The Indian Point Closure Means More Emissions — And More Cynicism About Climate Action
The actor and comedienne Lily Tomlin once said “no matter how cynical I get, I just can’t keep up.” To my knowledge, Tomlin is not an expert on nuclear energy or the politics around climate change.
But the premature closure of the Indian Point Energy Center — which will quit providing electricity to the New York electric grid on Friday – should make anyone who cares about climate change, electricity prices, or the security of the electric grid even more cynical about our politicians and the “green” groups who insist we must take urgent action to slash, or eliminate our greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, cynicism, and lots of it, is the sensible response to the closure of Indian Point because it will result in dramatic increases in New York’s greenhouse gas emissions at roughly the same moment that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, climate activists, and top officials in the Biden administration are claiming that we need to quit using hydrocarbons. Just last week, Biden declared his intent to cut America’s greenhouse gas emissions by 50% in just nine years.
My cynicism about climate policy in America can’t keep up because the climate catastrophists’ rhetoric about the potentially cataclysmic effects of climate change doesn’t match their actions. If climate change is — as President Biden’s “climate envoy” John Kerry recently claimed “an existential crisis” and that “life on this planet is being threatened” — then Kerry Biden, Cuomo, de Blasio, and America’s biggest environmental groups including the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, should be fighting like hell to keep Indian Point open and operating for as long as possible. That is not happening.
Instead, they are either quiet — or in the case of the NRDC — actively cheering the closure of the Unit 3 reactor at Indian Point. (The Unit Two reactor closed in April 2020.) The NRDC and its allies are cheering despite Indian Point’s decades-long record of safely churning out roughly 16 terawatt-hours of zero-carbon electricity every year. Indeed, a single reactor on the one-square-kilometer site was powering one out of every eight subway cars, elevators, and iPhones in Gotham. And yet, the plant is being shuttered.
My cynicism about climate policy can’t keep up because when Indian Point closes, its output will be replaced by natural gas-fired power plants and New York’s greenhouse gas emissions will soar. That is no surprise. Over the past few years, when nuclear plants have been shuttered, their output invariably gets replaced by gas-fired power plants. On April 27, Chris Gadomski, an analyst at Bloomberg NEF, issued a report on the closure of Indian Point, noting that “in the near term” the bulk of the plant’s output will be “replaced by gas generation. Replacing the output of Unit 2 boosted New York State emissions by 4 million tons. This number will double with the closure of Indian Point 3, which alone generates more electricity than all the wind and solar in the state.” (Emphasis added.) Indeed, the closure of Indian Point will make New York even more dependent on natural gas. There’s no shortage of irony in that fact given that under Gov. Cuomo, New York regulators have repeatedly blocked the expansion or construction of gas pipelines in the state.
My cynicism can’t keep up because closing Indian Point will mean higher electricity prices for ratepayers. As EnergyWatch reported in 2017, “Charles River Associates, estimated an increase from about $1.5 billion to $2.2 billion per year over a 15-year period for the State’s wholesale energy market. For New York City customers, this is an estimated rate increase of roughly 1 cent to 1.5 cents per kWh for supply based on impacts to the wholesale power and capacity markets.”
My cynicism can’t keep up because the closure of Indian Point shows how rank fearmongering by the NRDC and Riverkeeper and the lack of political fortitude by Cuomo and DiBlasio have achieved the closure of what is arguably the single most important piece of infrastructure serving New York City. On April 21, Kit Kennedy of the NRDC and Paul Gallay of Riverkeeper published a letter in the New York Times
My cynicism can’t keep up because the former CEO and president of the NRDC, Gina McCarthy, is now one of Biden’s top advisors on climate issues. As the group explained in a January press release, McCarthy is now Biden’s “National Climate Advisor. This senior White House position, reporting directly to the president, will head the newly formed White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy.” Thus, the former head of one of the most powerful anti-nuclear-energy groups in the country is now one of Biden’s top advisers on climate change. That fact helps explain why, during Biden’s speech to a joint session of Congress on April 28, he spoke at length about the need to deal with climate change but did not use the phrase “nuclear energy” a single time.
My cynicism can’t keep up because the malefactors listed above are ignoring the lessons of both the California and Texas blackouts: that nuclear reactors are the most resilient and robust form of electricity generation. Indeed, from a grid security and reliability standpoint, the closure of Indian Point is a strategic blunder. It will result in more of what Dr. Chris Keefer, the host of the Decouple Podcast, calls the “fragilization” of the electric grid. The closure will make New York more vulnerable to what Meredith Angwin, the author of the terrific new book, Shorting the Grid, calls the “fatal trifecta” that undermines the resilience and reliability of electric grids. That trifecta: overreliance on renewables, overreliance on imported electricity, and overreliance on generators that depend on just-in-time delivery of natural gas.
My cynicism can’t keep up because preserving existing nuclear plants is, by far, cheaper than every other form of climate mitigation. Reiner Kuhr, an adjunct professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell who worked in the electric power sector for 45 years, has done a comprehensive analysis of the cost of mitigating carbon dioxide emissions with various technologies. In a recent email, Kuhr told me carbon dioxide mitigation costs range “from under $20 per ton to keep existing nuclear running longer, to over $800 per ton for rooftop solar. Most of the solar and wind projects being heavily promoted are well over $200 per ton.” He also explained that if the government assumes the social cost of carbon is $50 per ton, the only cost-effective option “is extending the life of existing nuclear plants.”
My cynicism can’t keep up because keeping Indian Point open and operating should have been an easy decision. If we are facing an “existential crisis” due to climate change, then keeping it operating was the equivalent of a layup in basketball or a 3-inch putt in golf. Instead, in soccer terms, the closure of Indian Point is an own goal. In football, it’s akin to Leon Lett fumbling the ball in the endzone.
Lily Tomlin, wherever you are, stay away from the politics of nuclear energy and climate in America. No matter how hard you try, your cynicism will never be able to keep up.