Time to get real on Vermont’s carbon policy

by Willem Post

It might surprise many environmentally-minded Vermonters to learn that if the State of Vermont’s energy leaders must choose between “sustainable” energy and “low-carbon,” they’ll take “sustainable.”

If there’s one thing most Vermonters know, it’s that low-carbon energy generation is regarded as crucial to fighting climate change, a fearsome threat to global life as we know it. Our governor says so frequently. Climate change authority Bill McKibben recently spoke to the State Legislature by special invitation from Speaker of the House Shap Smith.

Here in Vermont, we want everyone to know we’re serious about climate change.

Except when we’re not.

And we are especially not serious about climate change when the subject is Vermont Yankee, a virtually carbon-free producer of three-quarters of the electricity made in Vermont. The carbon “life cycle” of nuclear energy – emissions from mining, refining, generation and all related processes – is virtually equal to that of wind, solar and hydro power, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The State of Vermont’s Public Service Department stated, in an October 2012 filing to the Vermont Public Service Board in opposition to Vermont Yankee receiving permission to operate for another 20 years, that for power producers, being “sustainable” and “renewable” is more important than actually emitting less carbon:

“Because renewable sources are more sustainable than non-renewable sources, and state goals emphasize the importance of renewable resources to the state’s economy, meeting the state’s energy needs and greenhouse gas targets through renewable sources is more compatible with state policy than meeting those needs with other, non-renewable, resources, even those with low or zero greenhouse gas emissions. Relevant to Entergy’s petition, although nuclear sources may offer energy with low greenhouse gas emissions, renewable sources, even those with greater greenhouse gas emissions than nuclear sources, are more compatible with state policy because nuclear energy is not renewable and is less sustainable than energy from renewable sources (italic added).”

Well, there you have it. Calling something “renewable” and “sustainable” matters more than actually doing all we can to reduce Vermont’s carbon footprint. State policy says so. What the earth’s atmosphere actually needs – well, that seems less important. It’s like someone driving a trendy brand of car just to project a personal image of being “green,” When a less-popular car would actually emit less pollution.

Is industrial wind – currently unpopular among many for disfiguring Vermont mountaintops with huge, permanent concrete pads – more “renewable” than nuclear power plants fueled in part by recycled Soviet nuclear warheads? It is so easy for green buzzwords to distract from the only real question that matters about climate change, which is simply: how can we produce less carbon?

For that matter, why can’t nuclear energy and state-approved “renewable” and “sustainable” power simply co-exist? Vermont Yankee doesn’t sell directly to Vermont utilities, so it is a stretch to claim the plant’s 24/7 reliability and relatively low cost undercuts the development of much higher-priced renewable power sources, like wind and solar. The Public Service Department has an answer for that, too. Vermont Yankee’s low-carbon power production apparently reduces economic demand for other forms of renewable power:

“In fact, it [operating Vermont Yankee] would marginally reduce the ability of renewable energy generation to compete in the New England market by lowering the price of Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (“RGGI”) allowances, and thereby the effective cost with which clean energy resources must compete.”

See how that works? Carbon credits trade higher when demand for carbon-free power is high. If Vermont Yankee closes, demand increases, along with New England’s carbon dioxide emissions.

There is an old saying, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” If climate change is the enemy our leaders say it is, then they have no better friend in the struggle than the much-maligned but carbon-free plant on the banks of the Connecticut River. It’s time they start treating it that way.

Willem PostBSME New Jersey Institute of Technology, MSME Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, MBA, University of Connecticut. P.E. Connecticut. Consulting Engineer and Project Manager. Performed feasibility studies, wrote master plans, and evaluated designs for air pollution control systems, power plants, and integrated energy systems for campus-style building complexes. Currently specializing in energy efficiency in buildings. He is a founding member of the Coalition for Energy Solutions.