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Commentary: Rick Perry's new energy proposal works for nuclear energy and the environment
Late last month, Energy Secretary Rick Perry asked federal regulators to financially reward coal plants for keeping the electric grid “resilient.” Under the proposed rule, coal plants would be rewarded not for generating electricity but rather for being the kind of plants which can store several months worth of fuel on-site.
So much of the controversy over Perry’s proposed resiliency rule has focused on its support for coal plants that most observers have overlooked how it would also benefit nuclear plants, which produce fewer carbon emissions than solar farms, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
As such — and however paradoxical it may seem — Perry’s proposed resiliency rule could be the most important policy for protecting clean air and the climate in decades.
To understand why, consider the fact that over half of America’s nuclear power plants are losing money and at risk of being replaced by fossil fuels, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. And about half of those at-risk plants are in the regions would benefit from the proposed rule.
As such, the resiliency rule could prevent emissions from rising the equivalent of adding 20 to 40 million cars to the road, depending on whether the nuclear plants are replaced by natural gas, coal or a mix of both.
Environmentalists are understandably concerned that the proposed grid resiliency rule would extend a lifeline to coal plants that would otherwise be closed and replaced by renewables.
But their concerns are misplaced. The vast majority of the decline in coal generation over the last decade came not from closing plants but rather from reducing the amount of time they are generating electricity (and thus pollution).
Moreover, coal generation has mostly been replaced with generation from cheap and abundant natural gas, not solar and wind. And while natural gas plants produce roughly half the carbon emissions of coal, they still produce large quantities of emissions compared to nuclear plants.
A far greater risk is that nuclear plants that could otherwise operate for another 20 or 40 more years will be forced to close. As nuclear plant closures in Vermont, California, Germany, Japan and other places show, when a nuclear plant is closed, it’s replaced almost entirely with fossil fuels, not renewables.
And once a nuclear plant is closed it’s closed forever. By contrast, nothing prevents closed coal plants from returning to service when natural gas prices rise in the future.
Few things would be as immediately valuable to the most productive coal plants more than the loss of nearby nuclear plants. That’s because the productive coal plants at little to no risk of closing can cheaply ramp up their electricity generation and thus compete with natural gas.
While it’s clear the proposed resiliency rule would keep nuclear plants operating, it’s less clear what affect it would have on coal plants. According to a recent analysis by the Brattle Group, if the subsidy rewards output, then coal consumption could increase. But if the subsidy simply rewards availability, coal consumption might not increase at all.
Some have objected to the proposed rule for being a kind of market-distorting subsidy, and to some extent they are correct. But electricity markets are already some of the most regulated in the world, and in recent years state and federal policies have rewarded both renewables and nuclear for producing low-carbon power.
And they haven’t done so equally. A study by the independent, nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office earlier this year estimated that renewables received 94 times more in federal subsidies alone than nuclear in 2016 per unit of energy production. Meanwhile, the vast majority of states with clean energy mandates exclude nuclear plants from qualifying for what is effectively a subsidy.
In the end, there remain many uncertainties about what the final rule will and will not do to help coal. What’s certain is that the rule would offer a lifeline to nuclear plants, our only reliable source of low-carbon electricity. And that should make it enough for anyone concerned about reducing carbon emissions to support.
Michael Shellenberger is founder and president of Environmental Progress, coauthor of An Ecomodernist Manifesto and co-founder and Senior Fellow at, the Breakthrough Institute.