Questions arise on nuclear power in N.M.
Pacific Gas & Electric last week announced plans to close its Diablo Canyon Power Plant, California’s last operating nuclear power facility.
Earlier this month, the Chicago-based utility Exelon announced it will shutter two Illinois nuclear plants in the next two years. Together, the two facilities have lost a combined $800 million in the past seven years.
New Mexico has no nuclear power plants. But the state’s largest utility, Public Service Company of New Mexico, is buying a controlling interest in one of three units at the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station near Tonopah, Ariz., a unit PNM has been leasing for some 30 years. And, to the chagrin of some environmental and clean-energy groups, the company is asking its customers to pay for the purchase.
So why, at a time when some other parts of the country are moving away from nuclear power, is PNM vying to keep it in New Mexico’s energy mix?
“Nuclear is expensive,” said Mariel Nanasi, executive director of New Energy Economy, a clean-energy advocacy group that is an intervener in the rate case. “PNM wants to stick us with high-cost nuclear in this rate case that is unneeded and that has enormous cleanup cost risk and associated exorbitant capital expenditures.”
PNM says its investment in nuclear is good for customers and the environment.
“PNM’s analysis consistently shows Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station to be a necessary cost-effective resource for our customers,” said PNM spokeswoman Ryan Baca in a written statement. “It is a carbon-free resource, and nuclear power is an important part of achieving carbon reduction goals.”
Palo Verde provides energy to more than 4 million people. About half the plant’s output goes to Arizona customers, with the remaining power exported to California, New Mexico and West Texas.
Some interveners in the rate case, including the state Attorney General’s Office, have questioned PNM’s cost analysis. The case is scheduled to go before the state Public Regulation Commission this week.
Ralph Cavanagh, co-director of the energy program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, was part of the negotiations with Pacific Gas & Electric that led to the decision to shutter the Diablo Canyon plant by 2025. This, he says, will be the very first nuclear power plant shutdown that’s conditioned on 100 percent replacement with renewable energy with no carbon emissions. The plan must be approved by California regulators.
In a telephone interview, Cavanagh stressed that his organization has not analyzed or taken a position on the future of Palo Verde, which sells some of its energy to Southern California. He also cautioned against comparing the situation in California to that of New Mexico.
Cavanagh said the California utility’s Diablo Canyon move was an economic decision sparked by that state’s energy and climate change policies, which require a renewable energy portfolio of 50 percent and increasing energy efficiency in buildings by 50 percent, both by 2030.
In contrast, New Mexico’s Renewable Portfolio Standard requires that 20 percent of all electricity sold by investor-owned electric utilities, and 10 percent sold by cooperatives, come from renewable energy resources by 2020. We aren’t there yet. In 2014, renewable energy supplied 9.3 percent of the electricity generated in the state. In past years, there have been some efforts in the state Legislature to weaken the renewable energy portfolio standards. None has been successful, at least yet.
PNM’s Baca said in an interview that California has a major advantage over New Mexico in renewable energy: hydroelectric power.
The California Energy Commission’s website says hydroelectricity indeed is a major source of power there. However, the amount produced “varies each year, and is largely dependent on rainfall. Unfortunately, California is in its fourth year of a severe drought.”