Vermont’s Energy Choices –
The Power to Change
By Allison Teague
Worried speculation began around the world almost as soon as the Japanese, already shocked by the damage caused by the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami that struck on March 11, 2011, learned of explosions at the Fukishama Dai-ichi nuclear plant near the quake’s epicenter on Japan’s northeast coast. Would this become one of the three worst nuclear disasters in history, after Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986?
Japanese and plant officials were accused of not getting enough information to the public in a timely manner to protect them from radiation. Now, reports worsen daily: radiation is turning up in food gardens, Tokyo residents are warned not to drink possibly radioactive tap water, and nuclear plant workers are being hospitalized for radiation exposure. Japan’s residents are just beginning to pay the ultimate price for nuclear energy gone wrong.
Yet, three days after the disaster, Louisiana-based Entergy LLC, which owns the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, was focused on spin. Located on the Connecticut River in the southern Vermont town of Vernon, VY, Entergy claimed, was “built to withstand the effects of natural disasters, including earthquakes and catastrophic flooding.” Critics disagreed, noting the aging facility’s recent series of tritium leaks, outmoded design, and dated infrastructure that, some say, make Vermont Yankee a “not if but when” disaster.
Vermont is one-tenth the size of Japan; a nuclear disaster in Vernon would affect all of New England. Vermonters who maintain that nuclear power is a “safe energy” source are faced with this particular plant’s problematic developments.
Entergy wants to continue operating VY after its license expires in 2012, and currently the state government and the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission are at odds on this issue. Last fall, the Legislature passed a no-confidence vote required by law for VY to continue to operate, and Governor Shumlin has continued to voice his opposition since taking office in January. Yet on March 21, just ten days after the ongoing nuclear disaster began in Japan, the NRC rubber-stamped VY’s license renewal application.
In his response, the Governor noted the obvious: “In light of the ongoing crisis at the 40-year-old Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear facility in Japan that has prompted other states and nations to review their nuclear power issues, today's decision by the NRC to issue an extension of Vermont Yankee’s license is puzzling.”
He went on, “Fortunately, Vermont has taken steps to close down the aging Yankee plant, and I have urged other states with older nuclear facilities to follow our example and take control of the lifespan of their plants.”
In the wake of the Japan disaster, Vermont’s lawmakers and government have intensified efforts to lessen the state’s energy dependence on fossil fuels and nuclear energy. These two sources currently provide almost 50 percent of Vermont’s current energy needs.
Vermont’s size and population, as well as its geography, provide alternatives to fossil fuels and nuclear energy consumption. Initial start-up costs can be offset by government programs and incentives. As Vermont businesses move toward a green economy, supporters suggest the state will become a model for how other states can reduce their carbon emissions, and bring visitors to the state to see how it is done.
The state already has several irons in the fire. Last year, the Vermont Department of Public Service made $5.25 million available through its Clean Energy Development Fund to home and business owners investing in qualifying renewable energy systems such as solar, wind, and hydro. The funds, which came from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, are available through April 2012.
Vermont tax incentives encourage businesses to use renewable energy and homeowners to take steps to reduce their energy consumption. Last year the latter was 70 percent of what it was in 2006.
More and more Vermont businesses are accessing grants and investing in renewable-energy manufacturing, solar, wind and hydro energies, and heating with methane or biomass products.
Many schools, large businesses, utilities, resorts, farmers, and homeowners are successfully changing the way they use and access energy to meet Vermonters’ needs, in the belief that changing how Vermonters use energy now will ensure a healthy future.
Vermont’s Electrical Energy Needs
Vermont currently uses an average of 700 to 1,000 megawatts (MW) of electricity. In-state sources – Vermont Yankee and renewables – provide about 434 MW. Canadian-owned Hydro Quebec provides 225 MW under a 26-year contract that starts in 2012. Vermont imports the rest of what it needs from other New England states.
Of our instate sources, VY provides 270 MW – almost a third of what we use. The state estimates that current and projected in-state renewables will provide 95 MW over the next five years.
Renewables in Vermont
Vermont’s only existing wind farm was built in 1996 in Searsburg, on Route 9 between Bennington and Brattleboro. Its 11 turbines have a total production capacity of six KW (the actual output is about a third of that), supplying carbon-free energy to approximately 1,200 homes. Searsburg’s owner, Green Mountain Power, claims 90 percent availability over ten years.
Residents in Lowell recently voiced support of the proposed Kingdom Community Wind project (KCW), which would place 21 turbines on a ridge bordering Route 100, one of Vermont’s most scenic routes. The site would generate 40 MW for about 13,000 homes. Opponents cited disruption of the pastoral aesthetics and potential noise complaints.
The American Wind Energy Association “estimates that each megawatt of wind capacity built displaces 1,800 tons of C02 per year – given the current mix of generation fuels – indicating that on average a 42 megawatt KCW facility would displace over 75,000 tons of C02 per year.”
In 2005, the Vermont Department of Public Service Vermont estimated the state’s wind energy potential to be six MW, but is complicated by land use restrictions and permitting – and, produces only 10 percent of Vermont’s energy supply demand.
The U.S. government is offering 30 percent tax rebate toward the purchase of small wind turbines by homeowners and small businesses to help offset the startup costs of $3000 to $5000.
Like wind, solar power is a passive energy source. While households on the grid produce an average of three tons of carbon emissions, those with a small solar photovoltaic (PV) system produce only 1.8 tons.
