One of the desirable features of a nuclear power plant, particularly in an age when we are told that climate change is the greatest risk that faces humankind, is that once constructed, the marginal electricity generated by the plant emits zero emissions of noxious gases and of course the global warming causing carbon dioxide. So, how do states like New York respond to the greatest threat that is facing humanity?
Cuomo and New York State shut down already built zero-carbon clean energy.
The closure of Indian Point will reduce the number of nuclear plants in New York State down to 4. The Indian Point Plant is rated at 1.04GW. With about an 80% capacity factor in recent years, the annual carbon-free, emissions free electricity coming from the plant is approximately 1.04GW x 0.8 x 8,760 ~ 7,288GW-hours or 7.3 terawatt-hours of electricity. Various websites show that the power produced at the plant is twice as large, so to make things simple, let’s say it is an even 10 terawatt-hours of clean electricity being taken offline.
The plant will be converted to natural gas, and let’s assume that it will replace kw-hr for kw-hr the nuclear electricity that is being taken off line. Assume that the only combustion by-product of this natural gas would be carbon dioxide. This replacement is particularly cheeky given the state’s total ban on the fracking of natural gas, but leave that to the side, your head might melt-down otherwise. A decent question to ask is how much additional CO2 will be emitted because the nuclear power has been taken offline?
Before answering, please don’t be thinking, “well, but it will be replaced by 100% perfectly clean and environmentally harmless solar and wind somewhere else.” That is hooey. Why? Because we are taking this clean energy off-line and energy demand isn’t going anywhere but up. The rejoinder to that point is, “it would be better of that perfectly clean and impactless solar and wind were dispatched in addition to the actual clean and reliable nuclear that is being taken off line.
So anyway, how much carbon dioxide? It turns out that natural gas combustion releases 0.91 pounds of CO2 per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated. That is 910 pounds of CO2 per MW-hr or 910,000 pounds per GW-hr or 910,000,000 pounds per TW-hr. So, by replacing all of Indian Point’s nuclear production with natural gas electricity production, we are adding, annually, 9.1 billion pounds of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. In the typical language of tons, that is 4.55 million tons of CO2 emitted that otherwise would not be emitted.
Is this a lot? Depends on how you look at it? It is estimated that total annual global fossil fuel combustion emits 40 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere each year. It is estimated that the atmospheric concentrations of CO2 will increase by 1 ppm for every 2.13 Gt of CO2 emitted. So we are talking globally about around one-hundreth of a percent of the annual CO2 emissions. Doesn’t sound like much, does it?
Well, how much damage is this extra CO2 likely to do? Let’s ask New York State itself. New York is using a climate damage value of $125 per ton of CO2 emitted in its guidance for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. That value is over twice the value that the IPCC estimates and is at the high end of many ranges. We don’t need to debate it, just accept it. Note that using such a high value will end up widening the umbrella beneath which alternative “clean” energy programs “make sense” from an overall environmental-economic perspective. So, according to New York State, the extra damage that will be caused to the planet from the extra warming caused by the closing of the Indian Point plant will be approximately $569 million per year.
Remember, this is only the CO2 damage. Burning natural gas is going to emit methane from the portion that is not combusted, as well as nitrous oxide, both of whose global warming potentials dwarf that of CO2.
Where is the front page New York Times story taking the microscope to this? “Governor Cuomo to inflict over a Half-Billion of Climate Damages to New York State Every Year!” Who shall pay for those damages?
Defenders of the closing of Indian Point might tell you that New York has an excess of electricity, or that the power supplied by Indian Point will be made-up for by clean renewable energy. But of course that is nonsense. In order to make our state more climate resilient, in order to lift the lower and middle classes into the ranks of the upper classes, we need an abundance of actually clean energy, and we need cheap energy. An existing nuclear plant is cheap energy. And even if it were not, taking it offline can only reduce the long-term supply of energy. Abundant and cheap electricity is needed to clean our water, run our flood pumps, power our servers, grow our marijuana, power our devices, power our electric cars, desalinate our seawater, and potentially to sequester carbon right from the atmosphere. Not putting cheap and abundant electricity front and center is at the heart of energy and climate injustice. Just by calling your plan “green” and using the word “justice” makes it neither.