8. Emissions-Free Electricity & the Nuclear Bailout

This show aired on Friday April 26, 2019 on PhillyCAM’s radio station WPPM 106.5 FM in Philadelphia. Hear the audio afterwards as a podcast. The script is below. Produced by Meenal Raval & Tanya Seaman, with guest Lance Haver, and technical assistance from Vanessa Maria Graber and the team at PhillyCAM. 


Hello and welcome to Philly Talks Climate — where we talk about the climate crisis, how it affects Philadelphia, and how we solve this for our region. I’m Meenal Raval, and I’ll be your host. I’m joined this week by long-time friend Tanya Seaman as well as Lance Haver, another Philadelphia activist.

Last week, we talked about How to get to Zero Waste, listing personal habits as well as city and state-level legislation to reduce single-use plastics in our daily lives. You can hear that episode by looking up show 7 on our website, Philly Talks Climate dot com.

This week, we’ll talk about Emissions-Free Electricity and the Nuclear Bailout that’s currently being discussed in Harrisburg. As I learned yesterday, it’s not so much about the nuclear industry as it is about the unfettered gas industry in our state.

What’s the issue?

Image credit: The Inquirer

Our state of Pennsylvania has 5 nuclear power plants. The Beaver Valley nuclear power plant is in Beaver County, about 34 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. The Limerick nuclear power plant is in nearby Montgomery County. The Peach Bottom nuclear power plant is  in York County, about 50 miles southeast of Harrisburg. The Susquehanna nuclear power plant, in Luzerne County, is within a 50 mile radius of Wilkes-Barre & Scranton and about 120 miles from Philly. We’ve all heard of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, in Dauphin County, is just south of Harrisburg.

All of them are making money for their investors, except for one – Three Mile Island, which is owned by Exelon

Together, they have a capacity of about 9707 megawatts.

All of them are making money for their investors, except for one – Three Mile Island, which is owned by Exelon. Exelon is the parent company of PECO, Philadelphia’s electric utility company.

The nuclear industry has convinced some legislators in Harrisburg that they need the state to financially rescue all five nuclear power plants in order to continue generating electricity.

How much money are we talking? We’re talking about $500 million PER YEAR for at least six years — so about $3 billion. Yup, that’s billion with a B. And they think that six years may not be long enough, so they’re really asking for a blank check.

What’s their argument? They say that nuclear energy provides emissions-free electricity, which is very much needed to deal with the climate crisis. Well, it’s true; we do need emissions-free electricity. But we could get that from being smarter about how we use electricity. We’ve talked about energy efficiency on our fifth episode of Philly Talks Climate. We can decide to use less electricity! We can also get emissions-free electricity from wind, solar, and hydropower.

Are we considering funding the renewable energy industry as well? It doesn’t appear so. And yet investing in renewable energy would eventually decrease all of our costs since there are no fuel costs (nor waste disposal costs) with renewable energy. Renewable energy is great for the planet and it’s great for our wallets.

At a public hearing earlier this week, we heard from representatives of various groups including Nuclear Powers Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, and PJM Interconnection, our regional electricity transmission organization.We also heard from representatives from the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, PennFuture, and the Sierra Club. Everyone was questioned by Pennsylvania State Representatives Steve McCarter, Chris Rabb, Joe Cerisi, Mary Jo Daley and Senator Art Haywood and others.

Being discussed at this hearing were two bills recently introduced into the House and Senate. House Bill 11, which proposes to add nuclear energy to the alternative energy portfolio standards.

House bill 11 was introduced by Representative Thomas Mehaffie of House District 106 in Dauphin County. Senate Bill 510, with much the same language, was introduced by and Senator Ryan Aument of Senate District 36 of Lancaster County.

Understand that the $500 million would be paid by all of us — all the electricity ratepayers.

When Senator Art Haywood asked how we could protect low income consumers, we heard that there would be no protection; that residential charges would increase.

When Representative Chris Rabb asked what’s the most inexpensive electricity to generate, the response was gas.

We know the cheapest source for electricity  isn’t gas; that the cheapest form of electricity is what we don’t use!

