Close of Pilgrim nuclear sparks energy policy debate in Massachusetts

massachusetts state house elp

BOSTON (AP) — The announcement last week by the owners of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station that they plan to shutter the plant by June 2019 because of rising maintenance costs has thrust the energy future of Massachusetts — particularly the low-carbon variety — to the top of the policy heap on Beacon Hill.

Pilgrim, which went online in 1972 and employs more than 600 people, is a major source of energy in the state. The plant in Plymouth generates 680 MW of nearly carbon-free electricity, enough to power more than 600,000 homes, according to operators.

Pilgrim, the only nuclear power plant in Massachusetts, had been relicensed in 2012 for an additional 20 years.

Its closure will leave a sizeable hole in the state's energy production.

Supporters of solar and wind energy were quick to say the impending loss of Pilgrim is an opportunity for Massachusetts to expand its renewable energy base.

Gov. Charlie Baker also has waded into the debate. Even before Pilgrim made its announcement, Baker had two filed bills aimed at the state's energy future.

One would encourage Massachusetts utilities to enter into long-term contracts with renewable energy producers. Baker said the proposal is aimed at helping the state tap into Canadian hydropower.

The second bill would raise existing caps on the state's net metering program that allows homeowners, businesses and local governments to sell excess solar power they generate back to the electrical grid for credit.

The Massachusetts Senate has passed a bill to lift the net-metering caps and create a new solar incentive program when the state reaches its goal of 1,600 megawatts of installed solar capacity by 2020.

Baker said Pilgrim's planned closing could also spur action on his push for hydropower, which he said — like nuclear power — is more steady and reliable than other sources of renewable energy.

"Solar and wind are intermittent. They don't solve or meet our capacity requirement," the Republican governor said Friday. "One of the things that makes hydro attractive to me is it's a baseload substitution and a baseload solution."

The loss of Pilgrim could also put pressure on the need to increase the state's natural gas capacity — which in turn could help spur projects like the proposed Kinder Morgan natural gas pipeline.

That project has been met with some skepticism.

State Attorney General Maura Healey last month said the project would have "a significant impact" on local residents and the state's energy future. She said the state needs more information about whether the pipeline is warranted.

Another factor in the debate about a post-Pilgrim energy landscape in Massachusetts is the state's Global Warming Solutions Act, which passed in 2008.

The law requires the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020 and by 80 percent by 2050. The closing of Pilgrim removes one source of largely non-greenhouse gas-emitting energy.

Environmental groups like the Conservation Law Foundation have argued that additional natural gas pipelines could thwart the goals of the 2008 law.

Baker said the anticipated 2019 closure of Pilgrim gives the state time to make the transition.

"In the short term, I think our focus ought to be on the safety issues and on making sure that we plan accordingly for all the people who work there," he said.

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