The grid is not so smart after all, at least not yet.
During the past decade the development of wind power has boomed in northern New England, but the capacity of the electric power grid to handle power from those new sources has been wanting.
Critics of wind power have long warned that dispersed, intermittent sources are not useful and certainly not worth the environmental damage they cause to our mountaintops. And yet the amount of power now generated by wind is significant, compelling the operators of the grid to find ways to accommodate it.
According to a story in The Times Argus on Friday, wind power in northern New England has grown from about 2 megawatts of capacity in 2005 to about 700 megawatts today. That’s a huge amount of power; it exceeds the power produced by the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.
Critics frequently point out that capacity is one thing and actual production is another. But actual production of 200 to 300 megawatts would still be a considerable yield of clean sustainable power.
Problems occurred last month during a heat wave when demand for power was high but the operator of the grid, ISO New England, demanded that Green Mountain Power shut down the production of power from its 45-megawatt wind project in Lowell. The curtailment of power from Lowell forced the company to use power from generators relying on fossil fuels.
Bottlenecks on the grid create safety concerns. When the grid is overloaded, it can overheat or catch fire. But it is wasteful and nonsensical to shut down cheap, sustainable power in a period of high usage in favor of diesel-generated electricity.
Energy experts say these problems represent growing pains for the power industry. In fact, equipment is now being installed to allow the system to make better use of the power generated in Lowell. GMP certainly doesn’t want to see its investment there stand idle.
Other growing pains continue to create doubts about wind power. Recently, the state Public Service Board heard concerns about the noise created by the turbine blades on Lowell Mountain. It appears that snow accumulates on the blades in the winter, creating unexpected and bothersome levels of noise. Noise remains a concern at a wind site in Sheffield as well.
For these reasons, and because of the problems on the grid, it seems as if wind development in Vermont is in a pause mode.
The increase in capacity from 2 megawatts to 700 megawatts in only eight years means that there are still bugs to work out. Some nearby residents believe they are more than bugs, as do some lovers of wilderness who object to the blasting of roads on pristine ridgetops.
Because these bugs have yet to be resolved, other newer projects have met stout resistance and the development of new wind projects has slowed. It is reasonable to ask what the capacity is of a mountainous, relatively densely populated region for wind towers that loom large over human habitations. Out West there are huge tracts of land where people are few and far between. In northern New England, there are people tucked within every gore and gap.
Accommodating the existing wind resources will be vital to the continuing effort to harness clean sustainable power, and allowing for wind development at appropriate sites where residents are willing to put up with it ought to be part of our energy planning. But if it happens that the region has maxed out on wind, or has approached the maximum, we ought to be willing to admit it. What residents tell us is important in determining where the maximum level is.
The future of sustainable development in Vermont may be in solar power and conservation. Solar development is continuing apace, and its value in the summer, during periods of maximum usage, is considerable. In addition, there are vast resources to be gained through greater energy efficiency. In those two areas, we are nowhere near the max.
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