Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Times article: Wilderness, nature vs. energy

Photo: my dream home turbine awaits TLC in a North Dakota lot.

Here's an NYT piece with an overview of a major debate taking place all around the country in lots of places where exploration for sites for wind and solar energy farms are controversial with local and regional environmentalists.

This is more or less what we have in Waldo County as the anti-wind power lobby in Jackson and Dixmont gathers steam.

Of course, were we to study the energy needs nationally, and then consider mapping areas based on suitability, with overlays for wildlife and other conservation considerations we might get further faster, but I don't think for a moment that would solve the problem. Ken Salazar, it seems, has proposed just such a process for Interior Department lands.

Good luck with that.

Even when the perfectly rational energy map gave birth to the perfectly rational energy policy, we would have a perfectly irrational scramble as those areas with most money and support got protection, while those with least did not. In Maine, that will likely mean that the debate over wind plants in interior Waldo is nothing compared to the debate that will come when the real opposition gets going, from second-homers down on the coast.

One solution, the one that makes sense to me, is a process whereby localities dip our toes with small scale local projects, however inefficient they may be in comparison with mega-farms, and use the siting work and the eventual turbines themselves to educate ourselves and build awareness of the benefits and downsides of wind. If, at the end of some of that kind of work, the majorities in towns were against wind, then we would at least be experienced in the reasons why.

My guess is, given the chance to vote at a Town Meeting or special Town Meeting that was properly announced, and not at some weird time when the larger number of folks mildly in favor of wind would not be overwhelmed by small numbers of folks dead set against it, the majority of Mainers would vote in favor of properly sited wind turbines right now. But given time and smaller projects, and community owned ones, to get used to the ideas and equipment, we'd be much more educated consumers, less susceptible to misleading propaganda from the national anti-wind blogosphere, or the industrial companies.

Heaven forbid that debate in America NOT be dominated by polarized extremes producing manipulation and misinformation. That would be un-American, wouldn't it?

In the meantime, I have two small turbines to put up, a replacement one at college where there's been a tiny one since students and I made it and put it up several years ago. It's broken, and so we bought a new one that we have to put up. I'd like to take the broken parts of the old one and recycle them into a small turbine for my home back-up power system. However, it looks like I'd better hurry, since if the anti-wind group in Jackson has it's way, I may not be able to put this little turbine up without an elaborate permit process.

In fact the way the proposed Jackson wind ordinance is written seems designed to preclude me doing the sort of experimental/education work I do, where we put up and take down turbines fairly regularly, at home. In particular, I would be required to provide sound data to the codes enforcement officer for all turbines I might wish to put up.

Which means the next time I make a home-built turbine, if I want to put it up in Jackson, not Unity, I may have to spend more hours producing an engineer's acoustical report than I do making the turbine.

All this for a project whose design was used for the Maine Envirothon by several high schools.

(To get a PowerPoint how-to slide show made for the Envirothon, go here: http://www.unity.edu/facultypages/womersley/windturbine.ppt)

Good grief, Charlie Brown.

I guess that privately owned, re-powered Vestas V-15 I was going to get and fix up myself (after I finished all the farm retrofit and insulation, and paid off the credit cards, and bought a new car for Aimee, and did the rest of the honey-do) is out of the question.

Which just makes me sad.

1 comment:

Steve said...

One of the statistics that everyone seems to agree with is that wind power cannot exceed about 20% of grid capacity without creating reliability issues, unless a cost effective storage solution is found. Finding other uses for wind generation such as charging electric vehicles may help make wind power's capacity credit approach its capacity factor but 20% of grid capacity seems to be the limit. Since electricity accounts for about 20% of energy usage wind power cannot make more than a 4% difference (20% of 20%) in overall energy use, which does not buy many years of extended fossil fuel supply.

The cost of subsidizing wind power has to be looked at in the context of the ability of wind power to make a meaningful contribution to reductions in fossil fuel use. Are there other ways to achieve this goal more cost effectively?

There seems to be consensus in the cost effectiveness of energy efficiency improvements such as better insulation, more efficient heating and cooling and lighting systems in buildings and the use of hybrid technology in vehicles. As much as 50% reductions in energy use can be accomplished with such methods and these reductions would apply to electricity use as well as fossil fuels used for heating and transportation. So it would seem sensible for government subsidies to focus on those areas (if there needs to be any subsidy at all since these expenditures if wisely made can provide a good return on investment even at today's energy prices).

A 20-30% decrease in overall energy use would put downward pressure on energy prices and meaningfully extend the fossil fuel supply horizon, allowing more time for technologies such as fusion, geothermal and energy storage to be developed.

My calculation of the subsidies needed to make wind power viable are pretty simple. A 50 MW wind farm costs about $100 million and produces at a 30% capacity factor for 20 years. Interest, property taxes or TIFs, and maintenance at 8% per year adds another $160 million to the cost. It works out to a cost of about $100 per MW over the life of the project. Electricity is selling in the ISO NE day ahead market for about $40 per MW at this moment. (ISO NE has a great web site)

So the only way for wind power to be profitable over the 20 year life of the wind farm is for subsidies to close the $60 gap, or for electricity to become much more expensive. ISO NE predicts that demand for electricity will lessen over the next few years as the recession unfolds so the cost probably will not increase disproportionately with the CPI. So subsidies are needed on the order of $60 per MW.

Where do these subsidies come from? $20 per MW in direct tax credits is well known. Less transparent are the value of 5 year double declining balance depreciation, the Renewable Portfolio Standards credits, the availability of zero interest loans and outright grants from federal and state government. Wherever these subsidies come from they are socialized costs. The question we need to be asking ourselves is "is it better for me to pay the wind industry through my tax dollars $60 per MW for a 4% reduction in energy use and kiss the money goodbye, or to keep the $60 per MW in my wallet and spend it on energy efficiency and conservation which will allow me to recover my investment over time, especially if there are some reasonable incentives to make the investment decision attractive to myself and my fellow citizens."

I think I have this about right but I'm open to criticism.