NYC is about to lose most of its clean power; and city residents and elected officials hardly seem to know it


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NYC is about to lose most of its clean power; and city residents and elected officials hardly seem to know it

Mike Shatzkin
By Mike Shatzkin and 02/19/20

Two nuclear reactors at Indian Point, about an hour north of New York City, provide about 25% of the city’s electricity and about 80% of downstate New York’s “clean” (i.e. carbon-free) energy.

At the end of this coming April, one of those two reactors will shut down. A year later, the other one will. They will cease to provide power and will be replaced by three gas-burning plants which will emit 7 million tons a year of CO2, the greenhouse gas most responsible for the global warming disaster toward which we are all headed. That’s about a 25% increase in New York State’s CO2 emissions.

There is no immediate danger, emergency, or change of circumstance mandating this decision.

There was no participation by the city government in the decision to close the plants.

There is almost no awareness among residents of the city that the electric grid on which we all depend is about to be weakened, that the air we all breathe is about to become dirtier, and that we will be contributing much more substantially to global warming.

The parties to the agreement by which Indian Point is going to be closed are the State of New York, with decisions almost entirely in the hands of Governor Andrew Cuomo; Entergy, the owner and operator of the Indian Point plant, which is finding profits hard to come by since very cheap natural gas has changed the electricity market; and Riverkeeper, a local environmental advocacy group that has been fighting to shut Indian Point since long before most of us were aware of global warming and the threat posed by CO2.

Indian Point was singled out. New York’s upstate nuclear plants were given ZECS, zero-emission tax credits, for the clean energy they produce. That makes those plants profitable. If Indian Point had ZECS, it would be profitable too and Entergy wouldn’t be trying to get out of owning, running, and being responsible for it. But Governor Cuomo apparently sees political advantage in supporting the upstate plants and abandoning Indian Point.

It is time for the citizens and the government of the city of New York to wake up, learn the facts, and change that political calculus before the Governor runs for reelection in 2022. Indeed, city officials will start having to answer for their unawareness and lack of involvement in municipal elections in 2021, because by that time the negative impacts of Indian Point’s closure will start to become manifest.

There are two principal fictions, or erroneous beliefs, that have driven the acceptance, such as it is, of this decision that is clearly contrary to the public interest.

One is the notion, frequently promulgated and promoted by Governor Cuomo and his allies, that the Indian Point power can and will be replaced with renewable energy. More people know about the proposed massive offshore wind farm that has not yet begun construction than know it has actually been promised as replacement power for Indian Point.

Two problems with that. One is that those windmills are a long way from being sited, let alone built. And the other is that wind power is intermittent; nuclear power is “baseload”. So windmills can’t replace nuclear unless they are augmented by massive battery storage (not even in the plans) or by fossil fuel burning when the wind isn’t blowing.

And the second big fiction is that some sort of accident or terrorist event could result in a radiation threat from Indian Point that would require the evacuation of millions of people from an area of 50 miles around the plant. This is simply not true.

In fact, the best estimates are that sheltering in place (inside your house) within a mile or two of the plant will be necessary for 24 hours or so after a radiation escape. Beyond a couple of miles from the plant, radiation exposure will be minimal. The entire evacuation hysteria is a fictional-case scenario meant to frighten people away from nuclear power. Indeed, it is this purported need to plan for a frightening evacuation that justifies the closure of Indian Point while the upstate plants remain open.

As bad as this all is, it is worse than it seems. The three gas plants that will now be enlisted to (not quite) replace Indian Point’s power were originally ticketed to replace older more-polluting plants in the city. So those polluters will not be taken off line and the emissions from the new plant will be additions to our pollution, not reducing it as originally intended.

What can be done to change this plan? The agreement among the State, Entergy, and Riverkeeper allows for a 4-year extension of the plants’ lives based on an undefined “emergency”. It is up to the city, and the representatives of the city’s residents, to start making the case for that emergency to the governor to buy time for more prudent consideration. And that time would also allow for some of those windmills to actually be built!

In fact, apparently unrelated to this closure agreement, the NY City Council did pass a resolution in May 2019 declaring that we have a “climate emergency” and calling for urgent action to assure a safe climate. Perhaps just a reiteration of that declaration will persuade the Governor that circumstances have changed and the window he fortunately built into the agreement should be invoked.

But we are still flying blind.

We need a responsible New York City Council member or state legislator to immediately convene hearings on the impact of Indian Point’s closure on the city, its residents, and all of us in the metropolitan area. The dirtier air, accelerated global warming, and weakened New York electrical grid we are about to have are the responsibility of our elected leaders. It is time for them to make themselves aware of what their inattention is leading us to.