Illinois is leaving fossil fuels for renewables. Can it do it without nuclear?

On Sept. 15, 2021, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act (CEJA), turning bill into law and committing the state to one of the most significant and comprehensive clean energy plans in the United States.

Under CEJA, Illinois is required to pursue a 100 percent clean energy grid by 2050, leaving behind carbon-emitting coal, oil and natural gas plants behind as the state moves towards a more wind- and solar-reliant energy stance.

However, Illinois has an unavoidable issue: Even if enough wind and solar farms were installed to make up for the loss of fossil fuel-generated energy, a solely renewables-based power grid would likely be significantly more unreliable, increasing the likelihood of blackouts. This is because both wind and solar energy are variable, meaning their output is determined by nature, not controlled by people.

“If you’re going to try to extract electricity from wind or solar, then you have to take it when it’s provided, and you can’t have it when it isn’t,” said Roger Blomquist, principal nuclear engineer at Argonne National Laboratory.

Currently, fossil fuels serve as the most common backup for wind and solar power, as their energy output can be manipulated to meet market needs. But under CEJA, Illinois will soon no longer be able to rely on these energy sources to match consumer demand.

Scientists are studying the possibility of implementing large-scale energy storage systems that could store power when demand is low and return it to the grid when demand is high. Blomquist notes that while this technology is promising, it has not yet been developed enough for widespread implementation and may not be for the near future.

“If you’re going to get rid of everything but wind and solar, that means you need storage,” Blomquist said. “And economical storage is not currently available and isn’t on the horizon. There are lots of ideas, and some of them may be really good ideas, but they have never been tried at scale. People don’t care about wind or solar — they care about electricity when they want it or when they need it.”

With fossil fuels on their way out and the slow development of large-scale energy storage hindering its usage, many policymakers and environmental activists have pointed to nuclear energy as an immediate solution to renewables’ intermittency issue — nuclear energy emits only low amounts of carbon and is far less deadly than fossil fuels (yes, really).

Luckily for Illinois, it produces more nuclear energy than any other state. With six nuclear plants and 11 total reactors, nuclear power comprised 58 percent of the Prairie State’s generated electricity in 2020.

Of course, there are legitimate concerns about nuclear energy itself. Nuclear reactors create radioactive waste, and the U.S. lacks a permanent nuclear waste repository (the federal government has considered constructing one within Yucca Mountain in Nevada, but after opposition from state government and indigenous tribes, the Obama administration suspended licensing for the project in 2010). Constructing new nuclear plants is expensive and takes about a decade to complete. While core meltdowns are extremely rare, the effects of one can be devastating. And public opinion of nuclear power is split, making any pro-nuclear policy a tricky political undertaking.

But there’s one concern that stands out above all else in Illinois: time.

At present, all operating licenses for Illinois’ 11 nuclear reactors are set to expire before 2048, and nearly half of them could expire within the next decade. While the state’s nuclear plants can currently apply for a 20-year extension on their licenses, this would at best buy Illinois some time as it delays the inevitable.

“Illinois, because it put its bets on nuclear, is in trouble now,” said Kelly Tzoumis, professor of public service at DePaul. “Illinois is going to have to deal with how it’s going to bridge this gap from fossil fuels and nuclear until we can get to better storage and better renewables. This is not a replacement that is accruing fast enough to replace nuclear. So Illinois has a dilemma: It’s going to have to figure out what it’s going to do about the gap.”

While some anti-nuclear groups have suggested allowing the licenses to expire in the hopes that large-scale energy storage will have improved enough for widespread use, such an approach would be incredibly risky. If such improvements were not met in time, the state’s power grid would end up without  risk becoming considerably more volatile. 

“My own personal opinion is until we have reliable economic electricity storage at scale, we would be foolish to demolish our baseload generators — including gas and certainly nuclear — until we’ve got the replacement for it,” Blomquist said.

To avoid this risk, many have suggested continued use of nuclear power as a transitional source of on-demand electricity until energy storage becomes scalable and economically viable enough to support a fully renewable power grid.

“[Nuclear energy] is already providing zero emissions electricity and can be used until more advanced energy technologies are developed,” said Elizabeth Kocs, director of partnerships and strategy for the UIC Energy Initiative. “Long-term investments should be made in renewable and storage developments. Incrementally decommissioning while adding clean renewables with storage provides a more forward-thinking and climate-friendly economic approach.”

Kocs also notes that during this transition, development of advanced nuclear reactors may solve several issues afflicting conventional nuclear plants, such as construction costs and times, safety concerns and waste accumulation.

Illinois’ looming energy problem is of gargantuan proportion. The answer may just lie in the atomic.