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Wind turbines a poor investment

Wind power is still a hot topic on the Cape as controversy swirls around the Cape Wind project on Nantucket Sound.

Opinion on the Cape is still sharply divided. Whether the Cape Wind project goes ahead or not, every town on the Cape now seems to want its own wind turbine.

The Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Buzzards Bay built a 660-kilowatt turbine in 2006. Adm. Richard Gurnon, president of the MMA, called the wind turbine “a money machine.” Another 660-kW turbine is under consideration at Cape Cod Community College in Hyannis.

Virtually every town on the Cape is reviewing plans for a municipal wind turbine. Our elected officials gush about their benefits for municipal budgets, climate change, national security and jobs. As fads go, wind power is one of the very best. Think of a wind turbine as a fashion accessory for the well-dressed town.

Our joy at joining the Green Movement needs to be tempered with a little bit of economic realism. Adm. Gurnon likes the economics of his wind turbine mainly because the state gave it to him. He sees no cost, just the savings. The people of Massachusetts still have to pay for the wind turbine whether it’s funded through the MMA budget, the state capital fund, the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative or their electricity bills.

All wind projects in the U.S. are based on heavy federal and state subsidies. Government grants or tax credits make the project appear to cost less at the local level, but only because someone else is paying for it. Low-income states like Arkansas, West Virginia or Louisiana have a fighting chance of receiving more federal money than they pay out in taxes. Massachusetts, however, is the sixth richest state. Bay Staters may get some juicy federal grants from time to time, but they are always going to pay out more to Washington than they get back. This is a fool’s game.

The latest addition to the Cape’s wind inventory will be a second huge 1.65 MW turbine in Falmouth, costing a whopping $5 million. This turbine will produce about four million kilowatt hours a year at an average price of about 8-cents per kWh with annual maintenance costs of about $75,000. A $250,000 annual return on a $5 million investment is nothing to write home about.

How about the turbine’s impact on oil imports or carbon emissions? The U.S. generates only about 1 percent of its power from oil today, so wind turbines mostly reduce domestic coal or natural gas. If every one of the 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts installed a 1.65 MW wind turbine, the total capacity would be about 600 MW. China builds this much coal-fired generating capacity every week.

So why are the voters of Falmouth so enthusiastic about this project? They expect to get the federal government to pay for it from stimulus money. Projects always look good when someone else gives you the money.

The Cape Cod Times reported the approval of the Falmouth project with the following lead-in: “Town meeting voters showed their commitment to renewable energy initiatives last night by approving construction of a second wind turbine at the wastewater treatment facility.” Apparently, begging for money from Uncle Sam to buy toys is the new definition of civic responsibility.

If you want to show your commitment to electric cars, ask the government to give you a Chevy Volt. If you want to show a really serious commitment to renewable energy, maybe you should ask the government to give you a sailboat.

Bruce Everett, a homeowner in Chatham, teaches energy economics at the Fletcher School at Tufts.