February 7, 2017 | last updated February 8, 2017 4:45 am

In nuke debate, clash over cost, competition

Waterford's Millstone Power Station will be one of the last remaining nuclear facilities in New England by 2019, as the industry faces increased pressure from low natural gas prices and other factors.

Much of a four-hour public hearing Tuesday was spent debating a proposal that aims to benefit Connecticut's sole nuclear power plant.

Millstone Power Station's owner, Dominion, has hinted that the Waterford plant's future is uncertain because of persistently low natural gas prices, though it hasn't stated that it intends to close.

With a capacity of more than 2,000 megawatts, Millstone is a major generator of baseload power in New England, a region where several nuclear plants have closed or announced their closure since late 2014 due to economic challenges.

If Millstone were to close, it would increase the need for gas and oil-fired generators, which would increase greenhouse-gas emissions.

While they generate radioactive waste, nuclear plants do not produce emissions. Dominion and its supporters are hoping that environmental benefit will help convince the legislature to offer more favorable policies.

The potential details of S.B. 106 remained vague Tuesday. The bill, which counts Energy Committee Co-Chair Rep. Paul Formica (R-Waterford) among its co-sponsors, lists its purpose simply as: To provide a mechanism for zero-carbon generating facilities to sell power to electric utilities.

It will be up to the committee whether or not the bill is fleshed out and progresses through the legislative process.

Last year, a similar but unsuccessful bill included nuclear energy in a state-led competitive bidding process for renewable power. It's not clear if this year's bill would allow for something similar.

Under Connecticut law, renewables include a wide range of technologies, from solar panels and wind turbines to fuel-cell plants, anaerobic digesters and certain hydropower facilities.

The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection has led several sizeable efforts to procure renewable power since 2011, but nuclear power wasn't eligible.

Some are worried that nuclear power could undercut renewables on price in such a scenario, stunting renewables growth.

"You're getting a better deal compared to other renewables, but you're not getting a better deal compared to the free and open deregulated market that Dominion and other generators asked for 19 years ago," said AARP's Connecticut advocacy director John Erlingheuser.

Much could depend on the design of the procurement, its scoring process and how it defines "in the best interest of ratepayers."

Others argue Connecticut should leave the region's power needs to ISO-New England, whose CEO last month said the grid operator may consider special contracts to incentivize non-gas generators to postpone retirement. Such contracts would be expensive, but their cost would be spread across ratepayers in six states.

There were also disagreements Tuesday over cost. Dominion, which submitted written testimony for the hearing, argues that the proposed bill would lead to cheaper power in a state that has the highest prices in the country.

But many said they don't believe it, or argued that any savings could come at the expense of cleaner technologies.

Others questioned whether Millstone is bluffing about its financial condition, and called on legislators to require the plant to open its books before granting what some consider to be a subsidy.

That's been a sensitive term for lawmakers who want to help Millstone.

"At this point, I don't think anybody here is considering any kind of subsidy," Rep. Laura Hoydick, a Stratford Republican and a ranking member on the committee, said in concluding a back-and-forth with AARP's Erlingheuser.

Competing power plants don't like the proposal, arguing it would be unfair.

"Tipping the scales for one company that is doing quite well in the current market is just wrong," said Matt Fossen, spokesman for NRG, Calpine Corp. and Dynegy. "The Connecticut consumer will be better served if we're all on a level playing field."

Besides a state-led procurement, another alternative to boost Millstone would be the creation of a zero-emissions credit -- something New York did last year exclusively for nuclear plants.

Katie Dykes, chair of the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, said Tuesday that such an option would work better if all New England states adopted it. Otherwise, only Connecticut ratepayers would subsidize a plant that benefits the entire region.

Of the various possibilities, "all are certain to face legal challenge," Dykes said.

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