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On Bernie Sanders, Nuclear Energy & Carbon-Free Electricity

The following is a guest post from Matt Wald, senior director of policy analysis and strategic planning at NEI. Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattLWald.

Senator Bernie Sanders, who doesn’t like nuclear power anywhere, now also doesn’t like it at Indian Point Energy Center. This shouldn’t surprise anybody, but Mr. Sanders is also against climate change, and against fossil fuels. The positions are impossible to reconcile.

We’re not the only ones who have noticed.
A persistent idea is that energy from wind and sun will replace fossil and everything else. And for years, New York has had an aggressive plan to use more renewable energy.

But it is just a plan. According to a national survey by the Energy Department’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, released earlier this month, New York aimed to have about 9.5 million megawatt-hours of renewable electricity by the end of 2014. But actual production was only around half that. (That’s the “main tier,” produced at utility scale. There’s a “customer-sited tier,” basically rooftop solar, and that was at 96 percent compliance, but the target for that was far smaller, less than 1 million megawatt-hours. )

When it comes to NY & renewables, the numbers don't add up.
More renewables would be good for New York. But there are good reasons why it’s hard to build them there. The wind is strong in the western part of the state, but the load is in the southeast, and the transmission grid that links them isn’t up to big electricity transfers.

So sometimes western New York is flooded with more electricity than it can use, and prices fall to zero or below, limiting the enthusiasm of builders to pick that area. Meanwhile, prices are much higher in the New York City region, where Indian Point is located, but it’s not a good place for huge wind farms.

And even if New York were on target to achieve its renewable goal, the goal is about 33% less carbon-free electricity than Indian Point produces. And besides being better located, Indian Point’s 24/7 production includes peak hours, including summer afternoons and evenings when there is not much wind, and the sun is low in the sky, or down.

When the Vermont Yankee nuclear reactor, in Senator Sanders’ home state, closed at the end of 2014, New England replaced it with natural gas. That is the likely replacement if any of New York’s reactors close. More broadly, the question isn’t whether New York can meet its goals for renewables, or the longer-term goal of an 80 percent cut in carbon emissions by mid-century.

Recent history makes clear this will be very tough. For the near term, at least, the question is whether New York wants to miss its goals by a little or a lot. A state that closes a reactor now is like a ship captain who, at the first sign of rough weather, decides to jettison the lifeboats.

And if the threat of climate change seems distant or abstract (which is not the case in New York, at least not since Sandy) losing Indian Point would have a more immediate impact on electricity bills. Electricity sales in New York are competitive, and when you remove a competitor, prices will rise. That’s bad for households, businesses, and government agencies.

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