By Michael Bielawski
When Vermont Yankee closed at the end of 2014, it was largely with the understanding that renewable energy sources were going to take its place. According to data supplied by regional grid operator ISO New England, such has not been the case.
Over the past two years, about 5 percent of New England’s electric use swapped from nuclear to natural gas. While nuclear production dropped from 34 percent to 29.5 percent, natural gas rose from 43.1 percent to 48.6 percent. The data from ISO New England’s Daily Generation by Fuel Type 2014 and 2015 was analyzed by the Institute for Energy Research, a group that tracks government regulation of global energy markets.
Vermont Electric Cooperative CEO Christine Hallquist says the market is shifting towards natural gas.
“There’s a solid connection between the increased use of natural gas for generation in New England and the shutdown of Vermont Yankee,” she said. “There’s also been coal-fired generation that’s been shut down, and natural gas is replacing it. It’s the same trend all around the country.”
According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency for Vermont, in 2013 at least 9.7 trillion BTUs, or about 8 percent of all consumed energy, came from natural gas.
Going forward, natural gas production could be coming to Vermont in a big way. Last year, the Vernon Planning Commission held a public meeting verifying they’ve been in contact with a developer about building a $750 million gas plant in town. That facility would link up to a not-yet-approved Kinder Morgan gas pipeline planned for southern New England.
Hallquist said increased natural gas output is necessary because renewables can’t fill the gap left by Vermont Yankee’s exit.
“The contribution from solar and wind wouldn’t be significant enough to make up for the generation of Vermont Yankee,” Hallquist said. “In fact, there’s no way. … You would have to build like 1,800,000 kilowatts of wind.”
According to Hallquist, wind and solar have “low capacity factors” because they are dependent on the weather. The capacity factor is the average power generated divided by its peak capacity.
If a 10-megawatt solar array averages output at 1.5 megawatts, its capacity factor is 15 percent. The capacity factor for wind is 30 percent. By comparison, gas and nuclear energy sources have a capacity factors of around 80 percent.
Opposition to Vermont Yankee gained momentum in 2010, when Gov. Peter Shumlin, then Senate president pro tempore, led an effort to prevent the Public Service Board from ruling on Vermont Yankee’s application to continue operation. While plant owner Louisiana-based Entergy already had federal approval to continue operation, the company decided to close Yankee, in part due to hostile political winds.
Hardwick Electric Manager Mike Sullivan said he remembers Shumlin saying Vermont could close Yankee because the state didn’t need the power.
“(The claim) from the governor and others was, ‘We don’t need it, we don’t need the power,’” Sullivan said. “Well, if we don’t need the power, why are we filling it up? Why are we building all these new transmission lines and doing all these other things if we didn’t need it?”
Sullivan said he didn’t support Yankee’s closing because it provided low-cost power.
“My beef is, Vermont Yankee said we’ll sell you our power, 600 megawatts or most of the state’s needs at peak, if not all then most of the time, for 4 cents a kilowatt hour,” he said. “Dirt cheap, and they basically told the utilities don’t buy their power, don’t sign an agreement, don’t mess with them, they are out of here.”
According to Sullivan, natural gas for heating takes priority during Vermont’s many cold spells. This causes the otherwise very cheap energy — around 4 cents per kilowatt hour — to spike.
Hallquist said the proposed Kinder Morgan pipeline would boost capacity during cold spells, when everyone uses gas for heat.
“(The pipeline) is to address the congestion issues,” he said. “Now, there are natural gas tankers and there’s oil set aside to deal with those congestion issues.”
Green Mountain Power spokesperson Dorothy Schnure said the Colchester-based utility’s power purchase contracts have been lengthy enough to be unaffected by the Yankee’s closure. However, Schnure and Sullivan both said that when their organizations buy market power, a portion of that is natural gas.
Beth Parent, communications manager for Vermont Gas Systems, says natural gas offers heating for over 50,000 families, businesses and institutions in Franklin and Chittenden Counties. She added that 14 percent of Vermont families and businesses use natural gas as a primary heating source.
Contact Michael Bielawski at firstname.lastname@example.org
Note from Atomic Insights: Green Mountain Power and Vermont Gas Systems are both units of Gaz Metro, a 50 year-old company headquartered in Montreal, CA with a worldwide portfolio of companies in the energy industry, including a large network of natural gas pipelines and natural gas production facilities.
Spokespeople from both companies have interests that are not often disclosed.