Natural Gas — Not Renewables — Is Replacing Nuclear Power

  • Date: 16/05/16
  • James Conca, Forbes

Across some parts of the country, nuclear power plants have been closing amid political pressure and warped financial markets, even though they contribute the overwhelming majority of their region’s clean power, and are the economic strength of their local economies.

As an example, the sad and unnecessary closing of the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station at the end of 2014 led to an increase in fossil fuel use, specifically natural gas, that completely filled the gap (see figure). The potential closing of a few more nuclear plants in the region will increase gas use even more.

As all energy experts know, renewables will never replace any of nuclear’s clean power lost by the closing of nuclear plants. Renewables are having enough trouble replacing significant amounts of coal or keeping pace with demand, and require taxpayer subsidies to get built. So natural gas is the obvious choice for new electricity generation in all regions of the country.

Unfortunately, the unnecessary loss of clean nuclear power in New England was replaced completely by natural gas, and not renewables as was hyped by anti-nuclear activists. In fact, the slight increase in renewables was completely offset by losses in hydro. Premature closing of more nuclear plants will make the situation even worse. Source: ISO New England

This trend is unlikely to change. Electricity demand in New England is growing 1% annually. Total generating capacity for the region is 31 GW, but over 4 GW is retiring in the next few years, and another 6 GW is at risk of retirement by the early 2020s.

As a result, 13 GW of new natural gas is proposed to cover all expected increases in electricity demand for the next decade.

America is at a 27-year low in its carbon emissions almost solely because natural gas has been replacing coal. Gains in efficiency and conservation have also helped. But the loss of several nuclear power plants has effectively wiped out the recent progress of renewables on addressing carbon reductions by increasing gas emissions. New York is struggling with this conundrum as it attempts to force the shutdown of some nuclear plants even as it desperately tries to keep others open.

The argument that nuclear is too expensive, and that closing nuclear plants would save money, is absurd. Operating an existing nuclear plant is much more cost-effective than even existing coal and gas plants, and much cheaper than installing any new power plant, even natural gas.

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