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Wind power: leaving Massachusetts residents in the dark?

Debates surrounding the Salem Harbor Power Station in Massachusetts have covered a wide spectrum over the years. Amongst the issues, arguments have been made for and against the plant adversely affecting water quality, respiratory health, and air quality. No doubt these are important issues, but maintaining a reliable source of power for Massachusetts residents is important too. This is, after all, primarily an energy production issue.

An executive at Dominion, the company that owns and operates the 583 megawatt capacity coal and oil fired plant, has stated that stricter and more costly EPA rules were the deciding factors for closing the plant. The fact that 583 megawatts of power will be taken offline for primarily environmental reasons has led to deliberations on the installation of a wind turbine near the plant site. This is a logical next step because supporters of the wind turbine envision replacing fossil fuel generated power with a clean, environmentally friendly source. Cynicism will properly replace naïve optimism when people begin considering real world experience with wind power and the results of the feasibility study produced for the city.

The feasibility study recommends a 1.5 megawatt wind turbine with estimated construction costs of $4.5 million. Any Massachusetts resident following these proceedings would be understandably concerned about the 581.5 megawatt difference between the two energy sources. If you live in Salem, any anxiety might be allayed when learning that the power generated from the turbine is destined to serve only the city of Salem. That is until residents understand that, on average, the city of Salem consumes 11.2 million kWh of energy and the turbine is estimated to only produce between 3.6 and 3.7 million kWh of energy. Anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of economics knows that when supply decreases and demand remains stable, prices are likely to increase. That is, unless demand is artificially whittled (think: rationing and brownouts). Furthermore these energy production numbers are estimates generated from a variety of data sources measuring such things as wind shear, turbulence intensity, and most importantly, wind speed. On the twenty-fourth page the study makes a startling admission in regards to wind speed measurement and energy estimates: ‘One of the major sources of error in wind project theoretical energy estimates is the extrapolation of wind speeds from the measurement level to the wind turbine hub height’ [emphasis added]. Based on this admission, how much inconsistency in power production can the citizens of Salem expect? Oddly enough, the study still recommends the city go forward with the installation!

So, what will the city of Salem, as well as all the other Massachusetts homes previously serviced by the power plant, do to fill the energy gap created by inefficiency and inconsistency? A review of some real world experience with wind power will answer this question, as well as demonstrate the folly of relying to any extent on wind power to supply one’s energy needs.

Ten years worth of operating statistics, provided by electricity distributors in Europe, were compiled in a 2007 report. This report’s conclusions concerning Europe’s experience with wind power are not flattering. The report states that industrial wind power is proving very costly to consumers. The high cost is do to ‘the need to maintain backup generating reserve to cover times when the wind does not blow, the need to stabilize the grid when wind produces power that is not needed by current demand, and government subsidization and tax benefits for the wind industry.’ The report further explains the claims that wind turbines reduce carbon emissions are bogus. Lastly, the report quotes David White, an energy expert from the United Kingdom, where he says: ‘…throughout the experience gained by developing wind power in Europe over nearly twenty years, wind generated power has proven to be variable, unpredictable, and uncontrollable. In fact…the European experience shows conclusively that the annual production is routinely disappointing.’ Keep in mind the European experience is based on wind farms containing multiple turbines. So based on the European experience, Massachusetts residents will continue to use more reliable power from a traditional, non-green energy source whether or not the wind turbine exists.

Thus far, apparently, the results of the feasibility study and the European experience have not caused decision makers and green, renewable energy proponents to pause for thought. For the rest of us, a costly wind turbine that won’t provide sufficient, steady power and makes residents reliant on traditional power anyway prompts a final question: What’s the point?