A proposal to assist Pennsylvania’s nuclear industry is focused on an outmoded technology at a time when the state should be boosting renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.
That, at least, is the consensus of experts in the renewable energy field.
The experts were responding to proposals being debated in Harrisburg that would add nuclear plants to a utility program designed to benefit renewable energy. The proposals are based on the fact that nuclear plants do not emit carbon, a culprit in climate change.
At issue are two bills that would create a third tier under the state’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards Act. The first two tiers are for wind, solar, biomass, waste coal and other limited sources of power. The proposed third tier would encompass nuclear and is designed to help financially struggling nuclear plants at Three Mile Island outside Harrisburg and Beaver Valley in western Pennsylvania.
The prime sponsor of House Bill 11, which was introduced last month, is Rep. Thomas Mehaffie, a Republican who represents Dauphin County where Three Mile Island is based. A similar bill, Senate Bill 510, was introduced in early April by Sen. Ryan Aument, a Republican from Lancaster County.
The proposals would provide up to $500 million in subsidies, which would equate to about $1.53 more on a monthly residential bill, according to an April 3 report from StateImpact Pennsylvania, a news organization under the umbrella of National Public Radio stations in Pennsylvania.
Aument led a task force that examined a range of alternatives for subsidizing the nuclear industry. He has argued that the industry creates high-paying jobs statewide, noting that once a plant closes it cannot be restarted. Supporters also maintain that nuclear power creates zero carbon emissions.
“Powerful special interests have disingenuously branded any support for the nuclear industry as a ‘bailout,’ but in reality, current law stacks the deck heavily against Pennsylvania’s nuclear plants,” Aument said in a prepared statement last week after the bill was introduced. “Including nuclear energy in the state’s alternative energy plans will help level the playing field for the industry and ensure its long-term viability in Pennsylvania’s marketplace while simultaneously protecting ratepayers from higher electricity bills down the road.”
The House bill would require electric distribution companies to buy 50 percent of their electricity from Tier III facilities. While legislative language suggests that the mandate would help renewable energy sources, opponents maintain that the criteria effectively would preclude renewables from benefitting.
Instead, observers noted, state leaders would be wiser to back alternative proposals that would encourage more investment in wind and solar technologies.
“The nuclear piece does nothing for clean energy or for carbon reductions,” Jackson Morris, the eastern region director of the climate and clean energy program for the National Resources Defense Council, said about House Bill 11. The bill also doesn’t encourage investment in renewables or otherwise support energy conservation.
A third tier
The state’s renewable energy standards – known by the acronym AEPS – were created in 2004 and included two tiers. Tier I included support for wind and solar technologies but also energy created from biomass fuels, such as animal waste, and methane gases. Tier II included non-renewables such as waste coal and municipal garbage that is burned at waste-to-energy plants like those in Harrisburg and Lancaster.
The current law requires that distribution companies buy 8 percent of their electricity from Tier I sources, and 10 percent from Tier II sources by 2021, with ratepayers covering the added costs, observers said. A state Public Utility Commission report in 2017 – the most recent data available – noted that of the annual $14.8 billion in customer spending on electricity in 2016, about “$0.007 (seven-tenths of one cent) of every dollar is spent on AEPS compliance.”
Instead of adding nuclear as a third tier and increasing consumer costs to support nuclear power, the state would be better off increasing the percentages in Tier I to for solar and wind, said Sharon Pillar, a Pittsburgh-based consultant who owns Hot Earth Collaborative LLC, a consultancy that works with nonprofits, businesses and government clients.
Neighboring states have been raising their standards to as much as 50 percent for wind and solar, Pillar and others said. Companies looking to invest in wind farms or residential or commercial solar want to see where a state’s commitment is before increasing investments there, they said.
“We need to modernize AEPS so it is the same if not better than other states,” said Pillar who also works with Environmental Entrepreneurs, or E2, as its Pennsylvania advocate. Environmental Entrepreneurs is a network of businesses and investors who advocate for renewable energy policies and projects. Pillar said companies will leave or not build here if there are better alternatives elsewhere, meaning lost jobs and economic potential.
State legislation in the works would encourage that movement, Pillar said. It is expected to call for lifting the current standard for renewables to 30 percent by 2030 in Pennsylvania, up from 18 percent by 2021 under the 2004 law. Unless the standard is updated, the lower percentage will remain in place, she and others said.
New Jersey and New York have a renewable target of 50 percent by 2030, so a 30 percent target is “a reasonable approach to keep Pennsylvania competitive,” according to a fact sheet Pillar provided. Maryland is expected to raise its goal to 50 percent, as well, Pillar said.
By going to 30 percent, Pennsylvania at least will show the kind of support for renewables that private investors want to see before putting money into wind and solar projects, she added. The legislation also would call for studies on storing renewable energy, which would help meet energy needs during periods of peak demand, she added.
Maureen A. Mulligan is owner of Sustainable Futures Communications, a consulting business. Mulligan, who was chief of the PUC’s consumer education until 2002, said that House Bill 11 does little to help renewable energy.
The bill, she said in an email, “adds restrictive criteria that will ensure no renewable energy will be built and only more expensive nuclear energy will qualify.”
According to a blog post by Mark Szybist, a senior attorney with the NRDC’s climate and clean energy program, the PUC would determine which energy sources are eligible for Tier III. The PUC then would rank each source based on how much electricity the source generates in order to meet the 50 percent goal.
“In that case,” Szybist wrote in his blog, “all the state’s nuclear plants would all get picked first, since even the smallest of those plants (Three Mile Island, with its one reactor) generates much more electricity than the largest utility-scale wind or solar farm.”
“This would leave little room for renewables in Tier III,” he added.
Mulligan said investing in nuclear doesn’t make sense for future generations because of lingering issues with getting rid of spent nuclear fuel, especially now that wind and solar have proven to be cost-effective technologies.
“Passing HB 11 will crush the renewable energy industry for years to come and won’t solve the greenhouse gas problems,” she wrote, adding: “Pennsylvania doesn’t need a bailout simply to save one small, 44-year-old nuclear plant (TMI) that is no longer economically viable and hasn’t been for over five years.”
Several observers noted that the incentives built into the 2004 law helped jump-start the renewable industry, along with federal and state tax incentives. In fact, solar now costs about a half as much to install as it did eight years ago, even though state tax credits have ended, several experts noted.
Ray Heisey, owner of Lancaster-based Wind and Solar LLC, said he founded his company in 2006 after a career in the nuclear-power industry. While he has been following the developments of the legislation, he isn’t familiar with all the details.
However, he said he cannot understand why state leaders would look to favor nuclear energy when the industry hasn’t resolved waste-disposal issues. Nuclear waste, which is highly toxic, is stored on site at nuclear plants.
“For me, the whole question revolves around the waste,” Heisey said. “They need to address that.”