Legal & Regulatory

Can Anything Save Merchant Nuclear?

In an industry as slow-moving as power generation, where planning horizons are measured in decades and assets can remain in operation for the better part of a century, it’s rare that things happen fast enough to catch anyone by surprise. But that’s exactly what’s happened to the U.S. merchant nuclear business over the past four years.

In 2012, the U.S. had 104 operating reactors. One, New Jersey’s single-unit Oyster Creek Station, was set for retirement in 2019, but as this was one of the oldest in the country and the state was pressuring owner Exelon to install cooling towers, it surprised no one that the company would shutter it a few years early rather than undertake an expensive upgrade.

But something happened that spring that continues to reverberate. Driven by a tidal wave of new production from hydraulic fracturing, natural gas prices collapsed to under $2/MMBtu. Wholesale power prices naturally fell with them, to levels few had anticipated.

Shock Wave

For nuclear plants in regulated markets, where profits were already locked in, this was of little concern. But for the many in competitive markets, where firms like Exelon and Entergy had snapped up older facilities in hopes of leveraging their low operating costs against higher gas prices in the 2000s, and for utility-owned plants that had transitioned to life after deregulation, this was a serious problem.

One by one, nuclear plants in deregulated markets like PJM, NYISO, and MISO began finding their once-competitive operating costs suddenly very uncompetitive, so much so that continued operation no longer made economic sense. Dominion retired Kewaunee in Wisconsin in 2013. Entergy retired Vermont Yankee in 2014, and then, in short order, announced the pending retirements of Pilgrim in Massachusetts and FitzPatrick in New York. This past summer, Exelon, after fighting for years for some kind of regulatory support, gave up on Quad Cities and Clinton in Illinois and warned that Three Mile Island and Byron were at risk as well. Shortly thereafter, the Omaha Public Power District said it would shutter Fort Calhoun, and Pacific Gas & Electric said it would allow the license for Diablo Canyon to expire rather than continue operations past 2025.

In every case, the primary factor was economics: The once-viable plants could simply not compete against cheap gas-fired power. Fort Calhoun, for example, was struggling with operating costs above $70/MWh in a market where power prices are typically around $20/MWh. Subsidized wind generation hasn’t helped either, but the main driver is cheap gas. The economic losses on some of these plants, if their owners are to be believed, ran into hundreds of millions of dollars.

Is There a Lifeline?

If existing markets can’t support these plants, could some sort of regulatory reform save them?

Exelon has lobbied for economic support for its Illinois plants from the state legislature, and it raised the stakes by announcing the closure of those plants after the legislature failed to pass a subsidy plan the company requested. There was so little support for it that the plan never even came up for a vote.

Things may be different in upstate New York, where FitzPatrick has been marching toward retirement and R.E. Ginna and Nine Mile Point are both struggling. The potential loss of generation from these plants has state officials alarmed, because replacement power would be expensive. A study by the Brattle Group estimated that customers would pay an average of $1.7 billion more per year without the three plants—a roughly 7.2% rate increase for all consumers. Because that replacement power would be mostly gas-fired, annual carbon emissions would also jump by 15 million tons. Finally, around 2,600 jobs and substantial tax revenue would be lost.

That’s a scenario the state wants to avoid, and in July, the New York Public Service Commission (PSC) released a proposed plan to subsidize generation at the upstate nuclear plants (Indian Point near New York City, where the economic and political issues are very different, would not be included). As part of New York’s new Clean Energy Standard (CES), the plan would subsidize zero-emission generation where there is a “public necessity” for preserving it.

According to the PSC staff report, “Payments for zero-emissions attributes would be based upon the U.S. Interagency Working Group’s projected social cost of carbon.” Support would be extended in two-year tranches through 2029, and estimated support over the first two years (capped at $482 million annually) would be just under $1 billion. That’s well below what the PSC projects as $5 billion in economic and social benefits.

Could this plan save upstate New York’s nukes? Judging by the announcement in early August that Exelon agreed to buy FitzPatrick from Entergy for $110 million and call off its retirement, the answer appears to be a qualified “yes.”

Murky Waters Ahead

There’s a great deal that still has to happen before the subsidy plan goes into effect, and it’s certain to be challenged in court. Recent state attempts to support failing generation assets have not fared well (see “The Perils of Second-Guessing FERC” in the June 2016 issue), but since payments under the CES are tied to carbon prices rather than wholesale power prices, they might avoid the legal problems that torpedoed similar plans in Ohio, Maryland, and New Jersey.

The circumstances in upstate New York obviously cannot be replicated everywhere, for example in California, where there is an abundance of renewable generation in the pipe to replace Diablo Canyon. Still, for some struggling merchant nuclear plants, this provides some badly needed hope. ■

Thomas W. Overton, JD is a POWER associate editor.


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