The Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act calls for all state electricity to be carbon free by 2040 and for an 85% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Interpreting these targets to mean we must achieve “100% renewable” electricity would be a mistake.
Over the last several decades, Germany has shut down nuclear power and made massive investments in solar and wind, which now make up about 20% of the country’s energy mix. Sour grapes or sauerkraut? Germany is consuming fossil fuel at the same rate it did in 1992, its carbon emissions are more than 10 tons per person annually, and it is increasingly dependent on foreign gas. Meanwhile, France — which relies on nuclear power for most of its energy—has the lowest carbon emissions and cleanest air in Europe.
Ugly ducklings don’t generally turn into swans. California is also shutting down nuclear power and although 30% of its electricity comes from non-hydro renewables, it remains heavily dependent on gas. Why? The “duck curve” tells part of the story. Solar peaks midday while everyone is at work. People return home at dusk and gas power plants kick into high gear. As a result, California dumps excess electricity on sunny days and burns fossil fuels at night.
What’s happening in New York? When Indian Point Unit 2 stopped generating this spring, we lost an annual 8,000 gigawatt-hours of carbon-free electricity. That’s more energy than is produced by all of the wind turbines and solar panels deployed statewide. Giant new gas plants — CPV and Cricket Valley Energy — have fired up and old gas and oil plants in the greater metropolitan area are running more than before to keep the lights on in NYC. If Indian Point’s remaining reactor shuts down as scheduled next year, the metro region will be powered 90% by fossil fuels. Does this sooty start lead to a green future or is New York reading the roadmap upside down?
Can’t electricity be stored for use later? Yes. And also, no. The biggest battery in the world, a 1200 MWh lithium-ion storage facility under construction in California, could supply about a half an hour of Indian Point’s energy. Prior to IP2’s shutdown, a quarter of New York City’s electricity came from Indian Point. So, if New York had to rely on wind and solar alone, it would need a battery about two hundred times larger than the biggest battery anywhere — costing over $30 billion — just to survive one sunless, windless day.
Grid operators understand that in the real world, firm generating capacity must be available in case wind and solar aren’t. Typically, this means “partnering” intermittent renewables with gas. But that defeats the goal of carbon-free electricity. To make matters worse, relying on gas as “backup” often requires using inefficient gas plants designed for peaking, or running efficient generators in “hot standby”— meaning that they burn gas even when they’re not making electricity. For Germany and California, this cancels out much of the environmental benefit of “clean” renewables. Of course, the manufacture, deployment and disposal of solar panels, wind turbines and chemical batteries also have significant environmental and health impacts.
Renewables alone won’t solve our climate crisis. New York can’t significantly increase hydropower. Should we shut down functioning nuclear facilities that produce zero combustion emissions? Should we ignore the potential benefits of safe, energy-dense, next-generation reactors, including those that could run on today’s spent fuel rods?
We get to decide whether nuclear or fossil fuels will supply baseload electricity to the grid. So far, it looks like the state plans to run old gas power plants more, build new ones, and expand pipelines or use compressed natural gas “bomb trucks” to fuel them. This is the wrong path to achieving state energy goals.
It’s not just the United States that faces climate catastrophe. We can pretend we are addressing global warming here at home. But unless we will support — and perhaps export — solutions for parts of the world that need energy and aspire to a better quality of life, the planet will be cooked anyway.
Yogi Berra said “You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going, because you might not get there.” If the state Energy Research and Development Authority insists on following a “100% renewable” path, we will reproduce the results of an experiment that has already failed.
Let’s be smarter tomorrow than we were yesterday.
Dennis Higgins is a resident of Otego.