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A Slight Chance of Meltdown

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As for Spectra’s proposed pipeline, opponents point to the contract the company has signed with Chesapeake Energy, which was recently fined $900,000 for contaminating water supplies in Pennsylvania. They note that there would be nothing stopping Spectra from importing fracked gas from upstate, either. The mayor has spoken out strongly for the project, telling reporters last week that it is “a gas line we desperately need.” He also took the opportunity to make a larger point. “There’s no free lunch,” he said. “You’re gonna have choices. You want more nuclear? Do you want more coal? Do you want more natural gas?” Or as Entergy helpfully tweeted last month: “Yes, there may be alternative sources of power—but at what cost to our economy & environment?

Entergy poses a good question: If you are against the possible destruction of New York City by Indian Point, and also against the as-yet-unquantifiable possibility of watershed damage caused by fracking, and at the same time against summer blackouts and all their attendant public-health and safety issues, is there anything left to be for?

As it happens, there is something exciting about the possibility of closing Indian Point: It could serve as a system-altering shock to New York’s energy portfolio. Even people who are concerned about shutting down the plant see this as a chance to rethink how to power the metropolitan area.

For 75 years after Thomas Edison built the first power plant and distribution line in lower Manhattan, city power was distributed locally through a patchwork of lines. Then Robert Moses built enormous hydropower projects on the Canadian border and large transmission thruways straight down the state. This vastly improved the city’s power capacity, but those transmission lines haven’t been expanded in over a decade, and so even as more low-impact power is generated upstate and in Canada, only a limited amount can make it through the terrible energy traffic jam in the lines between Albany and Westchester. This is partly what has made Indian Point so attractive to power planners: It adds a big jolt of electricity exactly where lines clog up the worst.

“Closing Indian Point is a no-brainer,” says Paul Gallay, Riverkeeper’s president. The Riverkeeper-NRDC report outlines ways to bypass the nuclear plant with what would essentially be extension cords: huge new energy cables that could draw thousands of megawatts from Canada and northern New York to the city. Something similar is expected to be highlighted in another report due in January from the New York Independent Systems Operator, or NYISO, the nonprofit in charge of the state power grid’s operation (it is the FAA of electrons). One idea on the drawing board, the Champlain Hudson Power Express, is a 330-mile cable running from Quebec to Queens, estimated to cost $1.9 billion. Another, the West Point Transmission project, is a 100-mile cable from Albany, estimated at $900 million. Both of these cables would travel mostly underwater, which would reduce nimby concerns about where to site the power lines. A simpler but less ambitious option is to add more capacity to the existing power lines running through the middle of the state. Cuomo has yet to champion any cables specifically, but they are likely to play a role in whatever energy portfolio he proposes.

Any improvement to the state’s transmission lines would, according to Congdon, reduce electric bills. It would also be a de facto plus for the environment and public health. That’s not just because faraway power plants affect fewer people than power plants located in cities. It’s also because, at least for now, renewable energy like wind power is easier to produce up north, where wind is more constant and land is cheaper. (The West Point Transmission line, for instance, is tied in part to wind power in the Finger Lakes and Great Lakes regions.) And opening a huge market like New York City to upstate wind and solar might encourage the kind of investment that could bring down costs.

If Indian Point is closed and transmission-line improvements aren’t enough to fill the gap, New York City would have to rely more on power made within city limits. This, in the short term, could be environmentally disadvantageous. Some of our local power plants rely on kerosene, a particularly dirty fuel, and running them more frequently would lead to increased carbon emissions. However, without Indian Point, New York City would have a stronger incentive to upgrade these plants to run more efficiently. Out in Astoria, for instance, there is a “peaker plant” whose 32 retired jet engines currently burn kerosene and natural gas a total of 800 cycles a year. A plan is in the works to convert the engines to an energy-efficient combined-cycle plant, which would boost the plant’s output from 600 megawatts to 1,040 megawatts and drop emissions by 90 percent on peak days. Renovating just this plant alone would reduce significant emissions in the entire city by 16 percent.


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