Anticipating the need to replace the supply of about two-thirds of the state’s electricity, 200 Vermonters will sequester themselves in a hotel for a weekend in early November to study energy options and consider how to balance Vermont’s energy portfolio for the next generation.
Energy discussions – whether considering wind, nuclear, or hydroelectric power – attract crowds of special-interest groups and political activists. The competing rhetoric can be overwhelming.
The goal of the $500,000-plus worth of studies – the largest energy sampling ever conducted in the United States – is to cut through the slogans and give policymakers a fresh look at how Vermonters envision the state’s energy future, said Stephen Wark, the Department of Public Service’s consumer affairs director. Vermonters will pay for the bulk of the studies, through rate charges on utility bills and state tax dollars.
“We are looking for mainstream Vermonters, not advocates,” Wark said. “What we are looking for is people with an open mind, people that are willing to learn and share their opinions with us.”
The discussion is needed because Vermont relies heavily on two sources: Vermont Yankee, a 650-megawatt nuclear power plant in Vernon, and Hydro-Quebec, a massive Canadian utility that generates 35,000 megawatts, mostly from 54 hydroelectric dams; a sliver of that, about 300 megawatts, is sent over the border to Vermont. One megawatt generates enough electricity to supply about 1,000 residential homes.
Contracts with both suppliers are nearing an end.
Vermont Yankee’s 40-year license and power contracts expire in 2012; in 2015, most of Hydro-Quebec’s contracts end. Although the dates might seem distant, it takes years to build and permit new generators.
Signing new contracts with power suppliers like Hydro-Quebec is possible, but prices and terms are subject to negotiation, said Dave Lamont, power planning engineer at the Department of Public Service. “It’s not like renewing a subscription to a magazine,” he said.
Also, Hydro-Quebec might decide not to offer electricity to Vermonters once the contracts end.
“They go back and forth on whether they have surplus to sell,” Lamont said. “They don’t have to sell to us. They can sell to anyone.”
Replacement options include coal, hydro, natural gas, nuclear, oil, solar, wind, wood and other renewable energy sources, but decisions aren’t made on philosophical preferences alone. Each source has advantages and disadvantages – varying costs, reliability issues and environmental impacts – that must be balanced.
If wind power were pursued at its utmost capacity, for example, it could account for 15 percent to 20 percent of the state’s energy portfolio, said Ken Nolan, director of resource planning at the Burlington Electric Department. Wark cited similar figures.
But those numbers are just estimates. No one really knows the limits on wind power, Lamont said.
Theoretically, more than 20 percent of Vermont’s power could come from wind, but it could create an unbalanced energy portfolio since wind is not a constant source. “If you have too much wind, it’s too much of a variable resource, which is not a good thing,” he said.
The major power contracts are ending, but Vermont is not in danger of operating in the dark.
At any time, electricity can be purchased from the region’s power grid, through ISO New England Inc., a nonprofit based in Holyoke, Mass. ISO New England draws electricity from a broad mixture of sources throughout the region, Lamont said. The grid’s prices, however, are unpredictable and fluctuate with the market.
“The lights aren’t going to go out,” Lamont said, “but you get plunged into a world of uncertainty.”
Utilities typically have a combination of short-term and long-term contracts with power suppliers and purchase additional power as needed from the New England power grid.
State officials hope to capture public opinion through several efforts.
The 200 people, who are selected from 5,000 interviewed, will participate in “deliberative polling.” Robert Luskin, director of the Center for Deliberative Opinion Research at the University of Texas, will lead the energy policy weekend.
Each participant will be paid $100 to $150 and asked to read detailed material, designed to be neutral and jargon-free, before the November weekend. After learning about various power sources, they will be polled.
Reached by e-mail, Luskin declined to comment on the results of previous deliberative polling efforts on energy, saying media coverage could influence Vermont participants.
Participants in the $334,290 study are acting as delegates for the state’s roughly 624,000 residents, Wark said.
“This is, in a sense, a type of direct democracy,” he said.
Top executives at the state’s two largest electric utilities, Central Vermont Public Service Corp. and Green Mountain Power Corp., expressed support for the studies.
“As our region comes face-to-face with what we call the ‘brutal facts,’ some hard choices are going to be made,” said Chris Dutton, president and CEO of Green Mountain Power.
