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The Burlington Free Press - Candidates Split Over Energy

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The Burlington Free Press - Candidates Split Over Energy

Terri Hallenbeck

The Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant sits in the bottom corner of the state, barely within its borders, just inches from the New Hampshire border and not much farther from Massachusetts. Most Vermonters have probably never seen it.

The plant looms large, though, in Vermont's gubernatorial race.

There's the now-famous photo of its collapsed cooling tower last year; the pending decision on whether the 37-year-old plant should be allowed to continue operating for another 20 years; questions about who will pay to clean up the plant after it closes; questions about where Vermonters will get their power, if not from Vermont Yankee, and how much it will cost?

All these factors have combined to make energy — an issue that normally generates little public interest — one of the hottest points of contention in the election.

"We're hitting a fork in the road, and we have to make some choices," said Richard Sedano, former commissioner of the state Department of Public Service under Gov. Howard Dean and now an energy consultant.

Democrat Gaye Symington and independent Anthony Pollina both argue that Republican Gov. Jim Douglas has done too little to look out for Vermont's interests when it comes to Vermont Yankee's reliability and safety. Douglas contends that the safety of the plant is his priority and that his opponents don't have a realistic plan for replacing its power.

Vermont Yankee

Vermont Yankee supplies one-third of Vermont's electric power. The plant's license to operate and its contracts with Vermont's utilities expire in 2012, when the plant turns 40 years old.

Supporters herald the plant as a source of cheap power and 650 jobs. Vermont utilities pay 4.2 cents per kilowatt hour for Vermont Yankee power. By comparison, power prices on the open market fluctuate — ranging in recent days from 6 to 10 cents.

Critics of nuclear power have long had their sights set on fighting Vermont Yankee's license renewal. Several recent incidents, including the 2007 collapse of the cooling towers and other recent non-nuclear leaks, have fueled their arguments.

Symington and Pollina argue that Douglas has sat passively by — unwilling to question the plant's reliability, unwilling to stand up to Vermont Yankee's owner, Entergy Nuclear, and unwilling to plan for a future without Vermont Yankee.

"I do not believe Jim Douglas is advocating and negotiating on behalf of Vermonters," Symington said. "I think the interests of Entergy trump all."

"He's been presuming those contracts would be renegotiated and Yankee would be relicensed," Pollina said. "His strategy has been to tie our hands."

Douglas defends his efforts and argues that the safety of the plant is his priority. "I've been quite critical of the operation of the plant," he said. "With the cooling tower collapse I reacted the same as anybody. That's not acceptable."

There's no question, though, that there's a difference in the candidates' level of support for Vermont Yankee and nuclear power.

Douglas points to its reliability, its carbon-free emissions and its low cost. "An awful lot of Vermonters believe Vermont Yankee can be a part of our energy future," Douglas said. "It's been a cost-effective, emissions-free source of power for many years. It has served us well, but safety comes first."

Symington said Douglas is too willing to talk up Vermont Yankee emissions and its low cost without acknowledging the nuclear waste that is stored on site.

Beyond Yankee

Symington and Pollina argue that the governor, after six years in office, should have a more detailed plan for Vermont's energy future that includes more locally generated, renewable power. His Department of Public Service recently came out with a draft energy plan that his opponents criticize as too late and too vague.

Douglas, in response, said his opponents' plans are unrealistic. "I haven't heard of other plans that make sense," he said.

Symington calls for replacing Vermont Yankee with a mix of renewables that would include wind, hydro, solar and biomass. Her plan relies heavily on ramping up wind power, with a goal of having 20 percent of the state's power come from wind within 10 years. Her plan, she said, would create jobs in Vermont while generating clean, renewable power and giving the state more control over its future. It's a goal that goes beyond the 8 percent within 20 years that Green Mountain Power Corp. has forecast.

Douglas is leery of wind power, citing the fact that it's unreliable when the wind isn't blowing. He frequently refers to its expansion as "industrializing the ridgelines." He questions whether the state would have to ease environmental standards to approve that much wind generation in Vermont and warns that replacing Vermont Yankee power on the open market would increase the state's reliance on coal-fired plants in the Midwest.

Pollina, too, said while he wants to increase in-state renewable energy sources, he would not rely as heavily on wind as Symington would like.

"Wind is part of the mix," Pollina said. "I think the whole mix has to be put on the table."

Pollina calls for creation of regional energy zones so that people in each region of the state could get together and decide what type of energy they want to produce. He would create regional bonding authorities to give each region a way of investing in the chosen energy source. He would also create a Vermont Investment Fund and a Vermont credit card that would support renewable energy projects.

Is renewable reliable?

How realistic is wind, and renewable energy in general, as an alternative to a baseload source such as Vermont Yankee?

That's not an easy thing to answer, as the cost of wind generation depends on its proximity to transmission lines, among other factors. Not only is the cost of future wind energy unknown, so is the cost of other sources that it would be competing with. Wherever Vermont gets its power after the 2012 Vermont Yankee and the 2015 Hydro-Quebec contracts expire, it's going to cost more than it does now, Sedano noted.

"Can Vermont get a lot more power — or all of it — from renewables? Yes, it can," Sedano said. "Whether it wants to is very debatable."

It might make more economic sense to buy wind power generated elsewhere — offshore in New England or Quebec — than to develop in-state wind. That would meet Symington's or Pollina's goal of increasing renewable power, but not the goal of creating in-state jobs or energy independence.

Sedano said it would take a few years to increase the output of renewable energy to come close to replacing Vermont Yankee. "New England is going to need quite a few more renewables in order to have enough," he said. "I think it could happen five or 10 years out."

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