It has begun to dawn on people who advocate energy policy, and who report and analyze it, that closing nuclear power plants, due mostly to low natural gas prices, is a bad idea when it comes to dealing with global warming.
This is particularly significant in the face of the climate change denial policy stance of the current administration which is not based on science and is merely a tool designed to financially benefit fossil fuel industries.
Renewables have a stake in keeping reactors open because their access to and success on the nation’s electric grid depend on stable power sources that keep it humming.
Now that this light bulb is really lit, what can be done? Here are three useful reads on these issues.
The Partnership for Global Security (PGS) points out in a recent article that mainstream think tanks, and the news media, have identified how the closure of U.S. nuclear plants will make cutting carbon emissions more difficult. In a worst-case scenario, retiring nuclear plants would significantly set back clean energy goals.
PGS notes that China and other developing countries see a role for nuclear power in limiting carbon emissions. Some are looking at advanced nuclear reactors that are smaller, less expensive, and easier to deploy. Small modular reactors, in banks of 50-300 MW, can ramp power up, or down, depending on available solar or wind power on the grid.
Here are high points of three recent reports that address these issues.
The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions has published a report by analyst Doug Vine with six key findings all of which are pure common sense. Whether the climate denying Trump administration will recognize that survival of the species is more important than partisan political power plays remains to be seen.
The Third Way think tank, which is a center-right advocate for nuclear energy that has done some impressive work on advanced nuclear reactor technologies, points out that the focus of green groups on renewable technologies is necessary, but is insufficient to get control of CXO2 emissions. Ryan Fitzpatrick, Deputy Director of the Clean Energy Program, wrote the report with the help of other think tank staff.
In a key report finding, noted in a recent blog post, the group points out that in 2015, nuclear facilities in the U.S. alone generated as much zero-carbon electricity as all the wind turbines on the planet combined.
At the VOX Media site, which mostly reports on inside the beltway / DC politics, writer David Roberts takes a current look at the issue. He writes a primer on how to save the failing nuclear power plants that generate half of America’s clean electricity. Despite the lack of a price on carbon, he points out a few states are keeping nuclear power plants open.
Center for Climate Solutions Report
The briefing style of this press statement is a good place to start. Read the full report here.
- State-Level Zero-Emission Credits (ZEC): Targeted state policies such as ZECs are the best option right now as they enable states to quickly direct support to distressed facilities. ZEC policies have withstood initial legal challenges in New York and Illinois, offering added confidence in their utility.
- State Electricity Portfolio Standards: Expanding state electricity portfolio standards to include existing nuclear, as proposed in Arizona, is a balanced, inclusive policy approach that allows nuclear and renewables to work together on even footing to one another’s benefit.
- License Renewals: Second license renewals by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which would allow reactors to operate for 80 years, would permit much of the existing U.S. nuclear fleet to continue to operate well beyond 2050, allowing new zero-carbon technologies including advanced reactors, fossil fuel with carbon capture, and renewables to enter service and avoid backsliding in emission reductions.
- Carbon Price: A price on carbon could preserve existing nuclear, but it may not be sufficient if the prices are too low. Carbon prices in California and Northeast markets did not prevent early nuclear retirements in those regions, most likely because they were too low.
- Carbon Price in Power Markets: A meaningful price on carbon implemented in power markets, would help level the playing field and provide additional revenue to non-emitting technologies like nuclear power and renewables. However, likely legal challenges could significantly delay implementation.
- Purchase Power Agreements: Increasing the use of such agreements for nuclear power with government agencies, cities, and businesses should be pursued.
Third Way Report
According to the Third Way article on its website, we’re already losing some of our strongest climate assets. It cited estimates by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) that 55% of the U.S. fleet is operating at a loss in current market conditions and at risk of premature closure, while research from MIT suggests that number could be as high as 66%. Even if just 20% is retired early, it’s still a huge loss of clean energy and a blow to climate efforts.
The Third Way report, points out closing nuclear power plants early works against the deployment of wind and solar energy solutions. The reason is we’re losing ground on decarbonization every time a nuclear plant closes.
“Even in the best case scenario, where nuclear plants run for a full 60 years, our total zero-carbon generation in 2030 still doesn’t hit the mark. If this tells us anything, it’s that we must accelerate the pace of new clean energy deployment, and keep all of our existing clean energy resources online.”
And those advocates for 100% renewables are just backing us into a corner where we will have more emissions from more natural gas plants. Here is what the Third Way report says about that scenario.
“Much of the zero-carbon generation we lose from nuclear retirements will invariably be replaced by fossil fuels like natural gas, and emissions will rise as a result. And finally, even if we were able to replace retired nuclear solely with renewables, it’s still a setback in the climate fight.”
The Third Way report concludes that the only way “we win: is if the US increases the amount of zero-carbon energy it is producing. As nuclear plants get shut down, new renewables will have to pay-off that zero-carbon debt before they actually start increasing our totals again. That’s a big waste of renewable energy and, most importantly, time.”
The article has links to related online resources on these issues. Well worth your time.
VOX – How to Save America’s Nuclear Power Plants
In an article accessible to generalists as well as nuclear energy advocates, VOX writer David Roberts concludes “carbon math means [nuclear power plants] must keep running.”
As pointed out by the other two online publications, Roberts starts with the fact that closing nuclear power plants leads to opening natural gas plants with more CO2 emissions.
This is what is going to happen when California closes the Diablo Canyon reactors and New York closes Indian point. They represent a combined total of about 4500 MW of CO2 emission free electrical power.
NB: For a detailed and technical primer on CO2 emissions from all uses of natural gas, the Department of Energy has this report which lays out the numbers.
In his article Roberts also discusses how carbon pricing would help save nuclear power plants assuming the price is high enough. The revenue stream would also help the federal government deficit.
Flexible operation of nuclear power plants, especially banks of smallmodular reactors, (SMRs), paired with renewable energy would provide baseload power when the sun doesn’t shine and when the wind doesn’t blow.
Roberts notes that “nuclear has generally been thought of as “baseload,” always-on power, but nuclear plants in France and Germany frequently ramp up and down to follow load.”
He cites researcher Jesse Jenkins and colleagues at MIT who recently published a study that shows that flexible nuclear operation paired with renewable energy “lowers power system operating costs, increases reactor owner revenues, and substantially reduces curtailment of renewables.”
SMRs and advanced nuclear reactor designs are also being developed to provide process heat for industrial uses, desalinization of sea water, and district steam heating.
A particularly useful part of Roberts’ article is a review of the progress in four states – NY, IL, NJ, and CT, to keep their reactors running. By comparison, state legislators in OH and PA seem to want no part of saving their reactors, two in each state.
In Arizona the huge Palo Verde power station could be at risk due to an upcoming renewable energy proposal being considered by the State of Arizona. Plus, Roberts points out there’s also a ballot initiative that would raise the state’s renewable energy standard to 50 percent. It could lead to the closure of Palo Verde.
At the end of the day zero emission credits seem to offer the best short-term policy fix for keeping reactors open. The Climate Solutions Report, cited above, can take you through the ins and outs of how they work.