Three Mile Island future important to Pennsylvania

Any Pennsylvania resident who has watched the state’s financial fortunes worsen over the past decade probably wonders how the owner of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg can be so naive to think that the commonwealth is capable of providing financial aid to the facility anytime soon.

During the winter, when the still-uncompleted 2017-18 budget-preparation exercise began, the state’s deficit was estimated to be about

$3 billion. Now, less than a month before the June 30 budget-preparation deadline, there’s still no concrete evidence that the state government’s legislative and executive branches have made significant progress in reducing that troubling number.

Still, Chicago-based energy company Exelon Corp., TMI’s owner, is threatening to close the plant in 2019, unless it receives government aid.

TMI has been unprofitable for years, and last month it was dealt another setback.

For the third year in a row, it didn’t find an advance buyer for its electricity in a regional power auction for the years 2020 and 2021.

On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Exelon would accelerate the plant’s retirement unless it received a commitment of federal or state money.

The prospects for any money from Washington are unknown, but up to now Pennsylvania has been reluctant to subsidize it, as some states have done to keep their nuclear facilities operating.

The Journal quoted Exelon Chief Executive Chris Crane, who said, “Like New York and Illinois before it, (Pennsylvania) has an opportunity to take a leadership role by implementing a policy solution to preserve its nuclear-energy facilities.”

However, responses to that comment by state residents who realize the financial challenges Pennsylvania is facing might be “Fat chance” or “Don’t hold your breath.”

According to the Journal, TMI would be at least the fifth U.S. nuclear facility targeted for closing by 2025. Meanwhile, four other plants have closed during the past four years. The five proposed closings would shorten the nation’s nuclear power plant roster to about 60 facilities.

Across America, nuclear plants are facing stiff competition from other electricity sources, especially plants powered by natural gas.

As Pennsylvania is well aware, hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, has unlocked huge quantities of natural gas, both here and in some other states.

For the third year in a row, passage of a severance tax on natural gas drilling is a priority of Gov. Tom Wolf but, as it’s done for the 2015-16 and 2016-17 fiscal years, the Legislature won’t bow to the governor’s wish for 2017-18, fearing that the industry would curtail its Keystone State activity.

On the issue of nuclear power plants’ demise, there’s a point to consider:

Without nuclear power as a competitive source, would power customers someday face significantly higher electricity bills, since competition helps to keep prices reasonable?

According to federal data, nuclear power generated 20 percent of U.S. electricity in 2016; natural gas, 34 percent; and coal, 30 percent, with the rest coming from renewable resources such as hydroelectric dams.

Several nuclear plants are under construction in the southern United States, but they’re behind schedule, billions of dollars over budget, and not without uncertainties.

The closing of TMI would be a blow to this state, just like diminished activity by the natural gas industry.

Pennsylvania’s leaders are dealing with another difficult budget-preparation process, but they shouldn’t ignore TMI’s plight and future.