Pennsylvania Natural Gas vs Nuclear — Benefits and Drawbacks

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Nuclear and natural gas power plants have their advantages and drawbacks when it comes to Pennsylvania’s electricity.
Three Mile Island (left). Natural gas peaking plant (right)
Both generator types have their advantages and drawbacks when it comes to Pennsylvania’s electricity.

How does natural gas and nuclear power affect my PA electric bill?

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), Pennsylvania’s natural gas production has been increasing in recent years, largely thanks to shale plays in the Appalachian Basin. The EIA claims that Pennsylvania produced more natural gas than any state other than Texas in 2017, making up 19% of the total natural gas production in the U.S. for the same year. On the other hand, the abundance of natural gas has seen nuclear stations in Pennsylvania suffer in recent years. But what does this mean not just for your electricity bill, but for the state of Pennsylvania as well?

Which is cheaper, natural gas or nuclear power?

The Henry Hub natural gas spot price in January 2008 was $7.99 mmBtu (dollars per million BTU). But with record natural gas production over the years, that price has consistently fallen, and in January 2016 was only $2.28 mmBtu. And that price continues to remain low. This abundance of natural gas production and low prices is then passed on to the customer.  According to the “Everyday Energy for Pennsylvania” report, between 2006 and 2016, consumers saved over $30.5 billion thanks to increased natural gas production.With lower fuel prices for natural gas-fired electric generators, the wholesale price in Pennsylvania (PJM) for electricity averaged just $34 per megawatthour (MWh) during 2017, down from an average of $66.72 per MWH in 2010.

Meanwhile, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, US nuclear plant costs in 2017 were $33.61 MWh. This is significantly more expensive than natural gas, due to the costs of running a nuclear plant in total, but has been decreasing since 2012, which saw prices peak at $41.11 MWh. In recent years, it’s become more evident that nuclear energy can’t compete with natural gas generators due to lower wholesale electricity prices. However, that alone should not be the only thing we consider when it comes to the benefits and drawbacks of both methods of power generation.

What are the environmental risks of natural gas and nuclear power?

Natural gas is a fossil fuel, and while it emits 50 to 60 less carbon dioxide than a typical coal plant, it’s still releasing global warming emissions when combusted. Drilling and extracting natural gas also results in methane leakage, a strong greenhouse gas that is even worse for the environment than carbon dioxide when it comes to trapping heat in the atmosphere. So yes, while natural gas is a relatively clean burning fuel, it’s not without emissions.

Nuclear power, on the other hand, does not directly produce carbon dioxide emissions. While nuclear power is much cleaner when it comes to air pollution, there are other risks. Nuclear energy produces radioactive waste that must be stored and monitored. There is also the chance of a nuclear accident, as was seen at the Three Mile Island plant in 1979. Thankfully, no adverse effects from radiation could be traced back to the accident, but it is a risk factor and highly important to consider.

What are the economic impacts of natural gas and nuclear power?

Natural gas production has brought jobs to the state of Pennsylvania, and according to the Consumer Energy Alliance, saw the creation of over 21,000 jobs in the last few years. The natural gas and oil industry supports close to 323,000 jobs across the state, not just in natural gas production but in services, wholesale and retail, manufacturing, construction and more. This provides nearly $23.0 billion in wages and contributes close to $44.5 billion to Pennsylvania’s economy.

On the other hand, there are currently five nuclear power stations in Pennsylvania. Of these, the Three Mile Island and Beaver Valley stations have announced plans to close in 2019 and 2021 respectively due to the difficulties of competing with cheaper and more agile natural gas plants. Three Mile Island’s closure will see 675 employees out of work, while the loss of the Beaver Valley plant will see 1,000 employees out of work. It’s estimated that the Beaver Valley nuclear station paid $4 million in taxes in 2015, which will also disappear. The loss of more nuclear plants in the future could see even more unemployment and further loss of tax revenue for Pennsylvania.

Comparing costs and benefits helps you save more.

There are benefits and drawbacks to both natural gas and nuclear power, and while natural gas may be in the lead when it comes to price, it’s difficult to say how the loss of current large-scale nuclear power plants might affect Pennsylvania electricity in the near future. However, technology changes constantly. The development of Advanced Small Modular Reactors may offer a better competitive, more environmentally-friendly alternative with fewer risks and lower costs.

Meanwhile, if you’re looking to compare electricity plans then your the best choice  is to head over to https://www.paenergyratings.com/electricity-rates and learn more about shopping for the cheapest plans in Pennsylvania right now!

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