As a former legislator, I understand that any type of Vermont energy policy must play a dual role: it must provide a path to developing clean and environmentally-friendly power sources, while at the same time promote economic development throughout our state. The law says so. And yet for some reason our state's economy is being asked to take a back seat to a statewide energy plan that does not adequately take economic development into account.
Besides producing nearly zero carbon emissions, Vermont Yankee is the single biggest instate generator of electricity, provides about 1000 good jobs, millions in state and local taxes, and keeps our power bills as low as possible. That's why it is so unfortunate to see so many people in Montpelier trying to shut down the plant, even while poll numbers show Vermonters elsewhere want it to stay open.
When the Senate voted to shut down Vermont Yankee, the anti-nuclear activists waved their big puppets and cheered. These people failed to address the real problem: where, specifically, will Vermont get enough locally-made, low-cost, virtually zero-carbon electricity? Stop playing with your puppets and answer that, please.
Will the hundreds of megawatts we need come from biomass power? Doubtful, as a state study group this month recommended burning wood for heat but not for electricity. How about in-state hydroelectric production? Not likely, as Vermont's waterfalls are already pretty much maxed out. Wind? That, too, is doubtful, given that Gov. Shumlin's Windham County replacement in the Senate is pushing to pass a law to restrict wind power -- a move that acknowledges widespread dissatisfaction with the Lowell project and others. What about cow-power, solar or reducing overall demand and improving energy efficiency? Again, all of these options are great in theory, but implementing them will take years. We don't have that kind of time if the state is intent on shutting down our main energy source next year.
Let's also acknowledge the other elephant in the room: power costs. Renewable power is incredibly expensive to develop and generate, especially in the short-term. Those costs will trickle down to electric customers, like you and me, who will be forced to bear the burden of paying higher rates to power our homes and businesses. I know I definitely don't want to pay unnecessarily high electric rates, and if I wasn't retired, I would also be worried about losing my job in this tight economy because my employer's overall operating costs would increase as a result of higher power bills. In a business, and in a home budget, the money for electricity has to come from somewhere, and these days there just isn't much "discretionary money" anywhere.
At this time, the only "cheap" power that is readily available for Vermont to tap into is natural gas from New England and Canada. But gas, just like oil, is a volatile commodity, rising and falling due to supply, demand, and other factors. Without the existence of power generated at nuclear power's steady, contracted rates, we consumers will be at the market's mercy. And even if the market price is low, we can kiss a fond goodbye to all of those jobs and taxes, as well as Vermont Yankee's high-quality health benefits that have been supporting the state's medical system.
Vermont's energy planners are tossing away real, existing, good jobs, and real, existing, low-cost power, for a future based on predictions and hypothetical situations. This needs to stop. Vermont must allow Vermont Yankee to stay open and our state legislators must obey the law requiring that all energy development be good for the economy -- i.e. market-based, not highly subsidized, electricity. Only then will we be headed back on the right track.
Linda Kirker of Georgia is a former member of the Vermont Legislature. She hosts "Sound Off," a weekly program on Northwest Access TV in Franklin County.