Op-Ed: Nuclear energy is essential to NJ’s goal of 100% clean energy by 2050

New Jersey’s nuclear subsidies for Salem and Hope Creek ensure clean, carbon-free energy remains competitive with dirty fossil fuel
Carol M. Browner

On his first day in office, President Joe Biden recommitted the United States to the Paris Climate Agreement — a crucial first step toward addressing the climate crisis and strengthening American leadership on the world stage. By rejoining the agreement, the Biden administration must soon submit its nationally determined contribution (NDC) — a target for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions that the United States intends to meet by 2030. It’s expected to announce the NDC at or before the U.S. Leaders’ Summit on Climate on April 22.

To meet these new clean-energy targets, the federal government will have to take bold action to rapidly decarbonize. From my experience serving as the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy, I know firsthand that we will also need to utilize every carbon-free and renewable energy source at our disposal. The federal government will need states like New Jersey to do their part.

During the campaign, Biden put forward a plan to establish a national technology-neutral Energy Efficiency and Clean Electricity Standard (EECES) for utilities and grid operators, paired with tax incentives to increase competition in the market and incentivize higher utilization of carbon-free assets. Right now, the state of New Jersey can similarly take a step toward incentivizing carbon-free energy generation by extending its existing zero-emissions certificate (ZEC) program.

In 2018, the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (BPU) approved the ZEC program, which provides funding to maintain the state’s nuclear energy supply. The certificates also ensure that New Jersey’s two nuclear plants — Salem and Hope Creek — are appropriately valued for providing more than 95% of the state’s carbon-free electricity and 40% of its overall power.

Now the BPU is deciding whether to continue these programs, which have provided crucial support for New Jersey’s nuclear power as they compete against dirty, carbon-emitting fossil fuels. To ensure New Jersey is well-positioned to meet our nation’s ambitious climate goals, the state should preserve its ZEC program.

Listing the benefits

New Jersey’s nuclear plants provide a wide range of external benefits that are not fully captured by energy markets: stability for the overall energy grid, reliable carbon-free electricity production, clean air compliance and fuel diversity. Additionally, the plants provide significant economic benefits, including $1.2 billion annually to the New Jersey state GDP, 4,530 in-state jobs (direct and secondary) and $54 million in state and local taxes generated each year. Despite these clear advantages, nuclear plants are penalized in the state due to unfair market rules that don’t fully evaluate the benefits of carbon-free energy sources, nor the associated costs of continuing to rely on fossil fuels.

To achieve Gov. Phil Murphy’s goal of 100% clean energy by 2050, nuclear energy must be a crucial component, because it’s the only source of emission-free electricity that can be relied on to meet minimum electricity demands 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If New Jersey’s nuclear plants ceased to operate due to unfair market conditions, it would result in a massive 27 million megawatt-hour power shortfall — the power needed for more than 85% of the homes in the state. To make up for this loss, the energy market would increase its reliance on natural gas, which would immediately increase the state’s carbon pollution and push us even further from our clean energy goals.

Currently, natural gas is responsible for more than 19.2 million metric tons of carbon pollution in the state. For the sake of our environmental and public health, we cannot afford to increase our reliance on natural gas or other fossil fuels.

To achieve a 100% clean-energy future, we need every state to step up and utilize every carbon-free energy technology available. With the Leaders’ Summit on Climate fast approaching, and the future of our climate on the line, we cannot afford to sacrifice New Jersey’s nuclear power plants.

Acknowledging the clear benefits of New Jersey’s nuclear carbon-free power — and the essential role it plays in achieving our carbon-free energy goals — the BPU must preserve the ZECs provided to the Salem and Hope Creek nuclear power plants.