Sunday, January 25, 2009

Wind and Power Blowhards

I can’t recall when I last read an editorial on a serious subject – clean energy – that was both so informative and so filled with sharp, amusing political satire.

Here, in its entirety, from yesterday’s WSJ is

The fabulous debate over wind power on Nantucket Sound.

For all the hype about the Bush Administration's oil-and-gas energy bias, one of its last official acts was to give the go-ahead to what could be America's first offshore wind farm -- thus enraging more than a few self-deputized environmentalists. Such are the ironies of the wilderness of mirrors known as the Cape Wind project.

For the last seven years and counting, the green entrepreneur Jim Gordon has been trying to build a fleet of wind turbines in federal waters near the upscale seascapes of Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket.

The site seemed ideal, given the stiff ocean breezes and the eco-friendly politics in Massachusetts. The company says its 130 towers could meet 75% of the region's electricity needs and reduce carbon emissions by some 734,000 tons every year.

The sort of people who can afford to use "summer" as a verb are in favor of all that. Completely in favor, really. But they did want to raise one quibble.

Unfortunately, the wind farm would create "visual pollution" in Nantucket Sound, particularly the parts within sight of their beachfront vacation homes.

Mr. Gordon went ahead anyway, and the opposition rose to gale force. Supposedly the wind farm will lead to everything from the disruption of seabird habitats to "desecrating ancient American Native burial sites," in the words of Glenn Wattley, the head of an antiwind outfit funded by the likes of Bunny Mellon.

But what really upsets these well-to-do Don Quixotes is the thought of looking at windmills that would appear about as tall on the horizon as the thumbnail at the end of your outstretched arm.

Then there is the political saga, with the Kennedy family as the Hyannis Port Sopranos, supplying the muscle. While Ted Kennedy was castigating President Bush for destroying the environment, the Senator was working furiously behind the Congressional scenes to kill Cape Wind. He even had the inspiration of getting former GOP colleague Ted Stevens of Alaska to slip wording into a spending bill that would have handed a veto to then-Governor Mitt Romney, another aesthetically minded opponent.

Robert Kennedy Jr., a Time magazine "hero of the planet," tried to get the Sound designated as a national marine sanctuary to bar development.

Incredibly enough, this political sabotage has so far failed. And last week the Interior Department issued its long-awaited regulatory study, mostly finding "negligible" environmental impact -- apart from a "moderate" impact on the scenery.

If the Obama Administration signs off, construction could begin next year.

Mr. Kennedy blustered that the report was rushed out: amusing, considering it runs to 2,800 pages.

Bill Delahunt, the windy Cape Democrat, also denounced the action as "a $2 billion project that depends on significant taxpayer subsidies while potentially doubling power costs for the region."

Good to see the Congressman now recognizes the limitations of green tech, such as its tendency to boost consumer electricity prices -- but his makeover as taxpayer champion is a bit belated.

Green energy has been on the subsidy take for years, including in 2005 when Mr. Delahunt was calling for "an Apollo project for alternative energy sources, for hybrid engines, for biodiesel, for wind and solar and everything else." The reality is that all such projects are only commercially viable because of political patronage.

Tufts economist Gilbert Metcalf ran the numbers and found that the effective tax rate for wind is minus-163.8%. In other words, every dollar a wind firm spends is subsidized to the tune of 64 cents from the government. The Energy Information Administration estimates that wind receives $23.37 in government benefits per megawatt hour -- compared to, say, 44 cents for coal.

Despite these taxpayer crutches, wind only provides a little under 1% of U.S. net electric generation.

We'd prefer an energy policy that allows markets to shape the sources that predominate -- which would almost certainly put Cape Wind out of business. But President Obama seems determined to unload even more subsidies on green developers as he seeks to boost renewables to 10% of the U.S. electricity mix by the end of his first term and 25% by 2025; their share today is about 9% (5.8% of which is hydropower).

We wouldn't be surprised to see the President's green future wrestled to the ground by the likes of Mr. Delahunt, the Kennedys and other anticarbon Democrats.

