February 22, 2011 | by John Norton | Climate Change, Energy Policy, Sustainability + Energy, Vermont Community

This is a political battle which may end up in federal court, but in terms of the alternatives presented below, there has been one startling change in the Vermont context — strong public resistance to the construction of wind farms. This resistance is fueled by frightening tales of noise-related illness, seizure inducing light flicker, environmental damage from interstate-scale service roads, massive bird kills, and plunging property values. (For a deeper understanding of the scale and form of these concerns I urge the reader to see the documentary film “Windfall” about an aborted project in Meredith, NY.)  These campaigns of fear and misinformation threaten even modest proposals such as the one below. If we are to realize our shared vision of clean, local, distributed independent energy generation, we in the industry will have to confront this challenge head on.I first wrote in early 2010 to offer one possible road map to replacement of the generating capacity of Vermont’s aging Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon, Vermont. In the intervening year, Yankee has proven even more unreliable and rickety than it appeared then, the Vermont State Legislature has voted not to renew its license in 2012, but its owners have stepped up their campaign for relicensing including a threat to circumvent the state’s agreed upon authority to regulate the plant.

Context

The purpose of this article is to summarize how the generating capacity of Entergy Nuclear Vermont Yankee (ENVY) can be economically, environmentally and cost-effectively replaced in the near term by a diversified strategy of conservation, market purchases and local renewable resources. Much of the data in this analysis is taken from VPIRG’s Summer 2009 report, “Repowering Vermont, Replacing Vermont Yankee for a Clean Energy Future” and from the Vermont Public Service Board report “Utility Facts.”

There are many arguments for de-licensing ENVY in 2012, most compellingly is the danger of operating the plant from an environmental and human safety perspective. Many have made this argument in the past (most compellingly by ENVY itself through its recent tritium leak) and many will certainly continue to do so in the future. Countervailing arguments for re-licensing include its benefit to the economy in terms of jobs and low cost of electricity, the perception that nuclear is carbon neutral, and the argument that there is no alternative. I will leave it to VPIRG and others to respond to the first two. In regards to the economy, an alternative to ENVY will provide many more diverse jobs spread throughout the economy, geographically and demographically, with the financial benefit flowing more directly to Vermont. In addition, conservation and local renewables are, and will continue to become, cost competitive and more reliable than energy from an aging, rickety nuclear plant. The carbon neutrality claim is fallible when one considers the carbon intensity associated with mining, transporting and disposing of uranium, and the half-life of radiation in the environment, which is several orders of magnitude greater than that of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. However the argument that there is no cost-effective alternative to ENVY is the most easily countered.

Strategy for Replacement

As summarized in VPIRG’s report, the safest, most economical and most reliable energy future for Vermont is a combination of conservation and development of local renewable resources — wind, solar, bio-mass and hydro. The table below shows how this might be accomplished using more conservative numbers than are in the VPIRG report due to the shorter time frame I selected: implementation by 2015.

Vermont’s Electricity Future

  2005 2015 Var
  % GWHr's Cap MW % GWHr's Cap MW GWHr's Cap MW
Consumption 100%     100% 6930   630  
Conservation 0% 0   13% 901   901  
Balance 100% 6300   87% 6029   -271  
Generation                
VT Yankee 36% 2274 956 0% 0   -2274 -956
Regional Hydro 28% 1753   25% 1507   -246  
Oil and Natural Gas 1% 90            
NE Power Purchase Market 17% 1088   20% 1206   118  
VT Wind & Solar 0% 22 6 20% 1206 417 1184 411
VT Biomass 7% 464 88 20% 1206 153 742 65
VT Hydro 10% 609 87 10% 603 86 -6 -1
VT Methane 0% 0 1 1% 60 20 60 19
VT Small Renewables 0% 0 1 4% 241 30 241 29
  100% 6300 1139 100% 6029 800 -181 -433

Columns two through four describe the state of electrical energy sources in 2005, the last year for which data was available for this report. Columns five through seven describe a future state in 2015, and the last two columns show the variances between 2005 and 2015. The top line is the total electrical energy consumption in 2005 and current projected consumption in 2015 — an increase from 6300 gigawatt hours (GWhs) to 6930 GWhs, or a 10% increase. Energy is expressed in thousands of kilowatt hours (or gigawatt hours — GWhs) and the installed generating capacity is expressed in thousands of kilowatts (or megawatts — MW). This analysis anticipates that statewide residential, commercial and governmental energy conservation can eliminate the growth in consumption, and reduce total energy consumption 13% to 6029 GWhs. The remaining challenge is to offset ENVY’s energy contribution of 2300 GWhs (956 MW of capacity allocated to VT). In this scenario, reduced dependence on Hydro Quebec and other regional hydro sources and continued participation in the New England Power Purchase market, combined with an aggressive commitment to local renewable energy sources replaces ENVY

Wind and Solar: Of the local energy sources, wind and solar will provide 20% of the energy demand. This is an increase of capacity of 40 times current levels. Adding 411 MW of capacity is the equivalent of adding about 40 wind turbines per year for 5 years. This is a challenging goal, but it is more a matter of public will than capacity. The technologies are mature, the manufacturing capacity is in place, and wind has the capability to come on line very quickly. Many have argued that because renewables such as wind and solar are intermittent they are unreliable and de-stabilizing to the grid. However, it has been demonstrated and documented that a distributed renewable energy base, with load matching based on seasonal and time of day fluctuations, provides equal or greater reliability than conventional sources. We also know from European countries like Spain and Germany that penetration levels of up to 20% are easily managed by utility operators.

Biomass and Hydro: Approximately doubling the capability of these two indigenous sources is well within the capacity of Vermont. The state enjoys an abundance of wood for steam generation at the utility scale (such as McNeil) or industrial scale, which could increase from less than 400 to over 1200 GWhs. The capacity of hydro in this scenario is maintained by restoring and upgrading existing dam facilities, not by constructing new dams.

Methane: Methane digesters are now available and in use in Vermont on a very small scale. Increasing the capacity of methane generation is feasible, economical and will benefit both the environment and farmers by providing high grade fertilizer and another source of income.

Small Renewables: These include residential solar panels, a feasible choice for many Vermonters, small wind turbines and small-scale hydro which are rapidly evolving technologies. The addition of 30 MW of capacity in this category is considered conservative.

Conclusion

An alternative energy future for Vermont is achievable, practical and desirable. The choice to close ENVY and move aggressively to an energy mix based upon local energy sources will bring security and reliability to our energy future, protect our environment now and over the very long term, and provide substantial economic benefit to Vermonters all across the state by providing good local jobs, stable energy prices and a distributed tax base.

john norton
John Norton

John confesses to loving wind power first as a young man of 25 (hint: not yesterday). As NRG’s Chief Operating Officer, he shared that passion with others internally and internationally. He wrote about manufacturing technology, the intersection of innovation and operations, global trade in the wind industry, strategic partnerships, and thoughts on making a difference through local community.

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