3 states with closed nuclear plants see their emissions increase

New York passed a law in 2019 requiring the state to eliminate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 2040. But over the past two years, the exact opposite has happened: CO2 of power plants increased by nearly 15%, according to EPA data.

The New York experience is not unique. In neighboring New England, where six states are united by a single electricity market, electricity emissions have increased by 12% over the past two years. And in Pennsylvania, emissions from electricity generation increased by 3%.

The increase in emissions follows the closure of three nuclear facilities in Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania since 2019. While the three states have increased their production of renewable energy, natural gas has largely filled the void left by closed nuclear facilities, resulting in increased emissions.

The rise is further fueling a raging debate within climate circles over the role of nuclear power in the transition to a carbon-free grid. Some researchers argue that nuclear provides a reliable source of emission-free power that can complement wind and solar.

“If the goal is to move to 100% zero-carbon electricity,” said Melissa Lott, research director at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, “closing zero-carbon resources doesn’t have much We are only digging the hole deeper.

Others see nuclear as a short-term climate fix, at best. They note that recently shut down plants have been plagued by operational problems, and they point to the exorbitant cost of building new nuclear facilities. While some Greens have reluctantly passed a series of state agreements to keep troubled nuclear plants open in recent years, they say such rescue efforts should be tailored to facilities that are performing well.

“I was convinced that nuclear has many greenhouse gas benefits,” said Ben Inskeep, policy analyst at EQ Research, a clean energy consultancy. “However, I still have a lot of concerns about subsidizing a legacy industry that perhaps in many places doesn’t need additional financial incentives to keep these plants open today.”

The nuclear debate is taking place amid the rapid evolution of the US electric sector. The advent of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling has sparked a wave of cheap gas over the past decade, prompting coal-fired power plants to retire en masse. Carbon emissions have decreased accordingly. But cheap natural gas has also been a challenge for nuclear power plants, especially in states where companies compete to sell their power in wholesale power markets.

This triggered a series of state-level nuclear rescue efforts. Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey and New York have offered financial support to struggling nuclear facilities in the name of preserving jobs and controlling emissions. A group of academics and activists are now pressing California regulators to reconsider plans to shut down the state’s last nuclear facility in 2025.

Even Congress got involved. The bipartisan infrastructure package passed last year included $1.2 billion in aid for nuclear facilities. The ill-fated “Build Back Better Act” would have gone even further, with a production tax credit for nuclear facilities worth $23 billion.

‘Critical mass’

The rescue efforts reflect a shift in the environmental movement, to which nuclear power was once anathema. In Illinois last year, many environmental groups backed a climate law that included subsidies for nuclear and renewable energy, noted Doug Scott, vice president of electricity and efficiency at Great Plains Institute.

“A critical mass of the environmental community is embracing carbon reduction as the most important issue, and nuclear power is becoming more important than it was before,” Scott said.

Michael Wara, a researcher who studies energy policy at Stanford University, said he’s seen a similar shift in California, where 79 academics, scientists and entrepreneurs recently wrote a letter asking state regulators to extend the life of the Diablo Canyon Power Plant. Keeping the nuclear facility open, they argued, would better position California to meet its climate goals.

That’s a change from 2016, when Pacific Gas and Electric proposed closing the plant. Many environmentalists, long concerned about Diablo Canyon’s hot water discharges into the Pacific Ocean and its location on a geological fault line, have embraced the utility’s plan. But the math changed when the state was battered by drought and wildfires.

“Today the impacts of climate are so tangible you can feel it in your mouth,” Wara said. “It’s not polar bears or anything in 2050 about sea level rise. Snow. It affects where you want to live and the safety of your children. So maybe you’re ready to take a risk on an old nuclear power plant on a fault line?

The most important people to weigh those trade-offs will be residents of the community of San Luis Obispo, which is home to the plant, Wara said. But so far, that seems to be an academic question. California regulators showed no indication they were reconsidering the plant’s fate.

