Shooting the Messenger: Vermonters Blame Poor Performance of Renewables on Old Wires
- Apr 22, 2021 5:10 pm GMT
It was only predictable.
After the shutdown of Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant in 2013, state power monopoly Green Mountain Power (GMP), which had been recently purchased by Canadian gas giant Énergir, sought to replace 620 MW of reliable, carbon-free power produced by the plant with electricity generated by burning imported gas. Activists were demanding renewable power - but solar production in the northern state was next-to-nothing, and wind was unreliable. Vermont would need a reliable source of electrical power for when the wind didn't blow as hard as it was supposed to blow.
When environmentalists complained about close ties between then-governor Pete Shumlin and Énergir, GMP officials desperately sought another source of "green" power that wasn't intermittent to serve as a public face for the state's increasing reliance on gas. Without geothermal sources, and only scant access to local hydroelectric power, officials selected the one resource of which Vermont had an abundance: wood. They would chop down trees, grind them into chips, then burn them to boil water and generate electricity. They would label it "biomass", to avoid the negative connotations associated with "chopping down Vermont forests".
So in 2014 Vermont, together with the city of Montpelier, spent $20 million to repower the city's oil-fired power plant with wood.
Now, anyone who has attempted to start a campfire with "green" wood knows it can't be done - wood must be dried for weeks or months before it will burn at all. But somehow, it seemed, GMP had figured out a way to make electricity out of green wood, and for years the state celebrated its 100% renewable electricity grid.
Then came Planet of the Humans, Michael Moore's bombshell documentary. Released on Earth Day 2020 (one year ago today), the documentary revealed the primary fuel being used to generate electricity in Vermont's "biomass" power plants was imported natural gas. Though misled renewables activists were furious, there was one last possibility they might turn to justify the shutdown of Vermont Yankee. It had never worked before and lacked any scientific support, they ardently believed solar in Vermont might work - all it needed to be viable, they thought, were enough solar farms. It turns out, however, new solar farms are very much like the old ones: they generate very little electricity. Worse, when they do generate a lot of electricity it causes reliability problems.
The reason is simple, and based in physics: Vermont's grid was designed with radial topology. To transmit electricity from centrally-located power plants to distant customers most efficiently, thick transmission wires were installed near the sources of electricity. Then, as electrical energy is split in various directions. the wires progressively become thinner, like the branches of a tree. Solar entrepreneurs naively believed they could run electricity backwards through the grid - like trying to feed cells in the trunk of a tree through its branch tips, instead of its roots. It didn't work.
Renewables activists now blame the wires through which their precious renewable electricity must travel. "The grid has been woefully underinvested in for years. Grandpa's grid has got to go," whines activist Chad Farrell. But there's nothing wrong with "Grandpa's grid". What's wrong is allowing naive, innocent children to drive the school bus of Vermont energy policy. And when Vermont's grid does crash, the determined scientists, environmentalists, and climatologists who fought to keep Vermont Yankee open will say, "It was only predictable."
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