Vermont Is Kicking Its Nuclear Habit—and Showing How Your State Can Too

As states shut down their nuclear power plants, they need to ramp up other low-carbon sources of energy.
(Photo: Goran Assner/Getty Images)
Jan 22, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

Can Vermont kick its nuclear energy addiction and retain its title as the United States’ greenest state? If so, it could pave the way to a renewable power future for other states that are also shuttering their aging nuclear power plants.

California, for instance, is now closing one of its two remaining nuclear power plants while seeking to obtain half its electricity from renewable sources by 2050. In New York, Gov. Mario Cuomo opposes relicensing the Indian Point Energy Center nuclear station, even though it provides about a quarter of New York City’s electricity. The state is has been steadily expanding its wind-power capacity in particular, although it’s likely to miss its renewable energy goal of 30 percent by 2015.

Vermont has led the nation in low-carbon energy cred. But the reason why might leave some environmental advocates cold: Until last month the bulk of the state’s power generation came from a nuclear plant.

Electricity from the Vermont Yankee nuclear station, combined with a smaller but sizable supply of hydroelectric power, allowed Vermont to score the lowest carbon dioxide emissions of any state in 2011, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency.

Nuclear power contributed about 70 percent of Vermont’s electricity supply in 2013 and 2014, with hydropower adding 20 percent.

Hydropower is included in the state’s aggressive renewable energy standard, which calls for 20 percent of demand to be met with some combination of solar, wind, biomass, hydropower, and geothermal by 2017; 75 percent by 2032; and 90 percent by 2050. (The state is even making electricity from biogas generated by cow manure.)

Clearly, Vermont is taking the long view. And with the nation’s existing 61 nuclear power plants nearing the end of their operating life, and only five new plants under construction, the state may be a petrie dish for how other states can manage their transition from nuclear power.

It’s not yet clear whether closure of Vermont Yankee at the end of 2014 will spike the state’s carbon footprint.

For instance, Vermont Yankee power supplied 40 percent of the electricity distributed by Green Mountain Power, the state’s largest utility, until 2012. “Forty percent from one source is not where you want to be,” said Green Mountain spokesperson Dorothy Schnure.

Wind now meets about 8 percent of Green Mountain’s demand. Another 7 percent is split between solar, wood-burning, and biogas, including cow power, Thousands of Vermont ratepayers have signed up for cow power since the mid-2000s. Green Mountain buys the rest from out-of-state power plants.

In 2014, nuclear power provided about 34 percent of the region’s energy generation, according to Marcia Blomberg of ISO New England, which manages the regional grid. “We expect that the loss of Vermont Yankee, a base load nuclear facility, will increase the region’s dependence on natural gas-fired resources” and other fossil fuels, as well as hydro and other renewables, she said.

But increased carbon dioxide emissions could be offset by planned retirement of other fossil fuel–burning power plants in the region.

Nuclear energy is a major point of contention within the environmental movement—one intensified by Japan’s Fukushima meltdown in 2011.

But this month 65 top conservation biologists signed an open letter urging green groups to back nuclear. They argue that it’s the only carbon-free power source that can meet the world’s growing energy demand while also blunting the worst impacts of climate change and saving global biodiversity.

“Although renewable energy sources like wind and solar will likely make increasing contributions to future energy production,” they wrote, “these technology options face real-world problems of scalability, cost, material and land use, meaning that it is too risky to rely on them as the only alternatives to fossil fuels.”

“Nuclear power—being by far the most compact and energy-dense of sources—could also make a major, and perhaps leading, contribution,” they added.

The letter echoes a similar statement in 2013 by four leading climate scientists, who called for a fast expansion of newer, safer nuclear power technologies as crucial to combatting global warming.

But so far, few if any environmental groups have switched sides. “Given its massive capital costs, technical complexity, and international security concerns, nuclear power is clearly not a practical alternative,” stated the Natural Resources Defense Council in response.

Bring on the cows.