Their View | Pennsylvania must pursue a new energy strategy

June 10, 2014 

Pennsylvania should drop its renewable energy standard. First, it is ineffective; second, it is costly; third, it is standing in the way of robust, competitive and reliable nuclear power; and fourth, it may even make things worse for the environment.

Despite the renewables requirement, enacted in 2004, and more than $100 million invested in solar and wind power over the last decade, Pennsylvania’s electricity production from renewable energy sources is statistically insignificant. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, renewable energy amounts to a mere 2.2 percent of the state’s electricity generation.

By contrast, nuclear power, which doesn’t pollute the air or emit greenhouse gases, accounted for 34.6 percent of the state’s electricity in 2013. And nuclear power provides large quantities of electricity around the clock, safely and reliably, when needed, regardless of weather conditions.

For all the hype over wind power’s credentials as a clean source of electricity, its value is contravened by the Achilles’ heel of wind power — its tendency to fluctuate wildly, depending on wind speeds, weather, and time of day and year. The most amount of electricity the average wind turbine produces over 12 months is equal to about 30 percent (less in Pennsylvania) of the amount that would result from year-round operation at full capacity. That number (capacity factor) runs above 90 percent at Pennsylvania’s nine nuclear plants.

This fundamental flaw of wind energy — and that of solar energy, which has an even lower capacity factor — limits the value of both and on their effect on reducing carbon emissions. Further, the use of solar and wind, however well-intentioned, has made the electrical grid more fragile, because of their intermittency.

The time has come for Pennsylvania to pursue a different energy strategy. Rather than mandating the use of renewables, Pennsylvania should allow solar and wind energy to stand on their own without statutory mandates or subsidies. If one thinks that solar and wind energy, whose costs have been reduced in recent years, are cheaper than nuclear power, they would have no problem with a policy that requires them to compete on their own against nuclear power.

Ohio has already demonstrated a willingness to do just that. Last month, Ohio lawmakers voted to roll back Ohio’s renewable electricity standard, freezing the phasing-in of electricity that utilities must buy from renewable energy sources.

Pennsylvania should do the same. This would place Pennsylvania’s nuclear plant fleet, which is being whipsawed by low natural gas prices and the renewables requirement, on a more even playing field. Currently, some smaller nuclear plants are vulnerable to weak market conditions. Already, two safe and efficient nuclear plants — Kewaunee in Wisconsin and Vermont Yankee — have been prematurely shut down, because of economic conditions. Nuclear plants in other unregulated states like Pennsylvania and Ohio are facing headwinds.

Exelon, the nation’s largest nuclear power plant operator, with power plants in Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland, says that some of its plants could be shut as uncompetitive next year, not because of their comparative true production costs, but because of the renewable mandates and subsidies.

Pennsylvania policymakers need to recognize nuclear power’s undeniable value in providing clean air and contributing to the fuel and technological diversity that it is one of the characteristics of our state’s electric sector. Fuel diversity lowers the price of electricity production. The most effective generating mix involves the use of more energy sources and technologies. A diverse portfolio of low-carbon fuels and technologies — natural gas, nuclear, coal with lower carbon releases, renewable energy sources and efficiency — is an essential characteristic of a robust and resilient electric power system.

Given the increasing importance of electricity in our digital economy, we have an unsurpassed opportunity to take a few immediate, practical solutions that could have a tangible effect on ensuring the delivery of reliable and affordable electricity to the commonwealth.

Forrest J. Remick is emeritus professor of nuclear engineering and emeritus vice president for research at Penn State and retired commissioner of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

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