C2ES: Losing nuclear power makes it harder to meet U.S. climate goals

Press release
April 28, 2014
Contact: Laura Rehrmann, press@c2es.org, 703-516-0621

C2ES: Losing nuclear power makes it harder to meet U.S. climate goals

WASHINGTON – Further closures of U.S. nuclear power plants will make it harder for the United States to reduce carbon emissions and meet its climate goals, the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) says in a new policy brief.

The brief, “Climate Solutions: The Role of Nuclear Power,” examines the role of the existing U.S. nuclear fleet as a zero-carbon energy source, and why power companies have announced the unexpected retirement of five nuclear plants.

Nuclear power currently supplies the lion’s share — more than 60 percent — of zero-carbon electricity in the United States. Unlike other zero-carbon sources such as wind and solar, which are intermittent, nuclear provides “baseload” power available 24 hours a day.

“Losing more of our existing nuclear fleet will make it that much tougher to meet our carbon reduction goals,” said C2ES President Eileen Claussen. “We need to keep ramping up renewables, but they can’t meet our need for reliable power 24/7. Nuclear is a baseload source and it’s carbon-free – two things we need.”

The new brief was released today at a C2ES event with government, industry, and policy leaders at the National Press Club.

According to the C2ES brief, replacing the generation being lost from the five announced nuclear shutdowns would require 16 (400 MW) natural gas combined cycle power plants, which would provide baseload power but emit 12 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. Replacing the same capacity with renewables would require about 7,600 (1.5 MW) wind turbines or about 3.7 million (5kW) solar rooftop panels, which are carbon-free but can’t currently provide baseload power.

The United States has set a goal of reducing its total greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Although emissions had declined about 7 percent, they have begun rising again, and additional policies are needed to meet the 2020 goal. Electricity accounts for about a third U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

“These plants are shutting down early for a variety of reasons, including lower power prices, higher operating costs, and the way our regional power markets work,” said C2ES Senior Energy Fellow Doug Vine, who co-authored the brief.

Lower natural gas prices and increased wind power generation – which both have climate benefits – are contributing to lower wholesale electricity prices. At the same time, maintenance activities and mandated post-Fukushima safety enhancements are adding to nuclear power plant costs. Wholesale power markets operate strictly on price – and don’t value zero-carbon or baseload sources more than their alternatives – and some nuclear facilities are finding it harder to remain competitive.

“The best way to advance low-carbon solutions, including nuclear power, is to put a price on carbon,’’ Claussen said. “A comprehensive national approach is unlikely any time soon. But if well designed, the carbon standards EPA will soon propose for existing power plants could drive market-based programs at the state and regional level that could help maintain the existing nuclear fleet.”

Speakers at today’s C2ES event included Peter Lyons, U.S. Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy; Carol Browner, Center for American Progress Distinguished Senior Fellow and former EPA Administrator; Bill Mohl, President of Entergy Wholesale Commodities; David Brown, Senior Vice President of Federal Government Affairs at Exelon Corporation; Kimberly Clark, Chief Commercial Officer, North America, AREVA; and Susan Tierney, Senior Advisor at the Analysis Group.

Read the brief.

See the infographic.

About C2ES
The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) is an independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization promoting strong policy and action to address the twin challenges of energy and climate change. Launched in 2011, C2ES is the successor to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. Learn more at www.c2es.org.