Vermont Yankee closure means one thing: more carbon in the atmosphere

Last week’s surprise announcement by Entergy that it is closing its Vermont Yankee nuclear generating station was bad news for those who care about clean air and the cost of living. Yankee, with a capacity of 620 megawatts, produces more than 5 billion kilowatt-hours of energy every year. How will Vermont replace that power? With fossil fuels: some oil, but mostly natural gas. This means that each of the 5.1 billion kWhs currently provided by a zero-carbon energy source will come with at least half a kilogram of carbon dioxide (CO2). Over a single year, the generators that will replace Yankee’s 5.1 billion kWhs will dump at least 2.8 million tons of CO2 into the air.

Meredith Angwin, who publishes Yes Vermont Yankee, an excellent, well-written, well-argued, and well-researched blog, noted in a recent article the remarkable fact that the New England electricity system operator will pay US$78 million just to make sure that oil-fired capacity is available for winter months when natural gas will all be used for space heating.

Notice the ISO NE has not contracted for wind or solar generation to insure against fuel shortages in winter months. That is because the ISO NE is not staffed with stupid people. It is staffed with smart people who are making sure there is enough fuel to run the electricity grid. Neither wind nor solar can provide such insurance; they are simply too unreliable.

No, Yankee will be replaced with fossil sources that emit huge amounts of carbon dioxide. That is the only way the New England grid will be able, without Vermont Yankee, to continue to supply enough vital electricity to keep society and the economy moving through the dark winter months.

There is a carbon market in the U.S. northeast, called the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). It was established ostensibly to encourage electric utilities to switch to low-carbon fuels. In reality, it encourages a preferred fossil fuel, natural gas. Regardless. The most recent carbon auction held by RGGI established a carbon price of $3.21 per ton. That will not dissuade even oil-fired generation.

Nor will the other highly touted carbon disincentive: time of use retail electricity rates. They are not often viewed as representing a de facto price on carbon, but that is what they are. Electricity, for most customers, is a very demand-inelastic commodity: you need it, all the time. Whatever price is charged, you pretty much have to pay it. And since most people go to work in the morning and come home for dinner in the evening—that is, after all, what makes us, as a collective society, economically productive—it follows that most people will use the most electricity in the morning as they get ready for work and in the evening as they prepare dinner and try to achieve the all-important work-life balance. This means they simply have little choice but to pay the high peak rate, which is there because of expensive fossil-fired, and carbon emitting, peak power providers.

This is why none of this—neither milquetoast carbon reduction schemes like RGGI nor time of use electricity rates—will affect the upcoming dumping of many millions of tons of CO2 into Vermont’s air—and hence my air—once Vermont Yankee closes.

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James Greenidge
7 years ago

Good article!

Re: “..dumping of many millions of tons of CO2 into Vermont’s air—and hence my air—…”

If only more people thought like this!

James Greenidge
Queens NY

A. Eliot
7 years ago

Good article in general, but I definitely wouldn’t call RGGI a “milquetoast carbon reduction scheme.” The issue is that the cap was set almost immediately prior to the financial collapse, and regional electricity sales regionally fell 5-10% from the pre-recession peak. The other force at work is that regionally, coal power plants have been closing, and more natural gas power has come online, meaning that emissions have been declining anyway. All of these issues exert downwards pressure on the price of carbon.

Hence why RGGI announced earlier this year recommendations to lower the regional emissions cap by 45%, from 165 to 91 million tons, to make the program targets more consistent with the current state of the generation industry in the Northeast:

The problem isn’t an inherent weakness of the program, but large-scale changes both in economics and generation mix that happened rapidly after its implementation. If the newer cap is put in place, the market signal to reduce emissions can be restored.