Get facts on wind turbines

Posted June 27, 2010, at 7:42 p.m.

Bangor Daily News readers should not lose sight of the fact that the “Setting the Course” special section that appeared over the June 5-6 weekend in this paper and six others statewide is a paid advertisement, not journalism. Had it been journalism, the mix of stories would have included one that points out that the technology basket in which Maine intends to put the bulk of its economic development eggs — floating offshore deep-water wind turbines — doesn’t exist.

The strategy here is to create a network of floating wind farms 10 to 50 miles offshore, where the winds are strong and — here’s the rub — the water is very deep. A floating turbine that is sited in water that is thousands of feet deep never has been engineered, much less built and tested. While there are thousands of offshore wind turbines in northern Europe, they are anchored (not floating) in water that, at most, is hundreds of feet deep, not thousands. Is a sustainable deep-water floating wind turbine possible? Maybe. Maybe not.

A journalistic hard look at this proposal also would have included what little is known about the potential environmental impacts of a flotilla of offshore wind turbines. These turbines, in addition to generating electricity, will generate underwater noise and vibration. The transmission lines required to deliver the power they generate back to the mainland will generate electromagnetic fields over long distances.

The impact of these byproducts of offshore wind generation on the marine environment and on the fish and mammals that inhabit that environment is unknown. A lobsterman who pulls traps in Long Island Sound told me that his catch dropped off significantly after the switch was thrown on a new underwater electrical cable between Long Island and Connecticut. A coincidence? Maybe. Maybe not.

Another story that straight news coverage would explore is the existing problems inherent in Maine’s shortsighted attempts to reduce the cost of electricity in a state where residential rates are among the highest in the country. This debacle dates to the late 1990s and the Angus King administration. Among the “deregulation” regulations that King signed into law was one that decreed that the price that Maine residents pay for electricity would be set largely by the cost of fueling the turbines that generate electricity they consume.

Companies using natural gas to generate electricity now have fuel costs of about 10 cents per kilowatt-hour. Companies that now use wind to power their turbines have no fuel costs. Get this: The regulations King signed into law stipulate that all producers be paid the same rate, regardless of their fuel costs. That means the companies that own wind generators, which have no fuel costs, would get 10 cents per kilowatt-hour, the same as the companies that are spending 10 cents per kilowatt-hour for natural gas. Does that make any sense? Maybe. Maybe not.

A journalistic mix of stories also might include an analysis of why, just 100 miles up the road from my home in Hancock County, people in New Brunswick heat their homes largely with electricity, whereas in Maine about 80 percent of homes are heated with fuel oil, the largest percentage in the country. Why’s that? Because electricity is both abundant and cheap in Canada. It is not here.

Why not? Because Maine’s 12-year-old deregulation debacle forced utility companies such as Bangor Hydro and Central Maine Power to sell their generating facilities and to buy electricity on the wholesale market from other companies instead. It was billed as good, old-fashioned free-market competition, and Mainers were assured at the time that it would drive electricity prices down. Never happened. Instead, since the new regulations took effect in the year 2000, the price Maine residents pay for electricity has more than doubled. Voodoo economics? Maybe. Maybe not.

Weaning Maine and the rest of the world from fossil fuels is essential to the planet’s long-term survival. Land-based wind farms already are part of that strategy. The potential pros and cons of deep-water offshore wind remain largely unknown. My hat is off to those busy exploring the many issues involved. Undoing the state’s existing and myopic approach to regulating electricity utilities is among those issues.

Tom Walsh of Gouldsboro is a journalist and a member of the National Association of Science Writers.

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