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Vernon debates future role in producing power

With Vermont Yankee dormant, ideas for reuse of nuclear site range from waste gasification to solar arrays

VERNON—As residents try to imagine Vernon’s energy future, some say the former nuclear town should think small.

Officials and experts gathered Sept. 12 to discuss how Vernon might continue to produce electricity — whether on or off Vermont Yankee property — and possibly profit from it via jobs and tax revenue. The session included talk of gas plants, solar arrays, a hydroelectric partnership, and an energy research facility.

There also were warnings that the town shouldn’t try to find another big generator. Brian Otley, Green Mountain Power chief operating officer, said he believes large facilities like Vermont Yankee and a recently proposed gas-fired plant will “start to fade into the background” in favor of a less-centralized power grid.

“We see a future not too far out where energy is produced very locally, energy is moved very short distances, [and] energy is stored for use later,” Otley said.

Differing views

Not everyone in Vernon is on board with such thinking. Many believe the town should keep its options open in order to capitalize on the electrical infrastructure that Vermont Yankee left behind.

“We’re not discounting anything,” town Planning Commission member Patty O’Donnell said. “Our plan is to re-energize Vernon — whatever that’s going to look like.”

After more than four decades in operation, Vermont Yankee stopped producing power at the end of 2014. Decommissioning likely won’t happen rapidly: Plant owner Entergy is preparing the site for SAFSTOR, a period of dormancy under which radiological cleanup can take up to 60 years.

The plant’s closure has left Vernon at a crossroads. On one hand, the town has lost its largest taxpayer and employer; on the other hand, at least some of the Vermont Yankee land will be unavailable for decades due to decommissioning activities and spent fuel storage.

Members of the town’s Selectboard and Planning Commission have been among those working to find solutions. Lately, they’re getting help from the Vermont Council on Rural Development, which organized a months-long “community visit” planning process in Vernon.

’What’s realistic?’

“The process around the community visit has really been to say, ‘What’s within our power, what’s realistic, what are some of the opportunities?’” said Paul Costello, the Council’s executive director.

The council scheduled the Sept. 12 meeting to examine Vernon’s future as a power producer. There are two major factors working in the town’s favor on that front.

First, there is a large electrical switchyard owned by Vermont Electric Power Company adjacent to the Vermont Yankee property. Even with an expected influx of hydroelectric power into the regional grid, officials say that switchyard still will have capacity for additional power generation.

In other words, “there’s an empty socket where you can plug something in,” said Kerrick Johnson, Vermont Electric’s vice president of strategy and communication.

Second, there is continuing receptiveness to Vernon playing host to a power-production facility. The latest evidence is a March vote wherein Vernon overwhelmingly backed a proposed 600-megawatt, natural gas-fired power plant that might have been located near Vermont Yankee.

Kinder Morgan connection

“You certainly do have the infrastructure, and you certainly have the willingness as a host community,” said state Public Service Department Commissioner Chris Recchia, who was among the panelists at the Sept. 12 meeting at Vernon’s town office.

That gas plant effort was suspended, however, when Kinder Morgan’s nearby gas pipeline project was put on hold indefinitely. Recchia noted that “we have a gas shortage in the region, particularly in southern New England,” but he offered no prediction that the Kinder Morgan pipeline project will be revived anytime soon.

Vernon officials also have examined a wood-fired biomass power plant. “For various reasons, it wasn’t determined to be politically or financially viable,” said Bob Spencer, town Planning Commission chairman.

That doesn’t mean the town is out of options. The Sept. 12 brainstorming session included brief mention of solid-waste gasification, whereby municipal waste can be used to produce power.

Spencer called that a “long shot,” but Recchia didn’t dismiss the waste-gasification concept out of hand. Despite likely political difficulties, “there’s no technical reason that you cannot do those in a manner that meets all air-quality and water-quality concerns,” he said.

Other options

Other possibilities mentioned at the session included development of a liquified natural gas facility; a potential town partnership with whoever buys TransCanada’s Vernon hydroelectric station; and construction of solar arrays.

There didn’t seem to be much enthusiasm for solar development in Vernon. Local officials question whether there will be enough land for significant solar development, though they will look into the matter in conjunction with Green Mountain Power.

Two representatives of that utility advised town officials to think of a future in which major power plants are a thing of the past.

“The original [electric distribution] model was a small number of very large plants piping energy down long lines,” Otley said. “That was the most cost-effective, most reliable way to deliver power back in the day. Technologies now are emerging every day that are undermining that.”

’Microgrids’ and ’islanding’

He and Josh Castonguay, Green Mountain Power’s chief innovation executive, talked about “microgrids” and “islanding” — ways in which power is produced on a smaller scale, then stored locally and controlled locally.

Advocates say that approach can increase efficiency and improve reliability and resiliency, leaving a local grid less vulnerable to problems elsewhere. One example of how such concepts already are in play is a Green Mountain Power solar and battery-storage system in Rutland.

“Maybe Vernon can be the first town of its size to island, to microgrid — this variety of technologies,” Otley said. “That’s a very different vision than trying to recapture a big plant.”

In that sense, Otley suggested, the suspension of Vernon’s gas plant project might be “a blessing in disguise.”

Power generation wasn’t the only topic discussed. For example, officials talked about fiber optics, given that Vermont Electric has a high-speed internet network and Vernon has expressed a desire to tap into one.

Also, town officials disclosed that they’ve been thinking about an energy-research center.

One recommendation that came from the Sept. 12 session is further planning work, with possible state and federal funding to support it. Vernon needs to hone its vision for the future, Johnson said.

“We can be the most helpful,” Johnson said, “the greater the clarity you have on exactly what you’re seeking to accomplish.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #375 (Wednesday, September 21, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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