On May 31, 2023

Transform Ryegate, Yankee for jobs and for the climate


By Jim Hurt

Editor’s note: Jim Hurt is a resident of Woodstock.

Here is the gist of recent recommendations to the Vermont Climate Council calling for the profitable renovation of Vermont’s two wood plants, McNeil and Ryegate, thereby transforming them into negative-emission power and storage stations.

These stations will emit very little but remove much CO2 from the sky. A similar plan for Vermont Yankee is also financially attractive and will certainly create more jobs, profits and climate benefits than a new nuclear power plant at Vermont Yankee, as industry advocates still seek. Any nuke plan for Vermont Yankee, if seriously proposed, is likely to become a radioactive third rail to most voters in the tri-state region. The nuclear waste crisis is only getting worse.

Besides, Vermont can generate more green watts from more green resources in Vermont, i.e. solar and hemp, as Canada is doing. Hemp makes CBD, milk, bread, fabrics, drywall, car parts and biofuels. Hemp is a cash and cover crop that restores soil and rotates easily between other cash crops. Moreover, hemp removes CO2 from air faster than trees via photosynthesis.

CO2 gas from burning hemp biofuels can be captured at the point of emission and chemically reused to make synthetic e-fuels and feedstocks, i.e. H2, ethanol, gasoline, diesel, butanol, graphene and more. A new kind of multisystem power station can evolve out of the old plant.

The ever-useful switching yard can incorporate a) local solar farms, b) megawatt-scale storage and c) hemp biofuel generation with CO2 capture and reuse. Besides, central power and storage can only help accelerate distributed PV. Diverse companies like Siemens, Porsche and LanzaTech are engineering a biofuel and e-fuel revolution for transportation, electricity and building heat.

Moreover, Vermont is overdependent on out-of-state power, including nuclear and Hydro-Quebec, which is not the benign green resource HQ claims it is. Rotting biomass emits much greenhouse gas. Worse, native fishing villages have suffered terribly from methyl-mercury poisoning over decades.

Vermont’s premise for buying HQ power — that it’s green and benign — is tragically wrong. The better choice by far is to keep more green in Vermont by generating more green power in the Green Mountain State. Gov. Scott should make the case for a profitable free- market climate plan, i.e. Vermont green is Vermont strong for Vermont’s economy. And solar and hemp are green.

Yet, Gov. Scott and Vermont utilities are still marching toward ever-greater dependence on Hydro-Quebec and outside nuke power to cover new demand for electric cars and heat pumps. That means more Vermont green will be leaving Vermont just when Vermont farmers, especially dairy farmers, need new cash crops and markets, i.e. hemp and solar.

Then, too, the Vermont Climate Council might want to reduce CO2 emissions by another 500,000 tons or more per year to compensate for the implosion of the Transportation & Climate Initiative and other setbacks. Yet, there is still no focus in the governor’s office or Vermont utilities or the council on renovating Vermont’s wood plants. Though small, these two plants emit together over 600,000 tons of CO2 per year based on EPA estimates.

Or Vermont, Vermont utilities and Vermont power plant owners can profitably renovate these two plants with EPA blessings and Department of Energy support to reduce CO2 emissions by 600,000 tons per year and remove 600,000 tons per year from the sky at the same time. Carbon offsets and/or credits will no doubt apply.

Theoretically, a sustainably managed forest or set of forests can store more carbon in trees per year than released by logging and downstream use, including for wood chips and pellets for power plants or buildings. Let carbon forests proliferate by harvesting wisely. Don’t cut too much  too soon.

Ideally, Vermont’s wood plants can burn a mixture of a) wood pellets from carbon forests that are managed and certified to store more carbon than is released per year, b) energy pellets from the stem of the hemp plant (the shiv), c) biodiesel from hemp seeds and d) ethanol from hemp leaves. These fuels can also be sold as carbon-neutral or nearly neutral biofuels for vehicles and buildings.

Finally, the Affordable Heat Act should be supported by a robust hemp cultivation program in order to, in their own words, “deliver fuel and technologies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” In that case, hemp biofuels should fit right in.

“All biofuels are not equal,” Sen. Anne Watson recently said. Indeed, hemp is a superior crop for biofuels and many other products or the Canadian government would not be promoting it over many years. Hemp is a prodigious and rapid absorber of CO2 from the atmosphere and yet has much lower life-cycle carbon intensity than fossil fuels or monoculture palm oil.

Surely, transforming Ryegate into a negative-emission power and storage station is better than closing Ryegate, which will lead to the permanent loss of many jobs and much revenue to Ryegate Township and local economy.

Closing Vermont Yankee was a victory for nuclear safety and an economic disaster for the tri-state region. With hindsight and new chemistry, transformation is the optimal solution and a good example for the nation, world and Joe Biden too.

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