Thursday, November 20, 2014

Pain From Vermont Yankee Closing Spreads Far and Wide

Meredith Angwin
We continue our focus on the closing of the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant with a guest post by Vermont resident Meredith Angwin. A nuclear industry veteran, Angwin is now project director of the Energy Education Project at the Ethan Allen Institute.

Vermont Yankee will close at the end of the year. I have blogged at Yes Vermont Yankee for five years. It’s hard to even know how to begin a description of the effects of closing Vermont Yankee. The pain starts with the people who work at the plant.

Hundreds of Goodbyes

Jan. 30, 2014, was the day that the “lists were up” at the plant. The plant will cease operations by the end of December 2014, and fuel should be unloaded to the fuel pool by the end of January 2015. In August, 2013, Entergy announced that the plant would close and not be refueled. "This was an agonizing decision and an extremely tough call for us," said Leo Denault, Entergy's chairman and chief executive officer, when the company announced its plans to close the facility. However, given the economic situation, he said, "we have reluctantly concluded that it is the appropriate action for us to take under the circumstances."

“The lists” were announced in January 2014. These were the names of the employees who would be laid off in February 2015 and the names of other employees who would work for another year, getting the plant ready for SAFSTOR. No local newspaper covered the day the lists were up, but I covered it in my post: Paint It Black.

Now, public meetings about decommissioning are taking place, and reporters are covering employment at Vermont Yankee. As reported in the Keene Sentinel, plant staffing will drop from 550 employees this fall to 316 at the end of January. Approximately a year later, in April 2016, staffing will drop again, to 127 people. What is happening to these employees?

Entergy is committed to helping employees find new jobs. So far, they have more than 100 jobs for Vermont Yankee employees at other Entergy facilities, according to Bill Mohl, president, Entergy Wholesale Commodities, as quoted in the Brattleboro Reformer. Some employees will retire, and some will take comparatively low-paying jobs to stay in the area. Others are already moving to faraway plants. It’s not easy for anyone, and it is especially hard on some employees who are “pushing 60” and not yet in a position to retire. It’s a very mixed situation. I attend some cheerful goodbye parties as people leave for new jobs, but I also get some very despondent comments on my Yes Vermont Yankee posts.

Hard Choices in Vernon

Vermont Yankee is located in Vernon, a town that will lose a huge portion of its tax base when the plant closes. While people in town are aware that they have to cut back, it is not easy. In Vermont, budgets are determined at the town meeting. The Vernon town meeting is usually held on one or two evenings. This year, the town meeting turned into a multi-day and, later, a multi-week affair. During the meetings Vernon decided to abolish the town police force. Instead, the town will pay a small amount for less protection from other law enforcement agencies like the state police. The school budget is also in some disarray, despite the fact that Entergy has made voluntary deals with the town to gradually decrease tax payments instead of cutting them off suddenly.

The Pain Beyond Vernon and on the Grid

The fiscal pain spreads far beyond Vernon.

Around 200 people work at Vermont Yankee but live in New Hampshire. New Hampshire is just beginning to deal with the implications of this.

Vermont Yankee adds more than $60 million to the local economy each year and donates more than $150,000 to local charities.

Recently, the generation tax on Vermont Yankee was raised to $12 million a year. At the end of last year, Entergy cut a deal with the state for a Certificate of Public Good for this final year of operation. In this agreement, Entergy will pay a $5 million “generation tax” to the state in 2015, even though VY will not be generating power.

But after 2015, the Entergy generation tax ends. Considering that the state is facing a $30 million budget shortfall this year, even with VY running, this is not small potatoes. Estimates of the 2015 budget shortfall run as high as $90 million. Nobody knows which programs will be cut, or which taxes will be raised, to make up for the shortfall. Closing Vermont Yankee has added to this pain

Then there is the price-pain on the grid.

For years, I did presentations and wrote op-eds explaining that if Vermont Yankee closed, our electric rates would rise. And yet, people are still surprised! With the polar vortex, the coming closing of Vermont Yankee and the closing of the Salem Harbor coal plant, some local utilities are posting winter prices that are 50 percent higher than last year. Also, last year Vermont Yankee sent $17.8 million to local utilities as part of its revenue sharing agreement. This payment may help keep electricity rates in Vermont below the average for the area. Obviously, such payments will not be continuing.

No Relief in Sight

In the same late-2013 agreement with the state in which Entergy promised to pay a $5 million generation tax (while not generating power), Entergy also agreed to send money to the state for economic development. Entergy will send $2 million a year for five years (for a total of $10 million) to the state for economic development of the Windham County region. The state has already received the first $2 million, and local groups are bidding for grants based on this money.

