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Does a 'clean' label for nuclear power undercut renewables?

Critics fear a clean energy standard that includes nuclear power would threaten solar and wind.

Seabrook Station nuclear plant near Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Seabrook Station nuclear plant near Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Credit: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Climate and clean energy advocates in New Hampshire say a pending proposal to define nuclear power as clean energy could undercut solar and wind power in the state. 

Although the details are still in the works, state Rep. Michael Vose, chair of the legislature’s science, technology and energy committee, is drafting a bill that would allow nuclear power generators, such as New Hampshire’s Seabrook Station, to receive payments for contributing clean energy to the grid. 

"The broad idea is that, long-term, we can hope and expect that that reliable source of baseload power will always be there," Vose said. "It won’t be driven out of business by subsidized renewable power." 

Some environmental advocates, however, worry that the proposal would provide unnecessary subsidies to nuclear power while making it harder for solar projects to attract investors. 

"It’s just another way to reduce support for solar," said Meredith Hatfield, associate director for policy and government relations at the Nature Conservancy in New Hampshire. 

Renewables and reliability

New Hampshire’s renewable portfolio standard — a binding requirement that specifies how much renewable power utilities must purchase — went into effect in 2008. To satisfy the requirement in that first year, utilities had to buy renewable energy certificates representing 4 percent of the total megawatt-hours they supplied that year. The number has steadily climbed, hitting 23.4 percent this year. 

New Hampshire was the second-to-last state in the region to create a binding standard — Vermont switched from a voluntary standard to a mandated one until 2015. New Hampshire’s standard tops out at 25.2 percent renewable energy in 2025, but the other New England states range from 35 percent to 100 percent and look further into the future.

Until we can have affordable, scalable battery storage, the intermittency of renewables is going to guarantee that renewables are unreliable.

Vose, however, worries that even New Hampshire’s comparatively modest targets could put the reliability of the power supply at risk. 

"Until we can have affordable, scalable battery storage, the intermittency of renewables is going to guarantee that renewables are unreliable," Vose said. "And if we add too many renewables to our grid, it makes the whole grid unreliable."

That idea has been widely debunked. Grid experts say variable renewables may require different planning and system design but are not inherently less reliable than fossil fuel generation.

The details of Vose’s clean energy standard bill have not yet been finalized. A clean energy standard is broadly different from a renewable energy standard in that it includes nuclear power, which does not emit carbon dioxide, but which uses a nonrenewable fuel source. Those writing the legislation, however, will have to decide whether it will propose incorporating the new standard into the existing renewable portfolio standard or operating the two systems alongside each other.

Clean energy advocates say they are not necessarily opposed to a clean energy standard, but argue it is crucial that such a program not pit nuclear power and renewable energy against each other for the same pool of money. And they are concerned that that’s just what Vose’s bill will do. 

"While we would welcome a robust conversation about how to design a clean energy standard, I fear that’s not what this bill is," said Sam Evans-Brown, executive director of nonprofit Clean Energy New Hampshire. 

Undermining renewables

If a clean energy standard is structured so both nuclear and renewables qualify to meet the requirements, clean energy certificates from nuclear power generators would flood the market, causing the price to plummet. Seabrook alone has a capacity of more than 1,250 megawatts, while the largest solar development in the state has a capacity of 3.3 megawatts. Revenue from renewable energy certificates is an important part of the financial model for many renewable energy projects, so falling prices would likely mean fewer solar developments could attract investors or turn a profit. 

At the same time, nuclear generators could sell certificates for low prices, as they already have functioning financial models that do not include this added revenue. Nuclear could, in effect, drive solar and other renewables out of the market almost entirely, clean energy advocates worry.

Nuclear could, in effect, drive solar and other renewables out of the market almost entirely, clean energy advocates worry.

"The intention of the [renewable portfolio standard] has always been about creating fuel diversity by getting new generation built, and a proposal like that would do the opposite," Evans-Brown said.

A single standard that combines nuclear and renewables could also hurt development of solar projects in another way, Hatfield said. When New Hampshire utilities do not purchase enough renewable energy credits to cover the requirements, they must make an alternative compliance payment. These payments are the only source of money for the state Renewable Energy Fund, which provides grants and rebates for residential solar installations and energy efficiency projects. 

"If you add in nukes and therefore there’s plentiful inexpensive certificates, then you basically have no alternative compliance payments," Hatfield says. "It could potentially dry up the only real source we have in the state for clean energy rebates."

Although Vose and the bill’s other authors have not yet released the details of the proposal, he has indicated that he would not like the new clean energy standard to significantly increase costs for New Hampshire’s ratepayers. The existing standard cost ratepayers $58 million in 2022, when utilities were required to buy certificates covering 15 percent of the power they supplied, according to a state report issued last month. 

The legislation may meet the same fate as last year’s effort, Vose acknowledged, but he is still eager to get people talking about the issue. 

"Even if we can’t get such a standard passed in this session," he said, "we can at least begin a serious discussion about what a clean energy standard might look like." 

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