Just two days after electing their new governor, Vermonters also learned that the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant is for sale. For many years this plant has provided one-third of Vermont's electricity at a low, fixed cost with virtually no carbon emissions. Vermonters may fairly wonder what the future impact will be on the cost of electricity, the economy, and the environment.
And yet, nothing of real significance to Vermont Yankee has changed. While Governor-elect Peter Shumlin, a Yankee opponent, won narrowly, Lt. Governor-elect Phil Scott - a Vermont Yankee supporter - won by a larger margin. The relicensing vote remains in the hands of the Legislature. And regardless of who owns the plant today or in the future, its continued operation is very important for Vermonters.
In January, the legislature should take a fresh, dispassionate look at Vermont Yankee. To get politics out of this important decision, the legislature should empower the Vermont Public Service Board and Department of Public Service, which have expertise on these matters, to determine Yankee's future.
Despite November's headlines, three central facts are unchanged and must be considered.
With or without Vermont Yankee, almost all of Vermont's electricity will still come from traditional, base load power plants fueled by hydro, coal, natural gas and nuclear power. Today, 270 megawatts of Vermont Yankee's electricity is used by Vermonters on a typical day. Renewable power and efficiency might possibly produce a third of that amount in the next five to ten years. Even if that ambitious marker is reached, the other 180 megawatts would still come from base load sources.
The question is whether Vermont utilizes our largest in-state base load power provider, Vermont Yankee, or the New England power grid, through which Vermonters will then burn mostly fossil fuels to power their refrigerators, televisions, and lights. New England smokestacks will emit tons of air pollution and particulates on behalf of Vermonters who thought, mistakenly, they were "going green." This could include as much as two million additional tons of carbon dioxide annually. Additionally, if Vermont Yankee closes nearly 1,300 jobs and millions in annual taxes would be lost.
Without Vermont Yankee's power, Vermonters will pay more for electricity. Vermont consumers have been lulled into complacency by years of stable, low rates. This is thanks in good part to Vermont Yankee, which has saved Vermonters well over $300 million since 2002 and ensured that the state's electricity rates remain well below the New England average. While many factors will ultimately determine how much Vermont pays for electricity if it loses Vermont Yankee, Dr. Howard Axelrod, an independent energy expert, has estimated that Vermont electric rates will rise 19 to 39 percent if the plant closes. Such a price hike would be a major impediment to job creation in energy intensive industries such as manufacturing, grocery, ski resorts, and hospitality, and could force some businesses to leave the state.
As power purchase agreement negotiations are continuing, policy makers should have an open mind to a future announcement and allow the independent experts at the Public Service Board and Department of Public Service to scrutinize it. Considering that wind, biomass, solar, and other renewable sources can cost several times the amount of Vermont Yankee's power, additional patience on behalf of Vermonters is certainly in order.
It appears the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) will determine Vermont Yankee should operate until 2032. In June of this year, the NRC, in its annual assessment, stated that the plant has been operated safely and provided Vermont Yankee with its highest safety rating -- green.
Since Vermont Yankee applied for license renewal in 2006, the NRC, as part of its separate, exhaustive license renewal process, has spent tens of thousands of hours doing in-depth technical and environmental assessments. In August 2007, the NRC's environmental report recommended license renewal as did a February 2008 Safety Evaluation Report. Thus, there do not appear to be material issues, from a scientific and engineering standpoint, that will impede license renewal.
Vermont Yankee is important for many jobs in the state and is a central reason Vermont has electricity rates well below the New England average and the lowest carbon emissions in the country. Policy makers should keep these factors in mind in the weeks and months ahead.
Guy Page is the Communications Director of the Vermont Energy Partnership, a not-for-profit coalition of about 90 Vermont businesses, labor organizations, not-for-profit organizations and individuals committed to providing education about a sound energy policy for Vermont. Entergy, owner of Vermont Yankee, is a VTEP member.