Nuclear Power is Critical to New York’s Future
A legislative Column by Assemblyman Will Barclay Last week brought the unwelcome news that Entergy, the company that owns and operates the FitzPatrick nuclear plant in Oswego County, is considering shutting down the facility. If this is to come to pass, the consequences to the local community and Central New York would be catastrophic. FitzPatrick employs approximately 600 people at good paying salaries and contributes millions in tax revenue to the area. In addition to the economic consequences, the closure of FitzPatrick will be a major blow to our collective psyche that has been buffeted with bad economic news over the last two to three decades. Nuclear generation is part of our DNA in Oswego County to such an extent that even our county seal contains a nuclear power symbol. Over the next several weeks, I plan on doing all I can to rally local, state and federal support to keep the plant open. While it is generally acknowledged that lower commodity prices (namely natural gas) have made the business of nuclear power generation more challenging, there are still a number of reasons as to why we should, as a matter of public policy, support nuclear power generation. The two foremost reasons are that (i) it is clean and (ii) it is reliable. Recently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency introduced regulations to cut carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from U.S. power plants 32% from 2005 levels by 2030. To achieve this, it is envisioned that hundreds of the country’s coal-fired plants will have to be closed. This loss of electrical generation will have to be made up some way. Under its plan, the EPA projects nuclear to continue to provide 19% of the country’s electricity in 2030, about what it is today. However, if our fleet of nuclear reactors is diminished either due to economic forces or by simply aging out, it is unlikely nuclear can continue to provide as much electricity as it currently does. Conceivably, natural gas generation can make up the difference but that would make the CO2 emission cuts difficult or impossible to achieve. While natural gas plants do not emit as much CO2 as coal-fired plants, they still emit substantially more than nuclear, which do not emit any CO2. Some environmentalists claim that the difference can be made up with renewables such as solar, wind and/or hydropower which like nuclear, do not emit CO2. Indeed, the EPA expects renewables to supply 20% of the country’s electricity needs by 2030, roughly the same as nuclear. Currently, renewables account for about 13% of the country’s electricity. While this increase in renewables is possible, it will be challenging because renewables face similar challenges as nuclear, that is, market competition from natural gas, expiring government subsidies and aging equipment. Moreover, if the percentage of electricity generated by nuclear power decreases over the next 20 years and we still want to meet the EPA’s 32% emission reduction goal, renewables will have to make up an even greater percentage of our country’s electrical generation. Whether this is feasible is questionable. Moreover, even if it is feasible, because of limited reliability of renewables, there are serious questions as to whether it is smart energy policy to so highly rely on renewables for our country’s electricity needs. Nuclear power is very reliable. Renewables, while they may have the capacity to generate substantial electricity, are not reliable. For example, a solar panel might be able to produce a certain amount of electricity if the sun is shining. However, if the sun isn’t shining that panel will produce little or no electricity. To determine the reliability of our electrical power infrastructure, one can look at the generators’ “capacity factor.” In short, the capacity factor measures the ratio of the energy a power plant produces to how much it could produce if it was running at maximum power at all time. Nuclear power has a capacity factor of 92%, the best of all generators. Because they depend on things outside of our control (e.g., the sun and wind) not surprisingly, with the exception of geothermal, renewables are the most inefficient: hydroelectric (38%), wind (34%) and solar (28%). If we want to ensure that our lights turn on when we flip the switch, we need sources of electrical generation that we know can deliver electricity at any time. Moreover, if cutting CO2 emissions is going to be the policy of our country and state, it makes little sense not to look to nuclear power as being a primary component to achieving this goal. Over the next several weeks, I plan on making these and other arguments as to why it is important to keep the FitzPatrick plant open. Congressman John Katko, State Sen. Patty Ritchie, and numerous local officials have also indicated their willingness to do all they can to keep the plant open.