The battle over whether to relicense the two Indian Point nuclear plants at Buchanan in Westchester County in 2013 and 2015 respectively is a complex one dividing the state’s top politicians. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has supported replacement of the plants with energy from other sources. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg supports their relicensing.
Together, the reactors, which are owned by the giant utility Entergy, can produce as much as a quarter of the power consumed in Consolidated Edison’s service area, which includes New York City and Westchester County. But that doesn’t mean that all Indian Point’s power is consumed in the state. Con Ed presently has a significant capacity surplus that has driven prices down in New York City.
One consultant has estimated that shutdown might drive up the wholesale cost of electricity in the city and state by about 10 percent, or a total of $1.5 billion a year. Noting that Con Edison is buying a lot less power from Indian Point than it could under the option of an existing contract, other experts have said that buying supply from alternative sources would be more economical.
Last Thursday, The New York Times published a news analysis by reporter Matthew Wald, “If Indian Point Closes, Plenty of Challenges,” which argued that the peculiarities of the electricity transmission and distribution systems in the New York metropolitan area would increase the risks of a power failure if Indian Point were shut down. New York energy prices would be higher and reliability lower, said one expert the article quoted. Transmission connections are weak, further limiting options. “New York’s grid is a patchwork,” Wald quoted Independent System Operator Chief Operating Officer Rick Gonzales, whose agency keeps a round-the-clock watch on how heavily the state’s power lines are loaded, as saying.
Last Saturday, two speakers deeply involved in policymaking in the New York State energy system addressed the annual meeting of the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development in Arkville. Frank Murray is chief executive officer of NYSERDA, the $600-million-a-year-plus state renewable energy agency supported by taxpayer utility bills. Kevin Cahill, whose response to Wald’s article is published in full below, is the Kingston assemblyman who chairs the Assembly Energy Committee.
Cahill noted that New York was the most power-efficient state, and that 20 percent of the state’s energy came from sources other than fossil fuels. Because New Yorkers live in very energy-inefficient homes, a lot of further improvement in conservation is possible. He and Murray also noted improvements in state law this year that made the siting of energy facilities less difficult.
NYSERDA, Murray’s agency, is a significant supporter of New York investments in renewable energy. The state ranks high in terms of clean-tech industries, which a Brookings Institution paper issued last week has identified as a source of growing employment: It calculated that New York State has created 150,000 jobs in these industries in the past eight years. Murray touted free energy audits and financing availabilities.
In late June, state lawmakers approved legislation to streamline the siting of new power plants in New York, a step that, for the first time in nearly a decade, makes replacing Indian Point and the huge amount of power it generates more feasible. The last siting law expired at the beginning of 2003.
Echoing governor’s Cuomo’s positions, Murray said that many solutions were available in case the decision is made to close Indian Point. A gubernatorial task force was looking at these.
“There are technical and engineering solutions not just for the power capacity but also for ancillary services,” he said. He had confidence in the creativity of New Yorkers in coming up with innovative solutions for whatever energy shortfall existed.
The federal government has sole authority to regulate the safety of nuclear plants, but the states have always had the right to approve or disapprove the construction of power reactors, as they can approve or disapprove any power plant. Vermont is declining to permit continued operation of the Vermont Yankee plant, owned, like Indian Point, by Entergy, for operation beyond the expiration of its license next spring.
Cahill: Bad information out there
Cahill’s critique of the Wald article was sent to The New York Times and simultaneously made available to the local press. It makes the case for closing Indian Point.
“Bad and misleading information lead to bad decision-making,” Cahill’s point of view began. “Cries of panic and overblown analyses asserting that Indian Point is an essential part of our energy mix is bad, misleading information. The story in the Thursday, July 14 New York Times regarding Indian Point repeats bad information and contributes to the confusion.
“Indian Point power is sold on the open market. While it has the potential to supply a significant percentage of the power for the metropolitan region, there is no evidence that it actually does. Power contracts are guarded as though they were state secrets. We know that New York City and Con Ed contracted for roughly 1,050 megawatts of Indian Point power in 2010. This year, that figure dropped dramatically to only 550 MW, a little more than a quarter (26.6 percent) of Indian Point’s total capacity, and an even less significant 4.3 percent of New York’s projected energy need this summer. Of the potential 2069 MW Indian Point produces, more than 1,500 of those megawatts could have been sold elsewhere, like New England or upstate New York.
“Asserting that the loss of Indian Point electric supplies to New York City could lead to blackouts is as irresponsible as it is absurd. New York’s and Con Ed’s contracts already reflect a 500-MW reduction. Because the remaining 550 MW comprises a relatively small percentage of the electricity mix for the city, New York’s grid is now more reliable than it had been in the years when there was greater reliance on Indian Point power.
“Likewise, Indian Point power is not, suggestions to the contrary notwithstanding, a significant part of the power traded on the New York Independent System Operator’s (ISO) wholesale market. Indian Point trades only 10 percent of its power — or 200 MW — through wholesale forums. 200 MW is well below the electric power a typical natural gas plant can produce, and pales in comparison to the tens of thousands of megawatts traded at the ISO on average. Finding other sources for 200 MW would not be difficult. Because that amount makes up an infinitesimal part of overall market, the impact on price, even if higher-priced natural gas power was used, would be negligible.
“Continuing to use Indian Point as a power source for the metropolitan region comes at a very high cost. The capital expenditures needed to bring the facility close to 21st-century standards are astronomical. Building just a new cooling system to reduce the severe degradation of Hudson River water which is now occurring is a multi-billion-dollar project. Those upgrades would increase the cost of electricity.
“The problem isn’t that other sources of electricity are more expensive. The problem is that Indian Point is old, antiquated, and not suitable without significant upgrades.“Transmission upgrades can help, but they are far from the best answer. It would be particularly troubling for New York City to continue in its plan to siphon off power from the predominantly coal-fired PJM [a manager of power supply and demand south of New York; the initials once stood for Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland] system, as proposed by the plan now under review by several committees of the state Assembly.
Instead, we need serious home-grown solutions. New Yorkers are the most energy-conservative people in the nation. Still, our single- and small multi-family homes rank near the bottom when it comes to energy efficiency. We waste more energy in New York State than many countries use to power their entire nation. NYSERDA projects that its Energy Star Home Performance program alone could save up to 1.5 million MW in unnecessary electric consumption per year, 50 percent more than what Madagascar’s entire 20-million-person population consumes in electricity annually.
“This year we brought ourselves significantly closer to making the continued operation of Indian Point irrelevant to our energy future. Restoration of the power-plant siting law will shorten the time it takes to put modern, cleaner, appropriately sited power plants on line.
“Enhancing our Green Jobs/Green NY program by allowing for on bill recovery for energy conservation retrofits will begin to bring those services within the financial reach of millions of New Yorkers. In the same legislation, we directed NYSERDA to conduct feasibility studies to ramp up solar photovoltaic power in New York State to 2,500 MW by 2020 and up to 5,000 by 2025. These measures are in addition to other energy conservation and renewable energy incentives we’ve created over the last few years. With energy planning now a permanent process in New York, we can get the big picture and weigh all realistic options.
“New York’s energy future cannot be premised on alarmist approaches, muddled with misinformation. We must look at the real evidence, reach reasonable conclusions, and give consumers and industry the tools they need to make our future bright, clean and safe.”