Nuclear power must be part of New York’s plan

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The public has good reason to be concerned about where New York’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA) is headed.

Some members of the state Climate Action Council want to pretend that the legislation calls for “100 percent renewables,” a favorite mantra of big green groups. It doesn’t. Others, like Gavin Donohue, spokesperson for the Independent Power Producers of New York, praise giant new gas-fired power plants as the “grid of the future.” Both sides need a reality check.

What the CLCPA calls for is carbon-free electricity in less than 20 years, and that we slash statewide emissions 85 percent by 2050. That won’t happen with fossil fuels. However, it won’t happen by blanketing the state with wind turbines and solar panels, either.

Notably, 50 percent of New York’s electricity is already carbon-free. About half of that is hydropower and the other half nuclear. Yet in the CLCPA’s first year, we’ve lost ground. Contrary to Donohue, the giant new gas plants that he touts—CPV and Cricket Valley—are not replacing higher-emitting sources. They’re replacing zero-emission electricity from the Indian Point nuclear plant. Cricket Valley came online with a gigawatt of capacity just days before one of the nuclear plant’s two reactors shut down. If Indian Point’s remaining reactor closes this year, 90 percent of downstate generation will come from fossil fuels.

Incredibly, some industry reps argue that we should build even more fossil fuel infrastructure because plants that burn fracked gas might one day run on hydrogen or “renewable” natural gas. But the sheer volumes of fuel required to operate baseload facilities like CPV and Cricket Valley are well beyond the limited reach of agricultural biogas or the potential of energy-intensive hydrogen or methane synthesis. They know that if New York counts on unrealistic, unscalable solutions, we will be burning fossil fuels far into the future.

Still, the independent producers are not completely wrong. Renewables alone will not reliably power the state. As more wind and solar are added to the grid, intermittency becomes an increasingly formidable barrier, requiring unrealistic amounts of storage and sprawling transmission. Batteries can help avoid peaker plants, but they don’t replace baseload generation. When the weather doesn’t cooperate with demand, fossil fuels are burned for electricity wherever large amounts of wind and solar are deployed. Even worse, this leads to system-wide inefficiency: renewable curtailment, burning gas in plants that idle in “hot standby,” or relying on simple-cycle turbines that respond quickly but consume more fuel per watt-hour. Operating the grid that way may help meet “renewable” quotas, but does little to fight climate change.

The fact is that shutting down just half of Indian Point eliminated more carbon-free electricity than is generated annually by every wind turbine and solar panel across the state today. Losing our remaining nuclear fleet would wipe out as much as all of New York’s proposed offshore wind projects.

If we are serious about the climate crisis, nuclear needs to be in the mix. It is part of every viable path to avoiding the worst impacts of global warming according to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Models by New York’s Independent System Operator that consider future demand from electric vehicles and heat pumps include nuclear power as well. Statistically, nuclear is as safe as renewables and—unlike the fossil fuel industry—contains its waste instead of dumping it in the atmosphere. Yet by demanding the eradication of reliable nuclear power while naively chanting “100 percent renewables,” activists play directly into the hands of the gas industry.

Fighting climate change requires forward progress, not backsliding while the clock ticks. Existing and advanced nuclear power, hydropower, and rational amounts of wind, solar, and storage, all have roles to play in meeting the goal of carbon-free electricity. It’s time for New York’s Climate Action Council and elected leaders to support solutions capable of achieving state climate goals while delivering reliable energy that New Yorkers expect.

Keith Schue of Cherry Valley is an electrical engineer and member of New York Energy and Climate Advocates.

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