Chris Morgan, Idaho National Laboratory
This Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017, file photo, provided by the Idaho National Laboratory shows the Idaho National Laboratory Transient Reactor Test Facility in Idaho Falls, Idaho.

Even at my age, it seems a bit magical that I can flip a switch and a room is filled with light. Or touch a thermostat, and a home gets warmer. Or press a button and smartphones and computers boot up.

Electricity has transformed our lives, our businesses and our economy. Still, we mostly take it for granted. We assume electrical energy will always be there, and we keep finding new things to do with it — like the coming electrification of cars and trucks.

But things are changing in the electrical energy industry. While the demand for electricity is growing rapidly worldwide, concern about climate change is applying pressure for cleaner, carbon-free energy that is still affordable.

One of the remarkable providers of electrical services in Utah and five other Western states is the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, or UAMPS. I recently became better acquainted with UAMPS when I met with Douglas Hunter, CEO and general manager. I had earlier visited the Idaho National Laboratory near Idaho Falls, where UAMPS and INL are working together on a transformative power project.

UAMPS is a consortium of mostly municipal power agencies providing wholesale electric services to its 46 members in Utah, California, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming. Among its members in Utah are Lehi, Bountiful, Murray, Logan, St. George and many more.

Demand for electricity is growing rapidly in many UAMPS member communities as population increases. The challenge is to meet that demand, even while working toward a clean, carbon-free future.

Traditionally, most electrical energy in Utah has been generated from coal plants. But with rapid advancements in renewable and nuclear energy technologies, UAMPS has embraced a progressive approach to electrical generation that reduces pollution and carbon emissions.

First, UAMPS encourages conservation and efficiency and provides energy-saving programs for its members, emphasizing that the cheapest and cleanest energy, is energy that is not generated.

Second, UAMPS has embraced all forms of renewable energy, including rooftop solar and micro-energy projects. UAMPS owns a wind farm, a waste heat project, and members for many decades have produced electricity from hydro projects. Businesses and homeowners in member communities can install solar and become energy producers themselves with sensible rate structures.

Third, UAMPS is planning to build a small modular nuclear reactor project at Idaho National Laboratory. This would be the first small modular reactor, or SMR, project in the United States, ushering in a new generation of nuclear energy that is small, clean, safe, affordable, flexible and carbon-free.

A key purpose of this project is to provide stability to UAMPS’ electrical grid system as more renewable energy is added to the supply. The SMR project, consisting of 12 small, 60-megawatt reactors, would nicely complement and supplement intermittent renewable energy like wind and solar. The small reactors would provide steady electricity when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow.

This SMR project is being closely watched by the global energy industry. It has been strongly supported by the U.S. Department of Energy in both the Obama and Trump administrations.

Many government organizations and conservation groups are extremely concerned about climate change and the carbon emissions produced by coal plants. But these group do not believe that renewable energy and batteries alone can supply all of the nation’s and world’s growing energy needs.

And because large traditional nuclear plants are enormously expensive and take decades to plan and build, a shift to smaller, affordable, next-generation nuclear energy makes sense to supplement renewable energy.

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The UAMPS project at INL is expected to become operational in 2026, just in time to retire coal plants that are at the end of their productive lives.

INL is the ideal place to host the plant because INL is the nation’s leading nuclear research and innovation center. It has housed more than 50 reactors and has the expertise, workforce and community support for this innovative project.

The world will be watching as UAMPS and INL usher in a new era of clean, carbon-free energy that will keep the lights on indefinitely.