1.21 Gigawatts. Back to the Future... of Energy?

Contributed by Rich Simmons


The Phrase "1.21 gigawatts" has earned a place in the pop culture hall of fame. It is not only an element of the science-fiction film universe of the movie "Back to the Future", it also has real-life meaning and applications. For instance, gigawatts are also used to measure gross power rating of nuclear reactors, such as those being constructed in Georgia. But gigawatts are only the beginning of understanding energy in the future. ‚Äč 



1.21 Gigawatts may have been made famous by Marty McFly and Doc Brown, but fortuitously this is the approximate gross power rating of each of the new nuclear reactors being constructed in Georgia, dubbed Vogtle 3 and 4. The mid 80’s not only brought us Back to the Future but also the construction of Vogtle reactors 1 and 2. In those days, the would-be parent reactors endured much scrutiny over schedule delays, and cost overruns. Thirty years later, these plants are just reaching middle life, and generating each low carbon kWh for about 2 or 3 pennies. Plants like Vogtle are a key factor in keeping Southeastern electricity rates consistently about 10% lower than the national average. 

With no intent to over-simplify complex challenges, being good stewards of our money and time has never been more critical. We must all be vigilant to ensure guarantors of the public trust are accountable; and the technology lives up to its potential, including features like passive safety and improved efficiency. Yet, one moral here is that energy and public policy decisions require a long view and strategic thinking. So, I’m proud that Georgia is building new nuclear reactors, in spite of being the only state in the union to be actively doing so. Somehow, this decision is even more significant because of the other things we’re trying to do in the region. 

Doc Brown and even Albert Einstein himself would be pleased with the ways we are looking at the “Space-Time Continuum” for energy. On the technological side, major time-phased efforts are in place to modernize the grid while we continue diversifying our generating mix with not only GW-scale nuclear plants, but also high efficiency ~400 MW combined cycle natural gas plants, and an increasing share of distributed resources, such as solar.
On the social and economic development side, we are taking a closer look at the people, communities, and businesses that consume electricity. This includes in-depth studies by our Energy Policy and Innovation Center (EPICenter) to understand low-income household energy expenditures, the need for more resilient and modern energy infrastructure, the value of energy storage, and ways of unlocking economic development and efficiency through industrial big data. We’re even lending a hand to develop resources and best practices as new solar projects advance since five of the top ten fastest growing states for solar capacity additions are in the South (AL, SC, VA, GA, FL). In overall installed capacity, North Carolina now ranks 2 in the country and Georgia is number 8. 

A solar panel the size of your cell phone would be rated at roughly 10 Watts. Thus, to approach the theoretical power level of Vogtle 3, we’d need an area equivalent to the screens of 120 million cell phones. Fortuitously once again, 1.2 Gigawatts is precisely the installed capacity of (mostly solar PV) renewables prescribed through 2019 by the 2016 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) for Georgia. 
But if you think nuclear projects have to be immense or that solar projects have to be small, a quick stop in the Southeast will have you thinking outside the box again. Consider the entrepreneurial partnerships around ~200MW scale advanced and small modular reactor designs led by key southeastern utilities and universities, and supported by DOE, Oak Ridge National Lab, and the Electric Power Research Institute.  Or the recent announcement confirming plans to construct the Southeast’s largest stand-alone solar PV plant: a ~200MW solar farm on 2,000 acres in Twiggs County, Georgia.

These complementary initiatives are tangible evidence of a new energy era. One with a new vision for mitigating risks, improving the environment, and capitalizing on the research expertise and workforce potential of our region, all while keeping energy affordable and equitable. Innovating new technologies, new regulatory concepts, and advancing on bipartisan energy opportunities that are, in fact, welcome in our own backyards. That’s one of the things I love most about my role with EPICenter; every one of our team members and partnerships has an opportunity to improve people’s lives; close to home, but in ways that will change our nation and our world. Who knows what the future will bring: nuclear energy generators the size of cell phones, or Gigawatt solar farms? Whatever it may be, rest assured that Georgia Tech and the Southeast will be there each step of the way... Creating the Next.

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