The big energy news in my part of the world this past week has been the pending closure of Vermont’s only nuclear power plant, Vermont Yankee, in Vernon, about six miles south of Brattleboro. The closure is scheduled for the fourth quarter of 2014, at the end of the current fuel cycle.
For a lot of my friends, this was news that they had been hoping for for many years and a cause for celebration. I share with these individuals concerns about nuclear power, especially a fear that nuclear power plants could be targets for terrorist actions. So I feel some relief that after another year or so there won’t be new radioactive material generated ten miles from my house (though I’m well aware that the high-level radioactive waste that’s stored on-site could remain there for decades).
But for me it’s a more complicated issue.
Nuclear power plant workers have high salaries
Our economy in Windham County, and especially the Brattleboro area, benefits significantly from Vermont Yankee (VY). The plant directly employs over 600 people in the tri-state area, with an annual payroll of $66 million and an average wage of slightly over $100,000. This represents 5% of Windham County’s total payroll.
And there are many cascading benefits of the plant to the region’s economy. According to the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation (BDCC), in addition to VY’s employees an estimated 400 positions in the region are supported indirectly by the plant: local motels, restaurant workers, retail sales positions, etc. And Entergy Vermont Yankee and its employees give a lot to local nonprofit organizations, including United Way of Windham County — where VY is the largest contributor.
Our economy will suffer from the plant’s closure; there’s no getting around that.
Seeking that silver lining
But the closure also offers opportunities. It could be a rallying point for a new, greener focus on regional economic development. Indeed, for the past several months I’ve been part of an initiative of BDCC and Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies (SeVEDS) to identify and strengthen an emerging “green products and services industry cluster” for southeastern Vermont.
We held a meeting in June with about a dozen business owners and leaders in the green building and energy efficiency sectors to discuss how to derive long-term, sustainable, economic growth in this area — including both manufacturing and service-sector jobs — and there will be a follow-up meeting next week.
The 2014 closure of the plant could provide key momentum toward sustainable economic development in the region. It could also stimulate renewed discussion about the broader issues of power generation and centralized vs. distributed power production.
Natural gas has gotten cheap
VY is closing largely because of the low cost of natural gas, which has become the preferred energy source for utility companies. As I’ve written in a previous column, the same fate is befalling some of the nation’s dirtiest coal-fired power plants — and that’s a good thing.
In the short term, the low cost of natural gas may hurt renewables, because utility companies are choosing to build new natural gas plants rather than invest in distributed renewables. But once the price of natural gas goes back up — as I believe it will once demand catches up with supply within the next decade — utilities will find that investing in solar, wind, and other renewable energy systems is less expensive than building new coal or nuclear plants. At least that’s my hope.
What to do with the old VY plant
Meanwhile, the discussion about decommissioning the Vermont Yankee power plant in Vernon is ramping up. At one end of the spectrum is the prospect of SAFSTOR (essentially putting the plant into a long-term holding pattern — up to sixty years — before dismantling it and restoring the site).
I’d much rather see decommissioning begin as soon as possible, so that we can look into how that site could be reused. Unlike some, I’m not optimistic about replacing Vermont Yankee with some sort of renewable power plant, such as a wood-chip-fired power plant that would take advantage of the power distribution lines extending to the plant. Such power plants, I believe, should only be built in locations where the waste heat can be captured and productively used.
Such co-generation or combined heat and power (CHP) systems, in which the waste heat from thermoelectric power plants is recovered, are where we as a nation need to be going with centralized power generation. It is ludicrous that we throw away two-thirds of the primary energy as thermal pollution with conventional power generation. But it would be hard to build a CHP plant in Vernon, much as I’d like to see that happen, because of the distance hot water would have to be piped to buildings and industrial facilities where it could be used.
This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t decommission and clean up the VY site as soon as possible, however. That should be our priority, which will also provide a several-year spurt of economic activity in the region. That could help us in the longer-term transition to sustainable economic health built on the energy efficiency and green building sector.
Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. and executive editor of Environmental Building News. In 2012 he founded the Resilient Design Institute. To keep up with Alex’s latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed.