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Environmental group: Renewables and nukes both needed to cut emissions

An approaching avalanche of nuclear power plant closures threaten to send "U.S. emissions in the wrong direction," and renewable energy growth will not be enough to make up the loss of the emissions-free generation, an environmental group warned in a new report.

At the May 9 launch of the report — "Solutions for Maintaining the Existing Fleet" — in Washington, D.C., the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, or C2ES, emphasized the environmental consequences of allowing low electricity prices and the failure of markets to value clean air and other externalities to force premature retirements of nuclear power plants.

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"Nuclear generation is largely being replaced by fossil fuel-fired electricity, sending U.S. emissions in the wrong direction," said the environmental group's report. "With a finite amount of carbon dioxide that we can emit before we reach 450 [parts per million] and increase the likelihood of serious climate impacts, we cannot afford such backsliding."

At the launch, C2ES President Bob Perciasepe explained that keeping the existing fleet of U.S. reactors operating beyond 60 years is necessary to meet the goal of having about 80% of electricity in the U.S. be generated from noncarbon emitting resources by 2050.

As indicated by forecasts from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Perciasepe said a wave of expected plant retirements starting in 2030 will cut into both nuclear power's share of the U.S. generation mix and the overall share of zero-emissions energy produced by nuclear, hydropower and renewables.

"In fact, the growth in renewables in 10 years-out is essentially just treading water, keeping up with the [current rate of] loss of zero-emitting power from nuclear," said Perciasepe.

Premature retirements and failures to extend nuclear plant operations to even just 60 years will quicken and deepen the gap even further, Perciasepe added. Already 12 U.S. reactors are slated to shutter ahead of their operating license expirations and some studies estimate more than half of the fleet is operating at a financial loss, the report said.

The report said the environmental consequences of all the nuclear plant retirements could be dire as nuclear power accounts for 20% of America's electricity generation and more than 50% of its zero-emission generation, avoiding annually at least 400 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in climate warming, greenhouse gas emissions.

"Unlike other pollutants, once carbon [dioxide] is in the atmosphere, it's in the atmosphere for hundreds of years," said Perciasepe. "So any more that we put up there is using up that finite capacity … and it continues to create the greenhouse effect."

Perciasepe said the bottom line is that "getting nuclear and renewable to work together to maximize both of them" over the next 30 years is the world's best chance in mitigating a global rise in temperatures.

C2ES' report outlined various policies and market reforms to stave off retirements, including states implementing zero-emissions credits to subsidize at-risk reactors, renewing federal licenses to operate reactors for up to 80 years, and the pricing of the cost of carbon into power markets.

In April, the New Jersey Legislature overwhelmingly passed legislation to subsidize financially struggling nuclear plants through zero-emissions credits. The bill still awaits the signature of Gov. Phil Murphy, D., to become law.

New Jersey's largest utility, Public Service Enterprise Group Inc., or PSEG, backed the ZEC legislation that throws a lifeline to at-risk nuclear plants in markets awash with cheap natural gas, including its 1,172-MW Hope Creek plant and the 2,328-MW Salem plant, which PSEG co-owns with Exelon Corp.

PSEG Chairman, President and CEO Ralph Izzo explained at the C2ES report launch that New Jersey is essentially a "two fuel state" and the loss of 3,500 MW of nuclear capacity would boost natural gas to become 90% of New Jersey's generation mix. Further, he said the state's geography severely constrains wind energy and limits renewable development largely to solar.

Nonetheless, Izzo said a "significant part of the environmental community" argued that the ZEC subsidy's expected $300 million payments should be spent on renewables instead.

As New Jersey's current solar renewable energy credit is priced at $250 per megawatt-hour, Izzo said the $300 million spent on solar would only subsidize 4 terawatt-hours of electricity, compared with the 30 TWh of nuclear power it is meant to support. Shifting the $300 million to subsidize other resources would amount to a "tremendous loss of carbon-free energy," he said.

Izzo also advocated deploying more energy efficiency to help cut emissions, even at the expense of a generation company like PSEG and fuel companies. "People should use as little as possible," he said.