When public officials reach for over-the-top metaphors, more often than not it’s an effort to distract the public from the question at hand. Such was the case when Governor Cuomo argued that the state should spend billions of ratepayer dollars to shore up New York’s aging nuclear power plants.
Last week, the governor defended his plan when a reporter asked if nuclear had a role in the state’s energy portfolio. The governor responded that there were protesters for virtually all of the state’s energy sources, including gas, coal and nuclear. He said, when combined with renewables, nuclear was an important energy source going forward.
“Unless we’re willing to go back to candles, which would be uncomfortable and inconvenient, we need energy generation,” Cuomo said.
Of course, the issue is not whether the state should subsidize nuclear power or return to candle power. The question is should the state spend big bucks to prop up a 20th century power source that has a host of significant problems?
The Cuomo Administration is arguing to preserve the plants because they’re an emissions-free power source. The plan to preserve the facilities is being included in the state’s Clean Energy Standard plan, which mandates that New York receive about half its power from renewables, such as solar and wind power, by 2030.
The agency handling the decision is the Public Service Commission. The PSC is considering a plan that offers nearly $1 billion in ratepayer-financed subsidies over each of the next two years to save nuke plants battered by rising costs and competition from cheap natural gas.
That subsidy is likely to grow to the multibillion-dollar range over the 12-year period proposed by the state. Approval of the subsidies would make New York one of the first states to reward nuclear plants.
The PSC outlined the plan in January, saying that the subsidy could cost anywhere from $59 million to $658 million by 2023. But recently the Administration disclosed that the actual amount would be closer to $1 billion over the first two years. And that costs would climb steeply thereafter. The plan could cost $8 billion over the next 12 years, with all of the cost passed on to New York’s ratepayers by adding the subsidies to monthly utility bills.
From the state’s perspective, the subsidies are a way of putting a dollar value on the benefits of a reliable carbon-free power source. The Administration also argues that the estimates of costs to ratepayers’ utility bills do not consider possible rising energy costs as well as the cost of providing energy if the plants were shut down due to lack of public financial support.
Propping them up for now, supporters say, will give the state time to foster a stable mix of renewable energy sources. The plants accounted for about a third of the power New York generated last year, as well as more than half of its emissions-free energy.
Those rosy estimates ignore other costs – there is plenty of fossil fuel burned to mine and transport the uranium used in the energy production process and, of course, there are the issues of disposal of the radioactive wastes and the dangers associated with these power plants generally.
Right now and for the foreseeable future, the plants themselves are the storage sites for radioactive wastes, which must be kept secure for thousands of years. As seen in the recent Japanese disaster, these types of power plants can cause devastating damage if an accident occurs.
In addition to possible public health concerns, it was that staggering sum in the growth of the ratepayer subsidy—revised upward close to the end of the comment period– that caused watchdog groups to question whether the state is about to approve a major industry bailout with minimal public scrutiny — even though it is the public’s utility bills that will grow.
The Administration has set an aggressive schedule for consideration of its plan with only a two-week public comment period. The PSC is expected to act at its August 1 meeting.
That’s an extremely tight timetable. Too often, the Cuomo Administration has advanced costly plans without adequate public review. The multi-billion dollar new Tappan Zee Bridge still does not have a financial plan that would let the public know of future increases in roadway tolls, for example.
It is the public’s money. If they are informed, and agree to accept the costs and risks, then the plan is worth debating. But it is wrong to move ahead without a robust public debate.