heavy Cost of Ideology

The J.P. Morgan Annual Energy Paper for 2015 is an excellent short resource “A Brave New World: Deep De-Carbonization of Electricity Grids”. They have packed a lot of data and analysis into 28 pages. The focus is Energiewende and Caliwende (the California version of Germany’s Energiewende). The high quality of this report is due at least in part to guidance from Armond Cohen, Executive Director and co-founder of the Clean Air Task Force. And of course Vaclav Smil. Chief Investment Officer Michael Cembalest closes with this:

Deep de-carbonization of the electricity grid via renewable energy and without nuclear power can be done, but we should not underestimate the cost or speed of doing so in many parts of the world. At the minimum, the costs involved suggest that efforts to solve the nuclear cost-safety puzzle could yield large dividends in a post-carbon world. Such is the belief of the scientists, academics and environmentalists who still see a substantial role for nuclear power in the future (see Appendix V). See you next year.

The report gives enough detail that you can see why Germany’s nuclear ban leads to a shocking cost of avoidance of $300. I’ve circled in green the baseline Energiewende result estimated to cost $300/mt CO2. J.P. Morgan modeled a balanced deep decarbonization strategy, which using 35% nuclear, costs only $84/mt CO2.Note that the $300 is a bare-bones estimate – none of the cost of the additional transmission infrastructure required by high-renewables is included in the analysis. Even so the baseline Energiewende plan will double already second-highest in Europe current costs from $108 to $203/MWhr.


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What about Caliwende? The cost to consumers is lower than for Energiewende but the CO2 avoidance cost of the baseline plan is $477/mt CO2 — even worse than Germany because California has already done more CO2 avoidance. Happily, if California implemented a balanced plan (35% nuclear) that drops the CO2 avoidance cost to $174/mt CO2. That is still unnecessarily expensive because of the high-renewables ideology.


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Well, at least both plans have closed a lot of those nasty fossil plants, right? Actually not. Because of the intermittency, at least all of the current thermal generation is required to cover the demand gaps. These charts show just how big those gaps are. This is the largest single source of the high CO2 avoidance costs. All that mostly-idle thermal capacity is still required by the ideology of high-renewables. That means a very small capacity factor so the capital has to be amortized over too-few generation hours.


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What does it all mean? Back to Michael Cembalest (his emphasis):

  • Intermittency greatly reduces the importance of wind and solar levelized cost when assessing high- renewable grids. The cost of backup thermal capacity and storage is an inextricable part of any analysis of a high renewable system. Academic and industry research has reached similar conclusions. A 2015 paper from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research notes that integration costs in systems with high levels of renewable energy can be up to 50% of generation costs, and that the largest single factor is the additional cost of backup thermal power
  • Energy storage reduces CO2 emissions but its cost, utilization rate and energy loss must be accounted for. Even when assuming continued learning curves, storage adds to net system cost
  • (…snip…)
  • Even in California, there are uncertainties to this Brave New World: California’s Independent System Operator gave a presentation in 2014 highlighting how the impacts from increasing renewable energy on the grid are still not fully understood. They mentioned voltage fluctuation due to upward/ downward ramps, high voltage issues on distribution circuits, voltage/power regulation control issues, the greater number of operations and increased maintenance on voltage control, etc.

I appreciated the final paragraphs which concisely dispense with some of the common tooth-fairy stories. There are also appendices backing up these points:

We often hear people referring to other what-ifs regarding high-renewable grids. Many rely on highly uncertain assumptions and conjecture, while others neglect related costs.

