The Continued Operation of Vermont Yankee: What’s in it for us?

By Howard Shaffer

Ever since Vermont utilities stopped buying power from Vermont Yankee in March, people who care about our energy future have been asking the question: What’s in it for us, now? Why should energy consumers care if Vermont Yankee continues to operate?

In late June, a New England energy expert answered this question decisively and in depth. Dr. Jeffrey Tranen holds a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from MIT. He had a distinguished career as a senior executive for energy transmission companies (but not Entergy, owner of Vermont Yankee). He chaired a founding committee of ISO-New England, the organization charged with overseeing the region’s power supply. He is an energy-industry expert of the highest level.

In written testimony to the Vermont Public Service Board on behalf of Entergy’s application for a Certificate of Public Good, Tranen identified four distinct ways that Vermonters may benefit from Vermont Yankee’s continued operation:

First, Vermont’s ratepayers would receive between $9 million and $171 million over the next decade, thanks to a revenue-sharing agreement between the state’s utilities and Vermont Yankee. According to that agreement, utility customers will receive a share of Vermont Yankee’s revenue whenever it sells power above a certain price, as long as the plant continues to operate.

Second, the continued operation of Vermont Yankee will likely result in lower electricity rates for all customers of utilities that purchase their power off the New England grid (including Vermont’s); however, the specific amount of savings depends on the actual cost of market power. This has been true historically, because nuclear power has a low, stable price, compared to other types of energy.

Third, an operational, carbon-emissions free Vermont Yankee will lead to continued reductions in ratepayers’ carbon-related costs. The multi-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative charges a hefty penalty to states that generate electricity from polluting fossil fuels. So, the more fossil fuels that New England generators burn, the bigger the bill for ratepayers.

Fourth, keeping Vermont Yankee online will continue to prevent generation shortages, while also increasing fuel diversity on the grid. Baseload power sources (like Vermont Yankee) play a vital role in preventing transmission losses by balancing out irregularities in generation from intermittent power sources like solar and wind. The smoother the transmission system runs, the less the power costs.

Tranen’s testimony is focused on benefits to ratepayers alone and doesn’t even touch the stupendous economic and social benefit of 1000-plus jobs and $15 million in annual state and local revenue. His full remarks are available at http://psb.vermont.gov/docketsandprojects/electric/7440/prefiled.

What can opponents say to this? Certainly they can engage in the same-old scare tactics, corporate xenophobia, or ad hominem attacks on Tranen’s motivations and credentials. What they can’t do – although I’d like to see them try – is factually, favorably compare the economic and environmental impacts from shutting down Vermont Yankee to the benefits of its continued operation, as described above by Tranen. His expert testimony makes an undeniable point: if Vermont Yankee stays open, ratepayers will benefit.

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Howard Shaffer, PE, is a nuclear engineer, licensed in Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Illinois; with degrees in electrical (Duke) and nuclear (MIT), engineering, and service as a nuclear submarine engineer officer. He was a startup engineer at Vermont Yankee and other plants. He is on the board of advisors for the Energy Education Project of the Ethan Allen Institute, and is Coordinator for the American Nuclear Society’s Vermont Grass Roots Project.