Are nuclear plants necessary to meet green energy goals?

Alex Crees
By Alex Crees
For business

As nuclear power plants shutter across the nation, two recent court decisions have offered a roadmap for states that want to save their fleet.  But as renewables gain ground and the prices of other energy options continue to fall, is the nuclear industry worth saving?

Under current market conditions, the future certainly looks bleak for nuclear.  Low-priced natural gas and renewable energy options make it nearly impossible for costlier nuclear plants to compete.

But a glimmer of hope for the industry appeared in the form of two court decisions that upheld state laws in Illinois and New York intended to subsidize struggling nuclear plants.

The laws have generated some controversy – many believe the U.S. should allow the market to dictate its choices, and others, like Greenpeace, argue that not only is nuclear energy expensive, it is also dangerous and “has no place in a safe, clean, sustainable future.”

And then there are those of the opposite mindset, who not only believe that nuclear has a place in a clean, sustainable future, but that it is essential in making that future a reality.

The relationship between nuclear and clean energy

What these nuclear advocates argue is simple: it is difficult and costly to significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions without baseload power; in other words, power plants that can run nonstop.

Of the three energy sources that can viably serve as baseload power – natural gas, coal and nuclear – nuclear is the sole option that doesn’t emit carbon dioxide.

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Why is baseload power so important? Presently, renewable options like solar and wind are at the mercy of the weather when it comes to power generation, and therefore incapable of reliably meeting demand.  When the sun is down and the air is still, it is essential to have an option to fall back on.

Authors of a recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology study say that a nuclear revival is vital as part of worldwide efforts to slow or reverse the impacts of climate change – especially with global power consumption expected to grow 45 percent by 2040.

Without nuclear to help meet that demand, the average cost of electricity in a low-carbon world could escalate dramatically, the researchers said in their report The Future of Nuclear Energy in a Carbon-Constrained World.

“While a variety of low- or zero-carbon technologies can be employed in various combinations, our analysis shows the potential contribution nuclear can make as a dispatchable low-carbon technology,” the researchers wrote. “Without that contribution, the cost of achieving deep decarbonization targets increases significantly.”

How states are saving their nuclear plants

Four states so far – Illinois, New York, Connecticut and New Jersey – have adopted programs to keep their reactors in service.

Illinois’ Future Energy Jobs Act, passed in 2016, created a subsidy program that requires generators using coal or natural gas to buy zero-emissions credits from nuclear power plants connected to the regional grid at a price of $16.50 per megawatt-hour.

In 2018, the law survived a challenge in a federal court of appeals, in which opponents argued the program violated the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s authority over the wholesale sale of electricity in interstate markets.

New York’s ZEC program, also established in 2016, subsidizes the state’s FitzPatrick, Ginna and Nine Mile Point nuclear plants and survived a similar legal challenge exactly two weeks later.

Connecticut followed in New York and Illinois’ footsteps in 2017 when it passed a bill directing agencies to consider above-market power agreements for Dominion Energy’s Millstone plant, the state’s only nuclear plant.

In May, New Jersey became the latest state to intervene to protect its nuclear plants, establishing a ZEC program that will provide up to $300 million in annual subsidies to at-risk plants in the state to prevent them from closing.

“Exelon commends New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy…by signing into law a package of legislation that will help to preserve 90 percent of New Jersey’s carbon-free power, protect 5,800 jobs and save residents and businesses $400 million on their electric bills,” Exelon said in a statement at the time.

Alex Crees is a writer covering issues related to energy, the environment and politics.  Her work has appeared in Fox News and Prevention. Alex earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from New York University.