Aerial view of Vermont Yankee in Vernon, Vermont.
Some workers at Vermont Yankee that I’ve spoken with are fairly cynical about this development funding. They don’t believe it will help laid-off employees. I agree with them. As far as I can tell, this money will merely bolster new and existing not-for-profits. I think these groups will fund “economic development” projects that won’t have much actual effect.

The $2 million a year cannot relieve the pain of Vermont Yankee closing. It certainly can’t mitigate the economic pain, and it can do very little for the emotional pain of people losing their jobs and deciding whether or not to leave the area. In short, there is no relief in sight.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Closing Vermont Yankee and All That It Does Not Produce – Greenhouse Gases

Vermont_Yankee3 What becomes a nuclear facility most? These days, it may be its emission-free quality – its production of nothing, in other words, at least in terms of the greenhouse gases that have concerned policymakers and the public in recent years. In NEI’s third article on the closing of Vermont Yankee, we look at the implications of closing not only the source of 72.3 percent of Vermont’s electricity, but the implications of losing all that nothing – those gases that it doesn’t produce.

The loss of 604 megawatts of carbon-free generation will hinder efforts to reduce emissions in the region. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s draft plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants includes an initial estimate of how much each state will need to reduce emissions by 2030.  The proposed reduction targets show the difference that energy mix makes from state to state.
And not only does it impact the region’s proposed EPA target, but it could make a mess of a more local concern, Vermont’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.
RGGI set a regional cap for 2014 of 91 million short tons (about 82.5 million metric tons) of carbon dioxide emissions, which will decline 2.5 percent each year from 2015 to 2020. The goal is that by 2020, carbon dioxide emissions from power plants in the member states will be half that in 2005.
And that has unfortunate implications, as a Vermont newspaper editorial explains:
“When the contracts for Vermont Yankee power expired in 2012, our utilities replaced its carbon-free generation with about a million megawatt-hours of ‘grid power’—contracts and direct purchases of electricity from the New England transmission grid. More than half of this power comes from burning fossil fuels. This has substantially increased Vermont's power-related carbon emissions, while exporting the consequences to other states.”
It’s not a good outcome. See the article for more.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Vermont Yankee and the Looming Energy Crisis

Vermont_Yankee2 Is New England facing an energy crisis? Today, in the second of three parts about closing Vermont Yankee, NEI looks at the looming energy shortages in the far Northeast.

Along with Vermont Yankee, nearly 1,400 megawatts of baseload electric generating capacity will retire in New England this year, including a 750-megawatt coal- and petroleum-fired power plant in Massachusetts.
But New England is using a lot of natural gas these days, right?
New England has significantly increased its reliance on natural gas for electricity in the past few years. The increase has contributed to pipeline transportation congestion in the region’s natural gas market, particularly in the winter when it competes for heating homes and businesses.
Which can lead to, indeed, did lead to:
These supply constraints contributed to extreme spikes in spot natural gas and electricity prices in New England during the winters of 2012-2013 and 2013-2014. During the severe cold snap of January 2014’s polar vortex, the North American Electric Reliability Corp. found issues of fuel deliverability, natural gas pipeline outages, gas service interruptions, and frozen electricity and gas equipment.
It’s a provocative piece. By all means, take a look.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Closing Vermont Yankee – And All That it Means

The Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant on the banks of the Connecticut River in Vernon, Vt. is seen  on Monday April 18, 2011. (AP Photo/Jason R. Henske) Vermont Yankee is a relatively small nuclear facility in a relatively small state. Its closure later this year will cause Vermont to import more electricity, but what happens in Vermont does not impact Vermont alone.

That’s important and this week, NEI will put up a set of Web pages that zero in on the implications of shuttering a nuclear reactor. The articles are grouped under the title “Closing Vermont Yankee” and covers the electricity markets, the possibility of an energy crisis in New England and the efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the region and country. And Vermont Yankee has an important role in all three topics.

The first article, available today, focuses on the electricity marketplace. The polar vortex showed the importance of nuclear plants to provide reliable energy (notably in New England) and the coming EPA carbon dioxide emissions rule makes manifest the value of clean nuclear facilities. In the article, industry executives warn that more nuclear plants are under financial strain and could close—a prospect that should alarm everyone who cares about the nation’s energy security and electric grid reliability.

Tomorrow, the focus will be on reliability. Closing Vermont Yankee  will exacerbate instabilities in the energy markets of a region already roiled by uncertainties in that sector. Writing to Maine’s congressional representatives in September on the need for new natural gas pipelines in the region, Gov. Paul LePage said, “New England is in an energy crisis.”

