The high cost of ignoring nuclear energy in North Carolina

N.C. State University researchers are leading a consortium that has received $3.4 million from the federal government to develop control systems for nuclear power plants that rely more on artificial intelligence.
N.C. State University researchers are leading a consortium that has received $3.4 million from the federal government to develop control systems for nuclear power plants that rely more on artificial intelligence.

In the battle against climate change, we need to recognize that nuclear energy is the most important carbon-free source of electricity. For proof, go straight to the numbers published by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Nuclear energy produces 57 percent of the nation’s zero-carbon electricity. In North Carolina, however, it accounts for 87 percent of the state’s carbon-free electricity and is the only clean-energy source that can produce large amounts of electricity 24-7.

Yet one of the recurring enigmas is how North Carolina and other states with renewable electricity standards can ignore nuclear energy. The question has returned with a vengeance this year.

Adopted in 2007, North Carolina’s renewable electricity standard mandates that investor-owned utilities meet up to 12.5 percent of their electricity needs through renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power. State lawmakers who advocated the standard saw it as a way to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. But nuclear energy, though the largest source of carbon-free electricity, was not included in the standard. As a result, every kilowatt-hour produced from renewables must be used, regardless of the need.

Giving first priority to power from sun and wind leads to perverse and, I would hope, unintended consequences. Witness the announced shutdowns of nuclear plants in other states with renewable electricity standards – Wisconsin, Vermont, Massachusetts, New York, and California. Since 2012, thanks to generously subsidized solar and wind power and low-cost natural gas, electric utilities have closed or announced plans to shut down 13 power reactors – and as many as 20 other reactors are considered at high risk of being shuttered, despite their crucial role in providing electricity reliably and reducing carbon emissions. This is public policy crafted void of critical facts.

Some would maintain that trouble-plagued nuclear plants like Crystal River in Florida and San Onofre in Southern California that required major repairs at high cost should be shut down. But it is just as much in the public interest to keep safe and efficient nuclear plants in operation. Forcing the shutdown of reactors because states mandate the use of solar, wind and other renewables is a profligate use of ratepayer funds and the greatest missed opportunity to further reduce carbon emissions.

Everything possible should be done to maintain North Carolina’s five power reactors, which over the past three years have had an average capacity factor of 91 percent – the electricity produced by a plant compared with the maximum it could produce.

North Carolina was the first state in the Southeast to adopt a renewable electricity standard. And it should be the first to make a much-needed change.

The first step toward sensible energy policy is to replace the state’s renewable electricity standard with a clean electricity standard that includes nuclear energy. A zero-carbon standard should be technology neutral and based on a recommendation by the North Carolina Energy Policy Council that the state maintain nuclear energy in its portfolio of energy sources to provide clean and reliable baseload power.

We also need to eliminate distortions in electricity markets that place nuclear energy at a disadvantage in competition with low-cost natural gas. Although it’s cheap now due to the shale revolution, natural gas has a history of price volatility. Besides, natural gas accounts for a quarter of U.S. greenhouse emissions from electricity production. If we continue to burn more natural gas, we will wind up back on square one. To reverse this trend, the legislature needs to attach a value to nuclear energy’s role in providing electricity reliably, helping efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

Before we allow power reactors to go into early retirement, we should take whatever steps are necessary to put nuclear power on an equal footing.

David N. McNelis, Ph.D., is a research professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.