New York passed a law in 2019 requiring the state to eliminate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 2040. But over the last two years, the exact opposite has happened: CO2 from power plants has climbed nearly 15 percent, according to EPA data.
New York’s experience is hardly unique. In neighboring New England, where six states are united by a single electricity market, power emissions are up 12 percent over the last two years. And in Pennsylvania, emissions from electricity generation have grown 3 percent.
The rise in emissions follows the closure of three nuclear facilities in Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania since 2019. While all three states have expanded their renewable energy generation, natural gas has largely filled the void left by shuttered nuclear facilities, prompting emissions to rise.
The increase is further fueling a raging debate within climate circles over the role of nuclear power in the transition to a zero-carbon grid. Some researchers argue nuclear provides a reliable source of emissions-free power that can complement wind and solar.
“If the goal is that we’re moving to 100 percent zero carbon electricity,” said Melissa Lott, director of research at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, “closing zero-carbon resources doesn’t make a lot of sense. We’re just digging the hole deeper.”
Others see nuclear as a short-term climate fix, at best. They note that recently closed plants were plagued by operational issues, and they point to the exorbitant price of building new nuclear facilities. While some greens have grudgingly embraced a collection of state deals to keep struggling nuclear plants open in recent years, they say such rescue efforts should be tailored to well-operating facilities.
“I have been convinced by the point that nuclear provides a lot of greenhouse gas benefits,” said Ben Inskeep, a policy analyst at EQ Research, a clean energy consulting firm. “However, I still have a lot of concerns about subsidizing a legacy industry that, perhaps in many places, does not need additional financial incentives to keep those power plants open today.”
The debate over nuclear is unfolding amid the rapid evolution of America’s power sector. The advent of fracking and horizontal drilling unlocked a wave of cheap gas over the last decade, prompting coal plants to retire en masse. Carbon emissions fell as a result. But low-priced natural gas has been a challenge for nuclear plants, too, especially in states where companies compete to sell their electricity in wholesale power markets.
That has prompted a series of state-level nuclear rescue efforts. Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey and New York have offered financial support to struggling nuclear facilities in the name of preserving jobs and taming emissions. A group of academics and activists are now pressing California regulators to reconsider plans to shutter the state’s last nuclear facility in 2025.
Even Congress has gotten involved. The bipartisan infrastructure package passed last year included $1.2 billion in assistance for nuclear facilities. The ill-fated “Build Back Better Act” would have gone further still, with a production tax credit for nuclear facilities worth $23 billion.
The rescue efforts reflect a shift in the environmental movement, to which nuclear was once anathema. In Illinois last year, many environmental groups supported a climate law that contained subsidies for nuclear and renewables alike, noted Doug Scott, vice president of electricity and efficiency at the Great Plains Institute.
“A critical mass of the environmental community is adopting reducing carbon as the most important issue, and nuclear energy becomes more important than it was before,” Scott said.
Michael Wara, a researcher who studies energy policy at Stanford University, said he has observed a similar shift in California, where 79 academics, scientists and entrepreneurs recently wrote a letter asking state regulators to extend the life of the Diablo Canyon Power Plant. Keeping the nuclear facility open, they argued, would better position California to meet its climate goals.
That’s a shift from 2016, when Pacific Gas and Electric proposed closing the plant. Many environmentalists, long concerned about Diablo Canyon’s discharges of warm water into the Pacific Ocean and its location on a geologic fault line, embraced the utiliy’s plan. But the calculus changed as the state got battered by drought and wildfire.
“Today, the impacts of climate are so tangible you can taste it in your mouth,” Wara said. “It isn’t polar bears or something in 2050 about sea-level rise. It’s now. It’s affecting where you want to live and how safe your kids are. So maybe you’re willing to take a risk on an old nuclear power plant on a fault line?”
The most important people to weigh those trade-offs will be residents of the community of San Luis Obispo, which is home to the plant, Wara said. But so far, it appears to be an academic question. California regulators have shown no indication that they are reconsidering the plant’s fate.
