Indian Point Closure Threatens New York City

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Last week, New York Governor Cuomo announced the completion of one of his long awaited goals: closing down the Indian Point nuclear plant. The plant will shut down completely in just four years, leaving many questions about what will fill the gap to keep the power on in New York City. Today, the city receives an incredible one third of its electricity from the plant.

Perhaps most troubling is that there are no current plans to build a new nuclear plant, a coal-fired plant, or pipelines to transport more natural gas from Pennsylvania. (Note that New York State has banned fracking in the fossil fuel rich northern part of the state.) There aren’t enough roofs in Manhattan to generate ample solar energy to power the city. Even if there were, solar’s cost would be astronomically higher than the cost of inexpensive power produced by Indian Point. Conservation isn’t a viable solution either. New York City won’t be able to cut its energy usage by 30%, especially since the city’s peak demand has been increasing in recent years.

Could wind power be the answer for New York City? Currently, all of the wind turbines in New York State combined have roughly the same capacity as Indian Point. However, since wind power is intermittent, Indian Point actually supplies about four times more electricity than those turbines. That means replacing Indian Point with wind power would require increasing New York’s wind farm capacity by at least 400%. That’s an obvious challenge for planners, especially because of the battery storage technology that would be required to deliver the kind of stability New Yorkers deserves.

To understand the scale of the challenge, consider that about 50 million kWh of electricity would have to be stored in batteries to power NYC for just one windless day. The entire world produces only enough batteries to store about 35 million kWh annually. So filling the gap left by Indian Point would require purchasing about 40% of all the lithium batteries produced on the planet for the next four years. A battery system of that magnitude would cost nearly $50 billion. That doesn’t seem likely, even for a city as environmentally ambitious as New York.

The more practical solution? Construct a new natural gas plant at a cost of around $2 billion to supply the needed power. Or better yet, provide Indian Point financial incentives to remain in operation, costing a few hundred million dollars. Neither one of those options seems likely, though, given Governor Cuomo’s disposition toward nuclear power an fossil fuels.

PACE has written before about the importance of nuclear energy. As many as two thirds of U.S. nuclear plants face premature closure, posing a real threat to our nation’s baseload electricity supply. Indian Point represents a powerful example of how difficult it can be to replace the low-carbon, low-cost energy provided by nuclear units. Hopefully, the nation’s leaders soon will take action to revitalize the nation’s nuclear power industry and avoid situations, like the one that New York is facing, that threaten the availability of power.