  • Could cross-border integration of high-renewable grids reduce the need for backup power and its corresponding cost? That’s the next wave of renewable energy research. It would cost money to build these interconnections, but in theory, if wind and solar patterns are more divergent the larger the geographic area covered, the problem of renewable intermittency could simply be diversified away. Unfortunately, new research on wind suggests that this theory has major limitations. This remains a premise best proven empirically rather than by assumption.
  • What about over-building renewable energy and storage so that the need for and cost of backup power is eliminated? The good news: it’s an emission-less system. The problem is that incremental solar, wind and energy storage costs would dwarf foregone costs of backup thermal power. Our models determined that a system in California with enough wind, solar and storage to eliminate backup power entirely would cost $280-$600 per MWh, which is 2.5x – 5.0x more expensive than Caliwende (depending on assumed storage system properties and costs). Bottom line: a renewable energy storage version of the Temple Granaries looks to be prohibitively expensive.
  • Why not draw on electricity stored in electric car batteries (“car-to-grid”) to reduce storage costs? Another theoretical possibility that’s only worth discussing when we can determine the penetration rate of plug-in vehicles, the participation rate of drivers willing to share their battery with the grid and how much of it they would share, the cost of interconnections, and the cost of incentives required by drivers to have their expensive car batteries cycled more frequently. See Appendix VII.
  • What about “demand management”? If demand could (somehow) be reconfigured to match up with variable renewable generation, unused surpluses and demand gaps would be smaller and system costs could decline. However, demand management is meant to deal with intraday supply-demand issues, not intermittency issues which span weeks and months. See Appendix VIII.

Royal Academy of Engineering: “A critical time for UK energy policy”

How can you tell if political leaders are serious about decarbonization? If you see policy discussions like this:

“UK energy policy today seeks to deliver solutions to the so-called energy ‘trilemma’ — the need for a system that is secure and affordable as well as low carbon… One thing remains certain — the scale of the engineering challenge remains massive and the need for whole-systems thinking remains critical… all the easiest actions have already been taken”

The captioned report was submitted October 2015 by the UK Royal Academy of Engineering: “A critical time for UK energy policy”, subtitled “what must be done now to deliver the UK’s future energy system”. I can’t comment on the extent to which this message was digested by the UK leadership. But I take the fact of the commissioning and publication of the report as a positive sign. I’ve seen nothing approaching this quality from any other government (if I could read Mandarin perhaps I would have seen such discussions in China).

Reading this report made me simultaneously hopeful and depressed. Hopeful because there is such clear thinking going on in the UK. Depressed because this is so extraordinarily rare. Instead I typically see intense media coverage of the latest ramblings of professor 100% Mark Z. Jacobson, nicely deconstructed by Blair here. Let’s close on the optimistic view that in Berlin, Paris and Washington there are intense daily conversations that sound like this fragment from the Executive Summary (red = my emphasis): 

The following actions by government are needed as a matter of urgency: 

  • Undertake local or regional whole-system, large-scale pilot projects to establish real-world examples of how the future system will work. These must move beyond current single technology demonstrations and incorporate all aspects of the energy system along with consumer behaviour and nancial mechanisms.
  • Drive forward new capacity in the three main low carbon electricity generating technologies — nuclear, carbon capture and storage (CCS) and o shore wind.
  • Develop policies to accelerate demand reduction, especially in the domestic heat sector, and the introduction of ‘smarter’ demand management1.
  • Clarify and stabilise market mechanisms and incentives in order to give industry the con dence to invest.

In undertaking these actions, government must build on partnerships with all industry stakeholders and communicate clearly and honestly with the public the likely consequences of the necessary evolution of the energy system. Each of these points is expanded on below. 

It is also worth noting that, in developing energy policy, the whole system must always be considered. Electricity, heat and transport, although quite different in their characteristics, are all part of the UK’s energy system and are equally important, with complex interactions between them: targets will only be met by addressing all aspects of the system.

Is there a way forward for Japan’s post-Fukushima fears?

Radiation and reason
Cover art: Spencer Weart’s “The Rise of Nuclear Fear”; Wade Allison’s Radiation and Reason

The survivors of Japan’s Tohoku Earthquake have suffered so much. The former residents of the Fukushima exclusion zone are bearing the additional stress of nuclear fear. Polling of former residents indicates that fewer than one-half may be willing to return. There is so much radiation fear and distrust of government.

Radiophobia is common in Japan, probably explaining why the government enacted radiation standards much lower than scientifically justified; and why politicians nourished expectations of nuclear power perfection. Combining this history with the mismanagement of the Fukushima accident has put Japan in a very unfortunate position:  Japan’s economy is damaged by importing fossil fuels to replace the almost 30% of their electricity generation that has been closed. And the widespread radiophobia may prevent restarting the majority of Japan’s 43 operable reactors. In addition to Japan’s economic stress, the fear of nuclear catastrophe is causing Japan to share their fear globally – as unnecessary carbon emissions.

