New York City’s major source of electricity for more than four decades could be taken offline in the next few years, a major victory for the state’s governor, who has called the power plant a danger to the city.
The Indian Point nuclear power plant, which consists of two reactors, came online in the 1970s. It has been supplying relatively low-cost and low-carbon power to the city since then. However, it is located just 30 miles from the Big Apple, and as it ages it has become a worry for Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has called it a “ticking time bomb,” according to The New York Times.
Earlier this week, Gov. Cuomo announced that he had convinced Indian Point’s owner, Louisiana-based Entergy, to shut down the reactors by 2021. “I have personally been trying to close it down for 15 years,” the governor said. The closure “eliminates a major risk.” Entergy will bear the costs of decommissioning and the state will withdraw legal challenges against the plant.
Even better for New York is the Governor’s claim that the low-carbon energy provided by Indian Point will be replaced by energy efficiency and renewable energy, and as such, won’t add to the state’s climate burden.
But not everyone agrees that the massive 2 gigawatt nuclear complex can be replaced so easily without fossil fuels. Although Gov. Cuomo insists that the state won’t have to turn to natural gas to supply New York City, there is a good chance that shale gas from the Marcellus might be called upon anyway. “There is currently not enough carbon-free energy in the pipeline to replace Indian Point,” Robert Freudenberg, director of energy and environmental programs at the Regional Planning Association, told The New York Times in an interview. Related: Toshiba Loses Billions On U.S. Nuclear Write-Offs
The situation is emblematic of an unfolding drama across the country as the nation’s nuclear power plants near retirement. The bulk of the 100 or so nuclear power plants in the U.S. were constructed in the 1960s and 1970s, all of which were granted a standard 40-year license to operate. Many of those have expired or are nearing expiration, and the bulk of them have been granted 20-year license extensions. With dozens of reactors now a decade or so away from hitting their 60-year birthdays, the U.S. is faced with a dilemma of whether to shut them down or extend their lifespans by yet another 20 years.
While the New York government supported reactors elsewhere in the state, they resisted Indian Point because of its proximity to the city. Entergy ultimately conceded, as the company is in the midst of ridding itself of nuclear reactors in the north and is instead focusing on regulated markets in the south.
In fact, Entergy disputed Gov. Cuomo’s influence, citing cheap natural gas as a significant factor in its decision to shut down the plant. But Gov. Cuomo and the state’s attorney general resisted granting Entergy a 20-year license extension on Indian Point. Entergy spent $200 million over the past decade in legal fees trying to obtain a new license, to no avail.
If nuclear reactors are heading for retirement, the big question then becomes how to replace that lost capacity. It will be an uphill battle for New York to replace the shuttered Indian Point reactors and their 2 GW of clean power.
Gov. Cuomo is now aggressively pushing offshore wind, and is targeting 2.4 GW of offshore wind capacity by 2030. The first down payment on that target is a 90-megawatt project off the coast of Long Island, which he is supporting. However, those projects will take years to come online even under the most optimistic circumstances, raising fears of a gap in power supply.
"It's going to require a lot of gas. Renewables aren't going to do it. I think people would be shocked and dismayed if we tried to do this on the back of conservation," John Bartlett, a portfolio manager at Reaves Asset Management, told E&E News in an interview. "We are talking about a titanic amount of power coming off in Zone J," referring to the section of the electric grid that serves New York. Related: Low Oil Prices Could Last As OPEC Cuts Won’t Suffice
Environmental groups are more confident. “Hats off to the Cuomo Administration and New York leaders for planning to shut down another nuclear plant and replacing it with clean energy,” Anna Aurilio, director of Environment America’s Global Warming Solutions Program, said in a statement. “There’s more than enough renewable energy projects in the pipeline to replace Indian Point.” Offshore wind could be complemented by onshore wind, solar, and energy efficiency. If New York fails to fill the gap left by Indian Point with renewables, the state can still import hydropower from Quebec.
Indeed, New York is unfazed. The state recently implemented a tighter renewable portfolio standard that requires utilities to source 50 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2030, one of the most aggressive in the nation. Gov. Cuomo also announced this week that New York will cut greenhouse gas emissions by an additional 30 percent below 2020 levels by 2030, tightening the requirements under the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a regional cap-and-trade program between Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states. Gov. Cuomo is going all-in on renewables in an effort that has raised questions regarding his presidential aspirations in 2020.
Indian Point is just one power plant, but it is indicative of the eroding position of nuclear power. Only a handful of new nuclear reactors are under construction, and despite the hype of a “nuclear renaissance,” even the newest models are facing lengthy delays and cost overruns, a longstanding problem for the industry. Meanwhile, existing nuclear reactors are getting picked off, one by one.
Whether it will be solar, wind or natural gas, the one thing that is clear is that nuclear power will increasingly give way to alternatives.
By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com
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