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Guest Op-Ed: New York’s Grave Warning

Guest Op-Ed: New York’s Grave Warning

The closure of the Indian Point nuclear power plant demonstrates the massive impact of shutting down even one nuclear power plant. Without Indian Point, or new nuclear, it will be difficult and expensive for downstate New York to decarbonize its electrical grid. New York must now grapple with greater natural gas dependency, higher emissions, higher price volatility, and significant reliability challenges. This should be a wake up call for climate activists nation-wide.

Indian Point reactors 2 and 3 ceased operations on April 30th, 2020 and April 30th, 2021, respectively. The environmental group Riverkeeper had sued Entergy, the company that owned Indian Point, and sought to prevent them from renewing their licenses to operate the reactors. These lawsuits cost Entergy, the company that owned Indian Point, $200 million and eroded the profitability of the plant. These reactors generated 2083 MW of low-carbon baseload power for New York. Indian Point’s output was replaced by electricity from natural gas power plants. Natural gas’ share of electricity generation grew from 39 percent in 2017 to 50 percent in 2023.

In 2019, the New York State legislature passed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA). CLCPA requires 70 percent of all electricity generation in New York to come from renewable energy by 2030. New York will not reach this goal. Despite immense federal and state support for wind and solar projects, in New York, 2019 was the year with the highest output from low-carbon power generators—nuclear, hydro, wind, and other renewables—during the peak month of demand.

The reality is that decarbonization of the electrical grid is not an all of New York problem but a downstate problem. Upstate New York’s electricity generation has already mostly decarbonized. How? Its nuclear and hydroelectric power plants.

Upstate New York has three nuclear power plants: Nine Mile Point, James A. Fitzpatrick, and R.E. Ginna. Each of these power plants is cooled by Lake Ontario. Combined, they have a capacity of 3412 MW. In 2022, these plants generated 26,883 GWh of electricity or 43 percent of upstate’s electricity. 

Similarly, the bulk of upstate’s hydroelectric power comes from two plants: Robert Moses Niagara and Robert Moses - St. Lawrence. These two hydroelectric power plants have a combined capacity of 4482MW. In 2022, hydroelectric power generated 25,443 GWh of electricity, or 41 percent of upstate’s electricity. 

Meanwhile, in 2022, over 95 percent of all electricity generation in downstate came from fossil fuels. These power plants are essential to the prosperity and well-being of the residents of New York City. Even with the additional output from natural gas in downstate, New York City is vulnerable to winter storms and heat waves. 

The city is limited in its opportunities for new power generation by its geography and the value of the surrounding land. There is no untapped potential large scale hydroelectric power available nearby. The other potential sources of power generation (other than nuclear and natural gas) require, at present, much more land per unit of power generated. In practice, this means that New York state will need to invest in large transmission projects and batteries if it has any hope of decarbonizing and moving away from its dependence on fossil fuels in downstate New York. Projects sufficient to meet the CLCPA goals will not be completed by 2030.

New York initially thought that part of downstate’s energy woes would be solved by offshore wind. These projects have continued to struggle, despite significant subsidies from the Inflation Reduction Act. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority recently canceled three large offshore wind projects that were intended to provide 4 GW of nameplate capacity. Other offshore wind projects have been approved at a price of $150 per MWh. These projects are expected to lead to higher rates for New York ratepayers, and utility bills have already been rising. The state justifies the high costs of these projects because of its climate goals and pressing reliability concerns.

All of this makes the closure of Indian Point a clear policy failure. New York City previously had access to 2083 MW of reliable, low-carbon power that helped to maintain grid reliability. According to our model, if Indian Point had continued to operate in 2022, then 8 million fewer tons of carbon would have been emitted into the atmosphere. Instead of figuring out how to keep Indian Point online, regulators and government officials sought to close down the plant. Former Governor Cuomo said, “I have personally been trying to close it [Indian Point] down for 15 years.”

New York City is now at-risk of rolling blackouts during its next severe heatwave. New York Independent System Operator (NYISO) released a report that showed that New York City would not be prepared for a 98 degree heat wave, if New York’s proposed ‘peaker rule’ went into effect. The rule would have forced more peaker plants—natural gas plants that operate during times of peak demand— offline.  The rule was delayed in order to avoid catastrophe.

Even the more optimistic projections from NYISO in the above image are contingent on the timely completion of the Champlain Hudson Power Express (CHPE), a large transmission project to bring hydroelectric power from Quebec to New York City by 2026. Even after the completion of CHPE, New York City will be vulnerable to a severe heat wave above 102 degrees that could prove deadly for the city’s residents. While these extreme temperatures do not occur every year, they do happen. New York City reached a high of 104 degrees in 2011.

The closure of Indian Point has completely derailed New York’s decarbonization goals. There is no clear path for downstate to decarbonize its power generation, especially without further undermining reliability and affordability. This policy failure highlights the essential role that our existing nuclear power plants play in helping to maintain reliability and prevent unnecessary carbon emissions. Environmental activists everywhere should focus their efforts on reforms to make it easier to build new nuclear power plants. For cities like New York, they may be their best hope to reach their decarbonization goals.

Grant Dever is a resident fellow in energy at the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity. He is the author of Lead The Future: Strategies and Systems for Emerging Leaders.