It was supposed to usher in a golden age for nuclear power in New York, and initially had little opposition. But eventually a network of environmental groups as well as everyday citizens who were wary of nuclear power in the wake of Three Mile Island, and then Chernobyl, turned against it. The public questioned the wisdom of building a nuclear power plant so close to New York City. Activists led protests, serenaded by folk singer Pete Seeger, a resident of Beacon. The evacuation plan the plant created was deemed to be unrealistic, and state officials refused to certify it. Finally, after many tumultuous years, Gov. Cuomo announced the decommissioning of the plant.
The year was 1988.
The facility was the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant on the north shore of Long Island, which was originally planned to be the first of many nuclear plants on Long Island. But when Gov. Mario Cuomo — father of New York’s current governor, Andrew Cuomo — announced its closure, it had never been in operation. The plant had conducted low-power tests after its reactors had come online a few years earlier but the approval to go to full power never came.
Shoreham was supposed to open in 1973 and cost $65 million. Instead it was completed in 1985 and cost $6 billion. The overruns would be comical if not for the fact that the people of Long Island were charged an extra 3 percent on their power bills for the next 30 years to help pay for a plant that never supplied them with a single watt of power. It was the last nuclear plant built in New York while simultaneously being the first nuclear plant decommissioned in the U.S.
In 2004, the Long Island Power Authority built two 100-foot-tall wind turbines at the site of Shoreham. At a public ceremony, LIPA Chair Richard Kessel declared: “We stand in the shadow of a modern-day Stonehenge, a multibillion-dollar monument to a failed energy policy, to formally commission the operation of a renewable energy technology that will harness the power of the wind for the benefit of Long Island’s environment.”
And with that, the turbines whirred to life, generating 200,000 kilowatt-hours of power a year — or 1/35,000th of the power that Shoreham would have created.
The next generation
In the wake of another nuclear plant in New York closing — Indian Point, which shut down on April 30 — the state is again turning to wind power on Long Island. But a lot has changed in 17 years. The era of symbolic renewable energy, of ineffectual wind turbines at shuttered nuclear plants and solar panels erected on the roof of Jimmy Carter’s White House that barely generated enough electricity to heat water for the laundry room, is over.
By the end of 2022, more than 30 miles off the coast of Montauk, 130 megawatts of offshore wind energy will be in operation, 1,300 times more power than the energy created by the original Shoreham turbines. That 130-megawatt output gets less impressive when one compares it to the 2,000 megawatts that Indian Point generated when Reactor 2 (which shut down last year,) and Reactor 3 (which shut down last week) were operational.
There’s more on the way, including about 4,170 megawatts of offshore wind that the state has in development off the south coast of Long Island. By 2035, the total amount of offshore wind coming from Long Island is targeted at 9,000 megawatts, 4.5 times the amount of energy Indian Point was generating at its peak.
The state will need every last one of those watts if it wants to hit its target of 70 percent renewable energy by 2030 and a zero-emission grid by 2040.
According to a report issued this week by the New York Independent System Operator (NYISO), the agency that manages the power grid, the state is already getting more than half of its power from renewable sources. But 25 percent of its total power comes from three remaining nuclear plants located upstate. The remaining renewables consist of hydroelectric (24 percent) and wind (4 percent). Solar is lumped in the “other” category that makes up the remaining 2 percent.
Paul Gallay, the executive director of Riverkeeper, the environmental advocacy organization that in 2017 helped negotiate the shutdown of Indian Point between its owner, Entergy, and New York State, expects the percentages from wind and solar to be rising soon. “We’ve had a huge head start with the four years since the [Indian Point] agreement was struck,” he said, noting that the state has put out more than 80 contracts for large-scale solar and wind projects.
Some of the changes that will allow the state to hit its targets are not about generating more power, but using less of it. The state passed a law in 2017 requiring suppliers to increase efficiency by at least 3 percent annually through 2025. “Energy efficiency alone is going to replace Indian Point,” Gallay said. “It’s kind of the unsung hero of this story.”
While the state waits for the next wave of renewables and efficiency upgrades, other sources of power will have to pick up the slack downstate. When the Indian Point closure was announced, NYISO conducted a study and concluded it would have no negative effect on the grid, primarily because of two new natural-gas plants in the Hudson Valley: Cricket Valley Energy Center in Dover and the CPV Valley Energy Plant in Middletown.
So did renewables and efficiency upgrades replace Indian Point? Or natural gas? It depends on what you mean by replace.
The 10 percent problem
The grid is constantly in flux, so it’s nearly impossible to say what kind of energy is powering the lights in any particular house at this moment. “There’s no 1-to-1” where the power generated by Reactor 3 at Indian Point will now come from another single source, explained Hayley Carlock, the director of environmental advocacy and legal affairs at Scenic Hudson. “That’s not the way that the grid works.”