How to help the Japanese people shift to a realistic view of the benefits vs. risks of restarting their nuclear fleet?

Consider the segment of the American population with similar fears of apocalyptic nuclear accidents. If you wanted to form a Presidential Commission to evaluate and report on the entire range of energy options – who would you nominate that could influence the fearful? Who would I nominate? George P. Shultz is an easy choice. If he accepted, the rest of the recruiting would go well. My next call would be to Burton Richter. Besides his deep competence and gravitas he has long experience with just this sort of public policy responsibility, and practical experience with getting things done in government. As an example Burt has been a key contributor to the California Council On Science And Technology project “Policies for California’s Energy Future”. My third pick would be Jane Long – who coincidentally was the very effective leader of the enlightened CCST project.  

Surely Japan has public figures of similar skills and stature. Who are they? How much impact could such an “Japan Energy Commission” have on public fears? Could such a commission get the ear of Japan’s heavily anti-nuclear media?

A complementary approach could be to adapt Robert Stone’s concept of building a high-credibility story around “switchers”. If Robert himself could be enlisted to this project he would be a powerful agent of change. I’m sure he could train a Japanese counterpart. As a director Robert knows how to organize the effort to tell a compelling story. There must be Japanese anti-nuclear campaigners who have switched?

Regarding funding of such a project, moving Japan towards a pragmatic energy policy isn’t just for Japan’s benefit. Earth’s atmosphere will obviously say “Thank you” for reduced Japanese emissions. Emissions aside, Germany plus Japan’s nuclear shutdown is having a big negative impact across the globe. If Japan restarts most of their nuclear fleet that will send a very helpful signal.

 

Caltech lecture: Climate Change and Energy in the 21st Century by Burton Richter

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The seminar announcement of Burt Richter’s 18 Feb, 2015 presentation for the Chen-Huang Sustainable Energy Seminar Series. The timing of the seminar is driven by the release of the second edition “Beyond Smoke and Mirrors”.

Burton Richter’s award winning book assesses energy demand over the century and the sensible, senseless and biased proposals for averting the potentially disastrous consequences of global warming, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions on switching to more sustainable energy provision. 

The video of the lecture is 96 minutes.

CFR Analysis of the Oil-for-Renewables Trade in the US Budget Deal

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At the Council on Foreign Relations Varun Sivaram and Michael Levi completed an analysis of the proposed “oil for renewables” trade in the proposed budget deal.  It looks to be well-done, though there is no discussion of the costs of the proposed renewable subsidies. I’ve inquired via the comments:

  1. How much existing nuclear capacity is likely to be prematurely closed due to the subsidized cheap wind/solar?

  2. How much new nuclear is likely to be built if this deal was technology neutral, treating zero-carbon nuclear generation equally?

  3. What is the total avoidance cost per ton CO2 for the favored renewables?

CGEP Discussion on Nuclear Technology and Policy

On April 10, 2015 the Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy hosted a “Discussion on Nuclear Technology and Policy.” The CGEP panel:

Tom Blees, President, The Science Council for Global Initiatives;
Travis Bradford, Associate Professor of Practice in International and Public Affairs; Director, Energy and Environment Concentration, Columbia SIPA;
Eric Loewen, Chief Consulting Engineer, GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy; and,
Robert Stone, Director, Pandora s Promise.

There is a lot of well-informed discussion – I recommend the 90 minute video. Around 1:04 Robert Stone was asked to comment on current public attitudes towards nuclear power. He replied that where he was present at screenings “the response overwhelming support, over 90% in favor of what I’m saying in the film.” At 1:06 Robert goes in to the exceptions to this positive outlook. Following is a loose partial transcript:

Surprisingly, audiences in Europe are still infused with this idea that Chernobyl killed 100s of thousands of people. There are continual documentaries on television about that.

(…snip…) Probably the most controversial and shocking aspect of the film was what the World Health Organization has reported after years and years of study. WHO has published that substantially less than 100 people have had their lives shortened by the Chernobyl accident.