I liked the Natural Resources Defense Council’s position – “to reject any bill that merely subsidizes nuclear plants, since that is no more a clean energy policy than the status quo: a massive build-out of natural gas generation driven by the absence either of state limits on carbon pollution or a price on carbon in PJM’s electricity markets, and a weak AEPS.”

AEPS, or the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard, is a mandate from the state requiring electric utilities to supply a percentage of their electricity from alternative sources, sources such as solar, wind, geothermal and hydropower.

wind and solar are less expensive than the cheap gas that’s currently making nuclear unprofitable.

I also liked the Natural Resources Defense Council’s view “that state policy making concerning nuclear power should have the goal of an orderly and deliberate transition away from nuclear to a safer, more economical low-carbon electric power system based mainly on renewable energy and energy efficiency.”

Representative Chris Rabb also asked about the cost to bring large-scale renewables on board. NRDC, the Natural Resources Defence Council, explained that actually, if we look at the average cost of energy over the life of a power plant — wind and solar are less expensive than the cheap gas that’s currently making nuclear unprofitable.

Representative Steve McCarter concurred that nuclear non-profitability in PA is due to historically low gas prices, and suggested that everyone review a recent Bloomberg article titled U.S. Nuclear Power Plants Weren’t Built for Climate Change. The author states that

“Ninety percent of [US nuclear] plants had at least one [flood] risk exceeding their design.”

Nuclear power plants are designed to withstand a certain amount of water from floods — but only so much of it. According to the article,

“Nuclear power plants need constant power to pump cool water into a reactor’s core; if flooding interrupts that power supply for long enough, as happened in Fukushima, the core can overheat, melting through its container and releasing deadly levels of radiation.”

We’ve known for decades about the issues with storing waste from nuclear power plants; that once used to generate electricity, the radioactive waste is hazardous to all forms of life; waste that needs to be kept isolated and confined for centuries buried deep underground.

In light of the climate crisis, and likely flooding of nuclear power plants, does it make sense to continue shoring up nuclear power plants?

The Environmental Defense Fund testified that House Bill 11 would continue the business-as-usual, status-quo stance, and that this is no long-term strategy for decarbonization. It would, in fact, just be a band-aid designed around a specific technology and outcome — and ensures profitability to the owners of the nuclear power plants rather than the future of Pennsylvanians.

PennFuture’s testimony referenced a report by the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (or PA-PUC, which suggested that the Three-Mile Island nuclear power plant could be replaced with renewables for the same cost.

Now that’s an idea! This would mean 805 megawatts of renewable electricity, with no worries about where to store the spent fuel. This could be worth the additional $3 per month for each ratepayer.

Nuclear energy production is responsible for around 40% of PA’s electricity generation and employs about 4600 people. Solar currently generates less than 1% of our electricity and results in about the same number of jobs.

See the growth potential?

On a related note, Pennsylvania’s AFL/CIO asked for a just transition for the nuclear industry’s workforce, because, as they put it… “unfettered capitalism can be brutal”. They see the writing on the wall better than us.

It really doesn’t make sense to prop up nuclear power; especially when 90% of the bailout would go to largely profitable companies, and this money could instead go toward the development of renewable energy production.

So…

Who’s with us in opposing this bailout?

There are a lot of people who oppose this bailout. The Sierra Club with 30,000 members in PA, the Natural Resource Defense Council with 112,000 members in PA, the Environmental Defense Fund with 75,000 members in PA, and PennFuture. Local groups in opposition are: the Clean Air Council, PennEnvironment, Keystone Progress, Clean Water Action, Physicians for Social Responsibility in Philadelphia, Conservation Voters of PA, POWER Interfaith, and Lance Haver of Save our Safety Net Coalition.

Even the chair of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, Andrew Place, who stated:  

“I do not believe Senate Bill 510, as currently drafted, is just and reasonable for Pennsylvania’s ratepayers, and encourage consideration of alternatives for addressing this intricate issue.”

Commissioner Andrew Place suggested looking at alternatives like putting a price on carbon, investing in energy efficiency, adopting a needs-based approach to supporting nuclear power plants, providing incentives for technological innovations or investing in other zero emission generation.

He also said, “…this bill does not provide certainty that these nuclear plants would not close.”

Lance Haver is here with us today, to talk about nuclear power.

