Years end, as everything finds an ending. Vermont Yankee is ending its 42-year run. Nuclear energy, which generated 70 percent of Vermont’s electricity, is ending in the Green Mountain state – as the year ends – as everything finds an ending.
But you don’t need to see the old feller of 2014 shuffling off as the 2015 babe supplants him to know that endings portend beginnings. Vermont Yankee is closing because it is not making enough money, not because it has ceased to be an effective supplier of clean energy. Under the proposed EPA rules regulating carbon dioxide from electricity generators, Vermont is the only state that did not have to reduce emissions at all – in large part due to Vermont Yankee (hydro supplies most of the remaining 30 percent, so Vermont had a particularly good emissions profile).
So now Vermont will turn to its neighbors New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Quebec to fill the gaps in its energy portfolio – some of that may be nuclear, but a lot of it likely will not be. Wouldn’t it have been better if Vermont Yankee worth included its emission-free quality? Shouldn’t the energy market reflect that since it will be so important in 2015 and beyond?
If anything defines the nuclear year in review, it is these two issues: nuclear energy plants became (or threaten to become) financially untenable; and nuclear energy is even more valuable now than it has ever been, specifically because it can reliably produce 70 percent of a state’s electricity emissions-free. Whatever your view on the existential peril of climate change, nuclear energy is the only solution we now have that can supply tremendous amounts of electricity – with a relatively small footprint – 24/7 - and with no harmful emissions.
This isn’t just a U.S. issue. Installed nuclear energy capacity worldwide could nearly triple from today’s 375 gigawatts to as much as 1,092 gigawatts by 2050 if nations recognize it as the best and least expensive means to address the threat of climate change.
This statistic comes from an International Atomic Energy Agency report, “Climate Change and Nuclear Power 2014.” The report “indicates that nuclear power represents the largest single mitigation potential at the lowest average costs.” The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is not focused on nuclear energy as the IAEA is, notes that raising the percentage of global nuclear energy capacity from 16 percent in 2005 to 18 percent in 2030 could avoid 1.9 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalence per year.
The IAEA and IPCC are both United Nations organizations. One feature of 2014 is a surprising unanimity among energy policy reports, governmental and otherwise, nuclear-centered and not, that nuclear energy should be expanded – rapidly, starting now. No one has given up on renewable energy sources and energy efficiency, but if one believes time is running out, as the IPCC certainly does, then one defaults to the mature technology. That’s nuclear energy.
In many countries, this isn’t an issue at all. China, Russia, India and many other countries with nuclear industries are accelerating their construction plans. Countries such as Vietnam, UAE and Turkey are preparing to open first reactors. And many other countries – including in Africa and South America – are looking at partnerships and deals to get a productive chain reaction going.
The U.S. is hampered somewhat by its appreciation for low-cost natural gas and its continuing romance with renewable energy. Neither of these are bad things, though they cause a loss of valuation for nuclear energy. It’s the energy market that needs reforming.
This is becoming more broadly recognized, as much because of nuclear energy’s reliability as its emissions profile. PJM Interconnection, one of the nation’s largest regional transmission operators, is seeking approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to implement a “capacity performance initiative” aimed at improving reliability of the regional electricity system. What FERC does is going to be a major story in 2015.
Consider: under current market rules, nuclear energy facilities are not compensated for their secure fuel supply, while generators that run short of fuel are not penalized.This became notable during last year’s polar vortex, when gas and coal froze up but nuclear energy facilities continued unabated. PJM doesn’t cite this (as far as I can tell). You can read more about this here.
And did we mention that a new U.S. reactor is opening in 2015? Goodbye Father Vermont Yankee, hello Baby Watts Bar. Endings portend beginnings.
Is that all there is to say about 2014? Oh, no. We’ll round up some of the interesting events of an eventful year next week.