The mayor of the town of where 50,000 people were relocated from Chernobyl asked me to bring the film. They were so grateful for the film because there is this perception that we all have two headed babies, we are all dying of cancer. They said no documentary film maker has ever talked to them or visited them.

Europe: there have been so many EU TV documentaries claiming great damage/death caused by Chernobyl – and more that talked about Fukushima in the same way. No European broadcaster has shown Pandora’s Promise. 

They said we can’t show your film because it contradicts all the films that we have produced. They can’t both be true. It will undermine our credibility with our audience.

China Shows How to Build Nuclear Reactors Fast and Cheap — Plus Serious Advanced Reactor R&D on FHR & MSR

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Map credit Forbes

China’s 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020) is still in the early planning stage, but @JimConca has just posted an outline of the ambitious nuclear plans at Forbes. Jim sees 350 GW and “over a trillion dollars in nuclear investment” by 2050. Near term to 2030 China plans to build seven reactors per year achieving 150 GW total generation by 2030. Jim concludes that China seems to be commissioning new nuclear plants for roughly 1/3 of US costs.

It seems as though 5 years and about $2 billion per reactor has become routine for China. If that can be maintained, then China will be well-positioned as the world’s nuclear energy leader about the time their middle class swells to over one billion.

That’s the PWR deployment story. Globally some of the most serious advanced reactor development is being undertaken by the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in collaboration with the US national labs — working on the solid-fueled salt-cooled FHR (PB-AHTR) plus ORNL for their experience with the MSR. Here’s a summary on the collaboration from my post Nuclear City: it’s happening in Shanghai and Berkeley. The Chinese program is seriously ambitious as you can see from their aggressive schedule and USD $400 million funding:

From Mark’s reports I learned that one of the presentations was by a key figure, Xu Hongjie of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in Shanghai. Hongjie is the director of what China dubs the “Thorium Molten Salt Reactor” (TMSR) project. One of his slides is shown above, presenting an overview of the TMSR priorities (left side) and the timelines. Happily the Chinese are also focused on the process heat applications of the PH-AHTR (hydrogen to methanol etc.) and the huge benefits to a water impoverished region like China. The Chinese are demonstrating systems-thinking at scale.

There are two Chinese MSR programs:

  • TMSR-SF or solid fuel, which looks to me to be very similar to Per Peterson’s PB-AHTR program at UC Berkeley
  • TMSR-LF or liquid fuel, which I gather is similar to popular LFTR concept.

Both designs are derivative of the Weinberg-driven Oak Ridge (ORNL) molten salt reactor program (that was cancelled by politicians in the 1960s). I understand the PB-AHTR to be most ready for early deployment, which will lay critical foundations for the liquid fuel TMSR-LF (LFTR) implementation a decade or so later. UC Berkeley’s Catalyst magazine has a very accessible summary of the PB-AHTR program.

Mark Halper reported from the Geneva Thorium Energy Conference. The

I proposed a few days ago a China – OECD cooperation to fast-track deployment of nuclear instead of coal. Fortunately, the Chinese and several of the US labs and universities seem to have figured this out without my help:-) This is probably all detailed somewhere online, but I’ve not been able to find it so far. These are the parties to the China – US cooperation:

  • Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in Shanghai
  • Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL)
  • University of California Berkeley
  • University of Washington

The United States could be leading the global nuclear deployment. But so long as the Big Greens are running the show that won’t happen. The good news is that once the love affair with solar/wind/gas collides with reality, then the US can get in line for low-cost, advanced Chinese nuclear technology.

California’s Energy Future: 2013 Travers Conference UC Berkeley

Recently I was searching for the most up-to-date presentation of the ongoing research study “California’s Energy Future – The View to 2050″. This study was funded by the California Council on Science and Technology (CCST), staffed by about forty energy experts. The original report was published in May 2011(Summary Report [PDF]). This CCST study is one of the few examinations of regional decarbonization that “adds up” in the David MacKay sense. For an introduction to this systematic study I will recommend chairperson Jane Long’s 2013 keynote [Youtube] presented at the Travers Conference at UC Berkeley. Her talk is about 40 minutes – a clear presentation of the reality that we know how to do about only half of what’s required to achieve California’s S-3-05 requiring 80% reduction of CO2 below 1990 by 2050. Jane’s slide deck is itself a valuable resource for explaining energy realities to others. The announcement of the 2013 Travers Conference includes the following hint that California isn’t going to get where it says it is going.