It can be said that Indian Point did not provide power to the Highlands; its megawatts went to Westchester and New York City. But what the shutdown may mean is that Cricket Valley and CPV Valley will have to provide more power over the next few years until renewable projects hit the grid, which could mean, in a worst-case scenario, slightly more local air pollution and carbon emissions, Carlock said.
Neither Cricket Valley nor the CPV Valley plants is outputting at full capacity. Tom Rumsey, a CPV representative, said the plant did not have to increase its production in the wake of the shutdown last year of Indian Point’s Reactor 2 and doesn’t foresee an increase without Reactor 3.
In Rumsey’s view, Cricket Valley and CPV didn’t “replace” Indian Point, they replaced older fossil fuel sources, to the benefit of the region. “We are displacing much older generation due to better economics, less fuel and lower emissions,” he said. “This advantage was realized with or without Indian Point. By displacing older generation, CPV Valley has reduced regional CO2 emissions by nearly half a million tons per year.”
Improvements to the grid will also play a role. Officials at NYISO often refer to “the tale of two grids”: The upstate grid has a surplus of renewable energy and the downstate grid has a deficit. Improvements to the section where the two grids connect, expected to be completed within 18 months, will allow more upstate energy to reach the Hudson Valley and points south.
Scenic Hudson and other environmental groups argue that, with grid improvements, more renewables and CPV Valley and Cricket Valley, there’s no need for a proposed expansion of the Danskammer plant on the Hudson River near Beacon. Before the two gas plants opened, Danskammer was in operation only on high-demand days. New owners hope to turn it into a year-round natural gas plant.
Danskammer’s owners say they could convert the plant to a hydrogen plant in the near future to contribute to the state’s renewable energy goals, but Carlock sees that as farfetched because there are no hydrogen power plants operating in the U.S. outside of pilot projects “to see whether this may be a viable technology.”
If Danskammer is developed as a hydrogen plant, it could play a vital role on the grid. NYISO’s breakdown of what a zero-emission grid would look like in 2040 contains 10 percent “dispatchable emissions-free resources,” or DEFRs. These are renewable sources of energy that are not reliant on weather conditions but could be applied during high-demand periods. Even with expected improvements in battery technology that will allow wind and solar to store more power, the grid will need a source of dependable renewable energy that can be deployed at a moment’s notice the way natural gas can.
The only problem with DEFRs is that they don’t exist. Researchers refer to this as “the 10 percent problem.” We only currently have the technology to meet 90 percent of the nation’s energy needs with renewables.
“We’re agnostic about what the fuel is or what those resources are,” said Rich Dewey, the chief executive officer of NYISO, at a news conference this week, “But it’s going to be extremely challenging, if not impossible, to hit the 2040 goal without the development of newer technologies.”
Hydrogen, should it work, could answer that question. Another unproven technology that would capture carbon dioxide emitted by natural gas plants, and either reuse or store it, is another theoretical solution. But there’s another renewable that could be adapted for the 10 percent, and it’s been in operation in New York state for decades.
Like most climate activists, Eric Meyer is worried about global warming and believes the U.S. needs to transition to 100 percent renewable power as soon as possible. But he also calls the closing of Indian Point “the greatest environmental tragedy of the last few years.”
“We were losing clean energy by closing down nuclear plants as fast as we’re adding it to the grid with wind and solar, and we thought there needs to be a grassroots, pro-nuclear movement,” said Meyer, who is executive director of Generation Atomic, which was founded in 2016. The group organizes demonstrations, posts pro-nuclear memes and pro-nuclear swag on Instagram, and has even made a “peer-reviewed” rap video:
“So here we go, yo / What’s the, what’s the, what’s the scenario? / The carbon footprint is low in France and Ontario. / The way they chose to carry the load is scary to folks. / But the result in quality of life there is very dope.”
Considering the Indian Point shutdown, Meyer said, “if you put it in the context of losing over 80 percent of downstate’s carbon-free electricity, that’s not a good thing. When you dig a little bit deeper, and you see that Cuomo’s campaign aides were connected to the natural-gas deal to replace the plant, then it starts to check out why all of this went down.”
In 2018 Joe Percoco, a former longtime Cuomo aide, was sentenced to six years in prison for, among other things, soliciting $287,000 in bribes from CPV while the plant’s permits were awaiting approval. CPV denies that it obtained its permits in any improper way.
New York’s three remaining nuclear plants are receiving $7.6 billion in subsidies over 12 years to ensure they don’t meet the same fate as Indian Point, which Entergy says couldn’t compete with the flood of cheap fracked natural gas from Pennsylvania.
