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Close Indian Point?

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Close Indian Point?

Not so fast—replacing a quarter of New York City’s electricity won’t be easy. January 27, 2017
Infrastructure and energy
New York

New York governor Andrew Cuomo won a political victory earlier this month when Entergy Corporation announced it would shut down its nuclear reactors at the Indian Point Energy Center by 2021. For years, Cuomo has been campaigning for the closure of the 2,083-megawatt plant. He has long contended that Indian Point isn’t safe.  Last June, he even claimed that the nuclear facility is “not a reliable generation resource.”

Cuomo’s planned closure of Indian Point may provide him with a handy political chit, if, as expected, he makes a bid for the White House in 2020. But the closure of the plant, which provides about a quarter of New York City’s electricity, isn’t a done deal. Indeed, closing Indian Point will make it much harder for the state to achieve Cuomo’s mandate that the state’s utilities derive 50 percent of their electricity from renewables by 2030.

Neither Cuomo nor his energy czar Richard Kauffman have bothered to explain exactly how they will replace the electricity New York City has been getting from Indian Point since 1962. Though there have been vague claims about wind energy or hydropower from Canada, the hard reality is that replacing 2 gigawatts of electric generation capacity will be difficult and costly. More important is the effect that Cuomo’s proposed all-renewable extreme makeover of the New York electric grid will have on reliability.

Over the past decade, Indian Point has maintained a capacity factor (a measure of how often a given generator is fully operational during the year) of 93 percent. That’s nearly triple the capacity factor of wind energy, which, according to the Energy Information Administration, has a capacity factor of 33 percent, and 3.5 times better than solar, which has a capacity factor of 26 percent. (In cloudy New York, solar’s capacity factor will likely be even lower.)

Indian Point’s high capacity factor is good news for polar bears because nuclear power emits no greenhouse gases. Better still, Indian Point is located in the village of Buchanan, just 44 miles north of Times Square. On a grid with massive loads—during summer peaks, power demand in the New York City area can exceed 13,000 megawatts—that proximity matters.

Most of the possible replacements for the energy now generated by Indian Point—roughly 16.6 terawatt-hours per year—will require importing electricity from locations that are far from the city. Cuomo’s renewable-energy plan, by itself, will require construction of 1,000 miles of new high-voltage transmission lines. New York City may want to import power from the northern part of the state, but New York’s grid has long been constrained by insufficient high-voltage transmission capacity.

Electric grids operate on narrow tolerances of voltage, which is akin to water pressure in a pipeline. The grid must be continually tuned so that electricity production and electricity usage match. Matching generation and consumption helps assure that voltage on the grid stays at near-constant levels. If voltage fluctuates too much, blackouts can occur. Given the need to match exactly generation and demand, it makes sense to locate large electricity users (like cities and aluminum smelters) close to big generation units.

The New York Independent System Operator—the nonprofit organization that operates the state’s electric grid—has repeatedly said that Indian Point and the state’s other nuclear reactors (which are located upstate) are needed for reliability. “Retaining all existing nuclear generators is critical to the State’s carbon emission reduction requirements as well as maintaining electric system reliability,” the NYISO said last July. In a 2011 report, the grid operator commented directly on the possibility of shuttering the plant, saying that “without the development of adequate replacement generation in southeastern New York” the retirement of the reactors at Indian Point would mean “the loss of power supply and transmission voltage support affecting the metropolitan New York region.” It’s hard to find a clearer declaration regarding the importance of Indian Point than that.

Furthermore, before Indian Point can be shuttered, the grid operator is required to perform a system reliability analysis. That analysis can’t begin until Entergy submits a retirement notice to the NYISO. As of last week, the NYISO had not received that notice from Entergy.