The state of California has embraced an ambitious goal of meeting its future energy needs while increasing its use of renewable energy. But a recent Little Hoover Commission report finds that the state has failed to develop a comprehensive energy strategy that confronts the difficult tradeoffs it faces. The 16th Annual Travers Conference on Ethics & Accountability in Government will investigate the tradeoffs represented by reliance on different energy sources, including oil, natural gas, nuclear energy, biofuels, and wind and solar power.

The fact that nuclear physicist, former director of SLAC and Nobel laureate Burton Richter was selected as one of the six lead authors indicates to me that CCST assembled a team of serious people. You can assess for yourself in Dr. Richter’s July 2011 summary presented at the release event “CCST Report on Nuclear Power in California’s 2050 Energy Mix”. The presentation begins with this:

Report Highlights

The report assumes 67% of California’s electricity will come from nuclear while the rest is renewables as called for in AB-32. This would require 44 Gigawatts of nuclear capacity or about 30 large reactors. While reactor technology is certain to evolve over the period of interest, we assumed that they will be similar to the new generation of large, advanced, light-water reactors (LWR), known as GEN III+ that are now under review by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. This allows us to say something about costs since these are under construction in Asia and Europe, and a larger number of similar systems have been built in Asia recently. Our main conclusions on technical issues are as follows:

  • While there are no technical barriers to large-scale deployment of nuclear power in California, there are legislative and public acceptance barriers that have to be overcome to deploy new nuclear reactors.
  • The cost of electricity from new nuclear power plants is uncertain in the United States because no new ones have been built in decades. Our conclusion is that six to eight cents per KW-hr is the best estimate today.
  • Loan guarantees for nuclear power will be required until the financial sector is convinced that the days of large delays and construction cost overruns are over. Continuation of the Price-Anderson act is assumed.
  • Nuclear electricity costs will be much lower than solar for some time. There is insufficient information on wind costs yet to allow a comparison, particularly when costs to back up wind power are included.
  • Cooling water availability in California is not a problem. Reactors can be cooled with reclaimed water or with forced air, though air cooling is less efficient and would increase nuclear electricity prices by 5% to 10%.
  • There should be no problem with uranium availability for the foreseeable future and even large increases in uranium costs have only a small effect on nuclear power costs.
  • While there are manufacturing bottlenecks now, these should disappear over the next 10 to 15 years if nuclear power facilities world-wide grow as expected.
  • There are benefits to the localities where nuclear plants are sited. Property taxes would amount to $50 million per year per gigawatt of electrical capacity (GWe) in addition to about 500 permanent jobs.

The full report discusses all these issues in more detail including weapons proliferation issues in a world with many more nuclear plants, spent fuel issues, and future options (including fusion). 

Dr. Richter ends with this 

In Summary: There are no barriers to nuclear expansion in California except legislative and public acceptance ones. The lessons of Fukushima are still being learned and will result in some new regulations. The repository problem is entirely political rather than technical.

 

Avoiding carbon lock-in

The Stockholm Environment Institute recently published their research on the dynamics of “carbon lock-in” (thanks to prof David MacKay @DavidJCMacKay for this reference)

the tendency for certain carbon-intensive technological systems to persist over time, “locking out” lower-carbon alternatives, due to a combination of linked technical, economic, and institutional factors.

There is a lot of information packed into the SEI graphic above — where is the “low hanging fruit”?

The concept of “lock-in” is typically discussed in the context of long-lived capital assets. E.g., the owners of Germany’s March 2015 Moorburg coal power plant will want to operate the plant through it’s planned financial lifetime. New coal plants are an incredibly bad, bad thing to do when there are economic alternative. Germany did something even worse than building a bad alternative. Germany’s ideology aside, the implications of lock-in are more complicated.

Q: Does carbon lock-in affect the prospects for carbon pricing?

