By Rick Thigpen, Senior Vice President, Corporate Citizenship, PSEG
New Jersey is familiar with being on the front lines of environmental challenges. It’s no coincidence that we were one of the first states to create a cabinet-level Department of Environmental Protection. We are also the state that gave birth to the federal Superfund law, drafted by then-U.S. Rep. Jim Florio to deal with the cleanup of hazardous substances released into the environment. Our newest challenge, and perhaps the toughest yet, is climate change.
We’re growing increasingly familiar with the stronger, more extreme weather that is being caused by our planet’s changing climate. As noted by C2ES, Yale University and others, hurricanes will grow far more costly without action. As a coastal state with a highly-developed shoreline, New Jersey is extremely vulnerable to potential damages caused by rising sea levels.
Rather than sit on our hands, we need to answer the call: reduce our carbon footprint or face the consequences. On behalf of our children, this is a fight worth having.
Thankfully, in New Jersey, we already get nearly 40% of our electricity from a carbon-free source: nuclear energy. Nuclear provides more than 90% of the carbon-free power generated in New Jersey, making it a critical pillar in the state’s clean energy ambitions.
Despite the many benefits nuclear energy provides, its continued service in New Jersey is not guaranteed. As long as policymakers in Washington continue to refuse to recognize the costs of carbon when setting wholesale electric market prices and oppose state support for carbon-free generation, fossil fuels will be the lowest-cost option to generate electricity. Nothing would jeopardize New Jersey’s clean energy future more than standing by while productive nuclear plants shut down for lack of policy support.
Three years ago, New Jersey lawmakers took action to prevent nuclear plants serving the state from retiring prematurely due to insufficient revenues from energy markets. This Zero Emissions Certificate (ZEC) law, which requires applicants to submit detailed financial data to the BPU to demonstrate the need for financial support, is the reason New Jersey continues to enjoy the benefits of nuclear power. Our critics have argued this law amounts to a subsidy of PSEG’s nuclear plants. And PSEG’s plants do benefit from this support. Have no doubt, without this law, Washington policies favoring fossil fuels would have forced them to close.
If anything, market conditions for nuclear plants have only gotten worse since the first ZEC process played out – meaning that, at a minimum, New Jersey’s nuclear fleet will need the same level of continued ZEC support in order to remain viable.
Today, the need to generate as much carbon-free electricity as possible has only grown more urgent. Soon, New Jersey will decide whether to continue to provide support for these nuclear plants, which generate enough electricity to power 3.8 million homes and also help avoid 14 million tons of carbon emissions every year – the equivalent of taking 3 million cars off the road. Never forget, it is cheaper for ratepayers to keep these plants open than it is to close them.
We know what happens when nuclear plants close. Oyster Creek was New Jersey’s smallest nuclear plant when it shut down permanently in October 2018. During the following year, more than two-thirds of the electricity generated to replace Oyster Creek’s production came from the increased use of New Jersey’s natural gas-burning power plants. The rest was supplied by out-of-state coal and natural gas. The result was an additional 3.1 million tons of carbon released into the air.
By contrast, New Jersey’s 3,500-megawatt Salem and Hope Creek nuclear plants are five times larger than Oyster Creek – which would magnify the carbon emissions impact if they were to close.
At PSEG, we’re committed to supporting our state and doing what is in the best interests of our customers and communities. Working together, we can ensure the state is able to produce the electricity we need to power our homes and businesses without producing the carbon emissions we don’t. To accomplish that, we need to renew New Jersey’s ZEC program at its current level of economic support.
If you believe that climate change is not only a global challenge, but also one that hits New Jersey particularly hard, then the battle to preserve New Jersey’s nuclear plants is one we can’t afford to lose.
Today, our shared priority is to preserve nuclear energy as an important part of New Jersey’s clean energy mix. To fight climate change, we’ll need as much carbon-free energy as we can make and to reduce our overall energy usage. Preserving New Jersey’s clean energy agenda at the lowest possible cost is worth fighting for.
Rick Thigpen is PSEG’s senior vice president for Corporate Citizenship and chairman of the PSEG Foundation.