The state considers the plants a necessary component of its clean energy goals, but Clearwater, which was founded by Seeger and is based in Beacon, was among the environmental groups that sued to stop the subsidies.
“We felt that those funds would be much better invested in a rapid transition to renewable energy with storage and efficiency,” said Manna Jo Greene, its environmental director. “Nuclear is not a climate solution.”
Despite the competition from cheaper fracked gas and renewable sources, the nuclear industry’s economic woes may largely be its own doing. A study published last year by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that construction of new nuclear plants in the U.S. since 1970 has cost, on average, more than three and a half times the estimates, and that productivity in the construction was 13 times lower than industry projections.
The most recent nuclear plant built in the U.S. is Watts Bar in Tennessee. Construction began in 1973 but the first reactor didn’t come online until 1996 and the second in 2016. The plant was projected to cost $2.5 billion; it ended up costing $12 billion.
Watts Bar, however, is producing power. That hasn’t been the case in South Carolina, where the construction of two reactors announced in 2008 was eventually abandoned after an investment of $9 billion. Much like at Shoreham, taxpayers got stuck with the bill.
There is also the unresolved issue of what to do with the ever-increasing amount of nuclear waste from plants, including Indian Point, where it is stored in dry casks waiting for transport to a federal depository that doesn’t exist. The most recent attempt to build one inside Yucca Mountain, in Nevada, has been stopped and restarted several times since 1987, at a cost so far of $7.5 billion.
Meyer believes these challenges are all solvable for nuclear. A permanent waste site — Meyer said the current amount of spent fuel would fit inside a Walmart — could be found if the government would put the time and effort into finding it. New plants could be built more efficiently by mass producing the parts rather than building them on-site. Existing technologies that can create cheaper, smaller, meltdown-proof plants could be utilized.
“The industry has to do better at articulating their value and delivering projects on time and on budget,” he said. “There’s plenty of viable solutions. It’s the political solutions that have been elusive.”
Dewey, at NYISO, said that when it comes to the technology required to achieve a zero-emissions grid, everything is on the table, including smaller, modular nuclear units “that are achieving some success in other countries. That could fill this need if it could be sited and developed in a way that people could be comfortable with.”
Far more than technological challenges, the greatest barrier to creating a zero-emissions grid by 2040 may be convincing people to embrace the infrastructure required over the next 20 years. Nuclear and natural-gas aren’t the only plants that people don’t want in their backyards.
Coxsackie, a bucolic river town in Greene County, is home to acres of sunny fields, as well as two major transmission lines. It appears to be the perfect place for solar panels.
Unless you live in Coxsackie.
“How much solar is Coxsackie expected to take for the team?” said Kim Rose, a representative of Saving Greene: Citizens for Sensible Solar. The group formed after locals learned that more than 3,000 acres secured by developers would be used for solar farms that would produce 180 megawatts — more energy than every planned solar project in the rest of the Hudson Valley combined.
The group’s concerns include a decrease in home values, the destruction of the town’s character, a decrease in tourism, the degradation of potential farmland and ecological damage. Its logo is the short-eared owl, an endangered species whose winter habitat could be destroyed by the solar farms.
These concerns are familiar to the environmental groups who have cited similar concerns in the Hudson Valley for the past 60 years when trying to stop the construction of nuclear and fossil-fuel plants. But some groups now find themselves on the other side of the table when advocating renewable infrastructure against residents who want no part of it.
“The pace of renewable deployment that the state has hoped to see isn’t happening,” said Carlock at Scenic Hudson. “And it’s not because the developers aren’t proposing projects, or for economic reasons. It’s because projects are being strongly opposed.”
Carlock said that Scenic Hudson has created online tools to help communities figure out where the best spots for solar and other renewable projects could be. But an early lesson has been that it may take decades to convince some communities.
“It’s an unfortunate truism that in a lot of ways it’s much easier to site a dirty, polluting gas plant that produces 300 megawatts of electricity than it is to site a clean solar farm that produces the same amount, simply because of the physical footprint,” she said. “You can stick a gas plant in the back corner of a heavily industrialized area and it’s out of sight, out-of-mind, even though their air is being polluted and it’s contributing to climate change and negative health outcomes.”
By contrast, “the land requirements for solar and wind mean that it’s going to be a little bit more visible, and it’s going to necessarily be outside of highly developed industrial areas,” she said. “They don’t want to have to see it.”
Yet without large solar, wind and other renewable-energy facilities in the Hudson Valley, Carlock said, a zero-emission future will be impossible. If Coxsackie is any indication, the fight to close Indian Point may pale in comparison to the fight for what comes after it.