Budding environmentalists in urban New England mostly have yet to meet counterparts in the mountain areas of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. They have related concerns, but they also have far different outlooks. Some urbanites are lathered up over renewable energy, although few have practical experience producing any. Many northerners have come to regard urban energy campaigns as attacks on their living environments.
Costs of energy: For several years, the U.S. Department of Energy has published annual estimates of levelized costs for electricity from new plants of different types. They are independent of state subsidies, and they break out federal subsidies, making it possible to compare full, social costs of electrical energy–whether they are paid by private or public funding. The 2015 U.S. national estimates for unsubsidized wholesale electricity costs from the major types of new generation include:
Major New England sources: Since costs of wind and solar power are dominated by capital, national costs per kWh need adjustment for New England. The region currently benefits from average natural gas prices lower than national averages, and experience with wholesale gas-fired electricity prices across New England has been more favorable than U.S. averages. As adjusted, unsubsidized wholesale electricity costs for the major types of new generation sources in New England become:
New England electricity source
Natural gas, combined cycle
Land-based wind farms
Solar photovoltaic farms
The full, social cost of wholesale electricity from land-based wind farms in New England, including public subsidies, is about twice the cost of wholesale electricity from the combined-cycle, natural gas-fired plants that produce the largest share of the region’s power. So far, there has been no New England experience with ocean-based wind farms.
Alternatives have not yet proven successful. New England generates much more energy burning wood and waste than it gets from wind and solar, but pollution around wood and waste plants is causing health hazards. The region is unlikely to accept more environmental burdens from wood and waste. Attempts to extract energy from ocean waves and geothermal sources have stalled because of equipment failures and high costs.
When we do commit to spend money in New England for renewable energy in order to provide environmental benefits, for the amount we spend we get about twice the benefits buying energy from land-based wind farms as we get buying energy from solar farms. However, state and federal subsidies have distorted finances, as seen by nearly all the public, tending to promote socially unsound investments.
Obstacles: In Massachusetts, former Gov. Patrick began service in 2007 with enthusiasm for building wind farms. However, most projects were small. During his two terms, 36 wind projects opened, but their total average output is only about 27 MW–about one part in 230 of the state’s average 6,310 MW electricity draw in 2013. Protests gathered over dangers, health hazards and conservation issues. Massachusetts offers few wind turbine locations that are a mile or more from homes and worksites.
Former Gov. Patrick’s second term pulled away from wind and began promoting solar projects with major subsidies. A large but hidden subsidy involves so-called “net metering.” That allows many projects to send electricity into the grid and get full credit at retail prices. The effect is to exempt owners of those projects from paying a fair share of costs to maintain the distribution network. All the other customers wind up paying those costs for them.
Starting in 2011, the Shumlin administration in Vermont soon copied the Patrick administration. After an early courtship of wind power, it backed away and began promoting solar farms. Vermont was left with three fairly large wind projects–Sheffield, Lowell Mountain and Georgia Mountain. Despite a far smaller population, it hosts more installed wind capacity than Massachusetts.
The major wind-power state in New England has long been Maine. It hosts about 52 percent of the region’s installed capacity. However, current Gov. LePage opposes expansion, saying wind is too expensive. Now that he has replaced nearly all appointees of his predecessor, former Gov. Baldacci, disapprovals of wind projects have multiplied. Boston-based First Wind, once the state’s leading developer, gave up and sold out to TerraForm of Maryland.
Comparisons: Contrary to some impressions, New England made a late start and achieved only slow growth in wind generation of electricity. The region’s track record in solar electricity has been even later and slower. Each of the leading wind states–Texas, California and Iowa–vastly outperformed all the New England states combined.
Installed wind capacities of states
Source: U.S. Department of Energy
Scaled by measures of state size, discrepancies between high-achieving states and New England states remain large. Measured by state populations, the installed wind capacities in peak watts per person for 2014:
New England….. 58
Installed wind capacity in New England is also well behind the national average of 132 peak watts per person.
New England’s largest untapped source of land-based wind power is among the Longfellow Mountains–as known since 1959–in the far northwest of Maine. Aside from strong winds, key advantages and key limitations are the same: remoteness and very sparse population. There are no major transmission lines. Nearly all the infrastructure would have to be built from scratch. For wind power, that is very costly.
Transmission lines have to be scaled by peak loads they service. A line serving large wind farms, running at only 25 percent capacity factor, costs much more than a line carrying the same average load serving a large gas-fired generator, running at 75 percent capacity factor. So far, no company has been willing to propose a transmission network for the Longfellow Mountains, so of course no wind farms are being built there.
By national standards, New England wind and solar power are rounding errors, only about one part in 50 of the region’s electricity. However, because they are so small they can be carried at nearly negligible costs by current infrastructure: transmission lines and natural gas-fired and nuclear generators. Were they more successful, costs of integration into the power grid would become far more than are currently included in the levelized cost estimates from the U.S. Department of Energy.
Some enthusiasts and political operators continue to imagine that people can somehow increase the supply of renewable energy merely by adding to the demand. They promote a variety of top-heavy schemes, including arbitrary escalators on “renewable portfolios” and community power-purchase programs. They ignore markets, which do what they will with supplies and demands. Demand for wind and solar power in New England already outpaces supply by about 6 to 1. When people run up demand without increasing supply, prices rise. Adam Smith told about that.