The impending shutdown of the Indian Point nuclear plant outside New York City fulfills a longtime mission of Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who worked with environmental groups to force its ending.
But the closure of the plant's last reactor on April 30 will likely lead to a short-term increase in fossil fuel use. It will also undercut another Cuomo goal, mandated by law, for New York to use 100% carbon-free electricity by 2040, one of the most aggressive climate targets in the country. Until last year, when the second of the plant's three reactors shut down, Indian Point provided 25% of New York City's power, all of it carbon-free.
“Historically, the closure of existing nuclear plants has caused emissions in those areas to increase,” said Brett Rampal, director of nuclear innovation at the Clean Air Task Force. “In a state like New York trying to commit to long-term decarbonization, the closure of Indian Point is going to make the emissions picture worse.”
The Indian Point saga also highlights the broader challenges facing large traditional light-water nuclear power plants first built in the 1950s that have struggled to stay economically competitive compared to cheaper natural gas and renewables.
Over the last two decades, 10 U.S. nuclear plants have shut down, and four more reactors are scheduled for premature closure this year (not including Indian Point). Without any policy change, half of the current 94-unit nuclear fleet will retire by 2030, the Rhodium Group projected last month.
The Indian Point reactor set to shutter at the end of this month, first commissioned in 1976, is responsible for avoiding nearly 4 million metric tons of carbon a year, equivalent to emissions resulting from more than 1.4 million cars annually, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute.
Both the reactor that was shut down last year and the remaining one each produce about 1,000 megawatts of electricity, enough to power more than 500,000 homes.
Nuclear still represents more than half of the nation's carbon-free power. But the struggle of the nuclear fleet is drawing concern in Congress, including among Democrats who worry more closures would be detrimental to achieving President Joe Biden's goal of using 100% carbon-free power by 2035 — faster than New York envisions.
Sen. Joe Manchin, the Democratic chairman of the Energy Committee, appealed to Biden in a letter this week to “use all the tools” he has to preserve the United States's existing nuclear power fleet.
The Biden administration's $2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal promises to “continue to leverage the carbon pollution-free energy provided by existing sources like nuclear.” Also, it pledges to invest in demonstration projects of smaller advanced reactor technologies being developed in the U.S. Proponents of these new reactors say they can be made more cheaply, enabling them to provide 24/7 power to help complement wind and solar in the grid of the future.
But the first of these reactors is not expected to be on the market until late this decade.
That means keeping intact existing nuclear plants is crucial. The Rhodium Group's research from March found that an infrastructure spending package that does not provide an incentive to keep existing nuclear capacity online would result in emissions being roughly 200 million metric tons higher than otherwise.
Sen. John Barrasso, the top Republican of the Energy Committee, plans to address the issue by reintroducing bipartisan legislation from last year, creating the first federal subsidies program to support nuclear plants at risk of shutting down for economic reasons.
“Many of the plants scheduled to close could safely continue operating for decades to come,” Barrasso told the Washington Examiner. “If we are to keep more plants from shutting down, we must act quickly.”
Such a program would not have saved Indian Point. However, experts say that while the plant faced economic pressures, it was targeted by Cuomo before he became governor in 2011 because of its proximity to densely populated New York City on the eastern banks of the Hudson River. Cuomo also cited environmental concerns at the plant, including a fire in 2007 and water contamination incidents. In 2017, Cuomo brokered a settlement with Entergy, Indian Plant's owner, to decommission the plant.
“Credit programs can support nuclear plants facing closure for economic reasons, but it may not save the fate of plants with other headwinds,” said Timothy Fox, vice president at ClearView Energy Partners, a research group.
Interestingly, Cuomo supports New York's three other nuclear plants, located upstate, through a state credit program that rewards the plants for providing zero-carbon electricity.
But Fox said losing Indian Point will challenge the feasibility of New York's target for using entirely zero-carbon electricity by 2040, a target that allows for nuclear and hydropower.
As of last year, wind and solar together provided less than 7% of New York's electricity, according to the Energy Information Administration, compared to 30% nuclear and 24% hydropower.
“Backfilling that much nuclear capacity and generation, particularly a resource located close to New York City, would require significant and swift investments in renewable energy at an accelerated pace not seen in New York to date or in other regions,” Fox said.
New York is planning to build its renewable power capacity aggressively to meet its short-term goal of generating 70% of its electricity from wind and solar. The state has issued contracts for half of the nearly 11,000 megawatts of renewable power it plans to add to the grid that comprises almost 100 solar, land-based wind, and offshore wind projects.
Finishing these projects, combined with building transmission lines to deliver wind and solar from upstate to New York City, would put the state ahead of schedule toward reaching its goal of 70% renewables by 2030, according to the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.
A spokesman for the authority said state energy planners had not been counting on contributions from Indian Point in setting its clean electricity targets.
But the spokesperson acknowledged that “existing facilities,” likely natural gas, “may be needed in the interim” before the renewable projects are built.
So far, the electricity lost from the Indian Point reactor that closed last year has been replaced mainly by natural gas. This fossil fuel provided 40% of New York's electricity in 2020, more than any other fuel.
“It's fair to say as Indian Point units shut down, other sources of electricity will have to be ramped up,” said Anne Reynolds, executive director of Alliance for Clean Energy, a group representing renewable energy companies.
Reynolds said New York would have to scale up its wind and solar power massively regardless of Indian Point closing to achieve the 70% renewables by 2030 target.
But she said nuclear would be needed to meet the 100% carbon-free goal for 2040.
“We acknowledge there is a need for that dispatchable clean energy by 2040, but we do have a good amount of time for meeting that need, and in the meantime, we have to build a lot of wind and solar,” Reynolds said.
Like other Democrat-led states along the Atlantic Ocean, New York is especially banking on building a nascent offshore wind industry to meet its clean energy goals.
New York has set a goal of 9,000 megawatts of offshore wind, the highest absolute target of any state, which, if built, would provide 30% of the state's power by 2035. But none of it is under construction, and New York still has to undergo federal permitting, a cumbersome process that the Biden administration has pledged to accelerate.
“Without offshore wind, New York can't achieve the law's clean energy requirements,” Reynolds said. “We are on the cusp.”
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