We’re doin’ fine…
By George Harvey
The reaction of some to the final shutdown of the Vermont Yankee (VY) nuclear plant was predictable. One national investment publication focused on the factoid that Vermont had lost 70% of its electric power. Notice, I said “factoid.” A factoid is something that looks like a fact, but likely is not.
VY never supplied the state with 70% of the power it used. It produced about 70% of the power generated in Vermont, but it always sold most of that power out of state. At one time, the amount purchased in Vermont was about 35% of the state’s needs, or about 1950 gigawatt-hours (GWh) per year. Recently, the state found that other sources were less expensive, and none of the power used in Vermont was purchased from VY.
The story of where Vermont does get its power is getting more interesting – and more exciting – with passing time. Back in 1997, Vermont started pursuing distributed, renewable power when it passed its net-metering law, which allowed consumers to produce power for the grid. This got the state off to a start and made people more aware.
Then in 2006, the state adopted its Sustainably Priced Energy Development (SPEED) Program, which is open to many different types of utility-independent power plants. Over the years, it has come to include fifteen bio-digesters, the greatest number in any state. It also includes solar farms, hydroelectric projects, wind farms, landfill methane plants, and biomass plants. They range in size from tiny to utility-scale.
Plants in the SPEED program are owned by a wide variety of companies, cooperatives, farms, schools, organizations, and households, but even in combination with net metering, they do not represent all the renewable power installed in Vermont by any means. Renewable generation owned by utilities is not included in either program.
Vermont’s renewable energy programs have already replaced nearly half of the power the state once got from Vermont Yankee.
It is easy to find out how much power is generated under the SPEED program by visiting the web page, vermontspeed.com/project-status. The seventy or so projects produce over 892 GWh per year. If we guesstimate net-metering at about 50 GWh per year, the combined output of the two programs is about 940 GWh per year. When VY shut down, Vermont’s SPEED and net-metering programs had already replaced nearly half of the power the state once got from the nuclear plant.
It might be useful to make a few observations about this.
- Detractors of distributed and renewable power love to point out that wind and solar systems are intermittent. Truth be told, all sources are intermittent, and utilities have always had expensive backup systems for base-load plants. The real question should not be whether we will always have power if we depend on renewable sources, but how much backing them up will cost. It turns out that backup power for distributed renewable systems is far less expensive than backup for base-load plants.
- Base-load power plants are inflexible in their output and have to generate power when no one wants it, selling power at a loss or even at negative prices. By contrast, wind turbines can be shut down easily, and solar plants produce power at the time demand is highest.
- Wind and solar power prices have dropped to that point that our least expensive power source is wind, and solar is tied with gas for second place. Projections are that the prices of wind and solar will continue to decline, and those of gas, coal, and nuclear will keep going up.
- Solar and wind power both have the advantage of costs that approach zero once the initial investment is paid down. This makes it easy to project costs over a period of decades. This is not true of base-load plants whose fuel sources are subject to changes in supply.
- Local communities can use distributed renewable power to form micro-grids that may continue to produce power in storms and other times of emergency.
- Distributed renewable power sources can be locally owned, keeping the profits in the local economy, benefiting local businesses and households. They can provide more jobs than base-load plants and reduce taxes.
- Renewable power generation does not produce waste. Even accounting for greenhouse gas emissions from construction, they are our cleanest power sources.
- Distributed power sources require less investment for building and maintaining expensive power grids.
Whether we like nuclear power or not, VY has shut down at last, and we can say “Goodbye.” But as we see the advantages of renewable sources, we can add, “Thanks, but we don’t need you anymore.”