Sunday, March 30, 2014

Some "green energy" reminds us of leprechauns

Wind power, New England's prime renewable resource, remains a favorite of "green energy" enthusiasts--as long as it isn't harvested in Brookline, MA. If it were, Brookline would likely sprout a crop of environmentalists with outlooks different from ones we often hear now. That has already happened in several Massachusetts towns hosting wind turbines, from Falmouth and Kingston in the southeast to Princeton and Florida in the northwest.

Today's giant machines are much more intrusive than farm windmills that once dotted the countryside in days before rural electricity and small wind turbines that began to appear more than 30 years ago in California and several European countries. As tall as 50-story office towers, their huge moving parts weigh many tons.

According to German standards, safety and health require about a mile between residents and giant wind turbines. New England standards, requiring far less, were often proposed by the wind-power industry; they tend to favor its interests. Their failures to protect nearby residents from health problems and life disturbances, caused by turbine noise and flicker, have resulted in trenchant protests.

When Falmouth and Kingston, MA, tried skimping on distances for just a few giant turbines, they drew lawsuits from angry residents; some Falmouth operations have been curtailed. Another bitter dispute over turbine noise has been reported in Vinalhaven, ME. Opposition movements in western Massachusetts aim to block any more wind turbines in the Berkshire region. That is where the only two sizable wind-power plants in Massachusetts are located, with a total of 29 giant turbines, and where the state's strongest land-based winds are found.

Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont now have a total of 334 giant wind turbines, producing around 90 percent of New England's wind-powered electricity. The former enthusiasm for wind power in those states has dwindled. Instead, dozens of local protest groups and regional organizations have sprung up, opposing wind power and trying to curtail current wind-power plants. Town after town has enacted laws restricting wind turbines.

Practical options to locate giant turbines contribute to high prices for wind-powered electricity: two to five times the recent, average wholesale price for bulk electricity--as supplied to the New England grid of high-voltage power lines. Relative costs of generating wind power have not fallen much below the levels experienced with the world's first large wind turbine--the former Smith-Putnam plant in Castleton, VT, opened in 1941. Of course, wind turbines have improved since then, but so have conventional generating plants.

Some people seem unfamiliar with electricity pricing. It has three main parts: generation, long-distance transmission and local distribution. Wind-power promoters often mention only wholesale prices for generation: bulk electricity sent into the New England grid. Those prices don't include long-distance transmission and local distribution, so they will be lower than the total prices figured from electricity bills.

Wind-power promoters count on people confusing wholesale prices with retail prices--electricity as delivered to homes and businesses--which are often three to four times as much. Last year promoters managed to entangle a Boston Globe business reporter, who wrote a badly confused article about prices of wind power.

Eventually, it might be possible for unsubsidized, land-based wind power to compete financially. If wholesale prices for natural gas were to increase enough from the historic New England lows of 2012, the unsubsidized, full costs for electricity from large, land-based New England wind-power plants could become comparable to the increased costs from modern, efficient generating plants using combined-cycle natural gas.

Generation costs from ocean-based plants, including Cape Wind and Deepwater Wind, would remain far higher. Their recent projected wholesale prices, about 2-1/2 times the recent wholesale prices from land-based plants, show little improvement over similarly unfavorable situations found two decades ago in Europe, where ocean-based wind power began.

Operators of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in Vernon, VT, and the huge Brayton Point coal-fired plant in Somerset, MA, have given up waiting for increases in natural-gas prices. They say they can't compete with natural gas-fired generators. They are closing those power plants in 2014 and in 2017.

So far, after more than 30 years of modern wind-power development in the U.S., wholesale prices for wind power still fail to reflect actual costs of generation. Major amounts of the wind-power costs remain offset by back-door government subsidies, and wind-power operators continue sponging for transmission and backup.

However, the 2009 federal "stimulus" subsidies have been used up. New federal tax-credit subsidies stopped at the end of 2013. Effects are already being felt. In Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, no new wind plant opened during 2013--the first blank year since 2006. In southern New England, only seven giant wind turbines were commissioned during 2013, scattered among four small plants.

Even with subsidies, wind developers face growing problems. Hardly any spare transmission capacity remains in New England's mountain areas. Financially, those became the region's best locations for wind turbines. Now, either wind developers there must overcome strong local opposition to new power lines and bear high costs, or else they can expect to be curtailed often by the region's electricity grid supervisor. That already happens occasionally. Curtailments happen frequently to some speculative wind-power plants in Texas and New York.

The electricity grids keep wind-backup generators running--enough to replace a substantial fraction of power being generated by wind turbines. Ramping up and down, backup generators other than hydro and nuclear will produce higher emissions than achieved with sustained generation and release emissions when not generating.

In New England, we pay indirectly for wind backup, so that most costs are not counted in wind-power prices. The extra emissions from fuel burned to maintain wind backup are rarely tallied. When they have been, wind-powered electricity looks little cleaner than electricity generated using combined-cycle natural gas.

Overall, wind power has failed to make convincing progress toward a socially responsible source of energy. In their efforts to reduce costs of wind power, manufacturers opted to develop giant, noisy turbines costing millions of dollars each--rather than building less expensive versions of small, quiet ones. That approach made wind power into a game of money and politics, mostly run by and for big companies. The intrusive, costly machines have turned thoughtful environmentalists who might have been supporters into opponents.