When you think about renewable energy, does a nuclear power plant come to mind? Probably not. But in a roundabout way, Vermont utilities are using nuclear energy to meet the state’s renewable energy standards.
If you're a utility company in Vermont, you have to meet three types of renewable energy standards. The first two involve actual renewable energy. Think wind, solar, or hydropower, the kind where electrons come from a source that doesn't get used up.
But the third one, called "Tier 3," includes one key little word: “Or.” And that's important. Tier 3 says utilities should procure new renewable energy or they can reduce fossil fuel consumption through "energy transformation projects."
Tony Klein chaired the House committee that drafted the law in 2015. He says Tier 3 was meant to get consumers to convert from things that use fossil fuel, like cars and oil-fired furnaces, to ones that run on electricity, such as electric vehicles and cold climate heat pumps.
“Tier 3 came into being more through the discussion on the retail end of things, on the consumer end of things,” he said. “We would have our utilities help people insulate their homes and get electric heat source pumps, and things like that, and get credit for it.”
Here's where nuclear comes in. Utilities count nuclear energy as fossil-free in their power portfolios. And Vermont regulators have allowed the power companies to credit that nuclear power as they calculate how much fossil fuel consumption they need to cut to comply with Tier 3 goals.
Tony Klein was fiercely anti-nuclear in his long Statehouse career. So he’s pretty sure he’d remember if nuclear power entered the discussion on the renewable energy bill.
Nuclear “is not considered in our minds, and in anywhere in our policy, renewable,” he said. “Because it’s not. That’s like saying coal is renewable.”
This use of nuclear energy to meet renewable goals is controversial.
Olivia Campbell Andersen is executive director of Renewable Vermont, the trade group for the state’s renewable energy developers. She points out that the law refers clearly to “renewable” energy standards.
“I don’t think nuclear qualifies as renewable in any facet or intention of the law,” she said. “I think that was some very clever accounting that’s been attempted and unfortunately accepted by the Public Utility Commission.”
Campbell Andersen said this accounting lets utilities off the hook and allows them to buy less energy from local renewable sources.
At a recent Public Utility Commission workshop, Campbell Andersen challenged a group of power company lawyers and executives.
“Utilities should not be getting renewable energy credit for nuclear energy that is procured out of the state,” she said.
A representative from the Vermont Electric Co-op – which has nuclear in its mix – denied the co-op got credit for nuclear energy to meet its renewable requirement. Andersen shot back:
“No, but I think you’re seeking to reduce your compliance under the RES [Renewable Energy Standard] for Tier 3 for your purchase of nuclear energy,” she said.
The PUC did allow Vermont Electric Co-op and Green Mountain Power to credit their nuclear power as part of their Tier 3 programs. The Department of Public Service, the state agency that represents the public, agreed with the rulings.
Ed McNamara, the department’s director of planning and energy resources, said the department refers to nuclear as non-fossil, not renewable.
“There’s no interpretation where we would ever say nuclear is renewable. This is only for the calculation of the net fossil fuel reductions from electrification measures,” he said.
Green Mountain Power estimates that in 2018 it got about 90 percent of its power from non-fossil sources, with about 28 percent coming from nuclear.
The company said it’s following the renewable law. GMP executive Doug Smith told a recent state workshop that Vermont law specifically does not mention renewable energy in its Tier 3 language.
“The legislature in defining the conversion of BTUs for purposes of Tier 3 could have defined it in terms of fraction of the power that’s not renewable. They didn’t,” he said.
GMP customers may not be aware of how the utility uses this energy accounting. But GMP spokeswoman Kristin Carlson said customers are aware of the utility’s fuel mix, and its long-term goals. She said those goals include reducing nuclear in its mix.
“I think what our customers do know is that we’re really focused on how can we have a cleaner, more resilient energy system,” she said.
The PUC is working on new rules for the renewable energy standards. And both Campbell Andersen and McNamara said lawmakers may need to provide clarity as well.