When it comes to the policies shaping the role for nuclear energy in the United States, the action continues to be in state capitals and with good reason. Much of the attention has been focused in Pennsylvania and Ohio, but in the coming days Washington Gov. Jay Inslee will sign into law a clean energy standard that will commit the state to receiving all of its electricity from clean sources by 2045. Washington will be the latest example of a growing trend: New Mexico passed a 100 percent clean energy standard earlier this year, while California and Hawaii passed their versions last year.
What stands out with these approaches? Nuclear energy is included—alongside wind, solar, hydropower and fossil fuel with carbon capture—as one of the clean technologies that can help states reach these ambitious environmental goals.
What’s a Clean Energy Standard?
Clean energy standards are a new take on an old idea. Most states have renewable portfolio standards that set annual requirements for how much electricity must be produced by renewables, mostly wind and solar. The targets ratchet up each year and utilities must show that they either produced some of their electricity from renewables they own or that they bought a credit from someone else who did. These policies have been successful in spurring the deployment of new renewables, though they might not ultimately be the best approach to dramatically reduce emissions.
Why Include Nuclear in Clean Energy Standards?
Nuclear plants do not produce greenhouse gas emissions when they produce electricity, just like wind and solar. However, unlike those technologies, nuclear plants are available around-the-clock and all year-round. Nuclear energy protects our climate—by providing more than 55 percent of the country’s carbon-free electricity—and protects our air quality—by generating electricity without harmful pollutants like carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter or mercury. In places like Pennsylvania and Ohio, nuclear energy makes up more than 90 percent of the state’s clean energy portfolio. In many states, retaining a single nuclear plant will provide more clean electricity than all the wind and solar in that state.
What Are Other States Doing?
State policymakers have focused their attention on emission reduction and have begun to take a broader view of the technologies available, including nuclear. In 2016, New York created a clean energy standard by creating a parallel track to preserve nuclear plants at risk of closure alongside the requirements that the state already had for renewable sources. Later that year, Illinois passed the Future Energy Jobs Act which created a zero-emission standard for nuclear plants together with the requirements for increasing renewables. California retained a target for 60 percent renewable generation but expanded the policy to require 100 percent zero-emission generation by 2045. Each of these state polices are variations on a theme: achieving dramatic emissions reductions will require nuclear along with wind, solar and other non-emitting technologies to be successful.
Protecting the Climate Requires Technology-Neutral Policy
Truth be told, Washington is already well on the way to meeting its goal. It is among the lowest emitting states as it is blessed with copious amounts of hydropower and the Columbia Generating Station nuclear plant. When the legislation is signed into law by the governor it will be another signal that technology-neutral policies to reduce emissions are being widely embraced and can be an inspiration and model for other states.
If we say we want to reduce carbon emissions and protect the climate, state lawmakers must craft policy that values all clean energy sources – including nuclear energy, the largest provider of carbon-free electricity in the country.