Ginna power stationGinna Nuclear Power Plant, New York. Courtesy: Exelon Nuclear

On August 1st, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the approval of New York’s Clean Energy Standard, billed as the most comprehensive and ambitious clean energy mandate in the history of the state. By 2030, 50% of New York’s electricity will need to come from renewable sources, causing greenhouse gas emissions to drop by 40% from their 1990 levels.

Clearly, this is good news for the renewables lobby – and indeed, for anyone worried about climate change. As the world’s number two carbon emitter, exceeded only by China, the United States currently generates just 13% of its electricity from renewable sources. And while the figure in New York is higher, at around 26%, there can be no doubt there is room for improvement.

Under the Clean Energy Standard, utilities and other energy suppliers will be required to obtain a certain number of Renewable Energy Credits every year. These will be paid to renewables developers, to finance new projects that will subsequently be added to the grid. There will be very little impact on consumers – only $2 a month will be added to the average residential customer’s bill.

Cuomo called the standard a “bold action” that will help New York become a national leader in the clean energy economy.

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“This Clean Energy Standard shows you can generate the power necessary for supporting the modern economy while combatting climate change,” he said. “Make no mistake, this is a very real threat that continues to grow by the day and I urge all other states to join us in this fight for our very future.”

Nuclear subsidies

If other states are to follow suit, however, they will need to look at more than just their renewables targets. In an unprecedented move, New York will also offer subsidies for three existing nuclear power plants – Fitzpatrick, Ginna and Nine Mile – which are located upstate. This will keep the plants from shutting, an outcome which had previously seemed all but inevitable.

"Under the Clean Energy Standard, the plants have been thrown a lifeline: they will receive $965 million in additional revenue."

Nuclear is in a precarious position throughout the United States. While nuclear power does generate around 20% of the country’s electricity – rising to 60% of its emissions-free power – many of the country’s reactors are in jeopardy. Five have closed since 2013, and many more are slated to follow, particularly in states like Illinois, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

The New York plants had seemed poised to join their numbers. Last year, Entenergy Corp announced it would close Fitzpatrick in January 2017, before stating it was in talks with Exelon to possibly sell the facility. But Exelon, which owns Ginna and Nine Mile, stated its case in no uncertain terms. If it were to buy Fitzpatrick, and keep its own ailing reactors open too, it would need New York to provide financial assistance.

Under the Clean Energy Standard, the plants have been thrown a lifeline: they will receive $965 million in additional revenue over the first two years of the program, with adjustments every two years until 2029. The state will use a formula based on expected power costs and the social costs of carbon, meaning the subsidy would be cut if power prices rose.

The case for prolonging their lives is clear. Michael Shellenberger, an environmental policy expert and founder of Environmental Progress, believes nuclear is the only way we can avoid an overreliance on fossil fuels.

“You can’t do without it – you can’t get the power you need from renewables, nor are they reliable enough, so without nuclear we’re just not going to make headway on climate change,” he explains.

As of 2014, nuclear contributed 31.6% of New York’s electricity mix – and in its absence, it would fall predominantly to natural gas to pick up the slack. New York’s Public Service Commission has concluded that wind and solar simply wouldn’t be able to scale up fast enough.

If the New York reactors were to suddenly close, estimated emissions would soar by more than 31 million metric tons over the next two years, leading to public health costs of $1.4bn. Something similar has already happened in California, Vermont and Wisconsin.

The Clean Energy Standard, then, ensures that while the state transitions to 50% renewables, the rest of the energy mix does not revert to carbon-based sources. It will also safeguard 2,000 or so reactor jobs, in an area where unemployment is rife. To many commentators, the plan is a laudable example of the ways nuclear and renewables might work in tandem.

A controversial decision

Of course, this is not to say everybody is happy. Nuclear has long been a contentious topic, with controversy raging over its safety record and the logistics of radioactive waste disposal. A number of environmental groups have expressed their dismay, stating that the nuclear power subsidy would cost $7.6bn over its 12-year lifespan.

"The Stanford economist Mark Z Jacobson has said the $7.6bn should be spent on additional onshore wind, rather than on nuclear."

“The Public Service Commission has failed to demonstrate that imposing exorbitant surcharges which inure solely to the benefit of nuclear operator(s) is in the public interest and consistent with existing statute and policy,” wrote a coalition of anti-nuclear groups and elected officials.

The Stanford economist Mark Z Jacobson has said the $7.6bn should be spent on additional onshore wind, rather than on nuclear. This, he claims, would reduce CO2 emissions by 60% more than keeping nuclear open, and would create 82,000 jobs over the number lost.

Meanwhile, for many pro-nuclear environmentalists, the plan does not go far enough. As Shellenberger points out, the standard does not include a long-term plan for the nuclear reactors, meaning what happens after 2030 is very much up in the air.

“The New York victory shows just how far nuclear power has to go,” he says. “There’s a long term plan for renewables that nuclear is still excluded from, and that’s the real problem – there is no plan to replace the reactors after they’re closed or to scale them up. It takes 15 years to get a nuclear plant approved and built so we have to do that now if we’re going to replace them.” 

He pins anti-nuclear sentiment on a “50-year campaign of misinformation”, remarking that nuclear is effectively limitless energy and that the dangers have been hugely exaggerated. Certainly, nuclear has attracted a bad press, meaning any plan to subsidise nuclear is likely to be grounded in something other than political expediency.

There is also some debate as to whether nuclear and renewables really do make suitable bedfellows. Because wind and solar require a flexible grid, and nuclear is somewhat inflexible, some academics have suggested the two don’t easily play together.

New York will therefore prove an interesting case study in what happens when these reservations are put aside. If the model does prove workable, it could well be adopted by other states, many of which are also mulling the fates of their own nuclear reactors. Shellenberger thinks Illinois may well do something similar, pointing out that New York has set a real precedent.

Climate scientist Dr James Hansen, Columbia University said: “I applaud Governor Cuomo, the New York Public Service Commissioners and the labour and community leaders for achieving this important victory to protect New York’s nuclear plants and thus the planet from climate change. Doing the right thing is sometimes controversial, and that was the case here. California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Ohio and other states around the nation should take notice of what real climate action looks like.”