On July 1, a group of people opposed to the continued operation of Vermont Yankee protested at the nuclear power plant’s gates. One prop they used to dramatize their belief that there are better energy options than nuclear power was a hollow “Trojan Cow” they pulled to the demonstration. Some protesters pulled mock solar panels out of the cow, while others held whirligigs representing wind turbines. The cow sculpture even included a representation of manure, representing “cow power” energy produced from farm methane. The theme was clear: Vermont Yankee will be replaced with renewables.
Well, that is simply not true, at least in the foreseeable future. Closing Vermont Yankee will not bring a burst of renewables to market to replace its power.
Closing Vermont Yankee would mean buying more power from the New England grid to make up for Vermont Yankee’s supply. Grid power is approximately 58 percent fossil fuel, 28 percent nuclear and 12 percent hydro plus renewables. Wind, solar and farm methane together account for less than 1 percent of the power generated in New England.
What would closing Vermont Yankee mean? More solar power on the grid? No. With or without Vermont Yankee, renewables are expensive, and they are not coming on line quickly.
On the other hand, fossil fuel plants are abundant suppliers to the New England grid, supplying the majority of grid power. Many fossil fuel plants operate only part-time. The part-time plants run when they are needed to satisfy the power requirements on hot summer days or cold winter evenings. They also operate when nuclear plants are down for refueling.
|The New England Grid responds to nuclear refueling|
From Vermont Dept Public Service presentation
If Vermont Yankee closed, existing fossil fuel plants would compensate by running longer hours and making more power. If the Vermont Yankee protesters had wanted to stage a more accurate dramatization, they would have pulled a model of a gas or coal plant from their Trojan Cow’s belly, not a cardboard solar panel.
Renewables: Too Slow, and Too Expensive
Or perhaps the demonstrators were claiming that shutting down nuclear plants will bring more rapid development of renewable energy, even if we’re forced to use more fossil fuels for a “short while.”
Well, a “short while” is likely to be very long.
90 percent of its total energy needs from renewable sources by 2050. That’s an ambitious goal considering that Vermont does not meet its current renewable energy goals and has no prospects of meeting them in the near future. The Vermont energy plan established a goal of having the state use 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2017. Even using optimistic assumptions about project completion, the state will attain only the 16 percent mark in by that date. In 2009, the state had 13 percent of its electricity from renewables (mostly in-state hydro). A growth of 3 percentage points over eight years ( 13 to 16%, 2009 to 2017) is not very impressive.
Perhaps the rate of growth of renewables is accelerating? Not really. Last year, the Vermont Legislature voted against having an aggressive Renewable Portfolio Standard for Vermont. Such a standard might raise the percentage of renewables in Vermont, but it would also raise Vermont electricity rates to unacceptable levels. Renewable growth is slow in neighboring states for similar reasons. In short, closing Vermont Yankee would have the regional result of requiring more fossil fuel to supply the New England grid.
Vermont Is An Island?
Within Vermont, many anti-nuclear activists don’t seem to care much about the regional issue. They often say that the power from Vermont Yankee doesn’t matter to Vermont, because “Vermont is no longer using any Vermont Yankee power.”
Not true. In March of this year, the power contracts between Vermont utilities and Vermont Yankee ended. Vermont utilities no longer buy Vermont Yankee power. However people in Vermont are still using Vermont Yankee power.
That sounds weird, but realize that buying power and using power are different, because power from different sources blends together on the grid. The supply on the grid depends on the power plants, transmission lines and end-users. These don’t change when contracts change.
Buying and Paying
Once again, we have to take into account the regional nature of the grid. Power contracts determine payment methods, but contracts don’t determine power routing and use — that is determined by plant availability and geography.
Power blends together on the grid. If a plant goes off-line, other plants take up the slack. When nuclear plants go off-line, fossil fuel plants step up and produce replacement power.
(Note: Howard Shaffer wrote an excellent description of the grid at his recent guest post: Where's the Magic Switch?)
Protesters used a Trojan Cow to suggest that if Vermont Yankee closed, renewables would take its place. Perhaps the use of a Trojan animal was more apt than the demonstrators intended. After all, the original Trojan horse was designed to deceive. In this case, the people that the demonstrators are deceiving about the consequences of closing Vermont Yankee start with...themselves.
This is a slightly edited version of an op-ed I wrote for my local paper, the Valley News. I wrote this op-ed about the July 1 "Trojan Cow" protest at Vermont Yankee. It appeared in the Valley News on Sunday, July 29, but the Valley News puts very little of its content on-line. I felt this op-ed fit in well with Howard Shaffer's recent blog post about the grid: Where's the Magic Switch.
You can watch a three-minute video of the demonstration on YouTube.