While nuclear power is left to sink or swim in New England's competitive power market, New York last week approved a clean energy standard that calls for 50 percent renewables by 2030 and financial subsidies to keep three Upstate nuclear power plants in business. The standard would guarantee the nuclear plants hundreds of millions in additional revenue over 12 years in an effort to keep the lights on while meeting the state's climate goals. Facing sustained low natural gas prices and flat electricity demand, the plants have been struggling financially. But New York's Public Service Commission determined their operation is necessary to meet Gov. Andrew Cuomo's goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2030, and 80 percent by 2050.
It's not feasible to meet such an aggressive climate goal in the short term through energy efficiency and renewables, commissioners wrote. "It is not realistic to assume that sufficient additional renewable resources at a reasonable price or perhaps any price could be identified and implemented in sufficient time," the order stated. In the meantime, the commission will continue to solicit bids from renewable power suppliers, awarding 20-year contracts to the winners, with a goal of 29.2 million megawatt-hours per year by 2030.
The James A. FitzPatrick, R.E. Ginna and Nine Mile Point nuclear plants are expected to produce 27.6 million megawatt hours of carbon-free electricity per year. Replacing the three nukes with renewables would require 9,000 megawatts of onshore wind or 22,000 megawatts of solar, a magnitude described as "virtually impossible" in the short-term. Power marketers and fossil fuel generators have argued that subsidizing nuclear power would harm New York's wholesale electricity markets by artificially suppressing capacity prices. Regulators hope the financial support mechanism, based upon Zero Emission Credits, will survive the anticipated legal challenges.
A number of environmental, public health and climate groups were opposed to any support for the plants, arguing that nuclear power is not safe, clean, or carbon-free. Exelon operates the three plants, and said it would invest about $200 million in the Ginna and Nine Mile Point facilities. Entergy has been in talks with Exelon to buy the FitzPatrick generator, which had been scheduled to shut down this year.
The Clean Energy Standard will cost less than $2 a month to the average residential customer's bill, said Cuomo in a statement. The Democratic governor said the standard would "more than double renewable resources, slash carbon emissions, protect the environment and grow the clean energy economy."
In New England, the 620-megawatt Vermont Yankee closed at the end of 2014 and the 680-megawatt Pilgrim Nuclear Station is due to close on May 31, 2019. That leaves the 1,244-megawatt Seabrook Station in New Hampshire and the 2,020-megawatt Millstone Station in Connecticut. Pilgrim last year was designated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as one of the nation's least-safe reactors. America gets 20 percent of its electricity from its 61 nuclear power plants, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The U.S. Department of Energy is currently trying to solve the nation's nuclear waste problem, hoping that a consent-based model will lead to the siting of one or more long-term storage facilities.