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Spiting Your Nuclear Nose in the Bay State

Here are two views on the closing of Massachusetts’ Pilgrim Generating Station:

News that it will close by 2019 has state officials scrambling to fill an expected gap in energy production while meeting ambitious goals to lower greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020.

Meanwhile, environmental groups are prodding federal regulators to shutter the plant even before 2019. Groups such as Environment Massachusetts view the plant’s pending closure as an opportunity to expand the use of solar and wind power in the state. They rallied at the Statehouse last week, urging state officials to act.

What first struck me about this is that both groups are fretting about the same thing – reducing carbon dioxide emissions in the state – but one seems a bit more attached to, shall we call it, reality.

Writer Christian Wade doesn’t miss this, either, via the area’s Congressional representative, Seth Moulton (D-Mass.):

Moulton,said he finds it “ironic” that environmental groups and elected officials are pushing to close the Pilgrim plant, which produces about 80 percent of the state’s clean energy.

Let’s say the nuclear facility’s 890 megawatts are replaced at least partly by wind and solar, as Environment Massachusetts wants. It will still need a steady dispatchable energy source to spell the intermittency of the renewables. Let’s further assume that that would be natural gas – which is carbon dioxide emitting.

So Moulton sees the problem. How about Bay State Gov. Charlie Baker?

“The closure of Pilgrim will be a significant loss of carbon-free electricity generation and will offset progress Massachusetts has made in achieving the 2020 greenhouse gas emission reduction goals, making it more challenging to hit these targets,” he said in a statement.

He has an alternative plan to the one I suggested above that is more emission friendly.

He has touted his administration’s proposals to tap Canadian hydropower and expand the use of renewables.

Which is certainly responsible, but also more expensive and will not count toward the state’s emission reduction goals under the Clean Power Plan (which only counts in-state generated power). So, um, yay for Canada?

And will it happen? Let’s let Environment Massachusetts State Director Ben Hellerstein weigh in (on legislation now in the state house):

Governor Baker’s solar bill would slash the state’s most important solar program and make it harder for many to access clean energy — including low-income families, renters, and homeowners who can’t install solar panels on their roofs. And proposals to spend billions of dollars on new or expanded gas pipelines would keep Massachusetts hooked on fossil fuels for decades to come.

We’ve no brief on this at all, but we can say that energy policy, like every other kind of policy, is a tangle of competing interests. Keeping Pilgrim in place means keeping 890 megawatts of clean energy in place – that is our brief. Replacing it, if one wants to do that - and Gov. Baker and Environment Massachusetts certainly do - can easily be deflected by other concerns.

The Gloucester Times, which originated this story, serves the Pilgrim area, so the paper’s willingness to address the considerable downside of losing the nuclear facility is very refreshing. That’s what Wade heard from almost all his sources, so there you are. You could say this, in its small way, is nuclear energy in the age of climate change. The concerns of Greenpeace types fade a bit in the face of an issue many accept as existential in nature. They can seem more than a little out of touch.

“Taking Pilgrim offline is the equivalent to putting 40,000 more cars on the road,” said Judd Gregg, a former New Hampshire senator and co-chairman of the Washington D.C.-based Nuclear Matters.

“If you’re concerned about global warming,” he said, “closing down plants before the end of their useful life is like cutting off your nose to spite your face.”

Granted, Gregg is more openly committed to nuclear energy, but he comes from the region, a state with nuclear power (Seabrook) and no major axe to grind.

Cutting your nose off indeed. You might expect NEI to say that, but it seems an unusually universal view in Massachusetts and environs. As it should be – because  it is.

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