The ‘Energy Gap’ Nobody Wants to Tussle With

EDITOR’S NOTE: In the column below, Dave Marston explores energy options facing an American West that is using increasingly more electricity and asks whether fossil fuels should be replaced by renewable energy sources. But can renewables alone handle the load? In the GYE, Yellowstone National Park holds more than 10,000 geothermal features. Couldn’t we pull this energy from the earth and use it to power the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem? Not so almost. While many locations across the globe utilize geothermal power for electricity, Yellowstone, as a national park, is off limits to development.

Since geothermal sources connect beneath the ground, according to the US Geological Survey it’s unclear if an entity could gain permission to pull energy from these features outside the park, which could diminish flows to hot springs within Yellowstone. But, as Marston writes, the West, including Greater Yellowstone, could potentially benefit from nuclear energy. Indeed, Bill Gates and his company TerraPower are experimenting with nuclear power in the small Wyoming town of Kemmerer. If you have comments to share, please send them along to us here and we may publish them, like the ones below. – Mountain Journal

by Dave Marston

Writers on the Range

Many western states have declared they will achieve all-renewable electrical goals in just two decades. Call me naïve, but haven’t energy experts predicted that wind, sun and other alternative energy sources aren’t up to the job?

Alice Jackson, former CEO of Xcel Energy’s Colorado operation, was blunt at a renewable energy conference in February 2020: “We can reliably run our grid with up to 70 percent renewables. Add batteries to the mix and that number goes up to just 72 percent.”

Grid experts now say that Jackson’s number is 80 percent, but still, how will that utility and others produce that missing power?

Bill Gates and a raft of other entrepreneurs see an answer in small, modular nuclear reactors, pointing to the small nuclear engines that have safely run America’s nuclear submarines for decades.

Here’s what we know about these efficient reactors: They’re built in factories and once in operation they’re cheap to keep going. Each module is typically 50 megawatts, self-contained, and installed underground after being transported to its site. The modular design means that when more power is needed, another reactor can be slotted in.

Breakthrough features include safety valves that automatically send coolant to the reactor if heat spikes. This feature alone could have eliminated disasters like Fukushima or Chernobyl, where water pumps failed and cores started melting down.

If small nuclear modules don’t fill the renewables gap, where else to find the “firm power” that Jackson says is needed? The Sierra Club calls

Renewables like wind, solar, geothermal and pumped hydro all have their limitations, Marston writes. Unsplash photo

on pumped hydro and geothermal as sources of reliable electricity you can just flip on when renewables slow down. Yet the best geothermal spots have been taken, and pumped hydro has both geographic limits and environmental resistance.

Another proposal is linking grids across the country for greater efficiency. The idea is that wind blowing in Texas could be tapped after the sun goes down on California’s solar farms. This holds incremental promise but progress has been routinely blocked by conservative lawmakers.

There’s also the cost argument that renewables are cheaper. In a fossil fuel-dominated grid that’s true. However, MIT points out that as renewables dominate the grid, on-demand forms of power rise in value.

The extreme danger to the grid is the dreaded “durkflaute,” a German word for cloudy, windless weather that slashes solar and wind power generation for weeks.

So, the problem remains: We need reliable power at the right times, which are usually from 5-8 pm That’s when people come home and fire up their appliances.

“We can reliably run our grid with up to 70 percent renewables. Add batteries to the mix and that number goes up to just 72 percent.” – Alice Jackson, former CEO, Xcel Energy, Colorado The increasing demand for electricity only adds to the problem: A 2020 Washington Post article predicted that electrification of the economy by 2050 would result in a usage bump of 38 percent, mostly from vehicles. Consider Ford’s all-electric F150 Lightning, cousin to the best-selling gasoline F150. The $39,000 entry-level truck was designed to replace gasoline generators at job sites, meaning vehicle recharge happens when workers go home, just as renewables flag.

This calls into question what many experts hope car batteries can provide, doing double duty by furnishing peak power for homes at night.

Longer lasting storage batteries have long been touted as a savior, though Tara Righetti, codirector of the Nuclear Energy Research Center at the University of Wyoming, has reservations. “There are high hopes that better batteries will be developed. But in terms of what is technically accessible right now? I think nuclear provides an appealing option.”

Wind farms are growing in the Judith Basin of central Montana and more will come on line as transmission capacity increases but can renewables like wind, geothermal and solar provide enough electricity for a growing demand?  Photo by Todd Wilkinson

Wind farms are growing in the Judith Basin of central Montana and more will come on line as transmission capacity increases but can renewables like wind, geothermal and solar provide enough electricity for a growing demand? Photo by Todd Wilkinson

Meanwhile, small nuclear reactors are underway, with Bill Gates’ TerraPower building a sodium-cooled fast reactor in the coal town of Kemmerer, Wyoming. A 345-megawatt reactor, which generates enough electricity for 400,000 homes, will be paired with a molten-salt, heat storage facility. Think of it as a constantly charging battery in the form of stored heat. In the evening as renewable power flags, it would pump out 500 megawatts of power for up to five hours.

These reactors also tackle the little-known problem of cold starting the electrical grid after an outage. In 2003, suffering a blackout, the Eastern grid could not have restarted with renewables alone.

However we choose to close the energy gap, there’s no time to lose. Wild temperature swings have grid operators increasingly nervous. This summer, California came close to rolling blackouts, and temperatures in the West broke record after record. As our climate becomes more erratic, reliable electricity is becoming a matter of life and death.

Dave Marston is the publisher of Writers on the Range,, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. His column is repurposed here as part of a collaboration with Mountain Journal. Marston lives in Colorado.

A Reader Responses:

I am very disturbed by Marston’s nuke article. Liquid Sodium Fast Breeder Reactors are certainly NOT the power plants used in our Navy. They decided on light water reactors for reasons of safety and efficiency. Liquid sodium is one of the most corrosive substances known. It eats stainless steel. It explodes and burns if exposed to air. All nuclear plants have multiple back up coolant pumps. Human error manages to overcome most safety systems, and indeed virtually all accidents are caused or greatly exacerbated by people screwing up. The proposed location is extremely worrisome as well. We all complain about the haze from the coal plant that fouls the air over the whole ecosystem. The proposed fuel for the reactor is “degraded” weapons grade plutonium. Imagine that haze was fallout. Any failure of the reactor will severely degrade the aquifers at the HEAD of the GREEN RIVER and flow down Hams fork and Blacks fork into Flaming Gorge. How many people are downstream?
Possibly the largest source of untapped energy is conservation, yet not even lip service to that for making up the supposed 20% shortfall.

CO2 is a troublesome gas. Trading that for the most dangerous substances known is a very, very bad idea. Let Bill Gates put this nightmare in HIS backyard.


Keith Benefield

Wilson, Wyoming


The article about nuclear power is interesting. While the author brings up some good points about vulnerability of renewables his advocation of nuclear power shows a lack of seeing the big picture. Nuclear is great if you overlook one minor issue – what to do with the nuclear waste generated with production of the fuel and then what to do with the spent fuel when it’s lifetime is over. Storing spent fuel in large water pools at the utility or in underground salt caverns is not the solution. When the waste problem is really solved then nuclear is viable. If Bill Gates wants to do something useful with his wealth, he should get behind work on dealing with nuclear waste. Until then, wind and solar with large scale battery storage is the solution provided the panels and wind turbines are made in friendly places and not with Chinese forced labor.

Alan Crawford
Bozeman, Montana

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