Arizona Palo Verde Nuclear Plant Ballot Threat

Arizona’s Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station could be forced to close in six years, instead of twenty-seven, if voters in the November 2018 election approve a renewable-energy ballot measure, according to plant owner Arizona Public Service Company (APS).  Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station in Arizona produces the most electricity of any power plant in America, over 30 billion kWhs per year, and is also the largest single producer of low-carbon electricity.

 Palo Verde/Paul Escen/APS

Palo Verde/Paul Escen/APS

The Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona, HCR 2017, would amend the state constitution to require utilities to get half their electricity from renewable sources such as solar and wind by 2030, up from the present mandate of 15% by 2025.

Few, if any, governments have that high a mandate by 2030, which is only 12 years away. Even at double the 2012-2017 build rate for renewables, 12 years is not enough time to replace Arizona’s coal plants, let alone coal plus nuclear.

APS officials believe the measure would force so much solar and wind development that there would be too much energy on the grid during half the year when Arizonans are not cranking up their air conditioners.  Such oversupply forces the shutdown of baseload power plants, particularly nuclear, which just provides electricity constantly. Varying their output for no good reason wastes money and fuel.  This is exactly what California is struggling with – too much solar when it’s not needed and not enough solar when it is. But they use the surrounding states to buffer that problem. They even use Palo Verde for this assist.

Nuclear from the state’s one nuclear power plant provides 36% of all of Arizona’s electricity, hydroelectric about 6%, solar and wind about 4%.

 EIA/EnvironmentalProgress

EIA/EnvironmentalProgress

Tom Steyer, the former California hedge fund billionaire turned political activist, is pushing this Arizona ballot initiative. He wants to replace Palo Verde with natural gas and renewables, although it would mainly be natural gas. Normally serious about addressing climate change, Steyer doesn’t seem to understand that renewables are supposed to replace fossil fuel, especially coal, not other low carbon sources like nuclear or hydro.

The three nuclear power reactors at Palo Verde produce about 36% of Arizona’s electricity, which is almost 80% of the state’s emission-free electricity (see figures). Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station also uses 100% recycled water, and maintains a ‘Zero Discharge’ status – no water is discharged to rivers, streams or oceans.

Palo Verde is the biggest power plant in America, producing more energy than Grand Coulee Dam, which has the biggest nameplate capacity but only half the capacity factor of Palo Verde.

Nuclear from the state’s one nuclear power plant provides 79% of Arizona’s clean electricity, hydroelectric about 13%, solar and wind about 8%.

 EIA/Environmental Progress

EIA/Environmental Progress

Palo Verde produces enough energy to power 4 million people, over half of Arizona’s 7 million population, although some of it is exported out of state. In contrast, non-hydro renewables in Arizona, dominated by solar, generate about 4% of the state’s electricity. Coal produces about 25% and natural gas about 30%. So the clean energy produced in the state is overwhelmingly nuclear.

Palo Verde Nuclear Station                  32,800,000,000 kWhs/year

Arizona hydro power                               5,300,000,000 kWhs/year

Arizona non-hydro renewables             2,100,000,000 kWhs/year

Failure to reach this level of renewables by 2024, just as Palo Verde would be closing, ends up increasing natural gas dramatically. This also means solar would only be replacing another low-carbon energy source, nuclear, and would make no dent in replacing coal, let alone gas or oil.

The push to close Palo Verde assumes APS would end up with enough solar capacity to produce about 28 billion kWhs assuming a generous overall capacity factor of 30% for solar, although rooftop systems are less than 20%.

All of this is coming at the same time some states are looking to protect existing nuclear from these warped market forces. New Jersey, Connecticut and Minnesota are the latest states trying to prevent the premature closing of their nuclear power plants.

If Steyer’s initiative succeeds, Palo Verde will close in 2024, twenty years ahead of schedule. Palo Verde just got a 20-year extension from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to run until 2045, so closing it early will throw away at least 700 billion kWhs of clean electricity, and would nullify the benefits of all renewable sources in Arizona.

If closed 5,000 jobs would be lost in Arizona and the largest single tax revenue for the locals and the state.

The Palo Verde reactors are actually good for over 80 years, as designed, especially as they are so well-maintained. The initial license period of 40 years, and relicensing every 20 years thereafter, were just arbitrary numbers decided upon by the original Atomic Energy Agency in the 1950s to make sure power plants would stay in compliance as regulations changed. Many nuclear plants have already applied for their second re-licensing, for a total of 80 years.  (Forbes, 4/18/2018)