This article appeared in the May 2018 issue of Terra Firm, the Newsletter for the Sierra Club Lower Hudson Group.
Replacement? What replacement?
Misguided Critics Say…
Closing a nuclear reactor means another gas plant will open to replace it. We need to keep nuclear plants open in order to hold greenhouse gases down. Why can’t environmentalists understand that?
The truth is…
In the NY grid and in the neighboring PJM grid we have a surplus of electricity. That means the reactors can close and do not need to be “replaced” with any kind of new generation. Power plants are already producing more electricity than we need. That means closing Indian Point results no additional greenhouse gas emissions. The Public Service Commission has been preparing for an Indian Point closure since 2012 (http://tinyurl.com/nycenergy) and over 5,000 megawatts of electricity has been added to the system through transmission upgrades, efficiency and demand reduction from distributed generation. Greenhouse gases from this mix have already been figured into our energy mix. The results have been so successful that the PSC terminated their requests for new proposals since additional generation was not necessary to replace Indian Point. What happens to all of this surplus electricity? Where does it go?
Much of the electricity currently produced is wasted and “goes to ground.” Some generators like wind and solar can “dial back” their production. Plants that run 24/7 like nuclear reactors cannot dial back; they are either on or off. Here is an analogy that might be useful. Most everyone is familiar with the three pronged plugs that are in common use around your home. The third prong is called the ground and is a safety feature to divert a sudden surge of electricity away from whatever device the plug is attached to. On a much larger scale it is similar to the third line on substations and transmissions lines. It is a safety feature that protects the system from large swings in voltage. If there is too much electricity in the system and it cannot be dispatched to a buyer – it goes to ground. That means it is actually discharged into the ground through the third wire and harmlessly dissipates rather than causing a huge surge in the system that could disrupt transmission. Since generators are currently producing too much electricity some of them can drop out of the market and the net effect is that less power is wasted or goes to ground.
Another important factor is declining demand. Common knowledge has it that demand will always increase because of the proliferation of electronic devices and an expanding population. While common knowledge is flat out wrong it is exploited by corporations, hedge funds, and politicians to sell the public on the need for additional electricity. Communities facing a job loss when a company closes are anxious to find a replacement and frequently will grant a tax write off for seven to ten years. Gas plants are relatively cheap to build and go in quickly. Even in a market with surplus energy these plants can make a profit since they are not paying a tax bill. What happens when the tax breaks expire? Frequently the plant will close and the owners move on, having made their money back plus a handsome profit. This is a cynical business model that has nothing to do with supply and demand.
The myth of drastically increasing demand is not born out by any statistics. The Electric Power Research Institute, the research arm of the industry, just released the US National Electrification Assessment for 2018. Nationally, from 1990 to 2000, demand grew by 2.7% annually. From 2000 to 2010 demand dropped to .82% increase annually, a third of what it had been. How can this be a reasonable person might ask? The short answer is efficiency, conservation and demand response. Better design has resulted in more efficient machines and large users of electricity are figuring out how to save money on their electricity bill by putting solar panels on their roof tops. Roof top solar on private homes and public buildings has also played a role in reducing the need for generation available from the grid.
Our grid is moving away from the old fashioned model of big centralized power plants that generates electricity 24/7 and can’t be turned off when the power is not needed. Smart planning dictates that we improve transmission, where appropriate, and at the same time move toward community distributed generation that allows the construction of small fossil free generators closer to where the power will be used. We need a mix of methods – one size does not fit all. That way we can have a solidly reliable system that produces the electricity we need with less to be wasted and to go to ground. That leaves nuclear power as an outdated technology that the market has passed by. Closing a reactor means no more high level radioactive waste being produced, no more insurance guarantees like the Price Anderson Act, no more damage to the Hudson River and fish populations, no more radioactive releases to the air and water, no more leaks, no more nuclear subsides for failing reactors and no additional greenhouse gases since emissions from existing plants have already been figured into the state’s energy mix.
In the 2017 Power Trends the New York Independent System Operator, guardians of our grid, clearly laid out two scenarios for moving forward: one with gas generation and one without. We must demand a sensible, green energy policy and take the road of fossil free generation for the sake of our children and our planet. That is the goal of every environmentalists working hard to close nuclear power plants and all fossil fuel generation.