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NY's nuclear power fight continues, while Ginna limps along 

The Ginna nuclear power plant will most likely continue pumping power through the Rochester region and other parts of the state until at least March 2017.

Sometime early this year, state and federal regulators are expected to approve a temporary arrangement between Rochester Gas & Electric and the aging nuclear generator. Under the deal, RG&E customers would temporarily subsidize the plant in order to keep it running, thus ensuring a reliable supply of electricity. Residential customers would see an estimated 2.3 percent increase in their electric bills as a result, according to filings with the State Public Service Commission, New York's utilities regulator.

But Ginna's future after the agreement expires in 2017 is unclear. Exelon, the plant's parent company, hasn't said that it'll close Ginna, even though these arrangements are typically used to keep closing plants online until replacement power sources are identified.

"There's transition happening broadly within New York's energy system," says Tim Judson, executive director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, an anti-nuclear-power organization founded in Central New York and now located in Washington, D.C. "And the reality is the nuclear power plants, especially the ones Upstate, they're not competitive any longer."

Judson's group is a member of Alliance for a Green Economy, a coalition of environmental and social justice groups that has been heavily involved in the Ginna-RG&E proceedings. The coalition wants New York to phase out nuclear power and transition to renewable energy.

RG&E is already preparing for Ginna to go offline permanently by starting construction on the $140 million Ginna Retirement Transmission Alternative, a $140 million project to upgrade RG&E's Perinton substation.

The project is designed to replace Ginna's power by pulling more electricity from the New York Power Authority's transmission lines, says John Carroll, a spokesperson for the utility's parent company, Avangrid. (The corporation was formed by a merger between Iberdrola USA and UIL Holdings.) The upgrades should be completed by the first half of 2017.

The utility is also pursuing Public Service Commission approval for a new substation on Monroe County's west side. It already had approval, but the commission reopened the matter over concerns that the project could drive the Krenzer family farm in Chili out of business. Under the original plan, RG&E would have used 80 acres of the 670 acre farm for the substation, but the family said that the project would render a much larger portion of the farm unusable. RG&E and the PSC are evaluating other potential sites.

But just because RG&E is eliminating its dependence on Ginna doesn't mean that the plant's done for. Several other factors, economic and political, could influence the plant's fate and the fate of other Upstate reactors.

Nuclear plants across the United States have money problems, particularly those in competitive power markets such as New York's, where cheap natural gas has driven down electricity prices.

Up until June 2014, Ginna sold 90 percent of its power directly to RG&E, which gave the plant a guaranteed income. The month after that contract expired, the plant's owner filed a petition with the State Public Service Commission seeking a support agreement with RG&E. In the filing, Exelon said that Ginna had lost in excess of $100 million in the three years prior. And company officials weren't confident that the plant would fare any better selling into the competitive market.

Some public officials are calling on the state to throw the state's nuclear plants a lifeline. For them, the issue is as much about the power that the facilities generate as it is about jobs and property taxes. Ginna employs 700 workers, for example, and pays around $10 million a year in state and local taxes.

And Governor Andrew Cuomo told the State Public Service Commission to find a way, likely through some sort of subsidy or incentives, to keep Upstate nuclear plants viable; he should unveil details of the plan during his annual address later this month. He says that the loss of Upstate nuclear plants would "eviscerate the emissions reductions achieved through the state's renewable energy programs."

Nuclear's supporters often argue that competitive markets don't properly value and price power from the plants — power that can be generated reliably, in large quantities, and with minimal carbon emissions.

Entergy brought up that very issue in November when it said it would shut down its FitzPatrick nuclear plant in Oswego at the end of 2016. The company said that several factors prevented the plant from generating adequate revenue through power sales, including "the failure of markets to compensate FitzPatrick for the generation of clean energy."

AGREE and other environmental groups, however, say that the state should let the struggling nuclear plants close down. The money that would be used to prop up the plants could instead be invested in renewables, energy efficiency measures, and new power grid technologies, they say.

The state is trying to advance those very things through its Reforming the Energy Vision initiative. The effort is meant to revamp the state's energy market and its power grid to better incorporate renewables, emerging technologies such as energy storage, and new approaches to managing electric consumption.

Nuclear subsidies would lead to higher electric bills, Judson says, as well as energy sources that aren't truly clean. The plants generate electricity without producing carbon emissions, he says, but their fuel must still be mined, which is an environmentally destructive process. And the power plants create dangerous waste which is stored on site at the plants, since there's nowhere else to put it.

AGREE and its allies want to see a "just transition" for Ginna and FitzPatrick. They want the owners to begin decommissioning the plants as soon as they shut them down, a process which would retain many of the plants' current employees for a decade or two. At the same time, they say, the state should fund programs to help retrain and shift some of the employees into jobs related to renewables and energy efficiency retrofits.

The plants' operating engineers, however, may have to look outside of the area for similar work. But they're highly-skilled workers, Judson says, and there's a shortage of qualified operating engineers in the nuclear industry, so chances are good that they could find similar work at other plants.

"From our perspective, especially given the really steep subsidies that are necessary in order to keep these nuclear plants online, that money is better spent on more cost-effective and frankly more promising energy sources for the future," Judson says.

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