(AP Photo/Vermont Yankee Corporation)
(AP Photo/Vermont Yankee Corporation)

VERNON -- Selectboard members are touting the potential benefits of new biomass power plant -- with the possibility of a natural-gas component -- that could be built at the Vermont Yankee site after the nuclear facility shuts.

Officials expect to organize a public forum to discuss details of a plant with development costs estimated at $350 million for biomass and upwards of $1 billion for a hybrid facility.

Those involved with the proposal, including a Winhall man who is president of American Generation Partners LLC, acknowledge that the proposal is in its infancy and would have to overcome significant financing and regulatory hurdles -- not to mention acquisition of property from Yankee owner Entergy Corp.

But there is clear excitement about the idea.

"The key is, this is bringing in jobs, tax revenue and stability to Windham County," Selectboard Chairwoman Patty O'Donnell said. "I think everybody in the county is beginning to understand the effects of the closing of Vermont Yankee, and this would be a shot in the arm in Windham County to help turn things around."

Since Entergy announced last summer that Vermont Yankee would cease producing power by the end of 2014, there have been two main topics of discussion -- the structure of the decommissioning process and the economic impacts of losing vital tax revenues as well as hundreds of employees.

The state has negotiated a detailed agreement with Entergy that provides for millions of dollars for economic development and clean energy projects as well as a "timely decommissioning" of the plant. But there has been no clear direction regarding future use of the property, which lies between Governor Hunt Road and the Connecticut River.

The biomass idea is the first public, concrete proposal for redeveloping that parcel.

"There's always been discussion about what are we going to do, or what is the owner going to do, about the Vermont Yankee site once the place is decommissioned," said Steve Skibniowski of Vernon Planning Commission. "This is one of those possibilities."

Skibniowski was joined Monday night by other members of the town Planning Commission and Selectboard to hear a presentation from G. Donald Campbell Jr., who said he has extensive experience in finance and has worked on large-scale utility projects.

He believes he can assemble a team and help procure financing to push the project forward. For example, Campbell said he has had serious discussions with Starwood Energy Group Global, a private equity investment firm headquartered in Greenwich, Conn.

"I'm semiretired, but I live up in Stratton, so I'm a Vermont resident," Campbell said, adding that, "I'm not like a developer who says, 'Sign this agreement, trust me, you'll get the money.' I'm somebody who comes to you with the money."

Campbell and O'Donnell already have written a letter to Jeb Spaulding, Vermont's secretary of administration, outlining a proposal for "an exciting opportunity to provide an energy strategy consistent with Vermont's unique needs and goals while providing a mechanism to repower state and local economies."

In a nutshell, Campbell's plan is for a power plant that, with "advanced environmental control technologies," would utilize "woody and agricultural biomass and certain municipal solid waste as primary fuels."

He also sees potential for "hybrid technology that would also permit use of biomass opportunity fuels, while also having the ability to utilize natural gas-fired combustion turbines in a common facility," according to the letter to Spaulding.

Additionally, Campbell mentioned solar power during Monday night's meeting in Vernon.

The project would fill a tax-base void left by Yankee's closure and would provide a much-needed boost in the region's energy-production capacity, Campbell and O'Donnell wrote.

"A replacement plant strategy utilizing the existing VY infrastructure and brownfield site would mitigate -- if not fully eliminate -- these tax losses while providing a resource critical to the stabilization of Vermont consumer electric rates and system reliability," the letter says.

Campbell and O'Donnell say the Yankee property is an ideal site for such a venture. Their letter makes the pitch this way:

"Even after this December's closing of the VY facility, the residual value of the existing infrastructure represents what is likely the best -- if not only -- site in Vermont from which to deploy a significant generation project," they wrote.

"Access to electric transmission, rail and highway transportation, and land and water resources is unmatched; while improved access to natural gas resources -- either through rail delivery of (liquefied natural gas) supplies or by pipeline through neighboring Massachusetts -- can serve electric capacity, local thermal and Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan transportation objectives," the letter says. "Finally, as Vernon serves as a market epicenter for the New England forestry sector, the physical and intellectual resources exist to support the development of a scale biomass generation facility utilizing a range of opportunity fuels."

On Monday evening, Campbell repeatedly compared the proposal to a new biomass plant operating in Berlin, N.H., and he referenced Vermont plants operating in Burlington and Ryegate.

There also have been biomass proposals that have floundered amid controversy. That happened most recently in Springfield, where the state Public Service Board earlier this year rejected an application for a 37 megawatt, wood-fired plant.

Campbell said he believes the Springfield project, and another in Fair Haven, had "congenital issues," adding that "those are the fault of the developer."

The situation in Vernon, advocates say, can be different.

O'Donnell said she and Selectboard member Janet Rasmussen already have talked with Entergy about the potential project. Company administrators responded quickly and indicated that, even during decommissioning, parts of the Yankee property may be available for redevelopment, O'Donnell said.

"There's a lot that can't be used, because it's considered 'dirty,' and the NRC is going to regulate that it all be taken apart and moved away," she said. "But the stack can be used, the cooling towers can be used. There are three or four different sites on that land right now (that could be used). The switchyard is hugely valuable."

Asked about the biomass proposal, Entergy spokesman Rob Williams issued a statement saying the company does "not have plans for the site beyond decommissioning according to federal regulations and our commitments with the state."

"We are certainly willing to listen to ideas, but our focus now is really on our task at hand -- that is safe operations of the plant through the end of the year and the smooth transition to SAFSTOR," Williams said.There also would have to be support from the state, including issuance of a certificate of public good from the Public Service Board. In a reply to the letter penned by Campbell and O'Donnell, Spaulding wrote that they had made "a strong case that a new, environmentally friendly generation plant on or next to the VY property would be worth serious consideration."

Spaulding said he had discussed the proposal with Gov. Peter Shumlin, "and he supports such consideration."

"The Shumlin administration is committed to doing everything possible to help Vernon and the region in a post-VY world," Spaulding wrote. "The economic-development funds flowing from our agreement with Entergy should be helpful in that regard. With Pat Moulton returning to our team as secretary of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, I am confident a vibrant Windham County economy will not fall off the radar screen."

However, Spaulding cautioned against making too strong of a connection with the new biomass plant in Berlin, N.H., where circumstances "were quite different than what we may face in Southern Vermont."

He advocated holding an "early stage public meeting" on the proposal, and Vernon Selectboard on Monday backed that idea. The plan is for a forum, which has not yet been scheduled, to include representatives of Windham Regional Commission, industry experts and other local officials.

"Definitely, this is going to be an open, public forum, not only for Vernon people," O'Donnell said.

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.