By Dick Trudell
I’m a civil engineer. It is my job to make things come together, the combining of physical components with a goal in mind. The goal might be a water system to supply clean water, grading combined with physical components to treat stormwater or wastewater, or road and infrastructure design to provide places for housing or commercial establishments. An engineered plan has to be buildable, cost-effective, and accomplish its goal in addition to being dependable and built to last.
With 40 years of design experience, I know it is best to set your design aside and consider some of the “what-if” scenarios. More likely than not, you will come up with some changes that will make the plan better, save some money, or make it easier to build and operate. Even more importantly, you might find an overlooked detail that could have plagued the project from the beginning.
The Vermont Department of Public Service should take a close look at its Comprehensive Energy Plan with this approach in mind and consider what might happen if events don’t go as planned. I don’t claim to be an energy expert, but do lay claim to a certain amount of common sense. There are three areas of concern with the plan that I have and some suggestions.
Permitting. Almost every project I have worked on requires some kind of permit. Developers ignore the permitting aspect at their peril. Determined citizens can stop even the most reasonable, eco-friendly project. The Lowell Mountain wind project is a good example, wherein a large utility with support from the governor and the Legislature and the approval of several local towns, is still facing opposition from landowners.
Whatever one’s opinion on big renewable power projects, we can all agree the permit process is long, expensive, and uncertain. The state plan proposes to fast-track approvals for renewable power, while leaving everyone else in the same old red tape. Sensing special status for their projects, opponents will be determined to fight so-called “non-renewable” energy sources.
What if we make the permitting process for all power projects less onerous by relying on existing in-state power resources, while developing the next generation of power at a price Vermonters can afford? I am not saying we should just keep Vermont Yankee and then ignore sustainable energy planning. That would be short-sighted. But neither should we write off a large, proven provider, and then scurry around, forced to start almost from scratch to develop alternate sources, which are dependent on subsidies to make them viable.
Technology challenges. My experience has taught me that you shouldn’t start something you lack the technology to finish. Many Vermonters still seem to think that with enough conservation, solar and wind, we can simply replace the baseload megawatts scheduled to go off-line in Vernon this coming March. Unfortunately, it’s not just an apples for apples megawatt swap as Vermont Yankee makes on-demand power, but solar/wind is “intermittent.” What if there is insufficient solar or wind energy that could be captured? What if peak demands don’t coincide with peak availability of solar or wind energy? Who believes they will? Our current political “central planners” believe they can control everything. They cannot.
The state plan acknowledges this shortcoming, but its solution – building natural gas plants and buying out of state natural gas power – has its own permitting, environmental, and cost problems. The solution is the same — build renewables gradually while keeping existing baseload sources. This gives engineers the time they need to invent an intermittent/baseload translator, or find some other workable solution.
Gamechangers. Thinking ahead: what major changes might render the state’s plan obsolete or ineffective? Will the proposed hydro/electric utility merger move important decision-making to Canada? How will the courts rule on Vermont Yankee?
What would we do if we woke tomorrow morning and Vermont Yankee was gone?
Dick Trudell is the founder of Trudell Consulting Engineers and lives in Grand Isle.