Liberally Speaking (3/11/10)

Vermont must seek new energy

March 11, 2010

By Steve Mount

Though the plant is not dead yet, Vermont Yankee is getting close. The state Senate voted, by a wide margin, not to recommend the Public Service Board look into renewing Vermont’s only nuclear power plant’s license for 20 years past its 2012 license term.

Though next year’s Senate could change its mind, a reversal seems unlikely. Vermont Yankee currently supplies one-third of Vermont’s power — what will replace that power once it is gone?

One suggestion is to reuse the Vernon site: As the current reactor is taken down, a new, modern one would be built alongside it. Given the political climate in this state, this solution seems unlikely. No new plants have been built in the United States since 1996, and though Washington has plans to push new plants along, no one has seriously pushed Vernon as the site for a new reactor.

Today, with the green revolution in full effect, many are pushing for Vermont to take a bold step into that revolution, creating power using the latest green technologies.

The key to these technologies is the harvesting of energy that is already there, but which is being effectively wasted. Nature provides us with energy in many forms, including the sun, the wind, even gravity itself.

Solar is a technology with a long history, and from the local Hannaford to Hinesburg’s NRG Systems, solar arrays are popping up everywhere. But is solar ready to provide power for one-third of the state?

Briefly, no. Vermont is notoriously cloudy, and though solar can generate power without direct sunlight, its ability to do so is greatly reduced. Without great advances in the technology, solar will not be our solution.

We have been using gravity, in the form of water flowing downhill, to supply power for more than 100 years. Hydropower has great potential, but it also can do some serious damage. One-third of Vermont’s power comes from hydro, but the will to build more dams in the state does not seem to be there.

Fortunately, Hydro-Quebec harnesses the power of Quebec’s northern rivers. Vermont currently contracts with Hydro-Quebec for one-quarter of our power, and it seems likely that these contracts will not only be renewed but expanded. With Hydro-Quebec’s recent forays into harnessing wind power, these contracts could fit nicely into our power portfolio.

Wind power recently got a boost from the town of Lowell, which approved a project at its recent Town Meeting. While government maps of Vermont show no part of the state as being suitable for solar power generation, the vast majority of the state is suitable for wind power generation. The biggest hurdle is getting towns to buy into the plans.

The best wind is atop our mountain ranges, a fact that is hard for some residents to swallow. Wind turbines can reach skyward hundreds of feet, marring the picturesque views. Many, however, would find a skyline interrupted by wind turbines to be even more picturesque. What wind needs is the will of the next generation. Though pretty views are important, power is, too.

There is one other, very intriguing possibility for our power needs. Relatively unique today, the concept of on-site generation is slowly gaining traction. This is what NRG Systems hopes to do — produce enough of its own power that it need draw none from the grid.

Small-scale, on-site generation could be where the future lies, using the grid only as a backup. The Observer reported just last week about the small wind turbine that will soon be installed at Allen Brook School, part of AllEarth Renewables’ push into the important residential market.

Also recently in the news is the BloomBox, a pair of tiny cubes made of advanced materials that can reportedly power the average American home. The BloomBox uses an emissions-free reaction between natural gas (or any other combustible gas, like waste methane) and oxygen to produce electricity. Enormous data centers for Google and eBay are already using large-scale BloomBox installations to produce energy quietly, cleanly and with a very small footprint. Could a BloomBox be in your future?

The most likely answer is that a combination of these technologies, and others not even invented yet, will be the future of Vermont’s power. What seems pretty clear, though, is that we need to be planning for that future right now. While we will be able to live without Yankee, we won’t be able to live without the power it provides.

 

Steve Mount has been a Williston resident since 1996. He is a software engineer at GE Healthcare and is devoted to his family, his country and his Constitution. You can reach Steve at steve@saltyrain.com or read his blog at http://saltyrain.com/ls.