New York's New Climate Policy a Model for Other States
When nuclear power plants prematurely shut down, it’s bad news for society. We know this because of increased greenhouse gas emissions, job losses, and lost taxes associated with reactor shutdowns in California, Wisconsin, and Vermont in recent years. That’s why New York’s first-ever state clean energy standard — approved by the Public Service Commission last month — is good for the state’s consumers, its economy and its environment.
America’s 99 nuclear energy facilities produce vast amounts of electricity without emitting greenhouse gases — more specifically, 62 percent of U.S. carbon-free power generation. A credible program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will require a portfolio of technologies and approaches, and nuclear energy is an indispensable part of that package. This is precisely the determination New York made.
Addressing the significance of her state’s new energy policy, New York Public Service Commission Chairwoman Audrey Zibelman said the clean energy standard adoption “will bring numerous benefits to consumers, including a reduction in carbon and other harmful pollutants, and continued maintenance of fuel diversity.” Public Service Commission staff estimates that the gross benefits of retaining the at-risk nuclear plants in the first two years of the program are approximately $5 billion. Weighted against an estimated cost of less than $1 billion, the program generates benefits for consumers in excess of five to one.
New York’s visionary clean energy standard blazes a vitally important public policy precedent for achieving significant carbon reductions from all clean energy sources while maintaining a healthy economy. At the heart of the New York policy is a finding that there exists a social cost associated with emitting carbon. It’s New York’s determination that adverse health and economic effects result from failing to mitigate carbon emissions.
Other states — many of which have renewable energy standards that ignore nuclear energy’s role — should emulate New York and adopt clean energy standards. Numerous independent assessments demonstrate that preserving existing nuclear plants is one of the most economic ways to reduce carbon emissions and ensure economic growth.
New Yorkers will enjoy cleaner air and the state’s action will maintain electricity production at three upstate nuclear plants that are at risk of premature closing. This will save thousands of well-paying jobs and is expected to spur hundreds of millions of dollars in short-term investments in energy infrastructure in upstate New York.
But many reactors elsewhere in the country are under significant financial stress because their clean air and other secondary attributes are not fully valued while at the same time renewable energy sources are subsidized via tax credits and/or state and federal mandates to add wind and solar capacity.
New York correctly determined that to meet its aggressive clean air mandate it had to retain the most powerful low-carbon tool in its electricity generation portfolio — the state’s nuclear plants. Renewable technologies such as wind and solar play important roles in mitigating carbon, but by their nature they are intermittent energy sources. Our amply electrified culture demands a stable, reliable power grid. Nuclear energy is the backbone of America’s clean energy grid; it’s always on, powering our homes and businesses through heatwaves and polar vortexes. And doing so cleanly.
Policymakers championing renewable technologies while allowing base-load nuclear plants to shut down are in effect taking one step forward and three back in efforts to combat the threat of climate change. The policy reality is we need to scale up both renewables and nuclear energy to achieve ambitious clean air targets.
Earlier this summer, President Obama joined his counterparts from Mexico and Canada in a commitment to produce one-half of North America’s electricity with clean power sources by 2025. The agreement recognizes roles for renewables, carbon capture and storage plants, energy efficiency, and nuclear energy. It is, in effect, a clean energy standard for all of North America. At the highest levels of government there is today recognition that we cannot achieve significant reductions in carbon absent a significant role by nuclear energy.
New York has offered a blueprint for a prudent approach to a clean energy future built on nuclear energy and renewable energy sources. Policymakers and leaders in other states should closely review New York’s clean energy standard and work expeditiously to enact comparable policies that expand these vital clean energy assets.