[unrehearsed conversation with Meenal and Lance]

What should we do?

We need to Engage with our state representatives and senators, to ask them to oppose house bill 11 and senate bill 510. Details about this can be found on the Engage page of our website, Philly Talks Climate dot com.

What else could we do to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions?

Let’s compare our renewable energy goals with that of our neighbors New Jersey and Maryland.

New Jersey recently increased their renewable energy goals, requiring the utilities to generate 50% of their electricity from renewables by 2030. 50% by 2030.

Currently, solar energy provides about less than 4% of New Jersey’s power, generating about 2447 megawatts and employing about 9,200 people.

Maryland requires their utilities to generate 25% of electricity from renewables by 2025. That’s 25% by 2025.

Currently, solar energy provides almost 3% of Maryland’s power, generating about 932 megawatts and employing about 13,000 people.

We’ve heard that Maryland is seeking to increase their 25% by 2025 goal with updated goals. Goals such as 50% of their electricity from renewables by 2030. 50% by 2030. They’re also considering how they can reach 100% clean energy by 2040!

Looking toward the west…to Nevada, we’ve learned that the Nevada State Senate heard Senate Bill 358, which proposes to increase their share of renewables to 50% by 2030, with a goal of 100% by 2050.

Nevada is the 6th state committed to 100% renewable energy joining the efforts led by first, Hawaii, then California, then Washington DC, then New Mexico, then Puerto Rico.

And Pennsylvania? We require our utilities to generate only 8% of our electricity from renewables by 2021. 8% by 2021.

Currently, solar energy provides about two tenths of one percent of our goal of one-half percent for solar, with our production totaling about 372 MW and employing about 4600 people.

It’s time to increase our renewable energy goals, don’t you think?

Our Southeast Pennsylvania legislators have another plan — a better plan than bailing out the nuclear industry. They’re suggesting we increase the amount of electricity required from renewable sources to be 30% by 2030. We are currently at just 8%.

We’ll be on the watch out for when this gets introduced by Senators Art Haywood, Thomas Killion and Steve Santarsiero in our state senate. And by Representatives Carolyn Comitta & Steve McCarter in the State House.

That’s plenty of News You Can Use and ideas on Engaging with your Elected Representatives.

Connect with Others Concerned about the Climate Crisis

The weather in Philadelphia is still delightful this week, and we have many Earth Day events where you can Connect with Others Concerned About the Climate Crisis.

On the morning of Saturday April 27th, join me at Haverford Township’s Earth Day Celebration. Having passed a resolution to transition to 100% renewable energy, the team is now working to get many of their neighbors install rooftop solar. Together, we’ve launched Solarize Southeast PA, and I’ll be there to help with that.

In the afternoon, also of Saturday April 27th, there’s Whitemarsh Township Day. They too are Ready for 100% clean energy, and have passed a resolution about this. I’ll be there to show off my all-electric car.

And lastly, the Philly’s Ready for 100 team has organized a film screening of Paris to Pittsburgh on Sunday afternoon. Details about all of these events are on the Connect page of our website, at Philly Talks Climate dot com.

See you at one of these events this weekend!

Thanks for listening to Philly Talks Climate on PhillyCAM, with Meenal & Tanya!


Credits

Featured image: The Inquirer https://www.philly.com/business/energy/pennsylvania-nuclear-rescue-package-million-20190311.html

Lead-in music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5x-13jNXux8

Music at the end: Plutonium is Forever by John Hall: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vL_ebh7tz1M


The Media around this

June 6, 2016, Andrew Maykuth, The Inquirer, America’s nukes face an existential crisis, but not the kind you think – The low cost of gas has made nuclear not competitive, and so it’s lost out on contracts — and why it needs to be bailed out.

January 27, 2018, Mark Szybist, NRDC, PA’s Renewable Energy Goals Are Not in the Super Bowl

Nov 2018, NRDC, Transitioning Away From Uneconomical Nuclear Power Plants | Protecting Consumers, Communities, Workers, And The Environment

Jan 26, 2019, Andrew Maykuth, The Inquirer, Hundreds of Pennsylvania jobs on the line as bailout deadline looms for struggling nuclear plants

Feb 1, 2019, Mark Szybist, NRDC, PA Needs Clean Energy. Why Are Legislators Stuck on Nuclear?

