As Indian Point Goes Dark, New York Races to Swap Nuclear With Wind
A view of Indian Point in April 2021, shortly before the last of two reactors shut down permanently. (Photographer: Ryan Cavataro/Bloomberg News/Bloomberg)

As Indian Point Goes Dark, New York Races to Swap Nuclear With Wind

One of the pair of active nuclear reactors within blast radius of Manhattan made a federal safety watch-list back in 1993. That’s when regulators cited Unit 3 at the Indian Point Energy Center for leaky coolant pipes and faltering engineering support. Shortly thereafter a control-room operator tested positive for marijuana and cocaine. But none of that helped activists’ long quest to turn off the nuclear plant.

Up until Friday, when Indian Point’s final reactor will be shut down, dogged opposition from environmentalists and safety advocates failed for decades to shut it down permanently. The two reactors produced about 2.1 gigawatts of power for nearly 45 years—enough to meet a quarter of demand from New York City, without emitting greenhouse gas. 

As Indian Point Goes Dark, New York Races to Swap Nuclear With Wind

This should be a milestone for activists who spent more than a generation trying to remove the nuclear shadow over the biggest U.S. metropolis. It has instead brought into focus a different anxiety: global warming. In the intervening years concern over greenhouse gas has become paramount, and the deactivation of Indian Point comes with a certain—if temporary—increase in planet-warming pollution. 

“You really have to understand that the plant isn't safe, and that it needs to close,” said Paul Gallay of Riverkeeper, the Hudson River environmental group that fought Indian Point. “Which is why, turning to the question of renewable energy and efficiency, the state and the rest of the people involved in New York's energy world got busy.”

The decision to shut Indian Point came in 2017, after an agreement between the state and its owner, Entergy Corp. A reliability study conducted by the power-grid operator at the time determined Times Square would still glow and the subway would still run once the two reactors went offline. There was one catch: most of the replacement power would come from cheap natural gas, which has been upending the economics of nuclear plants across the country. The loss of Indian Point would be a step backwards for a state moving aggressively toward carbon-free electricity by 2040.

Recently added natural gas capacity will fill the short-term gap. Most of it comes from the Cricket Valley Energy Center, a 1.1 gigawatt combined cycle gas plant situated in a forest near the Connecticut border that’s capable of powering one million homes.  Another 680 megawatts comes from the CPV Valley Energy Center. Upgrades to a third facility, in nearby Bayonne, N.J., put another 132 megawatts within reach.

Generators at all three plants had started spinning by the time Indian Point Unit 2 closed exactly a year ago. Even after that shift, nuclear power still supplied about 29% of statewide electricity in 2020, down four percentage points over 2019, when both reactors were in service. Fossil fuels increased by four points to reach 43% of New York’s electricity last year. Renewables supplied 27% of New York's power in 2020, almost unchanged from the prior year. (The state’s last coal plant closed in March 2020.)

As Indian Point Goes Dark, New York Races to Swap Nuclear With Wind

Now there will be another post-Indian Point bump in natural gas demand. “New York did see an uptick in gas generation in 2020” after the first reactor shut down, said Jessica Azulay, executive director of the Alliance for a Green Economy. Overall, though, the state’s trajectory is still moving towards lower emissions from electricity. “My calculations show about a 10% decline in fossil fuel generation in New York from 2016 to 2020,” a period that includes the decision to close Indian Point. 

The increase in gas consumption is unlikely to last long. By law it can’t, said Doreen Harris, chief executive officer of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation in 2019 requiring the state to get 70% of electricity from renewable sources by the end of this decade and eliminate carbon emissions from the power grid by 2040. 

Much of that electricity will come from offshore wind farms. New York has set a goal to develop offshore turbines with 9 gigawatts of capacity by 2035. That fits into President Joe Biden’s goal of installing 30 gigawatts off the nation’s coastlines. 

It won't happen overnight. New York has five offshore projects under development south and east of Long Island with about 4.3 gigawatts of total capacity, and the first one is expected to go into service in 2023. “What the state of New York has under contract now for offshore wind will replace the power from Indian Point,” said Anne Reynolds, executive director of the Alliance for Clean Energy New York. 

Almost 100 renewable energy projects are under development with about 11 gigawatts of capacity, enough to power 5 million homes. Thirty of those projects are expected to go into service this year. New York is also building hundreds of miles of transmission lines to deliver more clean power to the New York City region, where 60% of the state’s power is consumed.

The Alliance for a Green Economy projects that these new clean-energy projects might speed up by at least a year—to as soon as 2023—the date when renewables and efficiency gains offset the loss of Indian Point’s second reactor. 

Energy conservation will also play a role in filling the power gap from Indian Point’s closure, including gains from modern appliances and state-required energy efficiency plans at utilities. Power use is expected to stay flat until later this decade, when increased demand from wider use of plug-in vehicles and electric heating start to kick in.

“Energy efficiency is really having an impact in New York,” Reynolds said. “Our electricity demand in New York is essentially flat, even though more and more people are using electricity for everything in their life.” 

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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