I never like to go too long before reminding my readers what an economic and environmental disaster nuclear power is. Anyone paying attention understands that we taxpayers and consumers will be spending literally trillions of dollars over many coming decades (centuries?) to account for our folly of unleashing nuclear fission energy on our planet.
The argument thus far has been about the future costs of clean-up and storage of nuclear waste. As we know, these costs are enormous and permanent fixtures in our national budget, yet are never figured into the costs/kilowatt of generated electricity. For a time nuclear power was the cheapest form of electricity if one discounted these eventual expenses. That is no longer the case. Not only is nuclear power more costly over time, but also in current time.
This is evident in many cases. Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey and New York have all created subsidies for nuclear power in their states to keep struggling plants operating, while Ohio has recently decided against such a move.
The nuclear industry generally has struggled to compete with less expensive electricity generated from natural gas and renewable energy. Around the country, five nuclear plants have retired in the past five years, and another five are scheduled to close within a decade. In Pennsylvania, the Three Mile Island plant — which still has one functioning reactor — is having trouble selling its power because it's more expensive than other sources like natural gas. Exelon Energy, owner of Three Mile Island Generating Station Unit 1, announced it will shut down by September 30. The company says the plant has been losing money for years. They have campaigned to save the plant, which was licensed to operate for 15 more year, by seeking a subsidy from Pennsylvania's legislatures. Despite the fact that it will no longer produce power, it will still bleed money as work to decommission and cleanup the site will continue for many years to come.
Ohio is not so eager to subsidize nuclear power, particularly given the opposition of the powerful natural gas industry in Ohio. Many coal fired plants have been shut down in Ohio recently and nearly a dozen gas turbine power plants are planned for or are already under construction in Ohio. They will burn shale gas from Ohio and Pennsylvania. Plant developers say the combined cycle turbines are twice as efficient as coal or nuclear power plants. Nevertheless, FirstEnergy Solutions, owner of the nuclear power plants in Ohio are requesting a $300 million a year subsidy. FirstEnergy Solutions has been operating with junk bond ratings for some time. William Seitz, a Cincinnati Republican who chairs the Ohio House Public Utilities Committee, states, "I am not sensing a keen desire on the part of the House members to vote on this and doubt that we will have more hearings in the near future...”
It is great to see coal and nuclear power plants closing down, but there is a downside to this as well. People lose good jobs that can't be outsourced, local governments lose tax revenue, and another industrial facility lies dormant. So what to do? Some people are on it.
Of the nearly 300 coal-fired power plants that have closed since 2010, 14 are in Pennsylvania. Tired of being thought of a part of a rust belt, the Department of Community and Economic Development has created a plan for redeveloping some of them. They develop what they call “playbooks” (they really love football in Pennsylvania) that describe the sites and list their advantages and drawbacks. Access to a waterway, rail connections, high tension power lines, and an educated workforce may be offered to potential developers, while ground contamination or marginal access to major highways might also be admitted.
Several developers have already come forward to take advantage of such a welcoming invitation. Not surprisingly, one of the first was the plan by a Massachusetts company, Insa, to build a medical marijuana cultivating facility with plans to sell to dispensaries in Pennsylvania.
Though the contaminated soil and likely groundwater would make home building unadvisable, it is ideal for the construction of a solar array with transmission lines already a part of the site.
There are plans for a wood recycling facility as well as a gas-fired power plant, which will take up much less space as the coal-fired one, but produce 3 times the electricity. A warehouse and a data center are other options considered.
Meanwhile, in Washington state energy provider TransAlta unveiled plans for using their closed 1000 acre coal mine to create the 180 megawatt Tono Solar project. TransAlta bought the mine in 2000 to supply its 2 coal-fired power plants, but stopped mining in 2006 to begin a transition away from coal. They have already closed one plant and will shutter the other in 2025.
New England Public Radio reported that the site of the old Mount Tom coal-burning power plant in Holyoke, Massachusetts, is now home to batteries to store solar energy. Replacing the plant is a 17,000-panel solar farm with battery back-up to feed the grid at night.
The Brayton Point power plant in Massachusetts was closed in 2017, but is getting a new life as a manufacturing site for offshore wind turbines. It is ideally located for ocean access with its 750 ft. wharf and 34 foot depth of water. This makes shipping the large structures out to sea a simple matter. The facility also has 2 very large cranes that will be used to move the enormous blades. The 307-acre site is probably the largest industrially-zoned location on the east coast that's currently available for this type of activity. Also, power lines connected to the old plant can allow the site to be a transmission point for the electricity produced offshore.
Defenders of the status quo like to characterize the end of 20th century fuels as having apocalyptic potential. Our Denier-in-Chief loves the laugh lines he gets when doing his comedy act for adoring fans while ridiculing the future. Fortunately, there a legions of those who not only accept the undeniable need for energy transition, but welcome the opportunities that it provides.