While Vermonters energetically unite to shut down Vermont Yankee, the nuclear power plant that is currently supplying a third of Vermont’s power, less attention is being given to the tough question: What will Vermont’s electricity future look like? Assuming that Vermont Yankee is shut down, Vermont will suddenly find itself importing roughly 67 percent of its electricity. (Including Hydro Quebec) That’s not good; especially since the energy that was coming from Vermont Yankee will likely be replaced with energy from coal. Vermont needs to generate an additional 1800 gigawatthours of electricity per year to fill the energy gap. In this article, I hope to illustrate how much energy that is while making suggestions for future Vermont energy policy.
The easiest option would to simply build another power plant; some have suggested that it even be built on the land that Vermont Yankee presently sits. A relatively small natural gas power plant could make up the difference, but at the sacrifice of Vermont’s clean energy portfolio. Make no mistake, natural gas is not clean, efficient or “ecofriendly” as its owners want you to believe. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, uses a fluid composed of 596 chemicals, which has been found in ground water of nearby residence. In a worst case scenario, fracking has the potential of contaminating a major waterway, directly polluting the water of millions of Americans. Vermonters are getting rid of Vermont Yankee to prevent a catastrophe; building a natural gas plant would prevent one and while creating another.
The option that Vermonters would likely support is a widespread small scale renewable portfolio. Here is a breakdown of key energy sources, based on production that we already get from such sources.
Vermont already has two biomass power plants, McNeil and Ryegate, which have been a great source of low carbon power for decades. If two more plants the size of McNeil and two more the size of Ryegate were built in Vermont, they could contribute approximately 1028 gigawatthours per year towards filling the energy gap. The construction of four more biomass plants would subsequently require additional logging and forestry efforts in the state, and even then, we would still likely need to import biomass from Canada. This is one of several potential compromises that will need to happen if Vermont Yankee is closed. On the other hand, if new biomass generation stations are built wisely, they could use their excess heat to cogenerate power and hot water for the surrounding community.
Solar is good in Arizona, wind is good in Texas and hydroelectric is good in Vermont. Vermont could aggressively support the conversion of regular dams to hydroelectric. There are 290 dams in Vermont, and only a handful are hydroelectric. If we could get between seven and ten of these small dams converted, at roughly four megawatts each, it could squeeze out another 300 gigawatthours per year. This is on top of the border boost that Vermont already gets thanks to Hydro Quebec, which will be providing a roughly a third of our electricity. The problem with converting existing dams is that many were build without power generators originally because they wouldn’t produce enough electricity to be economical. All hydro dams will produce energy, but some more than others. Vermont would likely have to encourage smaller dam conversion by chipping in towards the cost.
Electricity through anaerobic digestion has been a growing source of energy for Vermont in recent years. The technology is everything we could hope for; turn farm waste into a power source. Vermont is already producing roughly 14.5 gigawatthours per year and could easily double if the existing farmers turn a profit on the new technology.
When evaluating wind power, you have to use the same rule as you would when buying a house: location, location, location. Wind turbines are often rated on their maximum power output, but their performance will depend almost entirely on their location. A one megawatt turbine won’t produce enough energy to power a toaster if placed in the wrong location. This brings me to the next compromise: allowing wind turbines on mountains that have already been developed by ski resorts. Ski resorts would profit from offsetting their own energy demands, while supplying the infrastructure to transmit such current. One of the few ski resorts that is leading the way is Bolton, who installed a small wind turbine that produces 350,000 kilowatt hours. (.35 gigawatthours)
Some solar installers in Vermont claim to be able to set up a solar array at a cost of four dollars a watt, plus installation. By industry standards, that’s pretty good. Yet to even make a noticeable dent in Vermont’s electricity consumption, we would need a system of around five megawatts, or five million watts. That translates to a cost of 20 million dollars, (plus installation) which is more than anyone will realistically want to upfront. Solar is a great source of clean energy for your home, but it is uneconomical for filling the domestic energy gap.
The conclusion is that closing Vermont Yankee will come with compromises that we Vermonters need to be prepared for. It is great that Vermont is working to prevent future nuclear accidents, but organizers would be able to make a stronger case if they had a well thought out renewable energy plan. This represents one Vermonters suggestion of how it could be done and is not affiliated with any utility.