Don’t expect “green” energy to replace nuclear

by Guy Page

Last Friday morning, on my way to work in Montpelier, as I zipped on my bike down Berlin Street past a house with a prominent solar array, I began thinking about some comments the homeowner made to the media about the future of renewables. In particular, he cited some new solar and wind power construction statistics and concluded, “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% intermittent power. More than that, and service and equipment will degrade.

Renewables proponent David Blittersdorf estimates that by 2050, Vermont will need 18,000 million megawatt/hours, or three times the electricity we use now (from his column in the April, 2013 Green Energy Times). 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: according to the Vermont Dept. of Public Service, moving just five percent closer to the state’s goal of 90% 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 and the rest of New England 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 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, baseload alternative is up and running in Vermont, we should not throw out the Vermont Yankee baby with the bathwater.

Guy Page, Communications Director
Vermont Energy Partnership