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Indian Point shutdown: Natural gas filled the nuclear energy gap

Lohud.com, Westchester County logo Lohud.com, Westchester County 4/7/2019 Thomas C. Zambito
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For more than two weeks, the Indian Point nuclear power plant failed to generate a single megawatt of power. And yet, in Westchester County and New York City, lights were burning, refrigerators were humming and phones were charging.

Behind the scenes, though, something occurred that made all that possible.

In the days after Indian Point powered down — a rare occurrence prompted by a malfunction in one reactor and scheduled spring maintenance in the other — the state’s electric grid pivoted.

With an assist from the grid’s overseers, the state’s energy resources shifted in a way that could offer a preview of what’s to come in the years ahead when Indian Point is scheduled to shut down for good.

a bridge over a body of water: The Indian Point Energy Center nuclear power plant in Buchanan as seen from across the Hudson River in Tomkins Cove March 21, 2019. © Peter Carr/The Journal News The Indian Point Energy Center nuclear power plant in Buchanan as seen from across the Hudson River in Tomkins Cove March 21, 2019.

Natural gas’ contribution to the grid ticked upward, while renewable wind and solar power continued to play a lesser role, according to an analysis of minute-by-minute data compiled by the New York Independent System Operator (NYISO), the nonprofit charged with making sure the state has enough energy.

a large ship in a body of water © Provided by Gannett Co., Inc.

NATURAL GAS: Check the minute-by-minute data here

INDIAN POINT: Shutdown enters second week

RIVERKEEPER: Fighting to keep natural gas from replacing nuclear energy

The Journal News/lohud analyzed the state’s fuel mix for the week after March 15, when Indian Point’s Unit 2 reactor automatically shut down when a generator malfunctioned.

The analysis was focused on 5 p.m. each day, the time of day when energy demand is said to be at its peak. The NYISO calculates the state’s fuel mix in megawatts. A single megawatt of electricity provides enough energy to supply the power of 800 to 1,000 homes.

On all but one of the seven days analyzed, natural gas’ contribution to the state’s grid increased, while nuclear power decreased all seven days. The day after the shutdown natural gas' contribution decreased by 45 megawatts.  

The largest increase in natural gas’ contribution during that time span came on March 18 when it was at 3,581 megawatts, nearly 750 megawatts more than its 2,837 megawatts contribution on March 13, two days before the shutdown.

Nuclear power generated by three upstate plants decreased to 2,711 megawatts on March 18 from 4,240 megawatts on March 13, the data show. On just two of the seven days, the contribution from solar and wind power was more than 1,000 megwatts.

“Natural gas is filling the gap,” said Darren Suarez, who keeps track of the state’s daily energy mix for the Business Council of New York state. “It’s the largest dispatchable resource that’s available at that point in time and we’d expect it to fill the gap.”

Weather, location impact fuel mix

The analysis does not offer a perfect comparison.

The state’s daily fuel mix depends on a host of factors. Sunnier and windier days produce more solar and wind power. Mid-summer days, when air conditioners are running around the clock, create peak demand and require more energy capacity. March is typically a month of low demand when power plants — Indian Point among them — schedule required maintenance.

Demand can vary depending on the region, also. On the days analyzed, the amount of dual fuel — either natural gas or oil — decreased. Natural gas generators in New York City are required to maintain a second fuel source to guard against disruptions during periods of peak demand.

But those who monitor the state’s fuel mix say Indian Point's shutdown provided a rare opportunity for a glimpse at what lies ahead unless renewable sources of power gain a larger percentage of the state's energy mix.

A snapshot in time taken from NYISO's real-time dashboard, which is updated every five minutes, offers some insight into the state's current fuel mix.

For example, on Monday afternoon, wind and solar contributed about 6.5 percent of the state's energy mix while another renewable, hydropower, was at 28.43 percent, NYISO data show. New York has the largest hydroelectric plant east of the Rockies in Niagara Falls.

a bridge over a body of water: Water from the Niagara River passes through a hydroelectric dam at the Robert Moses Generating Facility at Lewiston, New York. When the power plant went online in 1961 it was the biggest hydroelectric producer in the Western world and is still the main source of electricity for the State of New York. © John Moore/Getty Images Water from the Niagara River passes through a hydroelectric dam at the Robert Moses Generating Facility at Lewiston, New York. When the power plant went online in 1961 it was the biggest hydroelectric producer in the Western world and is still the main source of electricity for the State of New York.

Natural gas and dual fuels combined for about 46 percent of the mix while nuclear fuel accounted for about 20 percent. 

The state remains reliant on natural gas, particularly in a downstate region that does not enjoy the varied mix of renewable energy resources that exist upstate.

The downstate region, which includes the Lower Hudson Valley, uses 66 percent of the state’s energy but gets 70 percent from fossil fuels like natural gas, according to a 2018 report by NYISO.

