Pundits, politicians, and many in the energy industry have largely applauded the surge in natural gas production, pointing to the cheap and abundant resource as providing a much needed boost to the economy, as a potential tool in achieving greater energy security, and as a means to address climate change and transition to cleaner forms of energy. But as natural gas plants become increasingly widespread, they are displacing other power sources, such as coal, an increasing number of renewables and now a nuclear plant.
Observers have noted that cheap natural gas has turned the tide in favor of natural gas generation over coal-fired power plants, but the closure of a nuclear plant in Wisconsin, largely as a result of new energy economics, is a new development. The nuclear plant, owned by Dominion Resources, is a smaller, older plant, and has been for sale since 2011, but newer nuclear plants may be in danger of going offline, too. That’s because although nuclear energy is generally cheaper than natural gas – 2.2 cents per kilowatt hour in 2011 to produce power in a nuclear plant versus about 4.5 cents in a gas plant – the costs associated with running a nuclear plant, including security and regulatory oversight, are tipping the scales in favor of natural gas. Peter Bradford, a former member of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, pointed out the threat of natural gas prices to nuclear plants, saying “A number of nuclear units won’t run their 60-year licensed lives if current gas price forecasts prove accurate.”
Is an increasing reliance on domestically produced natural gas a threat to long-term energy security or stable access to electricity? Are there unintended negative consequences that will accompany a transition to natural gas? What does a safe and smart energy mix look like going into the future?