SK: Yes, the fundamental concern is that carbon lock-in is self-reinforcing. The more we invest in long-lived high-carbon assets, the more powerful the political interests that benefit from them, and the greater the resistance to a low-carbon transition. The flip side is also true: the more we adopt measures that encourage investment in renewables, the more momentum will build toward a transition. It will create constituencies (such as employees and investors), expand networks (e.g. denser supply chains), and affect the market (e.g. building consumer familiarity). This is why we’ve looked at the institutional dimension of lock-in.

So, every new coal plant strengthens the political power that will protect the whole infrastructure of coal-fired generation. The same principle applies to every new wind farm.

When MIT convenes the “Future of Energy Conference” in 2100 I believe there will be broad agreement that the rich countries made a huge mistake by overinvesting in the currently fashionable variable renewables (VRE). The trillions of dollars invested in VRE were not available for building efficient nuclear fission plants. Based on experience so far, very little coal generation is substituted by the VRE. If a large enough carbon price is implemented then coal will be substituted, but the benefit of the VRE investment is reducing the fuel costs for the gas plants required for backup. Moreover, all that VRE investment created politically powerful new interest groups that benefit from:

  • building and maintaining more and more solar and wind;
  • building vast new transmission networks to move electricity from remote areas to the cities
  • decommissioning and replacing these short-lived generators

It will be interesting to see how many times the public will support the replacement of the wind farms and fields of solar when the machines built by those huge investments fail in 25 to 30 years.

Nuclear load following

Nuclear generation is sometimes misunderstood as “only baseload capable” and therefore incompatible with wind and solar because of their erratic generation profiles. This is not true. It is true that if there is a large baseload demand, then the economics favor nuclear plants that are optimized to run 24/7/365. Like any productive asset with high capital cost, the owner prefers high utilization to earn the highest return on that investment. This is one of the essential reasons that wind and solar will always be expensive – every hour they are not generating at rated capacity their high capital investment is not earning a return.

The engineering design of nuclear plants covers a range of load-response capabilities: from very fast response (think nuclear submarines and warships) to pure-baseload. The electric power market has mostly been characterized by baseload customers so traditional plant designs have been optimized for those economics. That said, even old 1960s designs like the French and German fleets are operated in load following mode. Here’s the power output time series of Golftech 2, one of the load following French nuclear plants.

The French electrical grid is sometimes 90%+ nuclear, so obviously nuclear generation has to maneuver to match the real-world demand (there is no magical “demand management” which makes the problem of the intermittency of wind/solar go away, this is the real-world of near zero carbon electricity in 2015). More references on nuclear load-following:

IAEA Technical Meeting – Load Following Sept 4-6 2013, Paris (source of the Golfech 2 chart, considerable details on how EDF plants are operated for load following)

Load-following capabilities of NPPs

So far we’ve only discussed the 1970s technology – designed and built when the primary market was for pure baseload generation. Tomorrow’s generation market will need to incorporate “renewables” which generate if the sun and weather dictate. For the zero carbon carbon future we can balance the intermittent renewables with storage or nuclear. If everyone is as wealthy as Bill Gates we could use storage. Otherwise we need dispatchable nuclear plants that can respond with high ramp-rates to VRE (variable renewable energy). Many of the advanced Gen IV reactors have economic load-following capability inherent in their designs.

The first to be deployed SMR load-follower is likely to be NuScale’s design, a creative way to achieve variable output with tried and true LWR technology:

10. Can NuScale’s SMR technology be complementary to Renewables?

Yes. NuScale’s SMR technology includes unique capabilities for following electric load requirements as they vary with customer demand and rapid changes experienced with renewable generation sources.
There are three means to change power output from a NuScale facility:
Dispatchable modules – taking one or more reactors offline over a period of days
Power Maneuverability – adjusting reactor power over a period of minutes/hours
Turbine Bypass – bypassing turbine steam to the condenser over a period of seconds/minutes/hours

NuScale power is working with industry leaders and potential customers to ensure that these capabilities provide the flexibility required by the evolving electric grid. This capability, called NuFollowTM, is unique to NuScale and holds the promise of expanding the deployment of renewables without backup from fossil-fired generating sources, such as natural gas-fired, combined cycle gas turbines (CCGTs)