For most of his long political career, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo railed against the dangers of having a nuclear power plant operating just 25 miles away from New York City, saying its proximity to such a densely populated metropolis defied “basic sanity.’’
But now, the plant is preparing to shut down, and New York is grappling with the adverse effect the closing will have on another of Mr. Cuomo’s ambitious goals: sharply reducing the state’s reliance on fossil fuels.
So far, most of the electricity produced by the nuclear plant, known as Indian Point, has been replaced by power generated by plants that burn natural gas and emit more pollution. And that trade-off will become more pronounced once Indian Point’s last reactor shuts down on April 30.
“It’s topsy-turvy,” said Isuru Seneviratne, a clean-energy investor who is a member of the steering committee of Nuclear New York, which has lobbied to keep Indian Point running. The pronuclear group calculated that each of Indian Point’s reactors had been producing more power than all of the wind turbines and solar panels in the state combined.
When Mr. Cuomo announced four years ago that Indian Point — perched on the east bank of the Hudson River in the village of Buchanan — would be phased out, the plant was producing about one-quarter of New York City’s power. But the governor had already laid out his plan to have 50 percent of the state’s energy come from renewable sources — wind, solar and hydro power — by 2030.
In 2019, a new state law raised that target to 70 percent from renewables by 2030. Taking away Indian Point, a reliable source of carbon-free power, will inevitably make achieving that goal far harder.
In fact, it already has.
After one of Indian Point’s two working reactors was permanently shut down last summer, the share of the state’s power that came from gas-fired generators jumped in 2020 to about 40 percent, from about 36 percent in 2019, federal data show. The share of the state’s power from renewable sources increased slightly, to about 30 percent.
“This is one of the greatest strategic blunders in the history of energy in New York,” said Robert Bryce, an author who has been a constant critic of the shutdown. “It’s a catastrophically wrong decision.”
State officials acknowledge that the loss of Indian Point’s output hampers their effort to make New York a leader in the shift to cleaner energy. But they say the step backward will only be temporary while several projects to add renewable power, including a wind farm in the Atlantic Ocean off Long Island, are completed.
Tom Congdon, the chairman of Mr. Cuomo’s Indian Point Task Force, said those new renewable sources, including more than 2,000 megawatts of solar power, would eventually get the state on track toward its goals.
“Once the large-scale renewable and offshore wind farms are complete, more than half of New York’s electricity will come from renewable sources, putting the state ahead of schedule toward reaching its goal of 70 percent renewable energy by 2030,” Mr. Congdon said.
But those projects will take years to complete. In the meantime, the state may have to turn to gas-burning plants to meet more than half of its energy needs, as it did last summer. Federal data show that in July the share of the state’s electricity that was generated by gas-fired plants spiked to about 55 percent.
Mr. Seneviratne said it was inevitable that New York City would draw even more power this year from gas-fired generators after Indian Point closes. On the hottest summer days, when millions of air-conditioners are turned on, gas-burning plants would need to increase their output by as much as one-third, spewing tons of additional carbon dioxide into the air, Nuclear New York had concluded.
Power generated by giant wind turbines is a growing source of electricity in New York, but most of the state’s wind farms are so far from New York City that the energy they produce does not reach the downstate grid the metropolitan area relies on.
Still, the shutdown of Indian Point will not harm the reliability of the state’s power grid, said Richard J. Dewey, chief executive of the New York Independent System Operator, which manages the power grid. Unlike the grid in Texas that failed catastrophically in February, New York’s grid has backstops, including connections to neighboring states and a network of generators that can switch to burning oil if there is a shortage of natural gas.
“We’ve just got a few more options for when we’re dealing with some of those severe weather events,” Mr. Dewey said.
President Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan proposes spending $100 billion to update and modernize the electric grid, both to make it more reliable and to create more connections from wind and solar plants to large cities. It also calls for a federal mandate requiring that a minimum share of electricity in the United States be generated by zero-carbon energy sources, possibly including nuclear power.
Though Mr. Cuomo has pressed for the closing of Indian Point since before he became governor, he has supported the state’s three other nuclear power plants, which are in less populated areas of upstate New York.
The rising supply of cheap natural gas and the proliferation of renewable sources has made nuclear plants, which are costly to maintain, less competitive. In recent years, they have shut down in several states, including New Jersey, Vermont and Massachusetts.
Environmental groups also complained about Indian Point’s effects on local groundwater and the Hudson River. Carlos Garcia, an energy policy planner with the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance, said his organization wanted the nuclear plant closed, but not if it resulted in an increased reliance on fossil fuels and more pollution in low-income neighborhoods surrounding power plants in Queens and Brooklyn.
“It’s sad to hear and it’s no surprise that the closing of Indian Point has led to more natural-gas usage,” Mr. Garcia said. “In typical New York fashion, we’re now being reactive instead of proactive.”
Indian Point has been integral to keeping the lights on in New York for decades. Consolidated Edison, the utility that distributes electricity to the city and some suburbs, built the first reactor there and put it into service in 1962. Until last year, the plant, now owned by Entergy, provided about 25 percent of the power consumed in the city.
Both the reactor that was shut down last year and the remaining reactor each produce nearly 1,000 megawatts of power, enough for more than 500,000 homes.
Indian Point’s retirement will have measurable effects on the local economy, including the loss of high-paying jobs and tax revenue. Linda Puglisi, the town supervisor in Cortlandt, which Buchanan is a part of, said the shutdown threatened $32 million in annual contributions from Entergy, including $24 million that went to the local school board.
Entergy plans to permanently lay off more than 300 workers at Indian Point in May. The plant has 770 workers, down from more than 1,000 at its peak, according to Jerry Nappi, a spokesman for Entergy.
The New Jersey-based company that is buying the plant, Holtec, plans to keep about 300 of Entergy’s employees there. About 100 of them will be members of the Utility Workers Union of America, union officials said.
Holtec plans to place the plant’s spent nuclear fuel into dry storage on the 240-acre site and dismantle the reactors.
“A lot of guys are losing jobs, so we’re not too happy about the shutdown,” said James Spry, who has worked at Indian Point for 30 years and is the chief steward of the union local. “It’s sad to see a place like this that employed thousands all of a sudden uprooted.”
Mr. Spry, who started out as a reactor operator and now is a planner, said union members who stay on will help Holtec clean up the site after the closing. Others left to work in Entergy’s nuclear plants in the South and some, like him, elected to retire.
Proponents of nuclear energy have campaigned to keep the plant operating, contending that it is more reliable than wind or solar power and greener than the gas-fired plants that are replacing it. Some elected officials from the area around Buchanan have objected to the proposed sale to Holtec, a New Jersey-based company with a checkered past.
But the president of the union local, James Shillitto, said he was resigned to Indian Point’s demise.
“I would love to keep it open and have my membership working, but I’m a realist,” Mr. Shillitto said. “We’re too close to the end to reverse it.”