Wednesday, the subject is greenhouse gases and what closing Vermont Yankee means for the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which includes Vermont in its cap-and-trade system, and the upcoming EPA regulations limiting carbon dioxide emissions in the electricity sector.

And we’ll be participating in this project here on the blog, too. American Nuclear Society blogger and Vermont resident Meredith Angwin will offer a post later this week on the financial and human impact closing Vermont Yankee will have on the local community and on the state. It’s important to see the big picture, but we also want to keep a focus on Vermont and what losing an economic engine can mean to people in the most direct ways possible. Stay tuned for Ms. Angwin’s contribution later this week.

Friday, November 14, 2014

From Verne to Rickover with the Nuclear Navy

USS-Nautilus Forbes’ takes on an interesting topic that flies under the radar of just about everyone, including many nuclear energy advocates: the Nuclear Navy.

The Nuclear Navy has logged over 5,400 reactor years of accident-free operations and travelled over 130 million miles on nuclear energy, enough to circle the earth 3,200 times. The nuclear reactors can run for many, many years without refueling. They operate all over the world, sometimes in hostile environments, with no maintenance support except their own crew. These reactors can ramp up from zero to full power in minutes, as fast as any natural gas-fired plant.

And a fair number of Nuclear Navy veterans find their way into the domestic industry (not to mention NEI). The Monticello (Minn.) Times features an interview with Thomas Shortell, training manager at Xcel Energy’s Monticello Nuclear Generating Plant.

“When you think about rites of passage and academics, you’ve done it in the military,” Shortell said. “If somebody has made it through the U.S. Navy’s program, I have confidence in their capabilities and their ability to make it through our programs. The service guy have been operating under stressful situations. We have the stress of business and the economics and the business plan of what we do, but when it comes down to it, the guys who have been in service have been operating under circumstances where lives are on the line. You can be 3 feet away from something really, really bad happening,” he added.

The Nuclear Navy has been in service about as long as the domestic industry has been. The Navy started looking into powering submarines with nuclear energy as early as 1947, as this bit about the father of the Nuclear Navy, Admiral Hyman Rickover, reveals:

Assigned to the Bureau of Ships in September 1947, Rickover received training in nuclear power at Oak Ridge Tennessee and worked with the bureau to explore the possibility of nuclear ship propulsion.

In February 1949 he received an assignment to the Division of Reactor Development, U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and then assumed control of the Navy's effort as Director of the Naval Reactors Branch in the Bureau of Ships. This twin role enabled him to lead the effort to develop the world's first nuclear-powered submarine, USS Nautilus (SSN-571). The latter joined the fleet in January 1955.

nautilus-jules-verne The Nautilus was, of course, Captain Nemo’s futuristic underwater craft in Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1870), so it seems an appropriate name for the first nuclear submarine. (If I remember rightly,the fictional Nautilus was powered by sodium-mercury batteries, but because the sodium was taken from salt water, the Nautilus rarely needed to be refueled, a parallel with the USS Nautilus.)

The United States operates 82 nuclear-powered ships (11 aircraft carriers, 71 submarines) with 103 reactors. Never an accident. Seems an appropriate note on which to end the week containing Veterans Day.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The China/U.S. Deal and Its Nuclear Portensions

The greenhouse gas deal reached by the United States and China promises to be exceptionally consequential. Reining in China’s emissions has always seemed a difficult, practically impossible goal because the huge country is very quickly trying to develop an industrial sector while providing electricity to a widely scattered and mammoth population. Despite a large commitment to nuclear energy, China has had a larger one to fossil fuels. The ghastly, and widely reported, air quality found in Beijing and other urban centers has been a result – and a symbol of China’s reluctance to change course.

Now, it will change course.

Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to cap China's emissions in the future — a striking, unprecedented move by a nation that has been reluctant to box itself in on global warming.

To be more specific:

China, whose emissions are still growing as it builds new coal plants, didn't commit to cut emissions by a specific amount. Rather, Xi set a target for China's emission to peak by 2030, or earlier if possible. He also pledged to increase the share of energy that China will derive from sources other than fossil fuels.

That doesn’t feel all that consequential, does it? What it does is split the difference  between the twin needs to electrify the country and control carbon dioxide, which is further than China has been willing to go up to now. The lack of such commitment from China has had a deleterious impact on attempts at a global pact. This move makes that much more plausible.

And the U.S?

The U.S. set a new target to reduce its emissions of heat-trapping gases by 26 percent to 28 percent by 2025, compared with 2005 levels. That's a sharp increase from earlier in Obama's presidency, when he pledged to cut emissions by 17 percent by 2020.

