Renewables and Nuclear Can No Longer Afford To Be Foes

11/21/2016 12:16 pm ET Updated Nov 22, 2017

The recent US election deeply concerns many of us who care about the urgent issue of climate change. The incoming Administration may try to repeal new laws to control climate pollution from power plants, but it can't repeal the laws of nature and physics. Those point towards severe stress on people and the planet from the ever-increasing flow of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from burning coal, gas and oil.

The good news is states can act even if the federal government doesn't, and they can make some big moves. New York did just that this past August. With support from Governor Cuomo, the state's Public Service Commission required the state's utilities to obtain 50% of their electricity from zero-carbon energy by 2030. In doing so, New York joins California as having the most ambitious low carbon electricity goals in the nation and the world.

The Commission also ensured that, during the transition to 2030, New York does not go backward on carbon dioxide emissions and add further warming to the atmosphere. To build that firewall, the Commission created a mechanism to ensure that New York's four upstate nuclear energy plants operate during this period rather than be shut down and replaced by cheap and polluting fossil-fueled power. (The downstate Indian Point plants were not included because they were deemed competitive in that part of the state).

Some environmental groups have challenged the decision to ensure continued nuclear operations during the transition. In most cases, their arguments come from the 1970s and fail to appreciate the amazing strides in nuclear operations and waste management. Today, nuclear energy provides nearly a third of New York's power, and 56% of its carbon-free power; most of the other climate-friendly power comes from hydroelectric dams. The four upstate nuclear plants alone provide a third of the total carbon free nuclear power in the state. Given that the wind and solar sectors are still nascent at this point, nuclear represents ten times as much as the state's wind energy and thirty times its solar energy.

Shutting down the state's carbon free nuclear energy early would likely lead to much more natural gas consumption -- an odd choice for a state that has banned fracking. A decision to shut down nuclear energy would also raise New York utility carbon dioxide emissions by about 15%. This will create an even deeper carbon hole that we'll need to dig out of while wind and solar energy take their time to scale up. Saving the nuclear power plants, while scaling up wind and solar, could lead to much deeper cuts in emissions. Shutting down the plants could easily mean the loss of a decade or two of climate progress, just when the planet needs it most.

The Commission's support of the upstate nuclear plants extends to only 2030. But the decision raises an even larger question: in states across the country, could we make faster progress on emissions reductions if renewable energy advocates and the nuclear energy industry work together? We believe they not only can, they must.

First, there just isn't much time to prevent climate change. The best science says we need to be at a zero-carbon power grid by 2050 or soon after. Wind and solar are growing at extraordinary growth rates, but no credible model shows they can make it to 100% alone. For example, to replace New York's nuclear units and fossil energy plants with onshore and off shore wind power would require that New York site more than 30 of the world's largest wind farms. That might be possible, but since New York State has a few onshore wind farms, and only one small offshore wind farm in the planning stages, we are talking many, many decades.

Second, even if we could build it all that fast, wind and solar today won't completely replace steady grid power from nuclear. The wind doesn't always blow and the sun doesn't always shine. Batteries and demand response will certainly help the grid operate more efficiently, but the rules aren't yet in place to fully compensate these technologies and we will likely still need on-demand power to balance the grid on the days and weeks when there is little sun or wind to store.

These are just a couple of reasons why nuclear and renewables need to join together in the climate fight, not compete. That's been the conclusion of nearly every study of this subject -- from the UN's panel on climate change, to the best work of our national laboratories. The case for nuclear energy is strengthened by an emerging generation of nuclear plants that are likely to be much less expensive and safe, with lower waste.

Managing climate change is going to be a generational battle. We need all of the ammunition we have, and then some. New York's recent decision wisely recognizes that extending the life of existing nuclear power plants is part of the solution. With the national climate change agenda now more uncertain than ever, it's time to collectively get behind a pragmatic path forward.