Monday , January 22 2018

Energy policy should focus on climate

Good sense on energy hasn’t fled Washington entirely. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has struck down the Trump administration’s bewildering proposal to subsidize coal-fired power for its “resilience” in the event of big storms or natural disasters. Making
coal cheaper would have damaged health and cost lives by boosting air pollution, and made energy markets less efficient to boot.
FERC also saw no “resilience” rationale for subsidizing nuclear power, and its reasoning was again correct. Yet nuclear power is indeed needed — not for its dependability, but for its lack of greenhouse-gas emissions. Energy policy ought to support nuclear power, though in the right way and for the right reasons.
Nuclear power is crucial to the effort to stop climate change. It safely provides about 20 percent of electricity in the US, and some 60 percent of clean energy. This share is poised to shrink. Five plants have closed before their time in recent years, and half a dozen more may also soon shut down.
When nuclear plants close, wind and solar power cannot pick up the slack. Instead power generators turn to coal and natural gas, increasing greenhouse-gas emissions. A smart, responsible energy policy would make addressing this problem a priority.
This is a compelling reason to protect it from the forces now nudging it out of the market — chiefly, the low cost of natural gas.
The best way to keep clean nuclear power in the mix would be to include its climate value in energy prices by enacting a substantial national carbon tax. Unfortunately, political polarization and willful blindness to the harms of climate change make that option impossible for the moment.
That means states will need to take measures of their own. Illinois and New York are spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year to keep nuclear plants running within their borders. The New Jersey legislature should follow suit: It’s considering rate-payer subsidies to keep two plants going.
Another strategy is for states to expand their renewable portfolio standards — which require that a certain proportion of power come from renewable sources — to make them low-carbon portfolio standards, hence taking in nuclear as well as wind, solar and hydropower.
Yes, such actions raise the cost of power — just as a carbon tax would. The price is worth paying to have a chance of avoiding catastrophic
climate change.

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