Environmentalists love the idea of milking Mother Nature for power, but they hate the hardware needed to make it work: huge windmills, acres of solar panels, high-voltage transmission lines to connect them to the places where people live.

Of course, they still totally, absolutely, wholeheartedly support green energy -- as long as it gets built where someone else goes yachting.


Anonymous said...

The greenies are all in favor of green technology as long as the accoutrements necessary to bring about the green revolution do not impinge on either their surroundings - it is ok, however if the lower orders have the views from their windows obscured because, after all, the hoi poloi are only expected to pay for the cost and be thankful that the "higher orders" have recognized what is best for them and the environment. NIMBY is alive and well with the Kennedys and their friends.

JohnO said...

Uh, Lets see what is more important here. A view of the sound, or our kids and grandkids clean air? Maybe the "greenies" and the "hoi poloi" fabricated "global warming" to push America toward energy independence. This type of attitude simply defines a complete lack of understanding and knowlege of the energy problem. One fact is sure, there will no longer be a "business as usual" approach to energy policy. America's current energy grid can not be sustained.

Anonymous said...

They should probably put all the wind farms in "flyover" country. Who cares if the hicks out in Oklahoma have these things messing up their landscape?

drew said...

John, I am perhaps one of those you describe as using "summer" as a verb - I have a place on Nantucket, and try to get there at least a couple of weeks each summer. For the rest of the summer, it's an investment property; in the other three seasons, it's a substantial chore and a significant expense.

In my rather limited perspective, it seems that the people most opposed to Cape Wind are "mainlanders"; i.e., the folks who are concerned about their views of the sound, or the impact on other very local infrastructure. For Nantucketers, the impact would largely be negligible. Everything on the island (apart from fog and wind) needs to be imported over the water. That includes gasoline, food, drinking water (sometimes), toilet paper and the like. To get to the island, these goods travel by ferry - the Woods Hole, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket Steamship Authority. And guess who essentially controls the Steamship Authority? The Kennedy family largely selects the Authority members, and pushes their appointments through the political process. Travel to the islands is not inexpensive - taking the car to Nantucket is over $400 each season, which is why many people just leave an old car on the island year-round if they have a place to stash it in the off-season and someone to keep the battery charged.

But the economic incentive to the the islanders from Cape Wind is diminished somewhat - some years ago, the islands were successful in getting an undersea electrical cable installed, and all electricity is now brought from the Cape to the islands by cable. Previously, it was generated locally on the island using fuel oil. As a frame of reference, understand that gasoline was over $6 a gallon this past summer on Nantucket (remember, it's based on mainland prices plus the cost of bringing it over the Sound. Imagine what the cost of fuel oil would have been - although the "old" generators used bunker fuel (the type used in ships' boilers), the cost of electricity would have probably been 5-6 times what it cost on the mainland this past summer. So the "island locals" don't benefit much from Cape Wind, except for any host benefits or other government-rigged emoluments that might ensue.

You should also understand that Nantucket Sound is a very large body of water - putting in windmills (while locally disruptive to views from any direction) would not "plug up" the ability to use the water for recreation or fishing. In fact, the windmills would likely create an in increase in pleasure boat traffic to Nantucket - the island cannot be seen from the mainland (it's over the horizon visually), and the waters are prone to fog. With a series of windmill towers as a guide, even smaller craft without serious navigation systems could actually make the 30-mile trip and find Nantucket over the horizon.

What most of this brouhaha boils down to is hubris and politics (like many other things do). The Kennedys want to sound and look like they're environmentalists, but they don't want to actually do anything about it, so they pull their considerable strings to make certain that it doesn't come to pass.

Personally, I'd rather see the Gitmo detainees put on a prison ship anchored right off Hyannisport, so that Ted and the clan can see what he has wrought in the Senate. Perhaps with that as an alternative, the calls to close Gitmo will calm down almost overnight, and the Kennedys will let the "bad people" stay in Cuba. It could be a win/win for all of us.