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Column: Yankee’s Closing Will Hurt Vermont

A succession of electric transmission towers toppled by ice storms are shown between Ste-Julie and St-Hyacinthe, Quebec, south of Montreal on  Jan. 11,1998. (Montreal La Presse - Bernard Brault)

A succession of electric transmission towers toppled by ice storms are shown between Ste-Julie and St-Hyacinthe, Quebec, south of Montreal on Jan. 11,1998. (Montreal La Presse - Bernard Brault)

On Aug. 27, Entergy announced that Vermont Yankee would be shuttered in the fall or 2014, when its current fuel load is finished producing power.

Entergy’s decision elicited a variety of reactions. Some regarded this as a great victory and were practically dancing in the streets. I was among those who were upset and depressed by the news. But I suspect that most people were somewhere in the middle. They thought, well, Vermont isn’t using Vermont Yankee power anyway, so it shouldn’t make much of a difference.

It does. Vermont Yankee’s closing will affect everyone in Vermont. It will make our electricity more expensive, more fossil-fuel based and less reliable.

Vermont utilities are using Vermont Yankee power now. They’re not officially buying Vermont Yankee power, but “using” power and “buying” power are different. Power use has to do with physical structure — where power plants, transmission lines and users are located. “Buying” power is about power contracts. A utility can choose to “buy” power from far away, but it will continue to use the power from the local generators. For example, when Green Mountain Power bought power from Seabrook instead of from Vermont Yankee, no power lines needed to be constructed. When a major supplier of regional power is lost, it must be replaced, regardless of who’s buying it.

So when Vermont Yankee closes, people in Vermont will have to get actual power from other sources. Can they get this power? The short answer is yes. Vermont Electric Power Co. (VELCO) manages the state transmission systems. VELCO was concerned that Vermont Yankee might close. Between 2010 and 2013, it invested $30 million in new lines and substations to bring replacement electricity to Vermont.

What will the new power sources be? Despite the Vermont Comprehensive Plan, very little will come from renewable sources. Building renewables is a slow, expensive, land-intensive job. Vermont Yankee generates 620 megawatts of power and is well-connected to the grid. In contrast, the Lowell Mountain wind project produces 64 MW and has difficulty getting on the grid. Rep. Tony Klein, a strong advocate of wind energy, said recently that he expects no more wind farms to be built in Vermont for another 10 to 15 years.

When Vermont Yankee goes off-line, Vermont will get its power from outside Vermont: either power supplied by the regional grid, ISO-NE, or hydro-power from Canada. With Yankee closing, much of the power on the grid, especially the spot market power, will be gas-fired and its price is due to go up. Power supplied under contract by HydroQuebec follows that spot price. Before, when gas prices went up, Vermont Yankee could underbid the gas prices, and supply many megawatt-hours at a lower price than gas. But without Vermont Yankee, gas prices will determine the price of almost everything on the grid.

Our local grid power is already overdependent on natural gas. Right now, 52 percent of the power on the grid is produced from natural gas, and it will be a higher percentage when Vermont Yankee closes. ISO-NE considers gas dependence a “key strategic risk” for New England. The area is vulnerable to supply disruptions and price changes for this commodity.

Let’s start with supply disruptions. We had a natural gas supply crisis during the January 2013 cold snap. Although many in New England heat their homes with natural gas, the limited gas lines serving the region make for an inadequate supply. In cold weather, when domestic demand for gas spikes, those customers receive priority, and the power plants can’t get enough gas. During that cold snap, the grid would attempt to summon the help of a gas-burning power plant, and the plant would answer: “Sorry. Can’t go online. No gas.”

This year, ISO-NE started a “Winter Reliability Program” to address this problem — by using oil. ISO-NE has set aside $75 million to keep (mostly) oil-burning plants at the ready. That’s right, the grid is paying $75 million to have oil-burning plants keep oil onsite. (This is a “capacity” payment; the plants will be paid separately when they actual make power.) ISO-NE is ensuring reliability, but at a high dollar cost and a high cost in fossil-fuel use.

Without Vermont Yankee, more power will come from gas plants, but they will still be supplied by the same set of pipelines. Unless new pipelines are built quickly, an unlikely event, it will take less of a cold snap to activate the “we can’t get gas for our power plant” situation. In that case, more oil will be needed for back-up.

Price also matters, and once again, the problem is a lack of pipelines. Fracking has made a lot of gas available, but New England’s access to it is limited. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which tracks national supply and demand, published a market assessment in October that reported that gas prices are relatively stable in most of the country, except in New England. In other regions, gas prices charged last winter and for futures contracts written on the coming winter are around $4 per MMBTU (1 million BTUs). In New England, natural gas prices last year were $6.60 MMBTU, but the futures price for the winter of 2014 is soaring to $11.75. Electricity prices in this area are also expected to rise, since electricity prices customarily track gas prices.

What about getting more power from hydro plants in Canada? This will work … partially. Depending on how much electricity we import, new transmission lines may well be needed. Some of these lines are already being planned. We should also note that Canadian power is unlikely to shield us from price rises on the grid. Under the new HydroQuebec contracts signed around 2012, the price HydroQuebec charges will fluctuate; it will move according to the market price on the grid, which itself follows natural gas prices.

In this case, we will be actually moving more electricity from Canada, not just writing contracts. Electricity carried long distances is also liable to disruptions. In 1998, an ice storm devastated HydroQuebec’s power lines, causing widespread, lengthy power outages. This could happen again, but let’s look at a more recent and more mundane supply disruption.

During that same cold snap last January, HydroQuebec exported only about half of the usual amount of electricity to the U.S. Why did it cut back just when the power was most needed?

Quebec law requires HydroQuebec to supply inexpensive electricity to “legacy” customers within the province. The needs of those customers must be met, and at a retail price of around 3 cents per kWh. Therefore, many people in Quebec heat with electricity. In a cold snap, the Quebec heaters go on, and HydroQuebec has less power to send to us. HydroQuebec hates this, but has no choice.

Even with Vermont Yankee running, Vermont and New England were overly dependent on natural gas. Without Vermont Yankee, the problems will get worse,. Our dependence on natural gas and on Canada sets us up for a perfect storm of increased power prices — and it won’t take a monster storm to trigger it. Cold weather itself will do a fine job.

Meredith Angwin is a physical chemist who worked for electric utilities for more than 25 years and now heads the Energy Education Project of the Ethan Allen Institute.