Republican gubernatorial candidate Charles D. Baker came out swinging at Governor Deval Patrick yesterday afternoon in a debate on clean energy, calling the proposed Cape Wind project in Nantucket Sound “a sweetheart deal’’ among the state, Cape Wind, and the utility National Grid that is purchasing half of its power.
Patrick’s two other challengers also criticized his handling of the project he vigorously supports.
Green-Rainbow Party candidate Jill Stein faulted what she called his administration’s lack of transparency in overseeing Cape Wind’s power contract and said the governor has taken campaign contributions from executives of companies associated with the proposed 130-turbine wind farm.
Independent Timothy P. Cahill said the price of electricity from Cape Wind would “make our state less competitive’’ and drive businesses to relocate out of state.
A clearly perturbed Patrick pushed back at Baker’s assertion that the contract was not competitively bid and was negotiated in secret, with consumers in the dark about the profits Cape Wind’s developers will get. “Cape Wind has been treated like any other’’ energy project, said Patrick.
He told Stein he was not influenced by campaign donations and came to his own conclusion about Cape Wind because it is in the best interests of the Commonwealth. “In the case of price, it will add a buck and a quarter to our monthly ratepayer bills,’’ he said.
The exchanges over the wind farm made for a rousing – and, at times, humorous – first debate of the campaign season among all four candidates. All but Stein had previously met in a live radio debate, and Stein, Patrick, and Cahill participated in an environmental issues forum earlier this summer. Yesterday’s debate, sponsored by MassINC, was held at Suffolk University.
The price of the electricity from the nation’s first proposed offshore wind farm – at 18.7 cents per kilowatt hour, it would cost significantly more than traditional energy – has emerged as a major campaign issue. The state Department of Public Utilities is reviewing the National Grid-Cape Wind contract to see whether it is fair for ratepayers.
A decision is expected in mid-November, after the election. While supporters say the project will save money as fossil fuel prices rise, opponents predict it will cost ratepayers millions.
At one point yesterday, a panelist asked Patrick whether the Cape Wind project was being rushed, as many opponents contend. Patrick chuckled at the notion that a project that has been debated for almost a decade could be called hasty.
“It’s amazing, only in Massachusetts would a project that has taken 10 years [to be approved] be seen as rushed,’’ he said, drawing laughter from the audience.
The candidates stuck to familiar themes: Baker on the importance of jobs and not raising energy prices in a struggling economy; Patrick on how green energy is spurring economic development; Cahill on less government intervention in the marketplace; and Stein on transparency and accountability. However, they did explain what energy policies their administration would follow.
Picking energy projects is “best left to the market,’’ Cahill said, adding that new technologies that extract natural gas will provide a source of relatively clean energy long into the future. “We may have 100 years of energy,’’ he said. He also supports extending the operating life of nuclear power plants – as the Pilgrim plant in Plymouth, Seabrook in New Hampshire, and Vermont Yankee are attempting to do – although he said he does not favor granting large subsidies to build new nuclear plants.
Baker agreed that natural gas and nuclear are necessary, but he reminded audience members that subsidies and government programs to spark any energy project, including nuclear and renewable power, come directly from ratepayers. He said an obvious option would be to bring green energy down from northern Quebec, where massive hydroelectric dams are being constructed. Under current law, the projects are not eligible for green credits in Massachusetts.
“There are plenty of opportunities to do no financial harm’’ to businesses in an open and competitive process, he said.
Patrick said the green energy sector in Massachusetts continued to grow, even as the overall economy faltered. He said a suite of efforts focused on energy efficiency and renewable power were positioning the state to be a leader in green industries.
The debate swung from broad policies to personal behavior, with the candidates revealing what car they drive. Stein, who drives a Toyota Prius hybrid, was declared the winner of the gas mileage sweepstakes.
In a nod to Baker’s comment earlier in the campaign that he was “not smart enough’’ to know whether humans were contributing to climate change, candidates were asked how much people contribute to global warming.
“Not all, partially,’’ answered Cahill. “Most of it,’’ said Patrick. “Partially, but not all of it,’’ said Baker, finally acknowledging the scientific consensus that manmade greenhouse gas emissions are warming the earth and causing more extreme weather.
“Virtually all of it,’’ said Stein.