Eternal sunshine

Why a transportation committee senator should stay in her lane.

The Republican-led Minnesota Senate sought to legalize new nuclear power plants this spring because they are the most reliable and affordable source of energy that create no emissions. From an energy policy standpoint, this should be a layup. But liberal DFL politicians voted against it despite claiming to believe that climate change is, in their words, “an existential crisis.”

What began as a serious debate on the merits of nuclear power quickly devolved into a series of inaccurate claims about the benefits of solar power, demonstrating that the DFL’s “follow the science” mantra is meaningless.

“Solar energy actually does work, even when the sun’s not shining,” said Sen. Ann Johnson Stewart, DFL-Plymouth. “Today we have a cloudy day. I’m certain that all of you would pretty much bet that if we turned off all of those beautiful LED lights, we’d still be able to see because solar energy is here 24 hours a day, we just can’t see it.”

This is not how solar energy works. Solar panels turn sunlight into electricity. When the sun sets, solar panels stop producing electricity. As a result, solar panels produce energy for about 13 hours per day, not 24 hours per day.

Johnson Stewart’s experience as a civil engineer might qualify her to speak about transportation issues, but her background has made her overconfident on energy — a topic on which she still has a lot to learn. She joined all but two of her party colleagues in voting against the legalization of nuclear power plants in Minnesota, making more inaccurate claims in the process.

Small modular reactors would cost $10 billion, she said. But the actual cost of the 720-megawatt (MW) small, modular nuclear power plant that NuScale Power is planning to build at the Idaho National Laboratory site is $6.1 billion, according to Power Magazine. This sum is the “all-in cost” of the plant over 40 years, including inflation, financing, and decommissioning — a hefty sum, but much less than the price tag cited by Johnson Stewart.

It also bears mentioning that Minnesota has spent more than $15 billion on wind turbines and solar panels, sources of electricity that produce less electricity than nuclear power, even though there is 2.3 times more wind capacity than nuclear capacity in Minnesota.

Battery storage would also be required to back up wind and solar. However, one day’s worth of storage in Minnesota would cost approximately $38.7 billion at today’s cost. This could build 4,567 megawatts of small, modular nuclear power capacity, which could provide much more electricity than a single day of battery storage. In fact, this new nuclear power capacity, in addition to our existing nuclear plants, would generate enough electricity to make Minnesota’s electricity mix 92 percent carbon-free.

Johnson Stewart also asserted that Minnesota could not build a new nuclear power plant because she would not want one in her backyard, and that she is “pretty certain” none of the other 67 senators would want one in their backyard either.

There are two issues with this statement: One, it assumes other communities would not want a new nuclear power plant; and two, it does not account for strong opposition to wind turbines and solar panels in rural areas.

Both nuclear power and renewables such as wind and solar draw opposition, so the best course of action is picking the one that makes the most sense. Nuclear plants produce far more energy on much less land. This means finding willing communities in which to build new nuclear facilities could run into less local opposition than thousands of megawatts of solar spread throughout the state.