In a 2017 report on the impact of Indian Point’s looming shutdown, the NYISO said three natural gas plants either online or soon to be would add more than 1,800 megawatts of the energy to the grid and help close the 2,000-megawatt gap left when Indian Point shuts down in 2021.

Transmission of power problem

Grid watchers say in order to add more renewables to the downstate grid, the state will need to resolve a transmission bottleneck that prevents upstate power from getting down into the Lower Hudson Valley and points south.

“While some energy flows from upstate to downstate, transmission constraints on the grid limit the ability to supply more clean energy to downstate consumers,” the NYISO wrote in 2018.

It called New York’s transmission troubles “A Tale of Two Grids.”

“What we’re looking at is a very constrained transmission system,” said Suarez. “We have excess electricity generation in the upstate regions at times because of renewables, primarily hydropower and significant wind. But between Albany and south those transmission constraints are inhibiting that electricity from getting to the city and being a replacement for some of what’s going to be missing when Indian Point goes offline.”

Manna Jo Greene, the environmental director for Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, says greater focus needs to be placed on resolving not only the transmission issues but other hurdles slowing the expansion of renewables.

“I think right now we need to do a better job of planning from the ground up,” Greene said. “There is a way to do it. We need to identify the obstacles, resolving them and implement them.”

State officials say they’re working on the problem. 

The NYISO is weighing competing proposals for an initiative that would expand transmission capability within rights of way in Central New York and the Hudson Valley, which would help ease the flow of energy downstate, its 2018 "Power Trends" report says.

The state also is creating incentives for more efficient energy uses that will lower demand in the coming decades.

“The state has extensively and proactively planned for the eventual closure of Indian Point by making sure more than enough replacement power is available to ensure reliability, mitigate electricity price impacts and achieve environmental objectives,” said James Denn, a spokesman for the state’s Public Service Commission. “Further, Governor (Andrew) Cuomo’s nation-leading clean energy initiative will ensure renewable energy is available to replace Indian Point’s production.”

a large ship in a body of water: Indian Point Energy Center in Buchanan, viewed from Tomkins Cove on Tuesday, April 2, 2019. © John Meore/The Journal News Indian Point Energy Center in Buchanan, viewed from Tomkins Cove on Tuesday, April 2, 2019.

Cuomo's clean energy goals

The state has invested nearly $3 billion in large-scale energy projects across the state in an effort to achieve Cuomo’s clean-energy goal of having the state rely on renewables for 70 percent of its energy needs by 2030.

It wants to create 9,000 megawatts of offshore wind energy, much of that coming from wind farms planned for the coast of Long Island, as well as 6,000 megawatts of solar energy by 2025. Dozens of on-shore wind and solar projects are already in the works.

Cuomo said he wants the state’s electricity grid to be 100 percent carbon-free by 2040.

The Champlain Hudson Power Express would bring another 1,000 megawatts of hydroelectric power down from Canada by way of 333-miles of underground cable that will course down the Hudson River and on to New York City. The project is scheduled to break ground by next year.

“Our 1,000 MW buried and resilient transmission line will help New York state meet 15 percent of the state’s impressive proposed goals,” spokeswoman Jennifer Laird White said.

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Environmental groups opposed to fossil fuels say in the coming years renewables will continue to advance the gains they’ve made in recent years and natural gas will take a back seat then. 

“In the years after Indian Point’s closing, gas is not going to know what hit it,” said Paul Gallay, the president of Riverkeeper.

The Hudson River environmental group worked alongside the state of New York to negotiate the 2017 deal in which Indian Point’s owner, Louisiana-based Entergy, agreed to shut down the plant. Entergy cited competitive pressures created by the low price of abundant natural gas as one reason for its decision to shutter the Buchanan plant.

“When we negotiated with the state and Entergy we deliberately agreed to allow enough time,” Gallay said. “We’ve got two more years.” 

Indian Point's Unit 3 reactor is set to close next year, and Unit 2 in 2021.

The operators of natural gas plants take a different view.

They say their plants will continue to play a critical role in providing the Lower Hudson Valley’s energy needs long after Indian Point shuts down.

In fact, the Maryland company that operates CPV Valley Energy Center in Middletown says natural gas will provide nearly all the power for New York City and the Lower Hudson Valley on peak demand days once Indian Point closes down. And they say their state-of-the-art facilities are replacing plants that emit more fossil generating emissions.

“Yes, we are getting more renewables and if we get transmission upgrades in the next few years that can help, which is great,” said Tom Rumsey, a senior vice president for Competitive Power Ventures.

“Energy efficiency programs reduced demand which is very important as well. But they aren’t enough to maintain reliability. At least for the next 20-30 years, some fossil generation will still be needed. The choice we have is do we want newer more efficient, lower emitting generation like Valley or rely on the installed base of older, less efficient generation?”

Reporter Frank Esposito contributed.

This article originally appeared on Rockland/Westchester Journal News: Indian Point shutdown: Natural gas filled the nuclear energy gap

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