As the Trump administration pushed forward its plan to support certain types of energy generation for grid resilience, the president’s “beautiful, clean coal” took a front seat in news coverage, while nuclear largely stayed in the shadows.
With a 44-page document released this week, four Pennsylvania state legislators hope to change that. The state’s Nuclear Energy Caucus, created in 2017, outlined an “epidemic of premature plant shutdowns” in the state that they hope to stop.
The group pointed to “market flaws” that put nuclear plants at risk of premature retirement. The lawmakers also said grid operator PJM and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission hadn’t done enough to fix those issues. Operators have announced early closure for two Pennsylvania plants: Three Mile Island (the site of a high-profile nuclear disaster) and the Beaver Valley Nuclear Station.
“We are losing confidence in the ability of the wholesale electrical markets to ensure Pennsylvania maintains a diverse supply of baseload generation resources that ensures stable prices for our citizens and a reliable and resilient electrical grid,” the lawmakers wrote.
According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, only five states rely on nuclear power more than Pennsylvania. The Nuclear Energy Caucus report notes that nuclear makes up 42 percent of the state’s total electricity and 93 percent of its zero-carbon electricity. Lawmakers said keeping nuclear plants open is essential to the state’s environmental goals as well as its grid resilience.
Shuttering plants, they said, would also threaten the nearly 16,000 jobs tied to the nuclear industry (according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, Pennsylvania has over 4,900 workers actually employed at nuclear facilities) and the $2 billion per year that it adds to the state’s GDP.
Through its research, the group of lawmakers “sought to understand the underlying causes for their premature retirements, and to determine if these announced closures were an anomaly or if they are a symptom of a larger problem for Pennsylvania’s nuclear industry.”
The issues at work in Pennsylvania are, in fact, indicative of greater struggles for the U.S. nuclear industry. According to the Energy Information Administration, nine plants totaling 11 gigawatts are slated to retire by 2025. The agency expects generating capacity to drop from 99 gigawatts in 2017 to 79 gigawatts by mid-century.
Several attempts have been made to confront these closures. But there’s a wide range of opinions about the environmental benefits and resilience attributes of nuclear power. Plus, the nation’s most recent attempts to build large-scale nuclear have been wildly over-budget. The nuclear debate heated up last year when the federal administration floated a plan to offer additional support to plants that can maintain 90 days of fuel on-site.
The Pennsylvania lawmakers note that nuclear plant operators feel “shortchanged by a marketplace and federal and state policies that do not compensate these plants for the environmental and grid-resilience benefits they provide.”
But federal initiatives to support nuclear and coal have stalled. Though FERC has a docket open to study resilience, there’s been little action since it was announced in January.
And the pushback continues.
Grid operator PJM — which the Pennsylvania lawmakers criticized — has opposed the Trump administration’s plants to support certain fuel types.
In October, PJM president and CEO Andrew Ott told Utility Dive that supporting specific resources is "a very inefficient answer." But Ott also said PJM needs “leadership” from FERC, and he asked the agency to move forward with its proceeding.
A recently released report from PJM found that coal and nuclear retirements planned for the next five years won’t impact grid reliability.
In a statement to Greentech Media about the report out of Pennsylvania, PJM said is "actively refining proposals on market rule changes with our regulators and stakeholders that would address concerns expressed in the report."
The grid operator said those proposals would incorporate state policies and value certain generator characteristics that increase grid reliability, while "maintaining the integrity of the market."
"As the industry and PJM’s system evolves, we continue to believe that our competitive markets provide the most efficient and effective mechanism to ensure ongoing reliability at the lowest cost for Pennsylvanians," PJM said. "The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has determined that subsidies distort the wholesale electricity markets, and will have the effect of driving competitive generators out of the market and raising costs."
South Carolina is still cleaning up the mess left in the wake of the failed VC Summer nuclear project, canceled last year. This week Scana agreed to a $2 billion settlement to pay out customers of its utility, South Carolina Electric & Gas. The agreement, which still needs judicial approval, is one piece of Dominion and Scana’s complicated merger announced in January.
But in other states, nuclear is receiving support. In Georgia, a nuclear group has poured over $1 million into a Public Service Commission election to maintain support for the now-under-construction Vogtle project. Last week, New Jersey approved its Zero Emission Credit program and application process for nuclear plants. Illinois and New York have adopted similar policies.
Pennsylvania Nuclear Energy Caucus want to see the same credits offered to nuclear in that state. They also proposed establishing a carbon pricing program and working toward a more coordinated approach to state energy policy. Doing nothing, the group cautioned, will mean serious consequences.
“The loss of both Beaver Valley and [Three Mile Island], coupled with continuing and unmitigated financial pressures being applied by a dysfunctional wholesale electric market, is something that members of the caucus fear could be a devastating and permanent blow to Pennsylvania’s economy and environment,” they write.