On Tuesday, October 13, 2015, Entergy announced that it would close the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth, Massachusetts by June 1, 2019. The news of Pilgrim’s early closure has sparked a lot of questions from community residents, business and political leaders speculating about how this will impact the energy markets and future energy needs of Massachusetts. Conservation Law Foundation answers the questions on many people’s minds.
What does CLF think about the closure? Pilgrim was an aging plant on its last legs and its closure was inevitable. It continues to pose significant risks to residents and the costs to keep it open are simply too great. Once again, our energy markets have effectively served to force an old, out dated and risky generator out of service. While the closure of Pilgrim is positive from a safety perspective, it will be essential to replace it with carbon-free resources in order to meet our greenhouse gas reduction requirements. It is now more important than ever that our region policymakers make smart energy choices that protect our health, our climate, and create jobs.
What does this mean for the people of Plymouth and those downwind of the plant? Shutting down and decommissioning a nuclear power plant takes significant time and expense, but the end result will be much safer South Shore and Cape Cod communities.
What about the local economic impact? Entergy has said that they will try to relocate as many plant employees as possible within the company after the plant shuts down, and the Governor yesterday said that he would work to provide opportunities for anyone left behind. It is imperative for Massachusetts to spend more money and effort to help communities plan for the inevitable transition when a large aging power plant closes. Work in this area is still ongoing in Salem, Somerset, and Holyoke, which have seen coal plant closures in recent years.
Why is the plant closing? Originally built in 1972, Pilgrim is already past the common 40 year useful life for a nuclear plant of that vintage. While it was technically relicensed for 20 more years in 2012, it has been beset by safety problems and emergency shutdowns, leading to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission naming it one of the three least safe nuclear plants in the country in early September. Entergy has stated that it cannot afford to keep the plant running any longer than 2019.
Why can’t they afford to keep running? How do they get their money? Since most of the power plants in New England, like Pilgrim Station, are owned by private companies now rather than by publicly regulated utilities, the cost to maintain an outdated and unsafe nuclear plant can’t be passed on to the businesses and families who buy electricity in the Commonwealth, and electric prices in the New England energy market have become too low to support the work Entergy would need to do to keep the plant active. This is an example of the electric market in New England working exactly as it was designed.
So when will it actually close? The stated June 1, 2019 date coincides with the end of the plant’s current electric generation commitments to New England’s power grid operator, ISO-New England. In order to close, it will need to formally petition ISO-NE for permission, in what is called a “delist bid.” One key factor in determining when the plant will actually end operations will Entergy’s decision whether to shoulder the costs of scheduled refueling and maintenance in the spring of 2017. While Entergy says it will decide on an exact closure date in the first half of 2016, CLF believes that Entergy is unlikely to go through with the refueling. The company has already committed to buying electricity to meet its commitment to the system through June 1, 2019 if it closes before that date.
Does this mean Massachusetts can’t meet its legal requirements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under the Global Warming Solutions Act? Not at all. Our long-term achievement of this critical requirement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions was never dependent on Pilgrim, because it was always clear that the plant would shut down well before 2050. This does present a challenge and an opportunity to lawmakers to invest some of our electric purchasing power in zero-carbon resources like onshore wind, offshore wind, and solar which will provide significant cost benefits in the long term as the costs of fossil fuels rise.