Vermont isn’t moving towards cleaner, low-cost energy

By Brad Ferland

I read with interest a recent media report about Vermont being on the verge of a big increase in the use of fracked gas from Canada, and how our utilities plan to buy even more power from Seabrook, the nearest nuclear power plant to Vermont now that Vermont Yankee has closed.

Several years ago Vermont had one of the most enviable electricity supply portfolios in the country. We received a third of our power from in-state Vermont Yankee and almost a third of our power from Hydro Quebec. Both sources were low carbon, low cost and baseload power, all essential components of a sound energy mix. As we all know, political forces in Vermont rallied to close Vermont Yankee. Ultimately, market factors led to Vermont losing Vermont Yankee power.

In their push to close Vermont Yankee, plant opponents not only wanted it shut down but also decommissioned as quickly as possible. Now, we are reading reports from state officials that they want more say in the decommissioning process and are challenging the NRC’s authority on safety-related matters. This doesn’t look like an effort to decommission the plant in a timely manner; it looks like using decommissioning resources for potential state revenue and ultimately delaying decommissioning.

What does this all mean for Vermont? Even though Vermont Yankee is no longer in the mix, Vermont still needs baseload power. Vermonters must take a closer look at the state’s Comprehensive Energy Plan (CEP) and what the future holds. While the Department of Public Service updates the plan, we have the opportunity to get a reality check on how it will play out in the future.

Here is the fundamental question: does the Vermont energy plan put us in a better position with cost and carbon or are we losing ground? In a prudent energy mix, is it even possible to go from the current 17 percent total renewable energy to 90 percent? There are many reasons to realistically think not. This calls for wind and solar growth in major scale fashion for Vermont. And the intermittent component of wind and solar requires baseload support: thus the need to buy more out-of-state fracked gas and nuclear power. This baseload power that Vermont Yankee opponents objected to seems to be acceptable coming from an out-of-state nuclear plant.

As backers and opponents alike of Vermont’s proliferating wind, solar, and biomass projects are learning, it’s hard to build new power manufacturing in Vermont. DPS, our energy planning experts, must re-examine the energy plan and show Vermonters what is possible and what is not. For example: at a June 30 stakeholder engagement session sponsored by DPS, instate hydro was listed as an option to fill future renewable energy gaps. Yet prevailing wisdom is that instate hydro is virtually maxed and there is very little additional capacity. We shouldn’t have something on a wish list if the capacity doesn’t exist.

And we hope DPS will describe exactly how many wind projects and solar arrays will be necessary to meet the 90 percent goal. Vermonters should know this ahead of time rather than going through the “sprouting up here and there” process we currently see. Vermonters need a clear vision of how solar panels and wind towers will change the Vermont landscape if we try to reach the 90 percent renewable goal. And with that knowledge, they should have a right to weigh in on site approval.

We can only hope that energy planners in Vermont, and across New England, will work to sustain the operation of the region’s remaining operational low-carbon nuclear power plants. This will be necessary for clean baseload power. And if Vermont is headed to reliance on fracked gas from Canada and Pennsylvania for baseload power, we need to admit that our energy planning process failed to understand how to choose fuel sources to reduce carbon emissions.

Vermont’s current energy policy should undergo close scrutiny to determine if the end game matches the desire for a cleaner, more economical energy portfolio. Right now, it sure doesn’t look that way.

Brad Ferland of St. Albans is president of the Vermont Energy Partnership.

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