Yet as some Greens become more open to the idea of ​​operating existing nuclear facilities for longer, they have cautioned against offering the nuclear industry a blank check.

Nuclear facilities have been retired in the North East for valid reasons, they said. The Pilgrim Nuclear Generating Station in Massachusetts had its safety rating downgraded by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2015 before the facility was shut down for economic reasons in 2019. Indian Point was plagued by concerns about the potential for a nuclear accident near New York. And Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania was the site of the most famous nuclear accident in American history, when a reactor partially melted down in 1979.

“Organized Retreat”

Not all nuclear facilities are in economic difficulty. Nuclear power plants in states where utilities operate as regulated monopolies don’t face the same kind of competitive pressure as their counterparts in states with wholesale electricity markets, Inskeep said.

“It is up to us to investigate these plants, plant by plant, to determine where to keep the plants open,” he said.

Yet recent plant closures in Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania underscore their effects on emissions.

In New York, emissions from the electricity sector reached 28.5 million tons in 2021, up from 24 million tons in 2019, according to EPA figures. The increase coincided with the shutdown of Indian Point’s two nuclear units in 2019 and 2021.

In New England, power plant emissions have risen from around 22 million tonnes in 2019, the year Pilgrim closed, to 25 million tonnes in 2021.

And Pennsylvania’s electricity emissions, which were less than 83 million tons in 2019, were 85 million tons last year.

The increases are all the more remarkable as they contrast with the national trend. Nationally, emissions from power plants fell 4% between 2019 and 2021, even after accounting for a 7% increase in electricity emissions last year.

It also highlights the struggles of Northeastern states to build large-scale renewable energy projects. This led to an increase in gas consumption.

New York has seen an 11% increase in natural gas production between 2019 and 2020, according to the US Energy Information Administration. Utility-scale solar more than doubled between 2019 and 2021, but remains less than 1% of the state’s total electricity generation.

“We’re not there yet”

Rising emissions underscore the need for careful long-term planning around nuclear plant shutdowns, said Jackson Morris, who directs the Natural Resources Defense Council’s climate and energy program in the eastern United States. The NRDC is willing to support nuclear assistance as a short-term measure to prevent emissions rollback, provided states also invest in renewable energy and energy efficiency.

He cited California as an example, noting that the state required its utilities to procure new clean energy technologies to compensate for the Diablo Canyon closure.

“It’s about foresight,” Morris said. “There’s no reason we couldn’t chart a course that would provide enough renewable energy and allow for organized retirement.”

Like other environmental groups, the NRDC’s support for nuclear power has its limits. He largely sees existing nuclear power plants as a stepping stone to a low-carbon grid using wind, solar and batteries.

In some states, the rebound in power plant emissions may be temporary.

New York has taken aggressive steps to green its grid since passing a climate law in 2019. The state has pledged to build 4,300 megawatts of offshore wind generation, roughly double the capacity of ‘Indian Point. The 2019 Climate Act eases permitting restrictions for renewable energy projects, paving the way for some 3,600 MW of onshore wind and solar power by 2025. And the state is actively working to resolve transmission bottlenecks that prevent clean energy from reaching New York.

Even if New York succeeds in developing renewable energy, it will have wasted precious time replacing the energy formerly produced by nuclear, according to some researchers. They argue that new wind and solar generation should be built on the basis of clean energy provided by nuclear. The United States, they say, can ill afford a setback in greening the electricity sector, the only segment of the economy that has shown it can systematically reduce emissions.

Lott, the Columbia researcher, noted that the decline in emissions comes at a time when the global carbon budget is shrinking rapidly. In addition to the short-term benefits of nuclear, she argued that it could complement wind and solar in the future. It provides a firm, carbon-free power source and reduces some of the costs of building a grid powered entirely by renewables and batteries.

Ultimately, Lott said, the United States will likely need a mix of technologies to achieve zero-emissions energy.

“We have to move away from technological tribalism, where we are only for one thing,” she said. “That’s the conversation we need to get into, but we’re not there yet.”