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Retiring more nuclear plants could hurt Mass. climate goals

The Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

A reality check: Last year, solar panels and wind turbines generated less than 5 percent of the utility-scale electricity generated in Massachusetts. That’s despite consistent state support for renewable power for the last two decades, and the amazing growth of renewables in windier and sunnier states. Most of the state’s zero-carbon electricity instead comes from nuclear power — specifically, the aging Pilgrim and Seabrook nuclear power plants.

Nuclear’s role in meeting New England’s greenhouse gas goals is underappreciated, but the numbers are sobering: When the 680 megawatt Pilgrim reactor closes next year, it will remove in one day more zero-emission electricity production than all the new windmills and solar panels Massachusetts has added over the last 20 years. That big offshore wind farm that the state wants built in the waters off Southeastern Massachusetts? The $2 billion project could have made inroads against fossil fuels. Instead, those turbines will just be filling, on windy days, the hole that will be left after Pilgrim’s closure.


Massachusetts has anointed itself a leader on tackling climate change. But other states, including Connecticut, Illinois, and New Jersey, have set the pace when it comes to the politically difficult steps needed to save the nuclear industry, which is still the source of most of the country’s zero-emission electricity. Massachusetts needs to catch up. Pilgrim may be a lost cause, but by adjusting its policies now, the state could help prevent the larger 1,250 megawatt reactor at Seabrook in New Hampshire from meeting the same fate.

The existing support for low-emission sources, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, has shown that it’s too modest to do the job. The multistate cap-and-trade program is designed to reduce emissions by putting a price on carbon dioxide, effectively giving nonemitting sources a competitive advantage. But it wasn’t enough to save Pilgrim, and it hasn’t been enough to stop planned or previous nuclear closures in other member states, including Vermont and New York.


Another way to backstop nuclear is via an expansion of the state’s new clean energy standard, a new policy that requires utilities to obtain a more of their electricity from low-emission sources in Massachusetts or nearby jurisdictions. The utilities would be required to buy credits from low-emission electricity producers. Right now, those sources must have started operating after 2010 to qualify. But the Baker administration is considering pushing the requirement back to 1990, the year that Seabrook opened. That would allow the plant to make money by selling those credits.

That might be a tough sell — partly because of decades of fearmongering about nuclear power, and partly because state officials fear making ratepayers pay for a source that might stay in business anyway. Seabrook’s owners have not indicated any plans to close the plant, and its larger size should make it more economically viable than Pilgrim.

But without intervention, the writing is on the wall for nuclear power. Five nuclear plants have closed over the last few years, hammered by competition from cheap natural gas. More closures are planned. Natural gas is expected to remain at rock-bottom prices for decades. That’s been good for consumers and the environment, since the low prices have also pushed many coal and oil-burning plants out of business, but it does call for a policy solution to help nuclear survive.


To some environmental groups, nothing short of 100 percent renewable power will ever be acceptable. But that’s putting ideology ahead of emissions. If the state were to rule out supporting nuclear — or other low-emission options, like fossil fuel plants with carbon capture, a technology that has already been proven in Massachusetts — that choice would commit the state to an expensive future and a real risk of failure. Massachusetts doesn’t have favorable onshore wind and sun conditions; offshore wind has more potential, but is years away. Importing ever-increasing amounts of hydropower from Canada is an option, and the state is also pursuing a power line through Maine in a separate procurement, but the northern New England states seem to be running out of patience with Massachusetts’ transmission demands.

So why make the state’s reduction goals harder to reach than they already are? To keep the region’s climate goals achievable, policy makers should ensure that Pilgrim is the last nuclear power plant that New England loses.