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Wind backup pollutes, experts say

A multibillion-dollar proposal to supply Delaware with electrical power from offshore windmills would actually increase air pollution within the state, critics say.

Because winds don’t always blow strongly enough to generate power, windmills would require backup electricity supplies to meet anticipated demand. The pending offshore wind proposal includes a backup natural gas power plant that could also produce power for sale in other states.

Given the extra expense and pollution, even some who support the project are questioning the wisdom of building a conventional plant as a backup. They say Delaware could allow Delmarva Power to buy extra electricity from the regional power grid as needed to handle shortfalls.

In comments filed with regulators, University of Delaware professors Willett Kempton and Jeremy Firestone said consumers “should rightfully ask if building a redundant gas plant and getting locked into a 25-year contract makes sense at this point.” Both support the wind project.

“Standing alone, a natural gas plant, because it’s cleaner than coal, may do a little to reduce emissions, but not much,” Firestone said Wednesday.

The hybrid electricity supply proposals under review by the Public Service Commission, however, would add thousands of tons of pollution to Delaware’s skies from the gas-fired power plant. It would also bill Delaware ratepayers a green energy wind premium that was estimated at $2.2 billion over the next 25 years for a slightly larger, all-wind version.

“Clearly, the hybrid plant will have greenhouse gas releases,” said John M. Byrne, who directs the University of Delaware’s Center for Energy and Environmental Policy and who supports aggressive conservation and small-scale “renewable” generation instead of a new wind plant.

“While these would certainly be less than a conventional coal plant, they are nonetheless an addition to Delaware’s inventory of emissions at precisely the time when we are supposed to cut them,” said Byrne, who was recently cited as a member of a working group for the Nobel Prize-winning United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The added pollution and extra cost have led some to question both the wind and the gas plant project. Delmarva and others called last year for conservation and better reliance on regional power supplies to meet future demands, instead of a massive new investment.

“I’m for smart metering and conservation,” said William Patterson Jr., a Dagsboro-area resident who retired from a career with the regional PJM power management agency in 1992. “Everyone is looking for the lowest cost, and as a customer I’m all for that,” provided Delmarva can assure that existing and future transmissions can provide adequate service.

Patricia Cavender, a Hockessin resident, says the PSC isn’t watching out for the public’s interest.

“One thing people seem to have forgotten is, the boards that regulate electric power were originally set up to make sure the electric companies stayed in business, they were not set up to be consumer advocates,” she said.

Although emissions would not drop in Delaware, wind defenders say the offshore plant would increase the power available in the region with less pollution than fossil fuel plants would emit to generate the same amount of power.

Public Service Commission staffers are scheduled to report Oct. 29 on the proposal, which would oblige Delmarva Power to buy up to 300 megawatts hourly for 25 years from a new 150-turbine offshore wind farm proposed by Bluewater Wind LLC.

A conventional natural gas-fired plant in Sussex County would provide backup electricity under a 25-year contract for periods when the wind or Bluewater’s equipment fails.

On average, the offshore wind project would account for only 125 megawatts of power sent to Delmarva initially. As a result, the backup plant typically would provide most of the project’s 300-megawatt output.

Conectiv or NRG – competitors for the gas plant deal – also could sell electricity from excess capacity at the backup plant to out-of-state buyers across the region. Bluewater also would be free to sell its excess to other users.

Company and regulatory officials disagree on how much additional power is necessary to meet Delaware’s needs. Delmarva has argued that conservation and purchases from the regional grid could eliminate the need for any new capacity within the state. The PSC rejected that proposal, saying that a bill passed by lawmakers in 2006 specifically called for new in-state sources.

This week, Washington Gas Energy Services Inc., a regional electricity supplier, sent a letter to Delaware lawmakers pointing out that it already offers Delmarva customers wind energy in their competing service agreements under the state’s customer choice rules for electricity.

The Washington Gas plan offers consumers 25 percent wind power at the same rate Delmarva charges current customers. If Bluewater is built, less than 15 percent of the electricity sent to standard service customers would be produced from wind.

A state agency consultant earlier this year recommended a new round of bidding for electricity from regional suppliers. The consultant noted that cheaper onshore wind supplies are available from other states. That bidding, never approved, would have been open to onshore wind electricity and other “renewable” generators.

Although details were unavailable on expected pollution amounts from the Conectiv or NRG gas turbines, a single 122-megawatt natural gas turbine in East Wilmington produced nearly 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide during part-time operations in 2004, along with tons of nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, dust and ammonia.

Power plant carbon dioxide is one of the pollutants cited as a contributor to rising global temperatures and climate change. Delaware is obliged under a multistate agreement to reduce, rather than increase, emissions of the gas.

Sen. Harris B. McDowell III, D-Wilmington North, said that the Bluewater project itself relies on unproven systems, and should stand or fall on its own without subsidies from Delaware or forced support from Delmarva.

“What they want to do is have the ratepayers back it through the rate base,” McDowell said. “The problem is, they’re trying to cherry-pick the benefits of a rate-based, regulated utility process.”

McDowell said that the hybrid plan would increase air pollution and would require a huge investment in unproven offshore wind systems that some industry and government leaders still consider risky and “experimental.”

“I think it should be examined in depth,” McDowell said.

Jim Lanard, a spokesman for Bluewater, said the agency supports the PSC’s review process, and said Bluewater’s equipment would supply reliable power.

The General Assembly directed the PSC and Delmarva Power to secure new, in-state electricity supplies after Delmarva imposed a 59 percent rate hike in 2006. That increase followed a six-year freeze that was part of the utilities agreement during deregulation.

Philip Cherry, who represents the Delaware Energy Office, said state officials were seeking energy innovation and price stability when they ordered Delmarva to seek a new power supply. The PSC, Energy Office, Office of Management and Budget, and the Legislature’s controller general each have a vote on the power plant issue.

“I know that people are questioning whether a gas backup is necessary, and those are good discussions,” Cherry said.

A two-week period for written public comment will follow the Oct. 29 report release, with the PSC and four participating state agencies to consider the issue on Nov. 20.

By Jeff Montgomery

The News Journal

20 October 2007