By Michael Kuser
ALBANY, N.Y. — A New York State Assembly hearing Monday to explore the Cuomo administration’s subsidies for upstate nuclear plants left lawmakers frustrated as the Public Service Commission and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority declined to attend and Exelon sent no senior executive with knowledge of the subsidy negotiations.
“I’m disappointed that they chose not to attend,” said Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz (D-Bronx), the head of the Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions, who chaired the meeting. “It’s important to hear from PSC and the executive branch.”
Exelon, owner of all the nuclear plants set to receive the zero-emissions credits, sent five witnesses, most of them engineers, with the highest rank being a plant vice president. “Maybe you can take notes and send your answers later,” Dinowitz told them sarcastically.
Exelon also submitted testimony from Joe Dominguez, executive vice president of governmental and regulatory affairs and public policy, who said the company would spend $700 million on the plants because of the financial assurance provided by the ZECs. The ZECs would benefit Exelon’s R.E. Ginna, and Nine Mile Units 1 and 2 generators — and the James A. FitzPatrick plant it is purchasing from Entergy — for more than 12 years.
‘Staggering Increase’ in Pollution
“The closure of these plants would have resulted in a staggering increase in air pollution throughout New York because the electricity void created by the closures would have been filled by coal, oil and gas plants operating in and around New York,” Dominguez said.
The PSC said it was unable to attend because of scheduling problems.
“Unlike the 24 public hearings that the Public Service Commission held across the state in developing the Clean Energy Standard [CES], which were scheduled many weeks in advance, the Assembly only informed us of this hearing late last week, and so we were unable to attend due to scheduling conflicts,” PSC spokesman James Denn said in a statement. The Assembly issued the public notice for the hearing on Monday, Feb. 27.
Instead, the state agencies submitted written testimony from PSC Chair Audrey Zibelman, NYSERDA CEO John Rhodes and Richard Kauffman, Cuomo’s top energy adviser. The statement defended ZECs, part of the CES, which also requires that the state generate 50% of its electricity from renewable resources by 2030.
“Fossil fuel generators and anti-nuclear activists have attempted to mischaracterize the Clean Energy Standard as a bailout or a tax,” they wrote. “But … it is unquestionable that the Clean Energy Standard benefits all New Yorkers across the state and, moreover, charts the most responsible path forward on combating climate change and growing our clean energy economy. … Simply put, without the ZEC program, New Yorkers would pay more for dirtier power.”
$7.6 Billion Cost
Several New York City-area legislators have questioned the wisdom and process of last August’s decision by the PSC to approve the CES and ZECs.
The program distributes costs statewide; in its first two years, all New York energy consumers will pay an additional $965 million to keep the nuclear plants running. The costs may rise by as much as 10% in each successive two-year tranche, for a potential total of $7.6 billion.
Dinowitz chaired the hearing in place of Energy Committee Chairwoman Amy Paulin, who was unable to attend. The other committees participating in the hearing were Environmental Conservation, chaired by Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), and Consumer Affairs and Protection, chaired by Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh (D-Manhattan).
Englebright said that he remembered when nuclear power was being touted as being “too cheap to meter, which doesn’t seem to be the case today.” Kavanagh said he was concerned whether the ZEC charges are fairly imposed and in a transparent manner.
Subsidies Too Generous to One Company?
Blair Horner, director of the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), testified first and focused on “a public information gap, which seems like a deliberate strategy. A year ago, we were talking about a $100 million bailout of the upstate plants. Then, as soon as the Assembly went into recess, a significantly more expensive program appears. Is this democracy? It’s no surprise the executive branch chooses not to testify.”
Horner said that the state already has 800,000 electricity users who are 60 days or more in arrears on their electric bills and that the CES-related rate hikes would be a hardship for them. The Cuomo administration says the CES, including the ZECs, will add less than $2/month to the average residential customer’s bill.
Exelon expects the New York ZECs and a similar program in Illinois will add 17 cents/share to its 2017 earnings, 6% of its total profits, according to Crain’s Chicago Business.
