April 12, 2020
At the end of this month, the Unit 2 reactor at the Indian Point Energy Center in Buchanan, New York will be permanently shut down. Next April, the final reactor at the site, Unit 3, will also be shuttered.
The premature closure of the nuclear plant is bad climate policy. The closure, which was announced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2017, will increase reliance on natural gas-fired generators and in doing so increase the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. In 2013, when Michael Bloomberg was mayor of New York City, his administration estimated that closing Indian Point and replacing it with gas-fired generation will “increase New York City’s greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 15 percent.”
But the premature closure of the 2,069-megawatt nuclear plant is even worse land-use policy. Here’s why: replacing the 16 terawatt-hours of carbon-free electricity that is now being produced by the twin-reactor plant with wind turbines will require 1,300 times as much territory as what is now covered by Indian Point.
Energy policy and land-use policy are inextricable. Regulatory decisions about energy infrastructure – regardless of whether the project involves oil wells, power plants, or transmission lines – impact land use. And land-use restrictions, whether for residential development, parks, or open space, impact the types of energy infrastructure that can be built.
Land-use battles over renewable energy have been raging in New York for more than a decade. In 2007, after months of intense debate that pitted neighbors against each other, the town of Meredith elected a new town board that quickly enacted a ban on wind projects. The fight in Meredith became the focus of the documentary Windfall, which premiered in 2012. Since then, numerous other towns in the state have been battling the encroachment of Big Wind. The towns of Yates and Somerset, along with three upstate counties — Erie, Orleans, and Niagara – have been actively fighting a proposed 200-megawatt project called Lighthouse Wind, which aims to put dozens of 600-foot-high turbines on the shores of Lake Ontario. Solar projects are also facing opposition. Last year, the town of Cambria rejected a proposed 100-megawatt solar project that would have covered about 900 acres with solar panels.
Last September, homeowners who live near the recently commissioned Arkwright Summit wind project, which is owned by the Portuguese company EDP Renewables, filed a class-action lawsuit against the owners of the project. About 100 plaintiffs are claiming that the 78-megawatt facility is too noisy and that the noise is disturbing their sleep. They are also claiming that the wind project has reduced the value of their homes and that landowners who have tried to sell their property have not been able to do so.
These land-use and legal battles are relevant today because Indian Point is being shuttered at the very same time New York is stripping local communities of their ability to impede or stop the construction of wind turbines and solar projects in their jurisdictions. In February, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo added a provision, known as Article 23, to the state-budget bill that gives state authorities the final say on siting renewable projects. Furthermore, last year, the state passed a law that requires the state’s utilities to be obtaining 70 percent of their electricity from renewables by 2030.
Several environmental groups pushed for the renewable mandates and the closure of Indian Point, including Riverkeeper and the Natural Resources Defense Council. But in their headlong rush to embrace renewables, those groups have largely ignored what the closure of Indian Point will mean with regard to land use.
Here are the facts: Indian Point covers 239 acres, or about 1 square kilometer. To put Indian Point’s footprint into context, think of it this way: you could fit three Indian Points inside Central Park in Manhattan.
Based on projected output from offshore wind projects (which have higher capacity factors than onshore wind projects), producing that same amount of electricity as is now generated by Indian Point – about 16 terawatt-hours per year – would require installing about 4,000 megawatts of wind turbines. That estimate is based on the proposed South Fork offshore wind project, a 90-megawatt facility that is expected to produce 370 gigawatt-hours per year. (Note that these output figures are substantially higher than what can be expected from onshore wind capacity.) Using the numbers from South Fork, a bit of simple division shows that each megawatt of wind capacity will produce about 4.1 gigawatt-hours per year. Thus, matching the energy output of Indian Point will require about 4,000 megawatts of wind capacity.
That’s a lot of wind turbines. According to the American Wind Energy Association, existing wind-energy capacity in New York state now totals about 1,987 megawatts. That capacity will require enormous amounts of land. Numerous studies, including ones by the Department of Energy have found that the footprint, or capacity density, of wind energy projects is about 3 watts per square meter. Thus, 4,000 megawatts (four billion watts) divided by 3 watts per square meter = 1.33 billion square meters or 1,333 square kilometers. (Or roughly 515 square miles.)
Those numbers are almost too big to imagine. Therefore, let’s look again at Central Park. Recall that three Indian Points could fit inside the confines of the famed park. Thus, replacing the energy production from Indian Point would require paving a land area equal to 400 Central Parks with forests of wind turbines.
Put another way, the 1,300 square kilometers of wind turbines needed to replace the electricity output of Indian Point is nearly equal to the size of Albany County. Would New York legislators who convene in the capitol in Albany consent to having the entire county covered in wind turbines? I can’t be sure, but I am guessing that they might oppose such plan.
These basic calculations prove some undeniable facts. Among them: Indian Point represents the apogee of densification. The massive amount of energy being produced by the two reactors on such a small footprint provides a perfect illustration of what may be nuclear energy’s single greatest virtue: its unsurpassed power density. (Power density is a measure of energy flow from a given area, volume, or mass.) High power density sources, like nuclear, allow us to spare land for nature. Density is green.
Alas, the environmental groups that are influencing policymakers in New York and in other states are strident in their belief that nuclear energy is bad and that renewables are good. But that theology ignores the greenness of density and the essential role that nuclear energy must play if we are to have any hope of making significant reductions in carbon-dioxide emissions.
In short, the premature closure of Indian Point – and the raging land-use battles over renewable energy siting in New York – should lead environmental groups to rethink their definition of what qualifies as “green.” Just because wind and solar are renewable doesn’t mean they are green. In fact, the land-use problems with renewables show the exact opposite.
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