Renewables and nuclear: hand-in-hand in New York?
On August 1st, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the approval of New York’s Clean Energy Standard, billed as the most comprehensive and ambitious clean energy mandate in the history of the state. By 2030, 50% of New York’s electricity will need to come from renewable sources, causing greenhouse gas emissions to drop by 40% from their 1990 levels.
Clearly, this is good news for the renewables lobby – and indeed, for anyone worried about climate change. As the world’s number two carbon emitter, exceeded only by China, the United States currently generates just 13% of its electricity from renewable sources. And while the figure in New York is higher, at around 26%, there can be no doubt there is room for improvement.
Under the Clean Energy Standard, utilities and other energy suppliers will be required to obtain a certain number of Renewable Energy Credits every year. These will be paid to renewables developers, to finance new projects that will subsequently be added to the grid. There will be very little impact on consumers – only $2 a month will be added to the average residential customer’s bill.
Cuomo called the standard a “bold action” that will help New York become a national leader in the clean energy economy.
“This Clean Energy Standard shows you can generate the power necessary for supporting the modern economy while combatting climate change,” he said. “Make no mistake, this is a very real threat that continues to grow by the day and I urge all other states to join us in this fight for our very future.”
If other states are to follow suit, however, they will need to look at more than just their renewables targets. In an unprecedented move, New York will also offer subsidies for three existing nuclear power plants – Fitzpatrick, Ginna and Nine Mile – which are located upstate. This will keep the plants from shutting, an outcome which had previously seemed all but inevitable.
Nuclear is in a precarious position throughout the United States. While nuclear power does generate around 20% of the country’s electricity – rising to 60% of its emissions-free power – many of the country’s reactors are in jeopardy. Five have closed since 2013, and many more are slated to follow, particularly in states like Illinois, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
The New York plants had seemed poised to join their numbers. Last year, Entenergy Corp announced it would close Fitzpatrick in January 2017, before stating it was in talks with Exelon to possibly sell the facility. But Exelon, which owns Ginna and Nine Mile, stated its case in no uncertain terms. If it were to buy Fitzpatrick, and keep its own ailing reactors open too, it would need New York to provide financial assistance.
Under the Clean Energy Standard, the plants have been thrown a lifeline: they will receive $965 million in additional revenue over the first two years of the program, with adjustments every two years until 2029. The state will use a formula based on expected power costs and the social costs of carbon, meaning the subsidy would be cut if power prices rose.
The case for prolonging their lives is clear. Michael Shellenberger, an environmental policy expert and founder of Environmental Progress, believes nuclear is the only way we can avoid an overreliance on fossil fuels.
“You can’t do without it – you can’t get the power you need from renewables, nor are they reliable enough, so without nuclear we’re just not going to make headway on climate change,” he explains.
As of 2014, nuclear contributed 31.6% of New York’s electricity mix – and in its absence, it would fall predominantly to natural gas to pick up the slack. New York’s Public Service Commission has concluded that wind and solar simply wouldn’t be able to scale up fast enough.
If the New York reactors were to suddenly close, estimated emissions would soar by more than 31 million metric tons over the next two years, leading to public health costs of $1.4bn. Something similar has already happened in California, Vermont and Wisconsin.
The Clean Energy Standard, then, ensures that while the state transitions to 50% renewables, the rest of the energy mix does not revert to carbon-based sources. It will also safeguard 2,000 or so reactor jobs, in an area where unemployment is rife. To many commentators, the plan is a laudable example of the ways nuclear and renewables might work in tandem.
A controversial decision
Of course, this is not to say everybody is happy. Nuclear has long been a contentious topic, with controversy raging over its safety record and the logistics of radioactive waste disposal. A number of environmental groups have expressed their dismay, stating that the nuclear power subsidy would cost $7.6bn over its 12-year lifespan.