Reality: less nuclear means more natural gas

When nuclear plants close, natural gas replaces them.

In the past few years, several nuclear plants have closed, including California’s San Onofre and Vermont Yankee. Both were located in states in which the official policy is to move to renewable energy: Vermont’s entire energy use (including heating and transportation) is supposed to be 90% renewables by 2050, with intermediate goals of 35% renewables by 2035 (for all energy). See the plan here: 2016CEP_Final.

So, when these nuclear power plants closed down in these renewable-friendly states, they were replaced by renewables, right? Not quite. They were replaced by natural gas.

Looking first at Vermont Yankee, a power plant close to my house and close to my heart, we can see that 5.3 million MWh of nuclear power on the grid was replaced by 5.3 million MWh of natural gas on the grid. See the two charts below and blog post.

METHANE POST 2014 Pie Chart

METHANE POST 2015 Pie Chart


Mike Twomey of Entergy used ISO-NE data to write this blog post: The replacement for Vermont Yankee … was natural gas.

So what happened to the renewables?

Renewables are growing, but they aren’t making much of a dent in the natural gas. As Twomey states about the New England situation: “The contribution of wind and solar remained vanishingly small in both years (wind was 2.4% in 2015 and 1.7% in 2014, while solar was 0.4% in 2015 and 0.3% in 2014).”

As we can notice about the California situation: between 2011 and 2012, nuclear output fell by 18.1 million MWh, gas output rose by 30.6 million MWh, while a rapid increase in renewables brought solar PV solar from 0.2 to 1.0 million MWh and wind from 7.6 to 9.2 million MWh. In 2012, for example, wind power was less than 10% of the power generated by natural gas, overall.

Though wind energy continues to increase year to year in California, as of 2014 it was still only about 10 percent of natural gas use. Meanwhile, California natural gas use has stayed pretty much the same, ever since the San Onofre shut down, despite the increases in wind.

Just to have a little perspective, when Vermont Yankee closed, the new use of natural gas meant putting 3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the air, per year, and is the equivalent of putting 650,000 passenger vehicles on the road. For San Onofre, the natural gas usage is the equivalent of approximately nine million tons of carbon dioxide, and putting 2 million cars on the road.

The graph below shows the huge carbon impact potentially created by closing California’s remaining nuclear plant, Diablo Canyon. It would be a huge step in the wrong direction.

Diablo Closing Lost Clear Elec

(For local perspective, clean nuclear energy from Columbia Generating Station near Richland, Wash. prevents about 3.6 million metric tons of CO2 from entering the atmosphere, compared to a natural gas equivalent output.)

Closing a near-zero-emission source of power and replacing it with natural gas-fired generation is not good for the environment.

The studies keep on coming

Almost every week, there is some new study showing that the world can go to 80 percent, 90 percent, 100 percent renewables.

I reviewed Mark Jacobson’s untested vision for Washington State in an earlier blog post: If more wind is the answer, what was the question? 

Rod Adams has a recent blog post that reviews a NOAA study about keeping existing nuclear and hydro, but moving to wind and solar for everything else.

Recently, Mark Cooper of Vermont Law School claimed that the conclusion of the Paris COP21 conference is that renewables can do it all and we don’t need nuclear.

Mark Cooper, the author of that paper, was a fierce opponent of Vermont Yankee. It’s not often that the New York Times has to apologize for something it printed. See editor’s note on earlier work involving Cooper.

Should’a, would’a, could’a

Okay. So, we have it. When a nuclear plant closes in the U.S., the use of natural gas increases. Meanwhile, new paper after new paper exclaims about the great new world of renewables.

It took me a while, but I finally “got it.” These are papers, not reality.

What woke me up was a comment on my blog by a well-known local nuclear opponent. I didn’t publish his comment: the tone was nasty and truculent. (My blog, my rules, baby.)

But one part of his comment struck me very forcibly. The opponent claimed he never said Vermont Yankee would be replaced by renewables, merely that it could be replaced by them. And you know, he’s probably right. He didn’t say the power “would” be replaced by renewables. His rallying cry, if fully expounded, should have been (see, I can do the “should’a, would’a, could’a” stuff, too):

“We COULD replace Vermont Yankee with renewables, but of course, we won’t! We’ll use natural gas!”

I could’a won the lottery recently. However, I didn’t. I live near the Connecticut River, but I have to drive several miles to get to a bridge over the river. They could’a put a bridge nearer my house, but they didn’t. And so it goes. “Could” is quite a word, when you think about it.

We need to treasure our low carbon power

Reality is not just “could.” Reality is reality.

Physicians for Social Responsibility in the Northwest talk about replacing the firm capacity of Columbia Generating Station with … well even that is fuzzy. One would think natural gas, but they are opposed to natural gas. So renewables. But while PSR likes to commission studies, the one study they haven’t commissioned is how much it would cost ratepayers to replace Columbia’s generation with that from renewables.

We need to keep Columbia Generating Station and all other sources of low-carbon power. Because if we don’t, despite should’a, would’a, could’a … our current low carbon power will be replaced by natural gas.

(Post by Meredith Angwin)