Time to re-think nuclear
If someone had suggested a decade ago that natural gas — and not coal or nuclear power — would become the dominant fuel for electricity production in New England, the idea would have been dismissed as absurd.
Back in 2000, there was a balanced mix of energy sources — coal, natural gas, nuclear power and hydro. But with a surge in the production of natural gas from a combination of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling in shale, an abundance of low-cost gas is now available for electricity production. In some places, this gas is a cheaper source of electricity than coal or even nuclear power, as was seen in the decision earlier this year to prematurely close Vermont Yankee in late 2014.
Electricity companies have mixed emotions about natural gas, and for good reason. Although natural gas is clean burning, it has a history of price volatility, sudden swings in price that are in sharp contrast to coal and nuclear power. People in California and Texas, two states that now rely on natural gas for more than half of their power, haven’t forgotten the huge spike in electricity prices a few years ago after the cost of gas spiraled upward and there wasn’t enough power from alternative sources to replace it.
Solar and wind power were of limited use. Today they supply such a small share of electricity in most parts of the country that it will be a long time before renewable sources can make a meaningful difference.
In New England, electricity production from gas plants has reached 50 percent of power use, three times what it had been in 2000. Earlier this year, we narrowly avoided serious electric-power reliability problems after a scarcity of gas-pipeline capacity in the Northeast led to a bottleneck in gas supply. New England’s independent system operator (ISO-NE), which manages the region’s electricity grid, said the greatest risk to New England’s energy security is its increasingly heavy reliance on natural gas for electricity generation.
Nationally, since 1995, roughly 75 percent all new electricity generating capacity built has been gas-fired — almost 350,000 megawatts. Coal and nuclear power accounted for just 6 percent of the total. And over the next decade another 50,000 megawatts of gas-fired capacity — possibly as much as 100,000 megawatts — will be added.
Natural gas prices are already increasing. So far this year, the average price of natural gas delivered to electricity generators is 44 percent higher than in the first six months of 2012. As utilities use more gas for electricity generation, as more gas is used in industry and transportation, as exports of LNG ramp up, gas prices will surely rise.
It’s clearly time for state governments in New England to recognize the urgency, and to set our region on a clear strategy of maintaining a balanced mix of energy sources, along with improvements in efficiency, while holding the line on the amount of natural gas used for electricity generation.
Here’s why: With more and more coal units likely to close under increasing environmental pressure, we can’t afford to allow zero-carbon nuclear power to languish. Anyone concerned about climate change ought to recognize that natural gas, though cleaner than coal, has its own environmental problems. Natural gas plants account for a quarter of the carbon emissions from electricity production. By contrast, nuclear plants are carbon-free.
In most cases, the production cost of electricity from operating nuclear plants is competitive with electricity from natural gas plants, although large new nuclear plants are more expensive. But the higher cost is deceptive. Large nuclear plants cost more to build than comparable gas plants because they are required to build and maintain costly systems to shield their radioactivity from the environment. If gas plants were similarly required to control emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants they generate, they would cost significantly more than nuclear plants do. But markets in states where electricity is unregulated like those in New England don’t take this disparity into account.
The fact is nuclear power contributes to the fuel and technology diversity that is one of the bedrock characteristics of a safe and reliable electric sector. It helps to maintain grid stability. And it is vitally important in strengthening regional and state economies through creation of large numbers of well-paying jobs and providing revenue for government at all levels. A recently-completed study done for the Nuclear Energy Institute has determined that Seabrook provides an annual impact of nearly $1 billion to the New Hampshire and Massachusetts economies.
High priority should go to renewing the operating licenses of the Seabrook and Pilgrim plants, which supply base-load power around the clock. And to meet the growing need for carbon-free energy, policymakers in New England should encourage electricity producers to participate in the Department of Energy’s cost-sharing program aimed at bringing a new generation of small modular reactors nearer reality. These factory-built reactors are under 300 megawatts and can be added at a competitive cost per unit of output one module at a time as the need for more electricity arises. If the promise of these new reactors is fulfilled, they will reduce carbon emissions and spur economic growth.
Bob Leach of Brattleboro is a retired radiation protection manager and certified senior reactor operator.