Renewable energy: New England experience

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:

National electricity source per kWh CF
Land-based wind farms $0.074 36%
Natural gas, combined cycle $0.075 87%
Third-generation nuclear $0.095 90%
Solar photovoltaic farms $0.125 25%
Petroleum peaking plants $0.142 30%
Ocean-based wind farms $0.197 38%

For wind and solar, a critical element that varies with location is capacity factor, CF: the actual average output divided by the peak rated output. National assumptions proved optimistic for wind and solar in New England, where the typical long-term average capacity factors have been documented at about 24% for land-based wind farms (in Maine) and at about 13% for solar farms (by DC ratings). Keep in mind that retail electricity rates add transmission and distribution charges, averaging about $0.12 per kWh for New England residential customers last year.

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 per kWh
Natural gas, combined cycle $0.06
Land-based wind farms $0.11
Solar photovoltaic farms $0.24

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

StateWindCapacity1999to2014
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:
Iowa………. 1831
Texas………. 523
California….. 152
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.

Imagination: Every New England state now has a “renewable portfolio” law. For 2015, these require that 8 to 19 percent of electricity be obtained from “renewable” sources. Averaged by electricity use, they set a combined requirement for 2015 of 12 percent “renewable” electricity. So far, the New England laws amount to a political joke. For 2014, New England obtained only 2.1 percent of electricity from wind and solar sources. So-called “requirements” of New England laws are met only through creative relabeling, exceptions, excuses and outright scams.

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.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, August 15, 2015


Levelized cost of new generation, U.S. Energy Information Administration, April, 2015

U.S. wind capacity factors, National Wind Watch, March, 2013

Winter 2014-2015 energy market assessment, U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, October, 2014

Installed wind capacity, U.S. Department of Energy, 2015

Jon Black, Photovoltaic energy forecast update, ISO New England, September, 2014

Marley Jay, Maine governor: wind power is too expensive, Portsmouth (ME) Herald, April 4, 2015

Jon Chesto, Here’s why First Wind’s backers decided to sell, Boston Business Journal, November 19, 2014

State renewable portfolio standards and goals, National Conference of State Legislatures, July, 2015

Donald Bryson and Jeff Glendening, States are unplugging their renewable-energy mandates, Wall Street Journal, July 10, 2015

John Herrick, Electricity supplier won’t buy Vermont renewable energy credits, Vermont Digger, May 19, 2014

Ivy Main, Dominion Power’s wind and solar facade, Washington Post, December 29, 2011

George Taylor and Thomas Tanton, Hidden costs of wind electricity, American Tradition Institute, 2012

Craig Bolon, Rhode Island: offshore wind-power, winning and losing, Brookline Beacon, July 26, 2015

Craig Bolon, New England energy: wobbly progress, Brookline Beacon, January 12, 2015

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