The nuclear energy industry is touting its role in providing heat to much of the East Coast and Midwest during the prolonged cold snap, arguing its fleet of 99 reactors is helping to moderate electricity prices that are experiencing record highs.
“Nuclear power, which produces 20 percent of America’s electricity, moderates the price risk by providing bulk supplies [of electricity] whose cost is not affected by short-term fuel prices,” John Keeley, director of media relations for the Nuclear Energy Institute, said in an email to the Washington Examiner.
Keeley was quick to point out that the cold is increasing the cost of electricity, but that nuclear-based power is softening the blow to consumers.
“It also provides insurance against fuel supply interruptions, because our fuel is in the reactor vessel, ready for use,” he said.
Prices are rising because of the pressure on the nation’s natural gas supply, which has become a dominant fuel for power plants over the last three years. The shale boom has made the once-expensive fuel almost as cheap as water in some regions, which has driven the shift to gas-fired electricity production.
Keeley points out that a similar cold snap in early 2014, referred to as the “polar vortex,” “shut down many electricity generators,” including natural gas. But even without any shutdowns this go-around, “electricity prices are up very sharply, because demand is up, driven by electric heating requirements, and the price of natural gas is up too, because so much is being used for home heating, leaving less available for electricity generation,” Keeley said.
On Tuesday, the first business day of the year, prices were $180 per megawatt hour in the mid-Atlantic, Keeley said. Prices in the 13-state PJM market fluctuated widely on Wednesday, hitting nearly $160 per megawatt hour at noon.
By comparison, Dec. 1 prices were $27 per MW hour. In energy-constrained areas such as New England, the electricity price has risen above $210, compared to Dec. 1 prices of $32.
On the East Coast, nuclear power has provided a steady 35,000 megawatts of electricity during the cold snap, which has moved into its second week of bitter temperatures. One megawatt can provide 750-1,200 homes with power, depending on how much demand there is on the system, according to experts.
All 99 nuclear reactors in the U.S. are operating.
But most of the electricity being generated from the upper Midwest to the District of Columbia is coming from coal. Coal generators are producing 12,000 more megawatts per hour than nuclear power, and about 18,000-20,000 more than natural gas power plants in the PJM market overseen by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
The Midcontinent Independent System Operator, the second largest electric market in the United States, is receiving well over 50 percent of its electricity from coal on Wednesday, with 14 percent coming from nuclear power plants and 23 percent coming from natural gas. Wind energy is contributing more than 7 percent.
Both coal and nuclear have a major stake in a proposal by Energy Secretary Rick Perry to provide market incentives to assist the plants, which are proving uneconomical in the face of low natural gas prices. Perry argues that FERC should approve the market incentives because of the resilience coal and nuclear plants provide in being able to store a 90-day fuel supply on site if pipelines that supply natural gas plants are disrupted.
Critics of the Perry plan say the cold snap does not reinforce the need for the market incentives and that coal is not invulnerable to cold.
"Based on experience, cold weather is not a coal pile's best friend," said John Hughes, president of the Electricity Consumers Resource Council, representing industrial users of energy. Coal piles can freeze into a block because the fuel contains water.
"The recent cold snap is driving up prices, which is pulling coal plants back into the market," he told the Washington Examiner, calling the price spikes "temporary."
Hughes is part of a large coalition opposing the Perry plan that includes utilities, manufacturers, the oil and natural gas industry, the renewable energy industry and conservative groups.
Coal plants are "getting a temporary reprieve because natural gas prices are much higher because of the cold weather," he noted.
"Should any serious power disruption result from natural gas curtailments, the coal industry might score a minor victory," he conceded. "But natural gas-fired generators are doing their damnedest to prevent that from happening."
He said many gas-fired power plants have some form of dual-fuel capability, which is most likely oil. The PJM market saw a huge spike in oil-fired megawatt hours in recent days, reaching 10,000 megawatt hours over the weekend.
Hughes said that coal's fundamental problems are aging plants and economics.