What Does Closing Indian Point Mean for NYC Carbon Emissions?

There is an elephant looming in NYC’s climate planning: the loss of 2,000 megawatts of low-carbon electricity from Indian Point Energy Center. Carbon emissions from buildings will shoot back to 2010 levels until increased efficiency and renewables can fill that gap.

Thirty miles north of midtown, the Indian Point nuclear facility supplies about 25 percent of New York City’s electricity, more or less carbon-free[1]. For years, the plant has been a target of advocates with safety and ecological concerns: it’s close to the country’s largest population center and lies on a geologic fault line.

Governor Cuomo long dubbed Indian Point a “ticking time bomb” and last January announced a deal to shutter the facility by 2021. But the announcement was largely silent on the potential downstate carbon emissions impact.

New York is not the first jurisdiction to face this tension. The California Public Utilities Commission approved hundreds of megawatts of gas-fired power in the wake of the 2013 closure of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station north of San Diego. New England’s emissions spiked after the Vermont Yankee nuclear facility closed in 2014. And Germany will miss its 2020 carbon goals because the country shut down many of its nuclear reactors.

So, what’s in store for New York City with a post-Indian Point power grid?

NYC has made significant progress to date, reducing citywide carbon by almost 15 percent since 2005. Between 2010 and 2015 alone, its largest buildings cut emissions by almost 14 percent through a combination of cleaner electricity, fuel-switching and efficiency. That’s a substantial down payment on the city’s commitment to 80 percent reductions by 2050 (80x50).

But our projections, adapted from the city’s Roadmap to 80x50, show that closing Indian Point in 2021 risks a major backslide, with building emissions shooting back up to 2010 levels or more—undoing the progress we’ve made over the last seven years and what’s projected over the next three.Figure 1: [Click to enlarge] Citywide building emissions fell by 18 percent between 2005 and 2016 (some variability due to weather), but it looks like 2020 will see that trend reverse as more gas is used to produce electricity. High, Business as Usual and Low emissions scenarios assume Indian Point begins phased shutdown in 2020, and each varies new renewable generation and building energy efficiency. Source: Urban Green Council


But won’t clean energy fill the Indian Point gap? New York has an impressive Clean Energy Standard, requiring statewide electricity to be 50 percent renewable by 2030. The New York Independent System Operator (NYSIO), which tracks proposed generation, identifies over 5,000 MW of wind and solar proposed for upstate New York. But in order to take advantage of these upstate renewable sources, we need more transmission capacity to NYC. And renewables closer to the city haven’t been growing fast enough to make up the shortfall either. That’s New York’s “Tale of Two Grids,” with electricity upstate nearly 90 percent emissions-free, while downstate is 70 percent sourced from fossil fuels. Offshore wind power – in many ways an ideal downstate, utility-scale solution – is ramping up to fix this disparity. New York State has pledged to add 2,400 MW of offshore wind power downstate by 2030, and NYSERDA has an 800 MW solicitation coming this year to build projects that will make significant progress toward that goal.[2]

Until the downstate grid becomes cleaner, natural gas will fill the gap: According to NYISO’s Indian Point deactivation assessment, the power supplied by Indian Point will be replaced by hundreds of megawatts of new gas capacity.[3] And even this assessment may present a rosy scenario: it is based on falling electricity demand, which hasn’t panned out over the last decade. Carbon emissions will increase, and local air quality may decrease as these new natural gas plants come online and existing NYC oil plants potentially fire up more often.

Without a dramatic increase in energy efficiency, NYC’s carbon emissions appear poised for a sizable jump. Thankfully, many building efficiency measures are accessible and cost-effective, such as upgrading lighting to LEDs or sealing around leaky window air conditioners. The challenge is making these changes at scale. A majority of the city’s emissions savings to date have come from fuel-switching and cleaner electricity. Less than a third is attributable to improved building efficiency.

Even more striking, the city’s electricity use has remained constant since 2005. Electricity use in commercial buildings has dropped by six percent, but that’s been offset by a nine percent increase in residential buildings. Given population growth over this period, the change is still an achievement. But it shows the difficulty of making absolute reductions in electricity demand.

Energy efficiency is key to virtually every scenario for closing the Indian Point gap, according to a Synapse Energy Economics study commissioned last year by NRDC and Riverkeeper. The state’s new energy efficiency initiative should provide a much-needed boost, with a host of utility programs to drive annual electricity savings to three percent by 2025. And the 80x50 Buildings Partnership, convened by Urban Green, just released its Blueprint for Efficiency – 21 actionable recommendations to reduce energy use in large buildings 20 percent by 2030, spurring significant efficiency gains, including on the electric side, in the decade ahead. But it’s far from clear that efficiency alone can fill the Indian Point gap in the short term.

Given their outsized contribution to NYC’s carbon emissions, Urban Green has historically focused on making buildings healthier and more efficient. But a big part of building efficiency is source energy, so Indian Point needs to be part of the equation. We look forward to working with the city’s leading building and energy stakeholders to tackle this challenging issue. With the right planning, the city and state will continue to lead the climate fight and keep us on the path to 80x50.

[1] Nuclear plants do not burn fuel and have no direct emissions, but the indirect emissions from uranium mining, refinement and transportation are considerable.

[2] New York State has pledged to add 2,400 MW of offshore wind power downstate by 2030. It will be years before any development comes online since wind farms take time to plan, design and build – the first of which is the South Fork Wind Farm off the east coast of Long Island. It is expected to start construction in 2021 and will provide up to 96 MW of power to the Long Island Power Authority. For more information, see this Stanford research on wind savings as compared to nuclear subsidization.

[3] NYISO projects that between 400 and 600 MW would be needed through 2027 depending on where the generation or transmission assets are placed. Only 400 MW are required if capacity is added in Westchester or New York City.

About the authors

Urban Green Council
Dedicated to transforming buildings for a sustainable future.