Richard Powell

Ep 15: Richard Powell - Executive Director, Clearpath
00:00 / 01:04


"1:59 - The National Divide on Clean Energy

Bret Kugelmass: How did you get into the nuclear space and involved with Clearpath?

Rich Powell: Rich Powell was saved from life in a big corporate law firm by a consulting company called McKinsey, where he spent five years in the energy and sustainability practice. Powell got a call from Jay Faison, an entrepreneur from North Carolina, who wanted to set up a foundation and do something on clean energy with conservatives. Powell helped Faison as a consultant and has ended up staying with Clearpath for four years so far. Clearpath’s mission is to try and bridge the divide between clean energy in the country. The environment used to be a more bipartisan, big tent consensus issue, show by the entry into the U.N. framework convention on climate change during the first Bush administration and the Clean Air Act passed under the Nixon administration. Fairly recently, energy policy has become more divided.

5:07 - Clearpath’s Commitment to Clean Energy

Bret Kugelmass: What clean energy topics does Clearpath cover?

Rich Powell: Cleanpath takes a global look at the issue of clean energy and carbon emissions, focusing on low cost, highly scalable, and highly flexible energy systems. People are going to develop quickly and consume a lot of energy as they do that. People have mixed resources around the world, so there needs to be a portfolio of options to deploy in different geographic areas. Clearpath focuses on nuclear and advanced nuclear, carbon capture technologies, grid scale storage to make renewables and nuclear more dispatchable and flexible, hydropower, and anything else that is clean and dispatchable from the perspective of federal policy. Acceleration in these areas is achieved through more innovation and less regulation. A recently passed budget deal extended the 45J production tax credit for 6 GW of advanced nuclear reactors, which will apply to the two reactors being built at the Vogtle site in Georgia. This provides a much easier path for advanced nuclear to commercialization. Wind and solar subsidies are ramping down to the early 2020’s. Until there is a lot of build and the technology and supply chain scaling is figured out, the cost cannot be brought down. Companies have made pledges to be powered entirely by renewable energy, which is actually paying for projects that happen somewhere else on the grid to take advantage of subsidies and cheap power. If the playing field is leveled, corporations will look at energy technologies differently and look for procurement of clean energy, as opposed to renewable energy, which will also drive states. Clearpath doesn’t spend a lot of time in the states, but instead tries to set up the conditions on the federal level that makes conversations in the states happen more naturally.

13:26 - U.S. Clean Energy R&D

Bret Kugelmass: What other opportunities are you trying to bring to people’s attention on the innovation or development front?

Rich Powell: Clearpath’s biggest focus is on the innovation front. Every year, the Department of Energy (DOE) spend about $10 billion a year on R&D somehow related to clean energy, which is the single largest pool of resources on the planet focused on clean energy. Budgetary pressures mean those resources are under attack or under threat, but the DOE could also be doing more with less, since they are working on many different things. Any time there have been real breakthroughs in clean energy technologies, such as the shale gas revolution, the sunshine initiative, or the Joint BioEnergy Initiative, these things had a very clear goal, just under a decade time ramp, great leadership, and steady resources. If the resources were more focused on specific goals, instead of spread out, a complex organization can do big things in a very energy efficient way.

17:05 - Focused Nuclear Innovation

Bret Kugelmass: What should the strategy be to focus resources on innovation?

Rich Powell: Rich Powell and Clearpath believe there should be a moonshot goal to develop a number of entirely zero emission power technologies within the next ten years that are cost competitive with combined cycle gas. Nuclear should be one of the target technologies and a number of nuclear entrepreneurs are already bringing in technologies that could be cost competitive if they were developed out. Ten years ago, the cost of solar panels was entirely cost prohibitive, but nuclear hasn’t had the ability to rapidly scale. Gigawatt-scale designs that require five to ten years to build, armies of high energy welders, and huge amounts of concrete goes against everything that would be considered a highly innovative industry. Smaller plants, manufacturability, and modularity should be considered. The Nuclear Innovation Alliance, Energy Options Network, and the Future of Nuclear Study are the groups that are currently the deepest in the development of advanced nuclear. New reactor types allow innovation throughout the plant.

23:19 - International Nuclear Expansion

Bret Kugelmass: Is the U.S. seeding leadership to China on the nuclear front and what are the associated risks?

Rich Powell: This year, China will commission two 250 MW high temperature gas reactors, an advanced technology that does not use water as a coolant. It is a general rule that you don’t want any one power plant more than 10% of a country’s grid, and 75% of all the countries in the world have a power grid that is 10 GW or less, making U.S. technology 1 GW AP-1000 reactors non-deployable. China is very consciously developing their infrastructure over many continents and are designing reactors that are more appropriate for markets in smaller developing countries. Advanced reactors are lower cost to produce the same level of safety. Because advanced reactors are so hot, there are a number of industrial processes that require fossil fuels to create that much heat, but heat could be used from these nuclear reactors, such as steel, cement, and ammonia. Nuclear allows this production with zero emissions. At this rate, China will own the future of nuclear energy. Russia wants to start a century-long relationship with a country and are giving these countries nuclear technology on a build-own-lease model. Russia controls the whole thing soup to nuts, brings in the fuel, runs the reactor, and takes it away at the end. This also means Russia must have a security presence in the country.

27:43 - Keys to Advanced Nuclear Success in the U.S.

Bret Kugelmass: What does the U.S. need to do to move advanced nuclear forward?

Rich Powell: The U.S. has an amazing cohort of nuclear innovators, but they need a test bed for advanced reactors. There must be a physical place where people have access to a fast neutron source and so they can physically locate their demonstration reactors that doesn’t require them to go through the entirety of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) licensing process just to demonstrate a technology. Many of these new technologies are planning on using advanced fuels, not the 5% enriched uranium most of the existing plants use, but up to 19% enrichment. There is currently no domestic supply for this HALEU (high assay, low enriched uranium). The U.S. must create a reserve of this and there is a lot of very usable fuel left in spent naval reactor cores and weapons grade material that could be utilized. Advanced reactors are very expensive and very risky. No one has brought a new nuclear technology online anywhere in the world without some kind of government support along the way. A public-private partnership, or cost share agreement, could be maintained by the Department of Energy (DOE), as they are doing with X-energy, working on high temperature gas reactor development, and a joint reactor between Southern Company and Terrapower, working on the development of a molten salt reactor. The solicitation for nuclear technology should be opened up further. The 45J tax credit will help, but somebody needs to break out and say they will take advantage of the innovation and incentives and build and finance a reactor. Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) is working with NuScale as a buyer for the technology. A new cohort of buyers is now needed for the next technologies, which could be military bases doing power purchase agreements, states pursuing a clean energy standard, a city, or a private firm committing to opening up bids for a 100% zero emissions energy supply.

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