The Game Changer: New York's Clean Energy Standard and Nuclear Energy

08/31/2016 04:46 pm ET Updated Sep 01, 2017

For years, I've said that when it comes to the challenge of fighting climate change, we will need every tool available to reduce carbon pollution and create opportunities for new clean energy technology.

Yet, despite a world that demands more carbon-free energy -- not less -- public policies have left some of the tools in the toolbox. Until now.

Last month, with the help of Governor Andrew Cuomo's leadership, the New York State PSC took unprecedented action in passing a Clean Energy Standard that, in addition to ensuring ample opportunity for more wind, solar, and energy efficiency, recognizes the important role of existing carbon-free nuclear power. This is a game-changer: never before has nuclear received economic credit for its environmental benefits.

New York State is now the first government to include nuclear in its clean energy policy, providing a mechanism that will help keep New York's nuclear energy plants open. In the wake of an energy market that did not previously adequately value this power, the state faced the very real prospect of having these plants shut down.

The consequences of these shutdowns would have been dire, as New York's existing nuclear power plants provide the majority of its carbon-free power. In fact, New York's nuclear plants provide 61 percent of the state's emission-free electricity and avoid 26 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually, equating to a societal value of almost $1.2 billion annually based on federal estimates.

Not only does New York recognize that meeting its own carbon reduction targets would be impossible without nuclear, achieving the carbon pollution reductions set forth in the federal Clean Power Plan would become virtually impossible in the near term. Any premature nuclear plant shutdown would represent a setback in the state reaching its clean energy goals.

The same goes for states across the country, where nuclear is the source of the bulk of our carbon-free power today. For example, in the case of the closure of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in late 2014, the plant's output was replaced by natural gas-fired generators, which produced an additional 3.1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in New England in 2015.

And, a recent report issued by Bloomberg New Energy Finance found that if currently unprofitable nuclear energy plants were to shut down and were replaced with gas-fired generators, there would be an increase of 200 million tons of carbon pollution from power plants every year.

Across the country, a number of other states face the prospects of premature nuclear plant shutdowns, threatening our position as a clean energy leader. The timing couldn't be worse. The ten hottest years on record have all occurred since 1998. More carbon pollution will only exacerbate the problem.

Now more than ever, states should look to New York as a model as to how they can fairly value all forms of clean energy for their carbon free attributes.

Last month's news represents a meaningful step in the fight against climate change that will impact our energy policy outlook for decades to come. This is a worthwhile cause that Governor Cuomo should be acknowledged for undertaking, not only for the sake of cleaner air, but for establishing a common sense and fair policy of recognition for nuclear that ensures that nuclear power remains a vital component of our clean energy strategy for years to come.