at a rally
New England is at a crossroads. One choice is to continue on the road now traveled, with natural gas for electricity production exceeding that of coal, hydro and nuclear power combined by 2018.
Due to a shortage of gas-pipeline capacity, we are already experiencing high prices for home heating and electricity. And there has been a decline in air quality due to the increased use of coal plants to meet electricity needs and the loss of Vermont Yankee’s 600 megawatts of emission-free power.
The other choice, the path we should be taking, is to maintain a balanced mix of low-carbon energy sources, including the Seabrook and Pilgrim nuclear plants with licenses renewed, wind and solar power. (It is always understood that on the use side, we must do the maximum conservation and efficiency.) This would enable the plants to continue running for another 20 years or longer. With less reliance on natural gas for electric power generation, households and businesses would benefit from lower energy costs.
But for that to happen, the EPA will need to modify a proposed rule to cut carbon emissions from power plants. As the rule is now written, it is rigged against nuclear power, even though the U.S. fleet of nuclear plants accounts for nearly two-thirds of the nation’s zero-carbon electricity – and they will become increasingly important as more coal plants are shuttered. The proposed rule – which would require New Hampshire to reduce its carbon emissions by 46.3 percent compared to 2005 levels by 2030 – shortchanges nuclear power, the one technology that could make a decisive contribution in the battle against global warming.
Nuclear plants are a dependable source of electricity, because they produce “base-load” power about 90 percent of the time, underpinning the stability of the electricity grid. But currently, New England’s deregulated electricity market does not recognize nuclear power’s environmental value or its critically important role in maintaining power reliability. New England’s regional and state power authorities need to make the changes necessary to ensure the continued availability of nuclear-generated electricity, which is much cheaper than most other alternatives.
At one point last winter, during the polar vortex, 75 percent of New England’s natural-gas generating capacity was not operating due to lack of supply or high prices. Public Service of New Hampshire resorted to burning costly jet fuel to meet the demand for electricity, while the price of oil rose to more than $400 per barrel.
Imagine what would happen if the Seabrook and Pilgrim nuclear plants are shut down. Once a nuclear plant closes, its license terminates. The price of electricity would skyrocket. Let’s make sure that doesn’t happen.
This column by Howard Shaffer first appeared in the Concord Monitor, on January 28, 2015. Shaffer holds a M.S. in Nuclear Engineering from M.I.T., is a registered nuclear engineer in Vermont and New Hampshire, and was a start-up engineer and systems engineer at Vermont Yankee. He is a featured writer at this blog.