As New Jersey and the rest of the United States look for ways to shrink their carbon footprints, energy experts agree that the nation’s nuclear plants will have to play a role if tough carbon-reduction targets are going to be reached.
Yet those same energy experts acknowledge that, though an important part of our climate change strategy, existing U.S. nuclear plants today find themselves at risk.
Economic pressures – including intense competition from inexpensive natural gas supplies and the escalating costs of federal regulations – already have forced several plants to shut down years before their licenses were to expire. Just last week, Exelon announced it would close two of its nuclear plants in Illinois that are unable to compete in today’s energy market.
Allowing New Jersey’s nuclear plants to close would be a step backward in the climate change fight, according to a panel of experts who took part in a Friday panel discussion – “How Does New Jersey Get to a Carbon-Free Future?” – hosted by the NJ Spotlight news website. Panelists included Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund; Susan Tierney, former assistant U.S. energy secretary and a senior adviser of the Analysis Group; state Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), chair of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee; and Ralph Izzo, president and CEO of PSEG.
The conversation, moderated by NJ Spotlight energy reporter Tom Johnson, centered around strategies for New Jersey to make drastic reductions to its carbon footprint – including energy efficiency, renewable energy sources and national policies such as carbon pricing.
But the discussion was dominated by nuclear energy and its future in New Jersey and beyond.
Nuclear plant shutdowns in Illinois, New York and other states come at a pivotal time for the U.S. energy sector – which, since last year’s Global Climate Summit in Paris, is under growing pressure to meet aggressive carbon-reduction goals – because nuclear provides roughly 60 percent of the nation’s carbon-free energy. In New Jersey, nuclear is responsible for nearly all of the carbon-free energy generated in the state: 97 percent.
PSEG’s three nuclear plants at Salem and Hope Creek, which employ 1,800 people, are in no immediate danger of closing. But they are facing the same economic pressures as other nuclear plants – and, Friday’s panelists agreed, New Jersey should take steps to help protect the plants before they find themselves in a situation like those in Illinois.
Neither New Jersey nor the U.S. will be able to meet their carbon-reduction goals without carbon-free nuclear energy – and that means finding ways to keep the state’s nuclear industry healthy, panelists said.
Smith, sponsor of a bill (S1707) that would require 80 percent of New Jersey’s energy come from renewable sources by 2050, acknowledged Friday that the target would be easier to reach – while accomplishing the same carbon-reduction goal – by emphasizing “carbon-free energy sources” rather than only “renewables.” That slight shift in wording would allow policymakers to count nuclear energy alongside renewables such as solar and wind.
“We need to find a way to have as much zero-emission energy as possible,” Smith said Friday. “So nuclear is getting a second look.”
Tierney is a strong supporter of solar energy who nevertheless believes that renewables are a long way from being able to match nuclear for affordability and reliability. The U.S. won’t be able to reduce carbon emissions, she said Friday, if safe, productive nuclear plants are allowed to close for economic reasons.
If that happens, Tierney predicted, consumer energy prices will rise – and so will greenhouse gas emissions, as nuclear is replaced with more affordable, but not carbon-free, natural gas. Renewables cannot yet come close to matching the capacity of the existing nuclear fleet.
“You’d have to replace it with eight times the capacity of wind and solar,” she said. “What happens tomorrow is you replace it with gas plants, and that would be crazy.”
Krupp agreed: The nation’s nuclear plants are simply producing too much electricity to look exclusively to renewables for carbon-free energy.
“We can’t just turn off the switch right away,” Krupp said Friday.
Izzo said it is time for policymakers, both in New Jersey and in Washington, to finally give nuclear energy its due as a zero-emissions energy source.
At the national level, he said, a price on carbon emissions would accomplish that. In the absence of a national carbon-pricing policy, however, states have been left to enact individual policies that support some carbon-free energy sources, but do not support all carbon-free energy equally.
The result, Izzo said, is a “patchwork quilt of mechanisms” that have had the opposite of their intended effect. In New Jersey, for example, state and federal renewable energy and emissions credits mean one megawatt-hour of private, rooftop solar can be sold back to the grid for $470. Meanwhile, nuclear plants are paid just $40 for one equally carbon-free MWh of electricity.
Over the longer term, that price imbalance could be disastrous for New Jersey’s nuclear generators, Izzo warned.
The alternative, he said, is the eventual replacement of zero-emission nuclear plants with plants fueled by carbon-emitting natural gas.
“It’s time for us to ring the alarm bell because 3,000 megawatts of nuclear replaced by 3,000 MW of natural gas is bad for everyone,” Izzo said.
Jim Namiotka – Lead Corporate Writer, PSEG