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Does nuclear energy win in this scenario? That’s a pretty crass way to get to the point. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s headline is much more high-toned about it:

Natural gas producers, nuclear, win in U.S. climate deal with China

The paper’s view on nuclear energy is actually pretty sour:

As more coal plants retire because of carbon emission regulations, grid reliability will be strained. Until more gas- fired power plants can be built, there won’t be enough generation to pick up the slack. That gives nuclear plant owners like Exelon Corp. and Entergy Corp. more leverage to ask for subsidies to keep their existing plants running longer.

Or maybe the plants’ value as emission-free energy sources will become more strikingly apparent. The San Francisco Chronicle closes in on this a little better:

But reaching the goal may require using more nuclear power and carbon-sequestration technologies in addition to wind and solar, he said.

“With any energy technology — coal, oil, gas, nuclear — the more you build, the cheaper it gets,” Cohen said. Costs are falling precipitously for solar and wind energy, he said.

The “he” in both cases is Armond Cohen, executive director of the Clean Air Task Force, a nonprofit based in Boston with offices in China.

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Early days and a lot more analysis to come. I was struck though by the latest energy forecast by the International Energy Agency.

By 2040, world energy supply is divided into four almost equal parts: low-carbon sources (nuclear and renewables), oil, natural gas and coal.

Nuclear power plays an important strategic role in enhancing energy security for some countries. It also avoids almost four years’ worth of global energy-related carbon-dioxide (CO2) emissions by 2040.

The forecast zeroes in on four countries that will drive electricity growth in the next 25 years.

In an in-depth focus on nuclear power, WEO-2014 sees installed capacity grow by 60% to 2040 in the central scenario, with the increase concentrated heavily in just four countries (China, India, Korea and Russia).

All of which, we should note, are heavily committed to nuclear energy. The IEA by its nature hedges all its bets, since the Outlook provides a snapshot of the future based on what is happening today. But some previous years’ Outlooks have been exceptionally dim on nuclear energy’s prospects and this one – while still a bit dimmish – shows it returning to the fore. This was published prior to the U.S.-China deal, so the 2015 Outlook should be even more interesting than this one.

Monday, November 10, 2014

None Dare Call It the Polar Vortex

notavortex Well, except for CBS News, which senses potential viewers for weather freak out news and is willing to turn “cold weather” into a brand – the way the Weather Channel has attempted to name snow storms despite no pressing need to do so.

It's the return of the polar vortex that brought misery a year ago. A mass of whirling cold air will dip southward this weekend, sending the mercury plunging.

But here’s the problem: the polar vortex is right where it should be. And that’s important, because the actual polar vortex has implications for the energy sphere which risks getting muddled if every cold blast is called a polar vortex.

The actual polar vortex sent temperatures plummeting so fast last January that it froze natural gas lines and coal piles. During that time, when the prices of natural gas skyrocketed and coal facilities had to shut down, wind and especially nuclear energy kept the lights on.

The event basically demonstrated the value of energy diversity, where one type of electricity generation spells another when necessary. This is a strength of the American energy market which is often overlooked – because its value only becomes apparent when it needs to, as when unexpectedly cold air swamps part of the country.

I’m reasonably sure the coal and natural gas industries has reviewed lessons learned from last year and are far better prepared for another polar vortex. But the lesson was that nuclear energy showed a benefit it had not often been called upon to show – its strength under this kind of specific pressure and, more generally, as a key component in keeping electricity flowing. It was a terrible test, but nuclear energy passed it without a sweat.

So it would be a shame – not only for nuclear energy specifically or energy diversity generally, but also as a term with a specific meaning – if CBS News were to turn the polar vortex into a branding opportunity for cynical short term ratings gain. We can’t stop it, but we can deplore it.

For the record, here’s a definition of the polar vortex, from Scientific American:

The polar vortex is a prevailing wind pattern that circles the Arctic, flowing from west to east all the way around the Earth. It normally keeps extremely cold air bottled up toward the North Pole. Occasionally, though, the vortex weakens, allowing the cold air to pour down across Canada into the U.S., or down into other regions such Eastern Europe.

And this is what’s happening now, from CNN:

Technically, it's called a mid-latitude storm.

The storm carries the energy of the typhoon and its current strength is derived from clashes of hot and cold air. This incredibly strong cyclone will alter the jet stream allowing for the cold air to plunge into the United States next week.

CNN also notes that it is not the polar vortex.

Meanwhile, CBS News has these headlines up on their site.

Get ready for "Polar Vortex, The Sequel"

5 tips to fend off the Polar Vortex blues

The polar vortex returns?

None should dare call it the polar vortex. Who dares, in this instance, loses.