Greener's Market

This past week, energy issues returned to the front pages or digital news feeds of Vermont. After a long period of time when nothing seemed to be disturbing the emerging consensus around Vermont that renewable energy sources were the unquestioned wave of the future, a series of recent events highlights the complexity of getting there.

This newspaper has supported that overall goal and climate change deniers to the contrary, has also found the evidence of global warming to be compelling. Is it a proven fact? In a clinical sense, probably not, but neither is Einstein's Theory of Relativity. More than a century after it was first articulated, however, no one seriously doubts its overall veracity. Similarly, enough evidence has accumulated to indicate that allowing ever-increasing amounts of carbon particles into the atmosphere is playing roulette with the Earth's future on a very large and risky scale. Even if in the end, years and decades from now, those fears and concerns turn out to be overblown, what has been lost from mitigating the rise of carbon in the atmosphere? In the short term, one could point to increased financial costs and job displacement - which as often as not is likely to be offset by job gains and economic activity elsewhere. But on the up side, we get cleaner water and more breathable air, plus an atmosphere that is stable and more predictable than what we've seen in recent years.

That said, those who support relying totally on renewable energy sources - which in Vermont has generally excluded nuclear - should have, if they don't already, an enhanced appreciation for the complexity involved in that effort.

Let's start with nuclear, since that returned to the headlines around the state in a big way last week.

As could have and should have been widely anticipated, a federal appeals court largely upheld an opinion handed down in a federal district court last year which ruled the state of Vermont, or any state, does not have jurisdiction over nuclear facilities like Vermont Yankee in Vernon when it comes to safety issues. Nuclear safety is a national question. There has to be a minimum basic standard for safety that ensures everyone's protection. States may set standards on one thing or another, but it can't be permissible for one state, for financial or ideological reasons, to set its safety standards below a responsible level. We've opted to do that with education, and the results are, at best, mixed.

While there was a silver lining of sorts for the state, where the appellate court noted the state does have leverage when it comes to questions of economics or environment, it's hard to imagine the state legislature would have been motivated to pass two pieces of legislation clearly intended to shut down Vermont Yankee for reasons other than safety. It's not like 6-800 good paying jobs, millions of dollars of tax revenue and philanthropic funding are so plentiful that the state could shrug the loss of that off as no big deal. Hopefully Gov. Peter Shumlin and his attorney general, William Sorrell, have this one figured out at last and don't plan on wasting more state resources on a wild goose chase appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Granted, in previous years, Entergy Corp., the owners of Vermont Yankee, have often been their own worst enemy. They were less than forthcoming about some of the operational issues and facilities maintenance than they should have been. We're not hearing anymore about collapsing cooling towers or underground piping that wasn't thought to be there, so hopefully that lesson has been learned by Entergy.

The irony is that Vermont Yankee may be on its way to closure anyway for good old fashioned free market reasons, with an assist from a state government that viewed the plant with open hostility. Nuclear is still a low cost form of energy compared to wind and solar, but it is rapidly being overtaken in terms of cost by natural gas. The U.S. owes much to whatever economic recovery we are seeing to the bonanza of natural and shale gas we are extracting, often through the highly controversial methods of hydrofracturing, or "fracking." That's a subject for another day, but between low cost gas and the expense of building new nuclear reactors or refurbishing older ones, the nuclear age, commercially, at any rate, may be on the verge of eclipse.

It's now long past time for Gov. Shumlin to call off the dogs and attempt to build a more constructive relationship with the owners of Vermont Yankee. Trust has been in short supply between the two parties, but now is the time, with Vermont needing all the industry it can get its hands on, to stop trying to shut down one of the larger employers in the state and find some common ground.

Meanwhile, the wind and solar industries, which are still struggling to gain a foothold economically, encountered some reminders that reaping energy from the elements isn't that simple.

Last week, the New York Times ran a fascinating story about how earlier this summer, when Vermont along with its neighboring states suffered through a heat wave, wind power from the newly constructed turbines in Lowell was suppressed by the New England grid operator just when one would have thought it would be most needed. The transmission grid, it turns out, isn't sophisticated enough to either store energy produced by wind turbines until its needed, or able to factor in its unpredictability. Wind energy is of course, produced when the wind blows, not on demand as with, let's say, nuclear. Wind is more likely to be "curtailed," as the expression goes, during periods of peak demand in favor of fossil-based sources. Ironically, the problem stems in part from renewable sources like hydro and wind generating too much power, more than the grid can safely handle.

On the solar front, "net metering" - where owners of solar and other renewable generators of electricity pump their output back into the grid and reduce their own costs by effectively making their meters run backwards - also made news.

Net metering it turns out, is creating some issues for some of the smaller utility operators, like the Washington Electric Cooperative of East Montpelier. Net metering, the cooperative's officials say, leaves others to pay the costs of running the system. They will no longer, as of Oct. 1, accept electricity from residential solar systems larger than 5 kilowatts.

These are problems that need straightening out, and much like with "fracking," where coming up with responsible, intelligent regulations that protect underground watersheds while allowing businesses to make money by extracting low cost natural gas should be possible, finding compromises to transmission grid issues and net metering should not be "off the grid." But they will require some work and effort, and highlight that the road to a renewable energy nirvana involves more than morality and good will - it eventually comes down to dollars and cents - and there's nothing wrong about that.

It's just the way it is.


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