Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Money and the Future of Vermont Yankee: Decommissioning and the Marcellus Shale

Shumlin and Decommissioning

On August 11, Governor Peter Shumlin held a press conference where he claimed that the "job gap" from decommissioning Vermont Yankee would not happen for about sixteen years. He claimed that hundreds of plant employees would keep their jobs for many years. In an article in True North Reports today, I demolish these claims. Read "Decommissioning Vermont Yankee: the Governor Versus the Facts."

All That Cheap Gas--What Happened? The New Estimate on the Marcellus Shale

As I have mentioned in previous blog posts, buying electricity "at the market price" is basically placing a bet on the future price of natural gas. My favorite graphic on this subject, from ISO-NE, shows the price of natural gas and the price of electricity in New England for the past ten years or so. The blue line is gas prices, the green line is electricity. It's a little hard to see that there ARE two lines, but you can click to enlarge the chart.

Well, gas prices were predicted to stay low forever-and-a-day, or at least, for the next twenty years, because of abundant local Marcellus Shale gas. Electricity prices would follow them, remaining low, even buying electricity "at the market."

Unfortunately for those predictions, today the USGS announced a re-evaluation of the amount of recoverable gas in the Marcellus Shale formation. USGS now estimates it is 80% less than what they predicted earlier. Yes, that is right. The government geologists now estimate that there's only one-fifth of the gas in the Marcellus Shale, compared to their earlier estimates. Bloomberg has a good story on this today.

One problem is that shale wells have a short life-span because shale has intrinsically low permeability. It may be porous, but it is not permeable. That is, shale may have holes full of gas (pores) but they are not connected (permeable). Therefore the well plays out when the fracking-induced permeability no longer yields gas. Also, there may have been fraudulent estimations of the wells, and there certainly are some lawsuits. However, shale proponents point out that "one-fifth of a big number is still a big number."

I'm not going to pursue Marcellus Shale estimations in this post, but rather refer you to the Bloomberg article, and many articles which are sure to follow. It is worth pointing out, however, that the Marcellus Shale is a speculative resource, with estimates that can swing wildly. Good fun for speculators. Not so much fun for electricity prices.

(A USGS map of the Marcellus Shale ends this post.)

Conclusions About Vermont Yankee

Jobs: Decommissioning the plant is pushing the workers off a job cliff. There will be no "sixteen years" of good jobs at the site after shutting down Vermont Yankee. This is true despite what Governor Shumlin says in a press conference

Cheap Power from the Grid: It won't stay cheap. It looks like there won't be sixteen years of abundant shale gas to keep electricity prices low, either.

Vermont Yankee remains our most reliable source of inexpensive power for Vermont.

Note: On the subject of natural gas prices, let me also recommend Rod Adams recent blog post: Is Rowe Right? Will Natural Gas Remain Cheap for 10 or 20 years?


jimwg said...

I know it sounds simple, but I just can't find a sentence in black and white from this Gov of just why he's so hell bent on shutting the plant. Safety issue? Economic issue? Huffington issue? What??

James Greenidge

Meredith Angwin said...

Safety, politics, money.
1) Safety. He is always saying things about the plant is leaking, it is contaminating the groundwater, it is old and tired, etc etc. He thinks he is a hydraulic engineer and a radiological safety specialist. "They found tritium and they should be pumping more groundwater, as I, Peter Shumlin instructed them to pump."
2) Politics. The Progressive Party in Vermont is very against the plant for ideological reasons. When the progressives run a state-wide candidate, it usually splits the vote and gives a victory to the Republicans. Shumlin needs to keep them happy and on his side and not running their own guy or gal for governor.
3) Money. One of his best financial supporters owns a wind turbine company. One of his supporters is president of Green Mountain Power, wholly owned by Gaz Metro of Quebec. She was chairperson of Shumlin's inaugural ball. Gaz Metro wants to bring a natural gas pipeline deeper into Vermont and build a gas plant. (I know you are surprised!) They also want to extend transmission lines in Vermont.

Green Mountain Power, the Gaz Metro subsidiary operating within Vermont, is a transmission company. Green Mountain Power is also taking over the other transmission and distribution company in Vermont, CVPS.

In other words, his financial supporters would love to see Vermont Yankee closed. This would open the door to gas lines, gas plants, new transmission from Canada, etc. In other words, more money for their businesses. Also, more wind turbines, perhaps, with gas plant backup.

I have written a lot. Maybe I should use this as post....

Thanks for the excellent question.

Jeff Schmidt said...


First, thanks for the great links and graphics in this post. Very interesting stuff!

I'll be watching this story about the shale estimates develop, because if it's true that there's 1/5 the (recoverable) amount of gas they previously thought, then all those claims that we can get all the gas we want for 80-200 years suddenly becomes, we can get a useful but rather limited amount of gas for 20-30 years.

"1/5 of a large number is still a large number" - the problem with 'analysis' like that is it doesn't say whether the number is 'sufficiently' large. I don't care if it's a large number - I care if it's large enough to get the job done.

If a government project to build a bridge is going to cost, say, $500 Million, and the government starts construction, but can only come up with $100 Million, then even though it's true that $100 Million is still a large number, that 'truth' is meaningless - the bridge is still not going to be completed because the number wasn't *sufficient*.

I find in life that people often say things which are logically true, but completely useless.