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James Moore, Clean Energy Program Director with the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, speaks at the Countdown to Closure event on Monday in Brattleboro.

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Advocates say renewable energy can easily replace VY

BRATTLEBORO—On Monday morning, the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon was awarded a 20-year operating license extension from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

For the 150 anti-nuclear activists who gathered at Centre Congregational Church that night, the NRC’s decision did little to change their firm belief that on March 21, 2012, Vermont Yankee will shut down.

Post Oil Solutions, Citizens Awareness Network, Vermont Sierra Club, Vermont Yankee Decommissioning Alliance, and the New England Coalition Against Nuclear Pollution co-sponsored “Countdown to Closure,” an event they billed as a discussion about how Vermont can create a green, nuclear-free future in the post-Vermont Yankee era.

Dr. Arjun Makhijani, founder and president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER), spoke about carbon-free and nuclear-free solutions at the national level.

To Makhijani, the ongoing nuclear disaster in at the Fukushima nuclear complex in Japan “rewrote the book on nuclear power.” He said that he found it difficult to believe that the NRC would relicense Vermont Yankee, which shares the same design as the Fukushima reactors.

“We need a time-out on energy policy,” he said. “We need to take a deep breath and figure out what we’re going to do. Making plutonium to boil water makes no sense.”

What does make sense, said Makhijani, is rebuilding our energy policy and our economy based on renewable energy sources.

“We have a huge nuclear reactor in the sky,” he said. “It’s called the sun. All we need is a place to store the photons it generates.”

He said there is more than enough capacity for solar energy, saying that a land space equal to 12 percent of Nevada could generate enough electricity for the entire United States. At the same time, rooftops, parking lots, and commercial buildings all have great potential for solar generation.

There is similar capacity for wind energy, too, he said, pointing out the need for an improved electrical grid that would sent the power, from the sparsely populated areas, where wind and solar would be most efficiently generated, to the urban areas.

“The amount of intelligence it would take to run our electric grid can fit on a $20 flash drive,” said Makhijani. “There’s lots of ways to be smart and only one way to be dumb, and we’re doing it. We have the tools; we just need to use them intelligently.”

Makhijani said at the rate that technology is evolving, the United States could have a completely renewable energy system in 25 years. What’s lacking, he said, is the  political will to do it.

There is more of that political will on the state level, particularly in Vermont. James Moore, clean energy program director with the Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG), talked about the growing role of renewable energy in this state.

In 2009, VPIRG released a study that outlined how renewables could easily make up the loss of Vermont Yankee’s generating capacity. The group estimated that 23 percent of Vermont’s electrical power could be generated by wind turbines.

How many turbines would be needed to reach that goal? Moore said that if you were to install turbines with the standard spacing and site considerations over the 25 miles between Brattleboro and Bellows Falls, that would be enough turbines to generate the 23-percent figure.

“Wind can make up a huge part of our energy picture, and we can do it without decimating our ridgelines,” he said.

In 2009, VPIRG estimated that 2.5 percent of Vermont’s energy would come from solar power by 2012. Moore said that estimate was low, and that by next year, 10 percent of the state’s energy will come from solar sources. Other renewables — such as biomass, methane gas from landfills and manure digesters, and hydropower — will also contribute more to the state’s energy portfolio.

Scenarios for shutdown — or not

But Moore cautioned those in attendance not to assume that Vermont Yankee will shut down on schedule.

While the Vermont Legislature has voted not to allow the state Public Service Board to issue the plant a Certificate of Public Good for another 20 years of operation, it does not necessarily mean that Entergy, the plant’s owner, will abide by the state’s decision.

Moore said Entergy is building up its legal team and that all signs point to a long and protracted court battle. Just the same, the plant’s opponents still have a chance to prevail if they keep up the political pressure, he said.

“We really are at the beginning of a new energy era,” he said, “and we now have a governor that gets it. But he is not going to be able do it unless we make him do it.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #93 (Wednesday, March 23, 2011).

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