The dream of replacing Indian Point’s electricity with hydropower from Canada has lasted so long that it’s starting to mildew. While I was researching this story, a friend sent me a 1982 article from the New York Times in which E.J. Dionne, now a columnist for the Washington Post, observed that the allure of Canadian hydro to New Yorkers “seems especially strong.” But fetching electrons from Canadian dams more than 800 miles north of Manhattan would require a 1,000-megawatt, high-voltage transmission line extending the entire north/south length of the state, some 333 miles. The proposed Champlain Hudson Power Express aims to bring Canadian hydropower to New York. But that project, first proposed eight years ago, doesn’t have financing or environmental approvals, and the company pushing it says that constructing the underground line will take three-and-a-half years. Thus, even if that $2.2 billion project began moving dirt tomorrow, it would be difficult to guarantee that Canadian hydropower will be lighting the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center by 2021.

Replacing Indian Point with natural gas-fired generation would be an ironic outcome, given that Cuomo has banned hydraulic fracturing in the state. Even if fracking were legalized, the pipelines needed to feed gas-fired generators would undoubtedly face opposition. In fact, that opposition might come from the governor himself. In his recent State of the State address, Cuomo declared that New York must “double down by investing in the fight against dirty fossil fuels and fracked gas from neighboring states.” In addition, over the past few months, about two dozen climate activists have been arrested in New York while protesting the construction of the AIM pipeline, a project designed to carry natural gas from New Jersey to Massachusetts.

Building more wind-generation capacity upstate is also a nonstarter. As I reported last month, three upstate counties—Erie, Orleans, and Niagara—as well as the towns of Yates and Somerset are all fighting the 200-megawatt Lighthouse Wind project, which is being pushed by Virginia-based Apex Clean Energy. That project, which will cover about 20,000 acres on the shores of Lake Ontario, will be the first contested land-use case involving Article 10, the New York statute that theoretically gives local municipalities a say in renewable-project siting. If those counties and towns succeed in stopping Lighthouse Wind, Cuomo’s dream of shuttering Indian Point—and achieving 50 percent renewable electricity by 2030—won’t get very far. 

There are many problems with wind energy, but its fundamental weakness is its low power density. To compensate, wind turbines are getting taller, and the bigger they get, the more residents object because they don’t want to see or hear them. In a densely populated state, there are plenty of people to object. Over the past decade or so, more than 40 communities in New York have moved to reject or restrict wind projects.

The rural backlash will only grow if Cuomo attempts to replace Indian Point with wind energy. Recall that Indian Point produces about 16.6 terawatt-hours of electricity per year. At the end of 2016, New York had 1.7 gigawatts of installed wind capacity producing about 4 terawatt-hours of electricity. Just to replace Indian Point, New York would need to install four times (6.8 gigawatts) as much wind-energy capacity as it currently has—and do it in just four years. Put another way, replacing Indian Point with wind energy would require building 34 new projects the size of Lighthouse Wind. Given how much resistance that one project has generated, replicating it in three dozen other communities isn’t likely.

What about offshore wind? Cuomo recently said that he wants to develop 2,400 megawatts of offshore wind in New York. The Sierra Club and other environmental groups applauded the idea, but developing those offshore resources will likely require erecting giant wind turbines right in the middle of some of the best squid and scallop fisheries on the Eastern Seaboard. Last month, a coalition of fishermen and fishmongers filed a federal lawsuit in an effort to stop the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management from auctioning offshore tracts for wind-energy development. The suit claims the project will have “both great and actual harm” to the fisheries. The lease sale happened anyway, but the fishermen haven’t given up.

There are many reasons to believe that Indian Point won’t, in fact, be shuttered by 2021. Last week, I spoke to Ed Kee, chief executive of the Nuclear Economics Consulting Group, about Cuomo’s plan to close Indian Point. His assessment was blunt: “There’s just no doubt that without Indian Point, power in New York will be more expensive and less reliable.” For New Yorkers who already pay electricity rates 50 percent higher than the national average, “more expensive and less reliable” is a bad combination.

Photo by RyanJLane/iStock

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