Third chapter in Vernon’s energy drama being written today

Vernon Planning and Economic Development Commission 

(Bob Spencer, Chair; Madeline Arms, Jeff Dunklee, Martin Langeveld, Patty O’Donnell, Janet Rasmussen)

For more than a century, Vernon has been a cutting-edge electricity producer for New England. This proud history has been dominated by two reliable, low-emission, affordable energy generators. In a plan we call “Re-Energizing Vernon,” the Vernon Planning  and Economic Development Commission is now drafting the third chapter: exploring the possibility of a multi-fuel, clean-energy, affordable “micro-grid” on the site of Vermont Yankee. 

Vernon has produced electricity since the late 1800’s. The existing 32 megawatt Vernon dam began operating in 1909.  Like the proposed micro-grid, the Vernon generating equipment was innovative when designed. It featured vertical turbines when horizontal was the norm. The concrete dam built on bedrock proved sturdier than the conventional rock-filled timber dams. Seven forward-thinking Windham County businesspeople convinced a Massachusetts firm to build it for $1.5 million, as an alternative to the dirtier, more expensive coal-fired plants of the day. Built for safety as well as production, the Vernon dam withstood the Great Flood of 1927 and countless lesser deluges. Until very recently it continued to serve as a backup power supply for Vermont Yankee’s emergency generation system. The dam was sold this year to Arclight Capital Partners, along with other dams along the Connecticut and Deerfield Rivers. 

The second great chapter of Vernon power generation began in the mid-1960’s, when Vernon stepped up to host Vermont’s first and only nuclear power plant, Vermont Yankee. After weighing the many pros and cons, we acted decisively. We are glad we did. Between 1972 and 2014, Vermont Yankee gave New England reliable, low-cost power for more than 40 years. For Vernon and surrounding towns in Windham County, VT, Franklin County, MA and Cheshire County, NH it also produced jobs, tax revenue and an unparalleled local contribution of employee and corporate generosity and volunteerism for first responders, schools, and other vital social services. Even now Vermont Yankee continues to generate jobs, revenue, and good will. Vernon residents highly esteem their good, big neighbor on the river. But the town must look to the future: chapter three of Vernon’s energy story, which we call “Re-Energizing Vernon.” 

In recent years, Vermont utility Green Mountain Power has been re-thinking how it generates and acquires electrical power. The old reliance on just a few large power generators (like Vermont Yankee) has been replaced by plans to build and operate larger numbers of smaller generators, including micro-grid stations featuring combinations of natural gas, renewable, and/or battery backup power. Vernon stands poised to contribute to new, cutting edge power generation – which has become something of a habit for our small town in the southeastern corner of Vermont.  

An initial plan in 2015 to build a 620 megawatt natural gas power plant on the Vermont Yankee site was well-received by town voters, but became unworkable when the proposed Kinder – Morgan pipeline was cancelled. Discouraged but undeterred, Vernon sought planning help from the Vermont Council on Rural Development and the Windham Regional Commission. After much discussion among town leaders and other residents, the planning commission opted to investigate the “micro-grid” power-generating station, combining smaller-scale natural gas power, hydro power, solar, and battery backup. We compare the micro-grid concept to building a Lego toy: pieces can be added or removed as needs and technology change. 

Battery backup is an essential micro-grid component. Green Mountain Power, Vermont’s largest utility, must pay high rates for “peak” power purchases from the New England grid, and therefore is willing to invest in lower cost peak power production. For example, the Rutland micro-grid (solar and battery combined) saved GMP ratepayers over $100,000 on August 12, 2016 by supplying cheaper replacement power. Such value will enhance the economic viability of a Vernon micro-grid, as will the availability of the high-capacity switchyard next door, once used to send Vermont Yankee power across New England. In addition, Green Mountain Power’s financial support for micro-grid facilities should help make the project affordable. Therefore the Vernon planning commission hopes to have a firm proposal ready for Town voters to consider as soon as possible, possibly next year. 

Recently, the Windham Regional Commission selected Vernon to develop a model energy plan that identifies the type of energy generating facilities the town desires, or wishes to discourage, thereby giving the town energy plan “substantial deference” in the state’s permitting process for a new energy generating facility.

There is one other major prerequisite for micro-grid (or any other) redevelopment of the Vermont Yankee site: the planned sale to NorthStar Services Group needs to be approved by the Vermont Public Service Board, and the NRC. If the sale is approved, the site may be available for redevelopment as soon as 2026 – just nine years. On the other hand, failure to approve the sale means the site likely won’t be redeveloped for about 50-60 years, per Entergy’s existing plan. 

The Vernon Planning and Economic Development Commission is registered as an intervenor in the NRC proceedings, and will carefully review all issues, and then make a decision if it supports the sale to NorthStar. We have a seat at the table because we want to facilitate the next chapter of our energy future by “Re-Energizing Vernon.”