A Significant Amount of Cape May County’s Electricity Comes from Nuclear Power
Cape May County’s only power plant was decommissioned May 1. Perched on the edge of the Great Egg Harbor Bay, the towering smokestack and cooling tower of B.L. England remain the first glimpse of the county for many drivers heading south on the Garden State Parkway, but the turbines are cold.
Some New Jersey environmentalists celebrated the closure, calling it a step away from reliance on fossil fuels linked to changes in the global climate. New Jersey’s Sierra Club called for more renewable energy instead, like wind and solar power.
That’s on the way, with a $695 million wind farm planned about 15 miles off the coast, but it will be years before any of that power reaches an outlet. In the meantime, when county residents flip a switch and the lights come on, the power is coming from somewhere.
The short answer is, it comes from the grid, a complex, multistate network powered by a variety of sources, including natural gas-run turbines, nuclear power, solar power and others, even a long-running hydroelectric plant driven by the Great Falls in Patterson.
Coal, which powered two of the three turbines at the B.L. England plant, was once a major source of power in New Jersey and throughout the Northeast. The third turbine was powered by diesel fuel.
Natural gas, however, is most abundant, due to a considerable increase in an extraction technique using high-pressure liquid to break up rock and release the gas. It’s called hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking.
Natural gas supporters say it burns cleaner than coal, improving air quality overall. It’s also made natural gas cheaper than any other option, including wind power, coal, and nuclear power, changing the economics of electricity.
Many detractors raise concerns about environmental damage from fracking (http://bit.ly/33U5QrV), including drinking water in areas where the process is used, and point out that natural gas is still a fossil fuel, releasing carbon dioxide when it burns.
Clean Energy Future?
For now, renewable energy makes up about 5% of the mix, including windmills, the North Jersey waterfall and others (http://bit.ly/35RaEQM). As coal’s importance as a power source fades, New Jersey looks to more wind and solar sources. Solar power is in the lead, with 123,000 photovoltaic systems providing power throughout the state, mostly on the rooftops of homes and businesses.
Last year, there were 30,000 solar power facilities in Atlantic City Electric’s coverage area, including many solar panels added to businesses and residences.
“It’s not an insignificant amount by any means, and it’s growing,” said Gary Stockbridge, the region president for Atlantic City Electric, now part of Exelon. “I think it’s a big piece of the puzzle going forward.”
Altogether, those solar panels generate about the same amount of electricity that one small natural gas power station would add to the grid. Even less of the state’s power comes from wind turbines, like the ones in Atlantic City run by the Atlantic County Utilities Authority. In the coming years, offshore wind could reshape New Jersey energy.
In a follow-up, we’ll look into plans for a $695-million offshore wind farm, the first of a three-phase plan to massively increase the amount of renewable energy used in New Jersey, but that project is years away. In the meantime, what’s keeping the lights on?
The Hope Creek Nuclear Generating Station and the Salem Nuclear Power Plant stand about 50 miles up the Delaware Bay from downtown Cape May, set on the water’s edge beyond an expanse of farmland and salt marsh.
Except for solar power, most electricity is generated by the spinning of a turbine, by the movement of wind, water or steam. Conventional power plants heat water for steam by burning fuel, while nuclear plants use nuclear fission.
The short explanation is that radioactive material is used to create a controlled chain reaction, releasing massive amounts of energy, converting water to steam in a closed system. The long explanation would require several textbooks and years of study.
The three reactors in those two Salem County plants supply about 40% of New Jersey’s electricity, according to Marijke Shugrue, a spokeswoman for Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG) (http://bit.ly/2BHJf6d), which operates the facilities. Several sources said most of South Jersey’s power comes from nuclear power.
The nuclear generating process emits no carbon dioxide, the main component of greenhouse gas.
Yet, nuclear power remains intensely controversial, despised by many environmental groups. The Sierra Club (http://bit.ly/33QnoVU) “remains unequivocally opposed to nuclear energy,” reads a statement on its website.
The group cites reactor safety and the still-unsettled issue of long-term storage of the spent radioactive material, which it argues remains lethal for 100,000 years. For years, a group of anti-nuclear activists regularly asked the Cape May County Board of Chosen Freeholders to condemn the Salem plant, citing maintenance issues and safety concerns.
High-profile meltdowns and full-on disasters have helped shape public opinion, from Chernobyl in Ukraine to Three Mile Island in Dauphin County, Pa. The meltdown in Pennsylvania took place 40 years ago, while the much worse Chernobyl disaster was more than 30 years ago.
More recently, an earthquake and tsunami in March of 2011 precipitated the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, in which more than 100,000 people were evacuated from the zone of potential contamination.
The Salem County plants have not had any safety concerns anywhere near that scale, but there have been issues (http://bit.ly/33Lu0EY), including a leak of slightly radioactive water that shut operations for 48 hours in summer 2013.
Still, a study published in the medical journal, “The Lancet,” found that nuclear power has caused fewer deaths per unit of energy generated than coal, petroleum, natural gas or hydroelectricity, due to accidents and air pollution. The study takes into account indirect deaths from smog and coal miners contracting black lung.
“The way we generate power is very safe and reliable,” Shugrue said.
Carbon-free by 2050?
Hope Creek came online in 1986. Salem Nuclear Power Plant includes two units, which began operation in 1977 and 1981. That plant is owned by PSEG and Excelon.
Shugrue argues that if New Jersey is going to meet Gov. Phil Murphy’s goal of powering New Jersey without carbon emissions, nuclear should remain part of the mix as wind power comes online.
“These nuclear power plants are now 90% of the carbon emissions-free energy in the state of New Jersey,” she said.
PSEG has announced a goal to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2046 and to reach net-zero by 2050 (http://bit.ly/2JaSQqa). It does not plan to build or buy any new fossil fuel plants in the meantime.
Asked about the downside of nuclear power, Shugrue only offered one: As the price of natural gas plummets, the cost of maintaining and operating the plants stays the same. The fissionable material is a minute cost of the overall operation, making it difficult to compete.
“The shale gas revolution has made natural gas very cheap, while the cost to run the nuclear plants stays the same,” she said.
Natural gas is also cheaper by the kilowatt than wind power. Under the state’s plans for offshore wind, consumers are set to see an increase in their power bill, offsetting the massive cost to build and maintain offshore wind farms.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (http://bit.ly/2JbyUTX), more of New Jersey’s electricity came from natural gas than from nuclear reactors for the first time in 2015. Taken together, the two sources provide more than 90% of New Jersey’s power, at least for now. What will happen in the remaining decades of the 21st century will depend, in large part, on the success of offshore wind in the coming years.
To contact Bill Barlow, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was produced in collaboration with the New Jersey Sustainability Reporting Hub project. It was originally reported by Bill Barlow for the Cape May County Herald, and may be re-distributed through the Creative Commons License, with attribution.