Massachusetts has one of the highest electricity bills in the country due to grid reliable and subsidies of renewable energy. The shut down of the Pilgrim Nuclear Station set to happen later this spring could potentially have negative impacts on future electricity costs. With the heavy burden of pricy electric bills on low income families, consumers are becoming uneasy from expenses associated with rooftop solar. Consumers are wondering if there is a more affordable way to cut down CO2.

Rooftop solar is a pricy way to reduce CO2

I write in response to your Feb. 26 editorial, “Let the sun shine.”

I teach graduate engineering students at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell to support of better understanding of energy technology and economics.

The Pilgrim Nuclear Station is scheduled to shut down in May with major impacts to our power grid and future cost of electricity. Pilgrim received an operating license renewal in 2012, following a thorough review by the Nuclear Regulator Commission, allowing it to operate safely until 2032 subject to inspections to confirm that aging issues are properly addressed. It has fallen victim to inexpensive natural gas prices and the absence of long-term integrated power generation planning. Pilgrim’s costs are attractive, but not competitive with efficient gas-fired power stations and low-cost natural gas in our privatized wholesale power market. However, it provides the lowest-cost carbon-free electricity in Massachusetts.

Massachusetts now has among the highest electric rates in the mainland United States, mostly because of the high cost of subsidies for renewable power and for providing grid reliability during cold weather. High electric rates significantly affect consumers, especially low-income families and retirees on fixed incomes.

If Pilgrim were to keep running and be able to cover its costs, it would produce about 5.4 million kilowatt-hours per year and displace about 2.5 million tons per year of carbon dioxide from gas-fired plants. This would reduce our CO2 emissions at an additional cost of approximately $25 per ton of CO2.

The most expensive way to reduce our CO2 emissions is with rooftop photovoltaic systems, which cost us about $650 to $700 per ton of CO2 avoided. To replace the clean energy from Pilgrim, we would need to install about 800,000 7-kilowatt rooftop systems. Our weather and solar orientation limit rooftop photovoltaic output to about 11 percent of their capacity, much less than in many other parts of the U.S. Solar output is very small during our short winter days, when our grid needs power the most because of our natural gas restrictions. Battery systems are extremely expensive relative to other ways to provide reliability.

That means we could be spending about an additional $1.6 billion to $1.7 billion per year to replace the carbon-free electricity from Pilgrim with rooftop photovoltaics. This will further raise our electric bills. Subsidies for renewables are distributed across federal and state tax credits, renewable energy certificates purchased by utilities, reassignment of grid costs due to net metering, and other support mechanisms that are not very easy to track.

The New England power grid has worsening reliability problems resulting from gas supply restrictions in the winter, heavy reliance during cold periods on old, higher-emitting oil- and coal-fired units that may retire, and a shift to expensive liquid natural and oil to provide reliability.

Keeping Pilgrim in operation may no longer be an option. It would take state legislation to support the economics and a heroic effort to arrange for refueling, restaffing, and life extension investments. Other states have implemented legislation to recognize the economic value of avoiding emissions by continuing to operate existing nuclear plants. I will find it difficult to explain to my grad students why Pilgrim was retired given the economic impacts.

We hope to focus upcoming research to support a stronger understanding of our energy options. There are many ways to reduce carbon emissions that are much less expensive than photovoltaics. Should photovoltaic systems be an option to consumers rather than a legislative mandate? We need to understand the cost and effectiveness of our policies.

Reiner W. Kuhr of South Yarmouth is an adjunct professor in the graduate engineering studies program at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell.

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