The Boston utility NStar plans to allow its residential and small business customers to buy their electricity from environmentally friendly wind farms – for a price.
In a first of its kind for Massachusetts utilities, NStar is proposing to let its 1.1 million electric customers in Boston and 80 eastern Massachusetts cities and towns buy their power directly from a wind farm in upstate New York and a second under development in Maine.
Because the wind farms are more expensive than conventional sources like coal and nuclear power, a typical homeowner would pay a premium of about $7.50 to $15 monthly. The program, being announced today, will need approval from state utility regulators before it is launched, which could be as soon as Jan. 1.
Other utilities in Massachusetts and other states have launched so-called green power programs, such as National Grid USA’s GreenUp. But National Grid’s and many other programs only direct customers to third-party organizations that collect what are effectively voluntary contributions by participants to subsidize indirectly various “green” energy installations around the country, including solar and hydroelectric power plants and facilities that burn landfill gas or wood waste to make electricity. Fewer than 6,000 of National Grid’s 1.3 million customers participate.
The two major differences with NStar’s plan is that it will have the direct marketing power of the $3 billion utility behind it, and customers will be paying for electricity from the 195-turbine Maple Ridge wind project near Camp Drum in upstate New York and from a 44-tower wind project now under development at Kibby Mountain in Maine expected to open by 2009.
“We have something real and tangible, and we can take you up there and show you the source of where your power is coming from,” NStar chief executive Thomas J. May said. NStar is signing 10-year contracts to buy a total of 30 megawatts of power from each installation, in total equal to the electric demand of about 45,000 average homes or small businesses. That’s about 2 percent of the utility’s average total demand, and May said, “We hope the program is oversubscribed and we have to go back and buy more.”
Alan Nogee of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, one of several environmental groups that advised NStar on developing the plan, said, “We are very excited by NStar’s long-term commitment to wind energy and their green power program. They’re helping customers say yes to choosing a responsible energy future and a more stable climate.”
Nationally, more than 600 utilities and municipal electric departments now offer “green power” choices to customers, according to the US Energy Department. Outside of New England, states including California, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Virginia all offer ways for people to pay for electricity from renewable sources.
But fewer than 1 percent of customers are signing up because the programs almost always require people to pay more than they would for conventional coal-, gas-, or nuclear-generated electricity, said Philip Giudice, commissioner of the Massachusetts Division of Energy Resources.
Compared to other programs that subsidize broad portfolios of renewable energy projects, Giuidice said, “It’s neat for customers to be able to say: I’m part of this specific wind project.” Giudice wouldn’t flatly predict the NStar plan will be a success but said, “We’ll see how this works out over time. Let’s do some experiments and see what can work in the marketplace. This is an interesting experiment.”
Technically, NStar customers would not get their power directly from the Maine and New York wind farms, because it is impossible to transmit electricity through the power grid to a specific meter.
But by paying for the turbines at Maple Ridge and Kibby Mountain to feed into the interconnected New England and New York power grids the same amount of power they’re drawing from conventional sources closer to Boston like coal, nuclear power, and gas- and oil-fired plants, NStar customers signing up for the program will be able to say they use the equivalent of 100 percent wind power.
May said he hopes that the 20-tower Hoosac Wind proposal in the Western Massachusetts towns of Florida and Monroe is approved and built and becomes an NStar supplier, because “we’d love to support the growth of the renewable-energy industry right here in the commonwealth.”
Bill Burke, a fifth-generation dairy farmer in Lewis County, N. Y., who has six Maple Ridge wind turbines on his 600-acre farm, said the project has been a huge economic boost for his family and his region. “I think it’s great that people in Boston can get a chance to participate in this,” Burke said in a telephone interview. Besides enjoying an undisclosed revenue stream that’s enabling him to retire from farming, Burke said the turbines have proven to be good neighbors.
“They’re quite majestic to watch,” Burke said. “They’re more mesmerizing than they are anything else. When they’re all turning, you know that everything is OK with the world.”
By Peter J. Howe, Globe staff
24 July 2007
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