Yet as some greens become more open to the idea of running existing nuclear facilities longer, they cautioned against offering a blank check to the nuclear industry.
Nuclear facilities retired in the Northeast for valid reasons, they said. Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Massachusetts saw its safety rating downgraded by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2015 before the facility was closed for economic reasons in 2019. Indian Point was plagued by worries about the potential of a nuclear accident in close proximity to New York City. And Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania was the site of the most famous nuclear accident in American history, when a reactor partially melted down in 1979.
Not all nuclear facilities are under economic distress. Nuclear plants in states where utilities operate as regulated monopolies do not face the same sort of competitive pressure as their counterparts in states with wholesale power markets, Inskeep said.
“It behooves us to investigate these plants on a plant-by-plant by basis to determine where to keep plants open,” he said.
Yet the recent closures of plants in Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania underscore their effects on emissions.
In New York, power-sector emissions reached 28.5 million tons in 2021, up from 24 million tons in 2019, according to EPA figures. The increase coincided with the shutdown of Indian Point’s two nuclear units in 2019 and 2021.
In New England, emissions from power plants have risen from around 22 million tons in 2019, the year Pilgrim closed, to 25 million tons in 2021.
And Pennsylvania’s electricity emissions, which were less than 83 million tons in 2019, stood at 85 million tons last year.
The increases are especially notable because they stand in contrast to the national trend. Nationwide, power plant emissions were down 4 percent between 2019 and 2021, even after accounting for a 7 percent increase in electricity emissions last year.
It also highlights the struggles of Northeastern states to build utility-scale renewable projects. That has led to increased gas use.
New York experienced an 11 percent increase in natural gas generation between 2019 and 2020, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Utility-scale solar more than doubled between 2019 and 2021, but remains less than 1 percent of the state’s total power generation.
‘We’re not there yet’
The emissions upswing underscores the need for careful long-term planning around nuclear plant closures, said Jackson Morris, who leads the climate and energy program for the Natural Resources Defense Council in the eastern United States. NRDC is willing to support nuclear assistance as a short-term measure to prevent emissions backsliding, provided that states are also investing in renewables and energy efficiency.
He pointed to California as an example, noting that the state required its utilities to procure new clean energy technologies to offset the closure of Diablo Canyon.
“It is about foresight,” Morris said. “There is no reason that we can’t chart a course that would provide enough renewables and allow for organized retirement.”
Like other environmental groups, NRDC’s support for nuclear has its limits. It largely sees existing nuclear plants as a steppingstone to a low-carbon grid using wind, solar and batteries.
In some states, the emissions rebound from power plants may be temporary.
New York has moved aggressively to green its grid since the passage of a climate law in 2019. The state contracted to build 4,300 megawatts of offshore wind generation, or about twice the capacity of Indian Point. The 2019 climate law eases permitting restrictions for renewable projects, paving the way for some 3,600 MW of onshore wind and solar by 2025. And the state is actively working to address transmission bottlenecks that prevent clean power from reaching New York City.
Even if New York succeeds in building out renewables, it will have lost valuable time backfilling the power once generated by nuclear, some researchers say. They argue that new wind and solar generation should be built on the foundation of clean power provided by nuclear. The United States, they say, can ill afford a setback in greening the power sector, the only segment of the economy that has shown it can consistently reduce emissions.
Lott, the Columbia researcher, noted that the emissions backsliding comes at a time when the world’s carbon budget is rapidly waning. In addition to the short-term benefits of nuclear, she argued it could complement wind and solar in the future. It provides a source of firm, carbon-free power and alleviates some of the costs involved in building a grid run entirely on renewables and batteries.
Ultimately, Lott said, the United States will likely need a mix of technologies to achieve zero-emissions power.
“We need to move away from technology tribalism, where we’re just for one thing,” she said. “That’s the conversation we need to move into, but we’re not there yet.”