A coalition of scientists, clean energy advocates, business leaders and Ohio political leaders is asking Amazon to expand its renewable energy procurement policy to include nuclear power, in the hopes of saving two plants in Ohio that might go out of business.
Amazon is a major employer and energy customer in the Ohio, where Republican Governor John Kasich has defended the embattled renewable portfolio standard as a good way to attract business and jobs. The pro-nuclear environmentalists hope to direct some of that good will toward nuclear energy.
The letter, penned to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos last week, marks a strategic shift in the effort to preserve nuclear generators as zero-carbon fuel sources in the midst of market turbulence. Nuclear plants that have closed in recent years were replaced largely by fossil fuel generation, complicating efforts to reduce the grid's climate impact.
In the past year, campaigns failed to preserve Diablo Canyon in California and Indian Point in New York, both of which succumbed to lobbying from anti-nuclear environmental groups and others who sought their closure.
Compromise plans did save plants in Illinois and upstate New York, though, by providing funds to economically battered plants in order to maintain their clean output as part of the long-term energy mix.
By reaching out directly to major corporate energy customers, nuclear advocates may be able to win support for those plants more quickly than intricate legislative or regulatory dealmaking allows.
Follow the money
Amazon -- along with fellow tech giants Google, Microsoft and Apple -- has committed to sourcing clean energy. Its purchasing power for data centers and supply chain facilities makes it a powerful voice in energy-planning conversations in the states where it operates.
So far, that power has directed the deployment of wind and solar generation.
Amazon Web Services has committed to 100 percent renewable power in order to reduce its climate impacts. It recently surpassed the milestone of 40 percent renewable power and is speeding toward 50 percent in 2017.
The company built 10 renewable power plants to serve this goal, including two wind farms in Ohio -- 100 megawatts in Paulding County and 189 megawatts in Hardin County. The company says it produces enough electricity annually from its fleet of plants to power the equivalent of Portland, Oregon.
The letter, whose signatories include climate scientist James Hansen, environmentalist Stewart Brand of Whole Earth Catalog fame, Harvard professor Steven Pinker, and several local leaders from Ohio, asks Bezos to consider whether he values the deployment of renewables specifically, or if the ultimate objective is to spread clean energy, which could include nuclear.
By choosing the latter, they argue, Amazon’s support could preserve the Davis-Besse and Perry nuclear plants, which could close under economic pressure from cheap natural gas and RPS-backed wind and solar (The possible bankruptcy of owner FirstEnergy also complicates the situation.)
Ohio gets 60 percent of its electricity from coal and 24 percent from natural gas. Nuclear provides 14 percent, and renewables, including hydro, only produce 2.2 percent.
If the nuke plants close, new natural gas would most likely fill in the gap, rather than replacing more carbon-intense coal generation. The resulting energy mix would be one of the most fossil-fuel-heavy in the nation, contributing to negative health outcomes in addition to economic losses for the communities that host the plants.
“If Amazon were to include nuclear in its definition of renewables, then Governor Kasich and Ohio legislators would have a very strong incentive to end the discrimination against nuclear and keep Davis-Besse and Perry running for many years to come,” the letter says.
That’s not to say that the potential closure of the two plants would be Amazon’s fault. The argument is that Amazon has sufficient purchasing power to influence the situation in a way that could preserve the plants and better serve the company’s interest in building a lower carbon future.
Convincing the right people
The letter seeks acceptance for nuclear energy in a policy apparatus that it explicitly critiques.
The federal subsidies and state and corporate procurement requirements that privilege wind and solar make it harder for nuclear to remain in the mix long-term, the authors argue. Given the record of nuclear closures producing a spike in natural gas consumption to make up the difference, this is a flawed way to pursue a low-carbon grid, according to the letter's authors.
“If Davis-Besse and Perry received a fraction of the subsidies that wind and solar receive, or were included in Amazon and Ohio’s definition of renewables, they would continue to operate for many years into the future,” the letter says.
In many places, calling out the gatekeepers of renewable incentive programs as part of the problem might not generate the kind of goodwill needed to build a coalition and bring nuclear into the fold. In this case, however, that might not be a problem.
For one thing, the Republican-controlled legislature, which has the power to adjust the RPS, has tried instead to weaken and eliminate it entirely (Kasich has prevented such efforts from becoming law thus far). Those politicians might actually like the RPS better if it included support for nuclear plants and the local economic benefits they confer, rather than just helping renewables.
Second, by appealing directly to Amazon, the authors initiate a bilateral conversation about how the company chooses to spend its money. That simplifies the kind of arguments and exchanges needed for a complex legislative compromise.
What Amazon has to say about this is not yet clear -- the company did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.
The company could announce it will accept nuclear power in its definition of clean energy, giving state leaders a reason to keep the plants. It’s possible the company could even contract directly with the plants to procure a certain amount of power, becoming a reliable long-term offtaker even in the absence of state policy change.
An embrace of nuclear power could raise some resistance from environmental groups. At a corporation as large as Amazon, such a decision no doubt requires ample vetting and analysis.
It’s worth noting that Bezos himself has invested in a nuclear fusion venture, indicating a personal willingness to see nuclear power in the long-term energy mix.
Corporate procurement for nuclear?
If the company does go down the path suggested in the letter, it would expand the scope of corporate clean energy procurements.
Corporate renewables procurements grew from 100 megawatts in 2012 to 3.2 gigawatts in 2015, generating a fifth of the renewable capacity added in the U.S. that year, Julia Pyper reported in a comprehensive update on the sector.
An Advanced Energy Economy report found that 71 of the Fortune 100 companies currently have renewable energy or sustainability targets, as do 215 of Fortune 500 companies.
In some cases, these customers work with utilities to create new kinds of retail products that fit their needs and then become available to other customers as well. Corporate interest contributed to a doubling of the green tariff options offered by utilities around the country in the last year.
Thus far, the public discourse around corporate clean energy procurement has focused exclusively on renewables. The powers of Silicon Valley, for instance, did not enter the fray to save California’s last nuclear power plant last year.
This could change, through the efforts of energy wonks within the companies, or pressure from outside groups. Activist Michael Shellenberger of Environmental Progress, who helped coordinate the letter to Amazon, reflected on how he saw corporate procurement evolve in an earlier stage of his career, when he campaigned for Nike to improve labor conditions in the factories it sourced from.
“These big companies have huge, sometimes much bigger, influence on supply chain decisions than governments do,” he said.