Dutton advocates keeping New England’s approximately six nuclear plants online and encourages serious consideration of building a new nuclear power plant in New England in the next decade.
Burning coal creates harmful emissions, and the region is already overdependent on natural gas generators, making nuclear the best remaining option, Dutton said, adding, “I think you are seeing that kind of conversation occurring all over the country right now.”
The second part of the state’s polling efforts will be run by Jonathan Raab of Boston-based Raab Associates Ltd., who will conduct consensus-building workshops at five Vermont locations, each with 150 to 175 people. The $146,000 workshop series will also employ “keypad polling” on energy questions, Wark said.
The Vermont Department of Public Service staff will participate in the studies online, through Facilitate.com, which will cost about $23,000.
“I think it’s really going to be fabulous,” Lamont said of the studies. “The trouble is getting to educate people on how this stuff works.”
The state is paying $50,000 and all but one of the state’s 21 utilities have agreed to collect another $300,000 from ratepayers, Wark said. Fund-raising and grants and will cover the remainder. The results will be complete by the end of the year and reported to the Legislature and governor, he said.
It’s unclear what impact the studies will have on Vermont’s leaders.
Reconfiguring the state’s energy supply is “a really important debate for Vermonters” said Senate President Pro Tempore Peter Shumlin, D-Windham. “Vermont faces a real energy crisis.”
But, the legislator added, he tends to be “leery” of public opinion polls. Direct contact with Vermonters is more important to him.
“Telephone calls and conversations on the street really make a difference,” Shumlin said. “I have never seen poll results make much of an impression on legislation.”
In a letter titled “Vermont’s Energy Future” posted on the state Web site, Republican Gov. Jim Douglas said ideas from Vermonters will be helpful.
“The next steps for us are complex, the choices imperfect. I do believe your insight will help us to make a better-informed set of decisions,” Douglas wrote. He could not be reached for further comment.
Finding a balance
Vermont’s 2006 energy portfolio burned few fossil fuels, but depended on nuclear power for 37 percent of its electricity, a higher percentage than most U.S. regions, according to state data.
Although nuclear power creates no carbon emissions, other issues arise – particularly the disposal of spent fuel.
Plans to send Vermont Yankee’s nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain in Nevada have been sidelined. The nuclear waste, originally scheduled for pickup in 1999, is now estimated for removal in 2017 at the earliest, said Brian Cosgrove, Vermont Yankee’s manager of government affairs.
“The process has gotten stalled up in Washington,” he said, adding there is also a lawsuit in Nevada. “So, there are some tangles.
“The program is moving forward. It has not been abandoned,” he said.
In the meantime, Vermont Yankee is storing its nuclear waste on-site in a spent fuel pool and plans to begin using 150-ton, dry-cask storage units later this year, Cosgrove said. The storage units are effective for about 100 years, he said. New Orleans-based Entergy Corp. owns Vermont Yankee.
Even if there is a desire to avoid some types of energy, that becomes difficult in practice.
Burlington Electric, for example, favors renewable energies such as wind, solar and wood, even though they are more expensive than coal or nuclear power, Nolan said. “Burlington residents have shown they are willing to pay a little extra to have that renewable quality,” he said.
Despite its lean toward renewables, the bulk of its power was generated from burning wood at the McNeil Generating Station. In 2006, 11 percent of the utility’s electricity came from nuclear sources and 6 percent came from burning coal, because the utility purchased electricity from the New England power grid, which taps a cross-section of sources.
“Eventually, we need to come to grips with the fact that we need energy,” Nolan said. The question, he said, is how you do it.
Central Vermont Public Service secures about 50 percent of its power from nuclear facilities and 30 percent from Hydro-Quebec.
“At this point in time I think we are sort of agnostic about the type of power supply. We are open-minded,” said Bob Young, the utility’s president.
This fall’s studies will help determine the kind of balance Vermonters want, Young said. “When we understand that, those conclusions will begin to define what that portfolio looks like.”
Cosgrove, at Vermont Yankee, hopes politics don’t enter the energy debate or influence the polls.
“This is going to be a very big deal. It could make or break the economy,” Cosgrove said. “If you make bad decisions about energy, your state can go broke really fast.
“The politics have to stop at the door when you do something like this,” he said of the extensive polling. “Ideology has to be left aside.”
By Dan McLean
29 July 2007
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