“ALBANY — Some major environmental groups are steering clear of a campaign against the state’s $8 billion subsidy for aging nuclear power plants upstate.
The decision reflects a divide among environmentalists about the role existing nuclear plants should play in a push to slash the use of fossil fuels and boost renewable energy investment.
More than 70 groups are running a public campaign opposing the subsidy, even though the administration of Gov. Andrew Cuomo has rolled it into an aggressive plan to get the state to 50 percent renewable energy by 2030.
The Cuomo administration has declared nuclear energy to be a “bridge” to clean energy. The Public Service Commission approved a plan to pay nuclear plant operators based on the carbon emissions avoided by their continued operation. If those plants close, they’d likely be replaced in the short term by greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuel power generators, the argument goes.
But rolling the nuclear subsidy into the renewable plan may have backfired.
“I’m quite worried that other governors will follow suit and insert nuclear power into the Clean Energy Standard where it has no place,” said Alex Beauchamp, Northeast region director of Food and Water Watch. “The fact that he put it in the Clean Energy Standard adds insult to injury.”
Food and Water Watch and the New York Public Interest Research Group are leading the “Stop the Cuomo Tax” coalition, which also includes the Alliance for a Green Economy.
“Nuclear power is a really dangerous and dirty energy source for New York,” said Jessica Azulay, director of the alliance. “The amount of money that’s being spent on the nuclear bailout is money that’s not being spent on the transition (to renewable energy).”
She said there has been no analysis of whether early retirements of the nuclear plants would result in more fossil fuel sources coming online.
“We just want to see a logical, science-based, fact-based process for how we are making this transition,” Azulay said. “That’s not what we got.”
In a blistering letter, Cuomo’s top administration official on energy issues, Richard Kauffman, criticized opposition to the nuclear subsidy, calling it a “cheap stunt.” He cited an analysis by The Brattle Group, which found that the nuclear plants avoided 16 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually.
“You offer no solution whatsoever to this problem,” he wrote in the letter to Blair Horner, executive director of NYPIRG. “A 50 percent mandate cannot be met overnight, just because you say it can … Are you willing to admit that your approach would immediately result in a massive increase in greenhouse gas emissions?”
The price tag for the nuclear subsidy, or the Zero Emission Credits, is about $8 billion over the 12-year life of the subsidy, according to an analysis by the Public Utility Law Project. (Kauffman disputed that estimate.) Ratepayers will bear the cost with an increased utility bill.
Some environmental groups have been persuaded about the necessity of keeping the nuclear plants running temporarily — or they at least decided not to take a stand against the administration.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and Environmental Advocates of New York have all declined to join the coalition committed to pressuring Cuomo to block the subsidy.
“We don’t have an ideological position on nuclear and we never have,” said Jackson Morris, the director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Eastern energy project. “We look at the risk of a plant, whether a nuclear plant, a coal plant or a gas plant.”
The group has not endorsed the nuclear component of the state’s Clean Energy Standard, Morris said. But he said there needed to be a plan in place for the power produced by nuclear plants to be replaced by clean, renewable energy. New York’s nuclear plants produce more than 30 percent of electricity in the state.
“If you abruptly and suddenly retire those resources you will see increased fossil emissions in the near and medium term,” Morris said.
The shutdown of two nuclear plants before 2017, Fitzpatrick in Oswego and Ginna in Ontario, would not result in the need for new power generation resources, according to a New York Independent System Operator analysis in April.
The company that will benefit most from the nuclear subsidies is Exelon, which currently owns Ginna and the two-unit Nine Mile Point plant in Oswego. It’s awaiting regulatory approvals to purchase Fitzpatrick.
Exelon in June said it would close Ginna and one of the Nine Mile reactors if the nuclear subsidies were not approved by September. Entergy, which currently owns Fitzpatrick, started the process to shut it down late last year. The deal between Entergy and Exelon followed the approval of the nuclear subsidy, which was key for Exelon to keep operating both Fitzpatrick and Ginna.
Morris said the subsidy for nuclear met three conditions that otherwise would have resulted in opposition from the Natural Resources Defense Council: none of the nuclear power will count as clean energy in the 50 percent, none of the money for renewables is being redirected toward the subsidy and it has a definite end date.
The division among green groups over the subsidies is not a cause for concern, Food and Water Watch’s Alex Beauchamp said. He compared it to the fight against fracking, in which various environmental groups evolved on the issue over time.
“I think the administration likes to conflate support of the Clean Energy Standard with support of the nuclear bailout and they’re not the same thing,” Beauchamp said. “We’ve never really been in lockstep agreement as a community.”
The fate of the nuclear subsidy, and Exelon’s deal to buy Fitzpatrick, is not yet settled. Legal challenges are expected and multiple groups have requested a rehearing on the Clean Energy Standard from the Public Service Commission. A Washington, D.C. group, Public Citizen, has also filed to block the transfer of Fitzpatrick with federal regulators.
Beauchamp said the goal for the “Stop the Cuomo Tax” campaign was to build enough grassroots pressure for the governor to reverse course.
“I think on a whole series of environmental issues and progressive issues more generally we’ve seen him change, we’ve seen him evolve and it happened after an involved grassroots campaign,” he said.”
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