MONTPELIER-A sizable and vocal group of Vermont activists may be pleased to see the state legislature shut down the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station. But they have no idea how to replace its energy and economic contribution to the state.
Voting Yankee "off the island" will not get rid of the need for the 285 megawatts of dependable base load power that it delivers to Vermont utilities each year at bargain prices. Despite over $30 million extracted each year from electric ratepayers to finance Efficiency Vermont, energy savings from conservation are not likely to cancel the growth in electricity consumption as the region emerges from the recession.
Where will the needed energy come from? Alternative energy activists say "wind power", but proposed wind projects have already been stymied by local opposition in Londonderry, Sutton and Ira.
A strong proposal for four turbines at the abandoned U.S. radar base atop of East Haven Mountain was killed off by a PSB requirement that the promoter spend tons of money to assess the potential threat to birds and bats.
VELCO, the state's transmission utility, estimates that inland wind turbines deliver about 15 percent of their rated capacity. That means the New England ISO power grid operators have to have lots of reserve power readily available when the wind inconveniently stops blowing.
Howard Axelrod, an independent power grid consulting engineer, has estimated that Vermont would need at least 800 Mw of installed wind power to replace Yankee's 285 Mw. That indicates at least 400 2 Mw-rated turbines would need to be erected on Vermont ridgelines, plus all the transmission lines and access roads.
It would take at least five years to replace Yankee with a combined cycle natural gas plant, burning gas brought up by nonexistent pipelines from Massachusetts. Such plants work well, but put the grid at the mercy of fluctuating Midwest or Canadian natural gas prices. Past proposals to extend natural gas lines northward into Vermont have been hooted down by some.
Yankee now supplies 6 percent of the electricity in the New England grid. Unless demand nosedives, that 6 percent (600 Mw in all) of baseload power will have to be found somewhere. Where? Coal-fired plants in the Ohio Valley? Somebody else's (unbuilt) nuclear plant?
When the New England ISO is unable to put enough juice into the grid to meet the New England Reliability Commission's performance standards, either some large users have to be cut off, or New England will suffer a brownout. To avoid this result, the ISO has to make desperation purchases at, frequently, astronomical prices.
Bringing in power from distant generators brings its own set of problems. There is presently not enough long-distance transmission capacity to keep 285 Mw of additional power flowing reliably into Vermont. Building more high-voltage transmission lines, of course, brings out the enviros and their lawyers.
What will happen to Vermont's economy if Yankee winks out in 2012? Its 669 employees (average wage: $104,000) will start disappearing. The $93 million Yankee injects into the Vermont economy will start heading south. The state's desperate General Fund will lose $7.6 million a year, and the Education Fund will lose $6 million a year.
These economic facts, and more, are contained in a report prepared last January for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 300 by the highly reputable Vermont Economic Consulting Inc. The study used payroll data in a well-established economic model, and did not inflate its findings by adding in speculative benefits.
Some, but not all, Vermonters are shocked at the militant attitude of one of the three anti-nuclear Democratic senators running for governor on promises of creating good new jobs for Vermonters. According to George Clain, head of the IBEW Local, the unnamed senator informed the labor leader that "your members [at Yankee] have two years notice-they should be looking for other jobs."
Former Gov. Tom Salmon, a Democrat, told a Vermont Energy Partnership conference in Montpelier last month: "The loss of Vermont Yankee would be a profound and unmitigated blow to Vermont and its people."
Next January the 2011 legislature will have one last chance to avert that blow.
Said one anonymous observer of Vermont's energy situation: "Voters concerned about living in a brownout world ought to put every candidate on the record early on. The size of this looming economic and energy sinkhole is far too important to overlook."