The Vermont Solar and Small Wind Incentive Program was originally established pursuant to renewable energy legislation signed into law by Governor Jim Douglas in 2003. Last year, solar provided 849,985 KW of energy to Vermonters.
This past November, developers Ernie Pomerleau and Brian Waxler brought the 1-MW Ferrisburgh Solar Farm online. The first state-incentive-supported solar project in Vermont, it provides an educational tool for the state, as well as energy for approximately 170 homes per year. Several smaller farms, such as Harlow Farm in Westminster, also provide PV energy.
Methane, or Cow Power
Methane is a gas given off by cow manure and landfills. It’s converted into energy when burned in methane electrical generators. Currently, according to the Vermont Renewable Resources 2010 report, ten farms and two landfills generate electricity from methane.
Central Vermont Public Service (CVPS), the state’s largest utility, has created the Cow Power program that promotes methane generators on six large Vermont dairy farms.
According to CVPS, “customers can choose to receive all, half, or a quarter of their electrical energy through Cow Power, and pay a premium of four cents per kilowatt hour. It goes to participating farm-producers, to purchase renewable energy credits when enough farm energy isn’t available, or to the CVPS Renewable Development Fund. The fund provides grants to farm owners to develop on-farm generation.”
One family farm received a grant of $75,000 to help underwrite start-up costs as well as farm grants from the Vermont Clean Energy Development Fund and the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets.
Each molecule of methane converted to a molecule of CO2 reduces global warming effects by 96 percent.
Currently, Vermont methane produces 12 MW of energy by burning methane, with a possible additional three MW to come online in the near future.
Vermont geography has made the production and use of geothermal energy cost challenging but not impossible. Geothermal use in Vermont is virtually nonexistent, yet the savings of using a geothermal heating and cooling system, when combined with solar or wind power sources, has the potential of a “zero net” energy system. Even with the on-grid electricity required to run the pump and compressor for geothermal heat, this heat source is 300 to 400 percent more efficient than baseboard heat, according to Green Mountain Geothermal.
Geothermal energy needs a steady 55 degree temperature to move water through a tubing loop to remove two to three energy units of heat from the ground. The earth’s mean ground temperature below the surface in Vermont is between 47 and 55 degrees. Heat can be absorbed by the earth during the summer that can be extracted during the winter. A compressor, similar to what your refrigerator uses, can help cool a building in the summer, and heat it in the winter.
Green Mountain Thermal claims that geothermal heat is 400 percent more efficient than electric heat. The inefficiency of electrically produced heat drives up the cost of one million BTUs to just over $41; one million BTUs of geothermal heat costs a little over 10 dollars.
U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders noted a year ago during a geothermal panel discussion, that the Environmental Protection Agency rated geothermal heat pumps one of the most efficient technologies for heating and cooling. For every 100,000 homes with geothermal heating and cooling systems, 2.15 million barrels of oil are saved a year and electricity use is reduced by 799 million kilowatt hours annually.
“The reason geothermal technology is exciting, in my view, is that you can save energy, reduce pollution, and save money all at once,” Sanders said.
Green wood is harvested from forests and chipped to produce biomass fuel. The Vermont Renewable Energy 2010 study estimates Vermont produces 70 MW of electricity through biomass.
But biomass came under fire recently as residents discussed proposed projects in Fair Haven and Pownal. Biomass may not be as eco-friendly as industry backers would have prospective consumers believe.
Chris Matera of Massachusetts Forest Watch notes that biomass fuel increases carbon dioxide emissions by 26 percent over oil, and 76 percent over gas. Biomass used as fuel produces almost a third more CO2 than oil, and almost three times as much as natural gas. Cutting down forests that otherwise function as carbon traps, use of fossil-burning vehicles for harvesting trees, and the deforestation versus the regrowth rate combine, according to Matera, to make biomass a greenhouse-gas liability and an inefficient fuel source.
Currently, the McNeil Generating Station in Burlington provides 50 MW of electricity by burning wood chips. Biomass tends to be utilized to produce direct thermal energy for schools and small manufacturing plants. Using small-scale biomass power generators, Pompanoosuc Mills in Thetford produces 0.5 MW, and Brattleboro Kiln Dry, 0.38 MW.
Vermont is alone among New England states to classify hydroelectricity as a renewable energy resource. Hydro has the lowest carbon emission coefficient for energy use because it does not use combustible fuel to operate.
According to the Vermont Energy Partnership’s 2010 Renewable Energy Sources in Vermont report, the state’s hydro facilities are responsible for one-fifth of its energy production. Vermont has 84 publicly and privately owned hydroelectric facilities which produce approximately 80 MW of the 700 to 1,000 MW the state uses.
Hydro Quebec plans to provide an additional 1,200 MW of electricity through a new interconnect via New Hampshire to Boston that could provide additional access should Vermont utilities need it, Quebec premier John Charest told Vermonters last August.
The Time is Now
Vermont is ahead of the curve in supporting and providing opportunities for its citizens and businesses to move away from carbon-emitting energy sources. Renewable energy is Vermont’s future, and the only safe future for the planet.
Paul Harlow of Westminster’s Harlow Farms is installing an array of photovoltaic panels on his barn. “I’m reducing my carbon footprint now, so I don’t have to buy electricity later,” he says. “I’m looking at the long term. It’s really an investment in Vermont’s future.”
Changes and choices Vermonters make now to ensure greener lifestyles and a green economy position the state to lead by example. The opportunity is ours. The place is Vermont. The time is now.
Allison Teague grew up in Vermont and is a freelance journalist, photographer, and writer currently living in Westminster West, Vermont.