Transforming New England’s Energy System

Nov 9, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

There has been big news in the New England energy landscape in the past few months. Two of the largest power plants in the region – both of which have been on the wrong side of CLF advocacy for years, Vermont Yankee in Vermont and Brayton Point in Massachusetts – are being retired by their owners. These are game-changing developments with unprecedented implications to the ongoing transformation of the region’s energy system. CLF has had a major hand in this change, and we all should be proud of it.

energy system

Vermont Yankee – Photo from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Vermont Yankee (located very close the intersection of the VT, NH and MA borders) is one of the last remaining 1970’s-era boiling water nuclear reactors continuing to operate, well beyond its design useful life, nearly all of the others having been decommissioned.  A series of operational problems, such as the collapse of a cooling tower cell and also the leaking of radioactive tritium into groundwater, led CLF and others (including successive Vermont Governors, of both parties) to openly question whether it could operate safely and reliably.  The plant has been embroiled in a list of long running legal challenges in which CLF has been its antagonist, including proceedings to prevent renewal of its necessary-to-operate state Certificate of Public Good, and a series of lawsuits brought by the plant’s owner (Entergy) to limit Vermont’s right to regulate the plant and determine the state’s energy future.  As recently as 2008, Vermont Yankee generated more than 70% of the electricity made in Vermont and met more than 30% of the state’s needs.

Brayton Point (located in Somerset Massachusetts) is the largest fossil-fuel fired power plant and most modern (although built more than 40 years ago) coal-fired power plant in New England. The scope of its adverse environmental impacts is breathtaking.  Until recently, the plant removed and discharged over 1 billion gallons of superheated water every day into Mt. Hope Bay – equivalent to circulating the entire volume of water in the Bay through the plant seven times per year, with devastating impacts to native fish and the health of the ecosystem. It is the largest air polluter in New England, emitting more than 6 million tons per year of climate pollution in the form of carbon dioxide and harming the health of thousands who live in its shadow. CLF forced the plant’s owner to install cooling towers in 2005 to reduce impacts to the Bay, and recently successfully sued the plant owners for violations of the Clean Air Act (a suit subsequently joined by EPA and Massachusetts).

The stunning retirement of both plants – announced within a period of weeks – was met with shock by many, including the host municipalities which had no forewarning of the lost jobs and tax revenue, and cheers from environmental advocates and the community members burdened by their pollution and waste. Speculation and claims about the causes for their demise, as well as credit and blame, quickly permeated the media coverage and websites of stakeholders. Was it the market that did them in? Lower-cost and more abundant natural gas? New pollution control requirements under federal laws? Public protests and environmental advocacy? Many of CLF’s supporters have emailed and similarly raised these questions as well.


Brayton Point in Somerset, Massachusetts

Of course there is no clear single cause or answer, nor could or should there be. The ongoing transformation of our energy sources, like many things in life, is multi-factored and more art than science. Many forces are at play – market conditions, environmental regulations, litigation, public sentiment, energy policy, new technologies  – all of these matter and many committed environmental advocates, community members, clean energy providers, and just people who care, including those that support this work, all make a contribution.  CLF is engaged in all of the above, focusing strategically on some factors more than others depending on the challenge at hand.  CLF has created the mold that other groups around the country are seeking to follow, especially as regards our participation in the electricity market and its operation by the manager of our regional electric grid, ISO-NE. Our collective expertise in the substance of the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act is unparalleled among environmental advocates and law firms alike.

But the bottom line is that transforming our energy system takes a village, and no single factor or advocacy strategy will achieve it.   It’s more like jazz than a fully orchestrated concerto – you have to play with the forces at work around you (market, regulatory, political, etc.), and if you can seize and harness opportunities at the right time it’s a beautiful thing.  CLF’s strategy on coal – like our work on so many challenges we face – has been all about that.

One of CLF’s major themes for this work is “technology turnover.” The evolution of technology is an inexorable force, which must be shaped and advanced to do what is necessary to address climate change. Power plants like Vermont Yankee and Brayton Point symbolize obsolescence – the longer they stay around, the more apparent the opportunities for progress from technology turnover.  CLF’s work is driving toward two good and complementary outcomes: speeding up good ideas and slowing down bad ones. At the end of the day, many factors coalesce to kill obsolete and damaging coal and nuclear plants; our job is to identify, amplify, focus and accelerate them. The extraordinary developments over the past few months clearly show that CLF, together with our many allies, is succeeding.


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