Rescuing nuclear power plants could come with conditions
HARRISBURG — With nuclear power plant owners seeking a rescue in Pennsylvania, a number of state lawmakers are signaling that they are willing to help — with conditions.
Giving nuclear power plants what opponents call a bailout to ensure they stay open could mean a politically risky vote to hike electric bills across the state. One key motivator for lawmakers could be attaching it to a package that steps up the fight against what some see as a bigger crisis: climate change.
“The crisis is here and we need … to deal with it,” said Rep. Carolyn Comitta, D-Chester. “Even things we thought were problems in the past need to be part of the solution.”
Conversations among lawmakers in the state Capitol now include provisions to impose limits and fees on carbon emissions, or expand on 15-year-old requirements to subsidize renewable energies, such as wind and solar power.
Comitta and others in a potentially sizeable clean-energy bloc say that legislation that raises electricity bills strictly to rescue nuclear power plants won’t cut it for them, even if they embrace nuclear power as a non-carbon power source helpful in curbing global warming.
Lawmakers’ immediate deadline is June 1.
That’s when Chicago-based Exelon Corp., the owner of Three Mile Island, has said it will begin the four-month process of shutting down the plant that was the site of a terrifying partial meltdown in 1979, unless Pennsylvania comes to its financial rescue.
Ohio-based FirstEnergy Corp. has said it will shut down its Beaver Valley nuclear power plant in western Pennsylvania – as well as two nuclear plants in Ohio – in 2021 or before unless Pennsylvania steps up.
Nuclear power plant owners say their fleets are being buffeted by a flood of cheap natural gas plants entering competitive electricity markets, relatively flat post-recession electricity demand and states putting more emphasis on renewable energy and efficiency.
They are fresh off winning subsidies in New Jersey, New York and Illinois, in compromise packages that brought environmental or ratepayer groups on board by advancing renewable energy or energy efficiency goals.
The debate could follow a similar path in Pennsylvania.
“It’s the first time that we’ve seen a great sensitivity to and even seen a great interest in beginning to deal with climate change,” said Rep. Stephen McCarter, D-Montgomery.
Pro-nuclear lawmakers in the Republican-controlled Legislature expect to introduce a bill within the next two weeks.
Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, isn’t publicly taking a position on rescuing Pennsylvania’s nuclear power plants.
But Wolf is making fighting climate change a top second-term priority, and his administration suggests that keeping the nuclear power plants operating will help Pennsylvania slash greenhouse gas emissions over the coming decades.
Opponents to a nuclear power rescue are already lined up.
They include anti-nuclear activists, the AARP, business groups including the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association and the state’s considerable natural gas industry groups.
A bailout, opponents say, means investing in outdated, inefficient and expensive power plants to supply a regional power grid. It will benefit shareholders of profitable companies and largely profitable plants on the backs of Pennsylvania ratepayers, they say.
Independent analysts do not foresee much effect, if any, on ratepayer bills if Three Mile Island and Beaver Valley shut down. What they foresee, however, is nuclear power being replaced by electricity from carbon-emitting natural gas- and coal-fired plants that typically run below capacity in a saturated market.
For two years, Exelon and FirstEnergy – both prominent campaign donors in Pennsylvania – have been working to build support for a financial rescue in Pennsylvania, enlisting a team of lobbyists.
Perhaps the strongest supporters are lawmakers – including influential Republicans – whose districts are home to nuclear power plant workers or subcontractors who live in their districts.
Blue-collar labor unions whose members service the plants are on board, although labor-friendly lawmakers may insist on guarantees that owners keep their nuclear power plants operating, invest in them and retain the workers.
The bloc of clean-energy Democrats may insist that subsidies for nuclear power plants be temporary, say for 10 years until more wind or solar power comes online.
Others say the legislation may need something else to win over enough opponents: concessions for the natural gas industry.
“It’s got to help everybody,” said Rep. Robert Matzie, D-Beaver.