The New York Power Authority’s plan to build windmills on the Great Lakes looked pretty good on paper.
The winds on Lake Erie and Lake Ontario are strong and frequent.
New York needs jobs, and NYPA would have required wind developers to manufacture their turbines here. There would have been more jobs associated with installation of the wind farm and the building of transmission lines.
And wind power is renewable, if intermittent. When the wind does blow, windmills generate electricity with none of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with coal and natural gas.
But all of those pluses could not overcome a big negative: a price tag estimated at more than $1 billion. On Tuesday, NYPA’s board of trustees voted to pull the plug on the Great Lakes Offshore Wind project (GLOW for short).
Good for NYPA for deciding the public subsidy for the project, estimated between $60 million and $100 million a year, was too high a price to pay.
That was two to four times the subsidy needed by a similar wind farm built on land. The subsidy would have come in the form of a 20-year commitment to buy the offshore wind power at a premium that would make it worthwhile for a developer to build the thing.
However, the economic activity generated by wind turbine manufacturing and construction would have been offset by higher electricity costs for all New Yorkers, who already pay some of the highest power prices in the nation.
Richard Kessel, the former president and chief executive officer of NYPA who recently stepped down, recognized the economics of the offshore wind project would be an obstacle. In a meeting with The Post-Standard editorial board in January 2010, Kessel also enumerated two other challenges: the difficulty of building a wind farm in deep water, and the aesthetics of as many as 100 tall turbines on the horizon.
At the time, Kessel thought that last item would be the hardest to overcome. Indeed, opposition rose up in shoreline communities that don’t want their water views or fishing grounds disturbed by an industrial wind farm. Legislatures in seven of the nine counties that border lakes Erie and Ontario, including Oswego and Jefferson counties, passed resolutions against NYPA’s offshore wind plan.
Despite Kessel’s assertion that a wind farm wouldn’t be built where it wasn’t wanted, there would have been a long, expensive fight over siting it.
We’d add two more obstacles to Kessel’s list: geography and inertia.
Upstate already has more generating capacity than it can use, with no way to move its excess power to where it’s needed most – the New York metropolitan area. It makes more sense to build an offshore wind farm off Long Island. NYPA said it will continue to work on a plan to do just that.
Moreover, so long as fossil fuels remain relatively cheap – and so long as we put off reckoning with the environmental damage they are causing to our air, our water and our climate – there will be little incentive, and even less public clamor, to move toward renewable energy sources.
That’s short-sighted. Renewable sources of energy must have a larger place in our future, if we are to halt climate change and reduce our dependence on imported fuels.
While ratepayer subsidies may be necessary to get the renewable energy industry off the ground, they should not be squandered on projects that can’t produce sufficient return on investment.
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