“We view the CES charges as a tax being imposed by the wrong branch of government,” said Horner. “Even if you disagree with our view, at least the process should be changed to create a meaningful public process. It’s your duty as a co-equal branch of government. The beneficiary of this program is one company, and $7.6 billion seems overly generous to me. Hit the pause button.”
Assemblyman Will Barclay (R-Pulaski) responded that NYPIRG “seems more anti-nuke than pro-public. There were no complaints about zero-emissions credits for renewables.”
Legislature Should Set Energy Policy
Former Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, a longtime opponent of the Indian Point nuclear plant, testified as a private citizen and reminded lawmakers that the PSC was indeed “a legislative agency, not an offshoot of the executive.”
Brodsky urged the Assembly to reconsider the decision to spend an estimated $303,000 per job per year in subsidizing “decrepit” nuclear facilities. “They’re fixer-uppers, and it costs more to do that than to live in a new house,” he said.
The social cost of carbon used by federal agencies to value the climate impacts of rulemakings — and used to set New York’s ZEC values — was not meant as a policymaking tool and has massive limitations, Brodsky said. “I didn’t know the Constitution had a pause button — it’s time for the legislature to set energy policy. The ISO’s market clearing price is the most idiotic policy ever.”
Exelon sent five witnesses to the hearing: Joseph Pacher, site vice president at the Ginna plant; James Vaughn, senior engineering manager at Nine Mile Point; Adam E. King, radiation protection supervisor at FitzPatrick; John Scalzo, engineer; and James Melville, senior radiation safety operator at FitzPatrick.
Pacher said that, far from being decrepit, “all three stations are performing better than when new,” citing their capacity factors of more than 90%. “Preserving nuclear plants upstate is good sense. These plants could be run safely for decades.”
Dinowitz asked about the costs of operating each plant, but none of the witnesses could answer. Vaughn said that the “$7.6 billion is an estimate, and keep in mind that without natural gas prices so depressed, we wouldn’t need any subsidy at all. It’s not to line our pockets but to keep the plants profitable. The ZEC program establishes a floor price, so if gas prices go up we’ll take less in subsidies.”
Englebright said, “ZEC is supposed to be a transition program, not preserve the status quo. When did Exelon first think they would need a subsidy?”
2015, Pacher replied, which was when the company began negotiating a reliability support services agreement at Ginna, which FERC approved in March 2016.
Kavanagh asked if the upstate plants were safer than Indian Point, which is slated to close by 2022 under an agreement between the Cuomo administration and plant owner Entergy. Cuomo has long sought the plant’s closure because of its proximity to New York City. (See related story, NYISO, PSC: No Worries on Replacing Indian Point Capacity.)
“We don’t operate Indian Point, so I don’t want to say,” Pacher responded. “There’s public perception of aging, decrepit nuclear plants upstate, but people who take tours are always impressed with our facilities.”
Kavanagh asked if the Ginna reactor wasn’t the same design as that at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan, which failed when it was flooded by a tsunami in March 2011. Pacher admitted the similar designs but said it was the Japanese plant’s location on the Pacific Ocean that was its biggest vulnerability. “The worst thing for Fukushima was its location, but examining their experience did lead us to re-evaluate our event amelioration strategies,” he said.
Exelon says its nuclear plants, with a total capacity of 3,350 MW, employ 2,600 full-time workers and pay more than $45 million in annual property taxes and $144 million in “direct and secondary state tax revenues.”
The PSC in December rejected 17 petitions to reconsider its CES decision, though it agreed to investigate a few instances concerning “eligibility issues” for some resources. (See NYPSC Rejects Challenge to Clean Energy Standard, Nuke Subsidy.)
In a separate action, a group of energy companies and trade groups in October filed a suit in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, claiming the ZECs intrude on FERC’s jurisdiction over interstate electricity transactions. The suit asks the court to find the ZECs invalid and order the PSC to withdraw them from the CES.