In recent years, a number of fully operational nuclear power plants with years and sometimes decades remaining in their permitted operating lives have been prematurely shuttered in the United States. Many of these closures have been politically motivated, coming on the heels of drawn out litigation from state governments and environmental groups who are not motivated by specific concerns, but by an overarching distrust of nuclear technology. Closures have also come as the result of shifting energy economics caused in no small part by high subsidies for wind and solar technologies, coupled with the refusal to treat nuclear power as green or zero carbon; despite the fact that nuclear power is less carbon intensive than solar, and has the same carbon intensity as wind, it is not treated as such.
It has now been more than a year since the premature closure of New York State’s Indian Point Energy Center, where Units 2 and 3 were shuttered on April 31st of 2020 and 2021 respectively. As other nuclear plants are on the chopping block for the near future, there is no better time to reflect on the outcomes.
Since the closure of Indian Point, New York has built two new natural gas plants and increased its imports from neighboring states and Canada.
Although the state has built new wind and solar in the interim, and has more coming online later this year, there is a limit to the benefit that this capacity can provide to the state’s grid because of the intermittency of those technologies. We can see the impact of intermittency when we examine the capacity factor of various energy sources. Capacity factor compares the actual output of a facility to the theoretical output it could produce if it were operating at its maximum capacity. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) for January of 2022, the average capacity factor for wind facilities in the U.S. was 38.5 percent, and for solar facilities it was only 17.4 percent. In comparison, the capacity factor of nuclear power that same month was 99.3 percent. For natural gas, this figure was 63.6 percent, but it would be dramatically higher if gas were not the resource that is most often cycled up and down to account for the short falls of intermittent technologies because of its high degree of flexibility on short time frames.
Because of intermittency, all of that new wind and solar capacity currently requires reliable base-load power to back it up. So in reality, most of the base-load that Indian Point was providing has been replaced by the new gas plants the Cricket Valley Energy Center, a 1,100 MW natural gas electricity generating facility operated by Advanced Power on behalf of EthosEnergy Group, and the CPV Valley Energy Center, a 680 MW natural gas-fueled combined cycle power plant owned by Competitive Power Ventures.
Now, natural gas is a great energy source to replace this lost capacity with. It can cycle up and down quickly to handle the inconsistency of wind and solar for the grid. But the claim made by the Cuomo administration and the environmental groups that worked to close Indian Point was that the plant would be replaced entirely by renewables and efficiency gains. This simply isn’t the case.
As an array of energy writers, myself included, predicted at the time of Indian Point’s closing, not only was the plant’s capacity not replaced exclusively by renewables and efficiency gains, but it also led to increased energy imports for the state, and increased grid reliability concerns.
Imports accounted for 19.7 percent of New York State’s Electricity in 2019, this increased to 22.2 percent in 2020, the year that Unit 2 shut down, and rose to 27.2 percent in 2021 when Unit 3 followed suit. Increased imports, especially from international providers like Hydro Quebec are all fine and good until frigid temperatures hit New York and Quebec simultaneously and the utility prioritizes capacity for its local market.
The most recent Comprehensive Reliability plan from the New York Independent System Operator (NYISO) found that although the states power system, “will meet all applicable reliability criteria from 2021 through 2030 for forecasted system demand in normal weather,” the state’s reliability margins are shrinking, and during extreme weather conditions reliability becomes far more uncertain.
The NYISOs Vice President of System & Resource Planning, Zach Smith, said that the study, “demonstrates that our reliability margins are thinning to concerning levels beginning in 2023.” The reliability of New York State’s electricity grid has been compromised by this and other ill-advised decisions, and it is only likely to get worse from here.
As policies discouraging or outright banning the residential and commercial uses of natural gas for cooking, heating, and other uses are discussed with increasing frequency by state legislators and regulators, and the market for electric cars increases in the state, there will only be increasing stress on the grid. The failure to maintain and create adequate reliable sources to meet that demand is a policy choice. Months or years down the line when the consequences of decreasing grid reliability become apparent, decision makers will treat it as an act of God that couldn’t have been foreseen, but that simply is not the case. The logical conclusion of this course of action is and has been clear: prematurely shuttering reliable capacity is no way to maintain an electrical grid.
Catalyst articles by Paige Lambermont | Full Biography and Publications