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Energy Secretary Perry's Electric Resiliency Rule Could Be a Big Win for Nuclear and the Climate. Here's Why

Michael Shellenberger's picture

Michael Shellenberger is an award-winning author and environmental policy expert. For a quarter-century he has advocated solutions to lift all people out of poverty while lessening...

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  • Oct 3, 2017
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Recently, Energy Secretary Rick Perry proposed that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issue a rule requiring payments to nuclear and coal power plants to maintain a resilient electrical grid.

The Trump administration can’t say it, but Environmental Progress can: the rule could be a huge win for the climate.

The reason is because while the rule would keep nuclear plants producing power, it wouldn’t necessarily do the same for coal plants. If implemented properly, the rule could result in a system of “cold standby” for coal plants — ready to run in case of an emergency, but otherwise not producing power (or pollution).

Nuclear plants are cheaper to operate than coal plants. As such, under this rule, nuclear plants would likely be favored ahead of both coal and natural gas plants.

Another reason the rule would likely benefit nuclear over coal is because it would require nuclear and coal plants to keep three months or more of fuel on-site.

Nuclear fuel is over one million times more “energy dense” than coal, and so it’s easy for nuclear plants to keep several years worth of fuel on-site. By contrast, most coal plants keep just one month’s worth of coal on site, because of the high cost of storing so much energy-dilute fuel.

Of course, there are still big questions about how all of this will work in practice. If the rule turns out to benefit coal plants more than nuclear plants, or result in an increase in emissions, Environmental Progress would strongly oppose it.

Since its founding in January 2017, Environmental Progress has led the effort to save nuclear plants around the world. Our biggest victories to date were saving nuclear plants in Illinois and New York, and is now fighting to save nuclear plants in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, California, South Korea, Germany and other states and nations.

The news comes the same day that Secretary Perry announced conditional commitments for $3.7 billion in federal loan guarantees to continue construction of a new nuclear plant in Georgia.

All of this good news for nuclear is provoking the usual misinformation from anti-nuclear groups including the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense Fund.

Those groups have attacked the proposed rule, tried to block new nuclear plants in Georgia and South Carolina, and are all on the record supporting the replacement of zero-emissions nuclear plants with natural gas in Ohio, California and New York.

In the 1970s and 1980s, anti-nuclear groups forced the cancellation of 150 percent more nuclear plants than were ever built, which led to the building, and continued operation, of coal and natural gas plants.

Long-term, policymakers must fix America’s badly broken electricity markets. Electricity is a valuable service, not a commodity.

The vast majority of Americans don’t just want electricity, we also want cleaner air from energy sources that don’t require the removal of whole mountains, the destruction of desert wilderness, and the killing of bald eagles, condors and desert tortoises.

With strong environmental advocacy — not greenwashing for fossil fuels by anti-nuclear ideologues — we can fix America’s electricity system. FERC, along with grid operators, can create a rule that compensates reliable nuclear plants without increasing generation from coal plants.

Michael Shellenberger's picture
Thank Michael for the Post!
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Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Oct 5, 2017

Thanks Michael. We are often told that getting nuclear out of the way will somehow make way for more renewables. But in fact, even NREL (the DOE’s renewable advocacy organization) in the RE Futures study, found that nuclear power will provide a valuable contribution to the grid, even as far out as 2050 (the study period end date), and even with up to 90% of generation from renewables, with no need for any additional plant closures beyond the baseline assumptions.

The experiment has been tried many times, always with the same result: nuclear plants closures always mean more fossil fuel consumption, more air pollution, more negative impact to wildlife, and more harm to human health.

Willem Post's picture
Willem Post on Oct 5, 2017

At present, China, Russia and India are the main actors in the world’s nuclear sector. All three have major building programs. China will increase its nuclear plants from 45,000 MW in 2017 to 95,000 MW in 2026. Japan, the EU and the US have nearly abandoned the nuclear sector.

The transformation of the world’s economies and build-outs of systems for 90% RE will never happen, unless massive nuclear plant capacity, at least 1,500,000 MW, is built by 2050, and that capacity would have to provide much of the world’s electrical energy to replace fossil fuels with synthetic fuels and other electrical consumption.

Modern renewables (wind, solar, hydro, bio, etc.) would provide part of the world’s electrical energy. At present modern renewables provide about 10% of primary energy. See table in URL.

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