The world’s climate, and Connecticut’s, is heating up rapidly. Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and the destructive tropical hurricanes this summer are just the start of more extreme storms we can expect from our warming of the oceans. Global warming has increased the probability and severity of extremely hot and wet weather worldwide.
While the political shouting in Washington continues, there is a broad scientific consensus that these climatic changes are driven by the heating of Earth’s atmosphere from carbon dioxide released by the burning of fossil fuels. If we are going to limit extreme climate change, we need to make every effort to utilize every non-fossil energy source we have. And timing matters.
Because emitted carbon remains in the atmosphere for centuries, every molecule of carbon dioxide put in the atmosphere today builds up and will continue to warm the earth essentially forever. That’s why we must preserve every zero-carbon energy source we have available today, while building towards a completely carbon-free energy system by mid-century.
The Millstone nuclear power plant is one such zero carbon source, and an important one. It accounts for nearly half the electricity generated in Connecticut, and more than ten times the electricity produced in the state from all other zero carbon energy sources combined such as wind, solar, hydroelectric power and biomass.
But, because it is losing out to competition from cheaper natural gas-fired power, made possible by fracking, Millstone may shut down before 2020. That is, unless action is taken, like the bill currently pending before the Connecticut House of Representatives, to keep it operating.
What would it mean for climate change if Millstone shut down? For starters, carbon dioxide would spike by the equivalent of up to 20 percent of Connecticut’s current emissions as Millstone’s power is replaced mostly by gas-fired energy in the near term – adding emissions that will drive irreversible warming for centuries.
A Millstone closure would also make it harder for the Northeast United States to meet our climate protection targets in 2020 and beyond. Connecticut is part of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative that includes all six New England states plus New York, Maryland and Delaware.
This is the first multi-state carbon emissions pact in the United States, and the nation and the world is watching to see whether it succeeds—especially given the current stalemate on climate policy in Washington. The pact requires regional power plant carbon emissions to come down by 6 million tons a year by 2020 from 2017 levels.
But closing Millstone will cause emissions to increase by at least 4 million tons in New England alone compared to leaving the plant running — and probably more, counting additional imports of gas fired energy provided from outside New England. In short, closing Millstone makes the near term reduction target at least two thirds harder to achieve.
While renewable energies such as wind and solar are under development in the region, they will not replace Millstone’s zero carbon energy anytime soon. Massachusetts and New York have called for a combined 4,000 megawatts of offshore wind to be in place by 2027 – more than six times the size of the world’s largest offshore windfarm — producing in theory just about the same output as Millstone. But construction of these plants is far away and by no means certain: only one tiny 30 megawatt offshore wind farm exists today off Block Island, and other proposed windfarms such as Cape Wind in Massachusetts have been stalled for more than a decade. Even if they are built, these windfarms will merely offset Millstone’s loss and get us back to where we are today; they will not reduce carbon emissions below 2017 levels. And meanwhile, another decade of carbon emissions will have poured into the atmosphere, irreversibly heating the planet.
The financial details of the pending bill can and should be vigorously debated. But one thing is not debatable. To attack global warming, we need all the tools we have and more: energy efficiency, wind, solar, nuclear and technologies that take carbon out of fossil fuels. Shutting Millstone would throw away one of the biggest tools we have today and make the attack on climate change needlessly harder.
Armond Cohen is executive director of the Clean Air Task Force, a nonprofit environmental organization based in Boston that advocates for policies and technologies that will lead to a zero-carbon energy system.