Feb 1, 2019, PA Environmental Daily, Op-Ed: NRDC Expresses Opposition To No Strings Attached PA Nuclear Subsidy Bill

This week NRDC sent a letter to members of the General Assembly urging the need for such a policy and asking legislators to reject any bill that merely subsidizes nuclear plants, since that is no more a clean energy policy than the status quo: a massive build-out of natural gas generation driven by the absence either of state limits on carbon pollution or a price on carbon in PJM’s electricity markets, and a weak AEPS.

NRDC’s view is that state policy making concerning nuclear power should have the goal of an orderly and deliberate transition away from nuclear to a safer, more economical low-carbon electric power system based mainly on renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Mar 11, 2019, Andrew Maykuth, The Inquirer, $500 million Pennsylvania nuclear rescue plan triggers fierce battle from rival power producers

Mar 11, 2019, PA Environment Daily, Rep. Mehaffie Introduces Bill To Prevent Nuclear Power Plant Closures Costing $500 Million Annually

March 11, 2019, Pennsylvania’s Environmental Community?: Nuclear Bailout Bill NOT the Climate and Clean Energy Solution Pennsylvanians Deserve

Mar 18, 2019, Lance Haver, Pa.’s nuclear industry does not deserve another bailout | Opinion / No More Rescues of Energy’s Polluting Dinosaur

Nuclear power has always been more costly than other types of generation. The 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s saw mistakes, cost overruns, and accidents. Time and time again, the utilities, which owned nuclear plants, sought rate increases, forcing consumers to pay for the industries’ mistakes. Granting ever-growing rate increases was the first bailout for nuclear power.

The costs and dangers of building and operating nuclear power plants have been exceptionally high. After Pennsylvania restructured the electric industry in 1997, the government handed over billions of dollars to nuclear plant owners to cover their industry’s bad investments — the second bailout.

Now the companies who bought the nuclear power plants are unhappy with their decisions, saying the investment isn’t making as much they want. The industry has asked Pennsylvania legislators to place a surcharge on everyone’s electric bill. Consumers, the utilities argue, should be forced to pay for the companies’ poor investments. They are seeking a third bailout.


April 3, 2019, Andrew Maykuth, The Inquirer, ‘Goal is not to bail out Exelon’: Pennsylvania’s $500 million nuclear rescue bill pushes clean energy“The goal is not to bail out Exelon,” Aument said. “The goal is not to bail out an industry. The goal is to do all we can in Pennsylvania to promote innovation and clean energy resources.”

Map of nuclear plants in PA, and chart with their recent profitability – CUGQJBXHMNCOBMYIHGFXSD7TAY.png

April 14, 2019, Andrew Maykuth, The Inquirer, Where will the nuclear waste go after Three Mile Island shuts down?

April 15 2019, PA Environment Daily, Nuclear Power Plant Owners Again Oppose Financial Needs Test To Receive Aid To Keep Plants Open At House Hearing

Apr 18, 2019, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, U.S. Nuclear Power Plants Weren’t Built for Climate Change

Ninety percent of [US nuclear] plants had at least one [flood] risk exceeding their design.

Nuclear power is weird—it exists to produce electricity, and at the same time it can’t exist without electricity,” says Allison Macfarlane, who chaired the NRC from 2012 through 2014. Plants need constant power to pump cool water into a reactor’s core; if flooding interrupts that power supply for long enough, as happened in Fukushima, the core can overheat, melting through its container and releasing deadly levels of radiation.


2 Comments

  1. PennFuture alerted us that 805 megawatts of nuclear capacity does not equate to 805 megawatts of solar capacity.

    We didn’t think thru that nuclear plants run at extremely high capacity factors. For instance, a nuclear plant with 805 MW nameplate capacity generates: 805MW x 8760 hours/year x 90% (capacity factor) = 6.3 million MWh.

    In comparison, solar runs at about 15% of its nameplate capacity, so we would need 4.8 GW of solar to generate the same amount. Wind runs at about 27% capacity so you’d need about 2.7GW of wind capacity.

    Apologies for the mis-communication.

    Like

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