Keep Yankee open
Last Friday morning, on my way to work in Montpelier, as I zipped on my bike down Berlin Street past Al Blakey’s house and solar array, I began thinking about his letter (“Vermont Yankee —Who needs it?” June 20). As might be expected from someone who has “put his money where his mouth is,” he raises many thoughtful ideas. In particular, he cites some new solar and wind power construction statistics and then says, “so much for the belief that green energy cannot replace nuclear.”
In one important sense — low-carbon content — nuclear power is already green. The “lifecycle” (including mining, processing, everything) of its carbon footprint is virtually identical to that of wind, solar and hydro power, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. It makes little sense to replace a large, existing, reliable source of very low-carbon power, in the name of climate change activism.
Furthermore, wind and solar energy cannot replace nuclear, any more than heating oil can replace gasoline. Fill a gas tank with heating oil, and the car stops. Replace a 24/7 baseload generator like Vermont Yankee with intermittent, weather-dependent wind and solar, and the carefully balanced transmission grid will crash in a flurry of brownouts, electrical fires and blackouts. The modern transmission grid can accept about 20 percent intermittent power. More than that, and service and equipment will degrade.
Mr. Blakey calls for a new “microgrid” transmission system, which to my knowledge has never been successfully built and used in a large area. Is it doable? If so, how much will it cost? And how long would it take to build? Vermont Yankee or no Vermont Yankee, our existing need for baseload power remains. Sadly, Vermont’s utilities, once almost entirely carbon-free, now rely more heavily than ever on carbon-emitting natural-gas burning plants in southern New England.
Renewables proponent David Blittersdorf estimates that by 2050, Vermont will need 18,000 million megawatt/hours, or three times the electricity we use now. Last year, all of the industrial solar generators in the Vermont SPEED program produced just slightly more than a millionth of that amount — 19,000 mw/h. Or to bring the matter closer to home for both Mr. Blakey and myself: According to the Vermont Department of Public Service, moving just 5 percent closer to the state’s goal of 90 percent total renewable energy would require solar panels on every square inch of an area 1.3 times the size of the city of Barre.
As technology improves, Vermont may very well have a sparkling (and not merely sparking) renewable power future. But at present, intermittent renewable power alone cannot be its backbone. Perhaps we can avoid the fate of pro-renewables Germany, which opted to close nuclear plants and then was forced by demand for baseload power to order the construction of many new coal-burning plants. At least until a clean, safe, economic, reliable alternative is up and running in Vermont, we should not throw out the Vermont Yankee baby with the bathwater.
Communications director, Vermont Energy Partnership
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