Being from New Hampshire, I’m used to frigid winters, but the recent “bomb cyclone” and sustained cold snap felt by much of the East Coast was like nothing I’ve experienced in recent memory. I, like so many others in my community, am glad that my lights and heat stayed on throughout the storm.
Extreme weather events like this sustained cold spell strain our energy grid. This is due in part to increased electricity usage by consumers, but also because difficult weather conditions can disrupt the fuel supply of many power sources. This is why nuclear energy is so important. Nuclear plants have their fuel on-site and they provide a steady supply of always-on, reliable baseload power. They are built to safely operate even in extreme weather. So even with the wind, below-freezing temperatures and snow, nuclear facilities are able to continue generating power.
Case in point, the country’s nuclear fleet operated between 98 percent and 100 percent efficiency during this recent record-breaking winter weather.
In fact, on Jan. 5, PJM Interconnection, the wholesale electricity market operating in the mid-Atlantic and Midwest reported one of the highest wintertime peak demands for electricity ever witnessed. Due in part to the reliability of nuclear energy, PJM could meet this demand and the low price of nuclear helped soften the sharp spikes in energy prices.
Despite the clear benefits of nuclear in times like these, the future of nuclear energy is at risk because of policies at both the state and local level, which do not value these contributions. Around the country, nuclear facilities have closed or are scheduled to close prematurely. This leaves our grid less resilient and reliable during these episodes of extreme weather. For example, in 2014 the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in Vernon, Vt., which produced 26 percent of the region’s energy, closed, leaving natural gas to fill the void.
But as we saw recently, natural gas is not always the best solution. During this sustained cold snap, Platts reported that the demand for natural gas jumped more than 20 percent. Because of the crippling weather conditions, the wellhead equipment froze and slowed production. Consequently, natural gas prices nearly tripled overnight. Natural gas became so expensive that power plants in the northeast switched to burning oil and municipal solid waste in order to provide the electricity once generated by Vermont Yankee to keep the lights on in the region.
This should be a call to action. Without recognition and action by the federal and state government to promote nuclear energy, we’re likely to see these events happen more frequently. Unfortunately, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission recently rejected a proposal by the Department of Energy to incentivize resilient and reliable sources of energy, like nuclear, that store more than a 90-day supply of fuel onsite. This would have ensured that there would always be a baseload energy source to power the grid, even if extreme weather disrupted fuel transmission for other energy sources.
I implore our leaders at the federal and state level to enact policies that protect this critical energy source, so that the next time the arctic sends frigid weather our way, we have the reliable, clean energy we need to keep us all safe and warm.
Judd Gregg, a former Republican member of the U.S. Senate from New Hampshire, is a member of the Advocacy Council of Nuclear Matters.
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