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Vermont's looming energy sinkhole

MONTPELIER-A sizable and vocal group of Vermont energy activists may be pleased to see the state legislature shut down the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station. But they have no idea how to replace its energy and economic contribution to the state.

Voting Yankee "off the island" will not get rid of the need for the 285 megawatts of dependable base load power that it delivers to Vermont utilities each year at bargain prices. Despite over $30 million extracted each year from electric ratepayers to finance Efficiency Vermont, energy savings from conservation are not likely to cancel the growth in electricity consumption as the region emerges from the recession.

Where will the needed energy come from? Alternative energy activists say "wind power", but proposed wind projects have already been stymied by local opposition in Londonderry, Sutton and Ira.

A strong proposal for four turbines at the abandoned radar base atop of East Haven Mountain was killed off by a PSB requirement that the promoter spend tons of money to assess the potential threat to birds and bats.

VELCO, the state's transmission utility, estimates that inland wind turbines deliver about 15 percent of their rated capacity. That means the New England ISO power grid operators have to have lots of reserve power readily available when the wind inconveniently stops blowing.

Howard Axelrod, an independent power grid consulting engineer, has estimated that Vermont would need at least 800 Mw of installed wind power to replace Yankee's 285 Mw. That indicates at least 400 2 Mw-rated turbines would need to be erected on Vermont ridgelines, plus all the transmission lines and access roads.

It would take at least five years to replace Yankee with a combined cycle natural gas plant, burning gas brought up by nonexistent pipelines from Massachusetts. Such plants work well, but put the grid at the mercy of fluctuating Midwest or Canadian natural gas prices. Past proposals to extend natural gas lines northward into Vermont have been hooted down by some.

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