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Q&A Akira Tokuhiro 

The University of Idaho professor on how to balance our power needs

click to enlarge Nuclear is the only way... to have cheap and accesible power.\"
  • Nuclear is the only way... to have cheap and accesible power.\"

What if a power plant acted like a hybrid car? This isn’t fantasy. It’s University of Idaho Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering Professor Akira Tokuhiro’s work. The idea is to pair up renewable energies with nuclear power to create more efficient power plants. When the wind isn’t blowing or the sun’s not out, the nuclear reactor would supply power.

But first, you have to figure out how to control these wildly different power plants. Based at the campus in Idaho Falls, Tokuhiro is using a new $877,000 grant from the Department of Energy to figure out a way to control a nuclear plant and a renewable energy plant — be it wind, solar or otherwise — at the same time. And that’s not as easy as it sounds, he tells The Inlander.

INLANDER: Why combine wind, solar and other renewable and nuclear at the same plant?

TOKUHIRO: Renewables are popular right now, and nuclear is not.

Nuclear is the only way that you’re going to have large amounts of cheap and accessible power. I like solar and I like wind as well. What makes the most sense is if we have the most comprehensive portfolio of energy overall. That means you have to have a good control system to accommodate all those different power systems. That’s what I control through the project. The weather changes throughout the day and so we have an intelligent control system to make those changes. The demand for electricity changes all the time.

What’s a control system?

The best analogy is your Toyota Prius. It has a control system, it has a computer on board to switch back and forth between your engine and your battery.

What’s the advantage of having these energy sources next to each other?

[With] large energy plants and chemical plants, you just want them in one location. You want to zone them strictly, like we’re already doing. Basically, the guiding principle is you need the plants where you need the energy.

Are all locations suited for this?

Not necessarily. I suppose Idaho is a good place to build nuclear power plants, but it’s not very good for solar because we’re so far north. It may be good for wind.

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