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A Slight Chance of Meltdown


And then there’s the obvious if counterintuitive idea that the cheapest way to make power is to not use it. Politicians and executives of all stripes are becoming more bullish on energy-conservation measures, which Kevin Lanahan, Con Ed’s director of governmental relations, calls “the low-hanging fruit.” To put Indian Point’s 2,000-megawatt output in some perspective: During the summer, New Yorkers use approximately 6.1 million window-unit air conditioners (about one fifth the national total) that together draw 2,500 megawatts of power. This past summer, Con Ed initiated “demand response” programs that gave payments to customers who agreed to cut back their power consumption during peak periods. For those four scorching days in July, the program cut down peak demand by approximately 500 megawatts. Similar conservation measures are taking place within buildings, too. The Empire State Building, after an energy retrofit, is advertising itself as something along the lines of a Biosphere 3, with efficiencies and renewables galore; it has powered down energy consumption by 38 percent.

The future of New York City’s power grid, as sketched by environmentalists and building managers alike, has a lot to do with programs like demand response, which doesn’t cost anything and saves everyone money. But there are a lot of other, more experimental projects in the works: industrial-grade solar panels that might blanket city landfills; wind turbines at Fresh Kills park; tidal-power experiments under the Verrazano-Narrows. It’s not impossible to imagine New York eventually powering itself cleanly through the life of its estuary, the tides and the winds, with power moving from your rooftop down to neighborhood underground batteries.

But at the moment, everything appears to be in limbo, as various private companies wait for the state to make its move. “This is really uncharted territory,” says Richard T. Anderson, president of the New York Building Congress. “We need a call to action. Is this governor going to be an activist governor in terms of power?” Part of the problem is that Andrew Cuomo doesn’t have nearly the same ability to get things done than his father had. Two decades ago, if the city were facing a power shortage, the state would have asked a public utility like Con Ed to build a plant. But when the industry deregulated, Con Ed got out of the business of building its own plants. Now, if the governor wants anything built, all he can do is try to encourage the market by signaling his support for private construction, with state-issued proposal requests, or offering an energy contract to a preferred plant via the New York Power Authority.

The mayor has even less power over the power grid. He is one of the most green-friendly mayors on the planet, and he has traveled the world extolling his efforts to experiment with bridge-top windmills, but he does not even have the power to renovate the kerosene-guzzling plant in Astoria. NRG, the Astoria plant’s owner, has already lined up its permits and community support, but it will only begin construction after bank financing comes through. And banks want to know there are energy customers lined up. Which is more of an issue, so long as Indian Point still generates its 2,000 megawatts.

In the meantime, the folks at Entergy have their own ideas of New York City’s energy future. “With time, and a lot of effort, I think we’re on the right side of the issues,” says Rick Smith, the company’s vice-­president. He is sitting in a conference room on an upper floor of the New York Times Building, at the offices of one of Entergy’s lawyers, overlooking the city below. “I think we will get our relicensing,” he says.

When Smith talks about replacing Indian Point, he does the same 2,000-megawatt math everyone else does and, in so doing, emphasizes each alternative’s downsides—air-pollution increases, a possible degradation of the grid. “Con Edison got it right when it cited Indian Point as really important to the grid,” he says. He plays up the greenness of nuclear power. “It’s basically a zero emitter.” He talks about the link between energy and the GDP, and he discounts conservation programs as cramping economic growth. “That kind of cuts counter to the city’s goal of creating jobs,” he says.

Sitting next to Smith is Jim Steets, director of communications for Indian Point, and together they begin to sketch their vision of a New York City populated with small nuclear plants dotted throughout the boroughs. “It’s a little like an aircraft carrier,” Smith says. “I think modular.”

“I grew up in grade school diving under the desk,” he goes on. “People still have the bomb theory, but a couple of generations down from now, everyone becomes more comfortable with nuclear power. That’s why we try so hard to get the facts out. Everyone who goes through the plant comes away with a better understanding.”

Steets pipes in. “The thing is, there isn’t really anything about dealing with radiation that we don’t understand.”

“You know,” says Smith. “I had an MIT professor, he did a presentation on Fukushima, and I said, ‘Listen, you have to explain what’s going on there and how it’s different from here.’ And he said to me, ‘Rick, you know what the problem is? Today we can monitor radiation to the finest detail, and we report it to the finest detail.’ ” This precision, industry officials believe, has distorted public opinion and led to overregulation; by their thinking, a little exposure to radiation isn’t a big deal. “Even the releases at Fukushima,” Smith says, “most of them would have very little effect on public health and safety.”

“Unfortunately,” Steets adds, “our detractors rely so much on fear.”

Smith nods in agreement.

“They refuse to look analytically.”


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