11:00am

Fri October 7, 2011
Energy

Indian Point closure causes power dilemma for New York

Last month, Governor Andrew Cuomo told reporters that he thinks the power produced by downstate's Indian Point nuclear plant could be replaced, if the plant were to be taken offline.

What Cuomo thinks is important, because he's led the charge to shutter Indian Point, when its reactor licenses expire in 2013 and 2015, for safety reasons.  Six percent of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of Indian Point - the same evacuation zone threshold that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission recommended for the Fukushima Daiichi plant following the Japanese earthquake earlier this year.

Not surprisingly, momentum to close Indian Point has increased since March.

But the state now has to figure out how to replace it.

The future

The way Ashok Gupta, an economist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, sees it, "[there] are choices we need to make." The loss of Indian Point tomorrow wouldn't shut the lights off, but in the long term, downstate needs more power. 

Gupta reels off a long list of options to, some of which would also require expensive new transmission lines to bring power long distances from upstate, or Canada.

"About half the electricity, 1,000 MW, could be brought down from Quebec ... It could be upstate wind ... It could be offshore wind, off the coast [that could] bring that power into the city. It could be a natural gas repowering in the city, taking existing natural gas plants, and doubling their efficiency and getting more electricity that way," he says.

Efficiency efforts have already produced a decrease in demand on the grid and could be accelerated. Solar power could also play in, but Gupta says the real answer require a delicate balancing act, to weigh costs, emissions, and other factors. In the end, he says, the state will probably end up creating a combo platter of items from his list. 

The good news according to Gupta is that New York has time to craft a smart plan. Indian Point needs to be replaced, but he says some New York City may be able to get along for a couple of years without it - perhaps even to 2020, according to some studies. 

But the clock is running, according to the New York Independent System Operator (NYISO), the nonprofit that oversees the state's power grid.  

In a statement, communications officer Kenneth Klapp says that "NYISO found that - without Indian Point, and without the development of adequate replacement generation - there would not be sufficient resources from 2016 through 2020."

The past

New York doesn't generate power like the typical state.  According to the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority's annual power report [PDF], New York uses a lot less coal than the rest of the country, at only eight percent of power generation. Nuclear makes up 27 percent, natural gas comes in at 26 percent, and hydropower comprises 18 percent. As a state, New York uses natural gas a lot more that the country as a whole for power generation - in fact, New York's consumption of natural gas makes up five percent of the national total.

Because New York, and the rest of the northeast don't have a lot of fuel resources, most of the coal and gas used here is imported. Hydropower makes up 56 percent of what NYSERDA calls "primary energy production" in New York State.

Gupta says that array has resulted from government policy decisions, like banning coal plants and their health-threatening emissions from the New York City area, before the federal government had even passed the Clean Air Act in 1970.  Those plants, he says, were largely replaced by natural gas plants.

The choice

Now the state is faced with shaping the next generation of power that flows into the grid. 

Most options on the table come with tradeoffs. Solar's still expensive. Natural gas comes with the baggage associated with hydrofracking. And windpower, even at only one percent of the power produced in the state in 2009, has opponents as well.

As Gupta points out: "Have we built 1,000 mw of anything else in the last five years? ... The only thing that's been built in New York for the last 20 years for electricity has been natural gas and wind. And that trend will most likely continue for the next 20 years."

Today, a coalition of environmental organizations called for Indian Point to be replaced with green power. Carol Murphy of Alliance for Clean Energy New York said in a released statement that "closing Indian Point becomes an opportunity to advance the development of clean, renewable energy in New York State."