CONTRIBUTORS

To determine benefit of offshore wind, look to future reductions in fossil fuel

Posted Oct. 08, 2012, at 4:17 p.m.

I am very concerned about the comments made recently by a LePage administration official regarding specific aspects of the Maine Energy Office’s review of a proposed offshore wind energy farm. These comments from Ken Fletcher, included in “ LePage’s Energy Czar Questions Wind Plan,” (BDN, 9/17) show a lack of full insight into the issues, consequences and risks involved in this decision and its impact as we move forward in addressing our ever-expanding energy needs.

In the article, Fletcher expressed concern about the impact Statoil’s potential project would have on the cost to utility company ratepayers, the wind energy company’s commitment to Maine beyond the life of the pilot project and the low number of jobs the project would likely create.

Fletcher is directly quoted, saying, “We need to see that we’re going to get a reasonable return on the investment.” It is of great concern to me to see a government agent, entrusted by the citizens of Maine to oversee the energy policies that affect not only current but also future generations, express such a short-sighted opinion on such a timely critical issue.

Let’s start first with the economic analysis of wind power.

In the article, Fletcher states his opinion that any current analysis weighing the financial costs and revenues for such an offshore wind project will result in undue high costs to the ratepayers of Maine, particularly as compared to current energy sources. Thus, for the foreseeable future such a project must surely remain relatively in the “red” and for this reason should be considered economically very risky. Yet nowhere in his calculations do I see any considerations made for those specific costs related to the less direct, but no less real, “externalities” expenses incurred in the production, distribution and utilization of electric power as generated from fossil fuels.

The term “externalities” refers to long-term costs related to the utilization of specific goods and services. Such costs often times are less immediate and so have not been weighed in calculating traditional cost-benefit ratios. Yet, no less due, such additional costs are as equally the requisite result of specific economic strategies and will always eventually need to be paid by someone.

These collateral costs in the case of power generated by fossil fuels include: the clean-up of polluted air, water and soil; the maintenance of infrastructure, such as roads and harbors and rail lines used in the transportation of fossil fuel resources; health care costs related to the various diseases associated with the use of fossil fuels and the pollutants generated; costs incurred in dealing with the growing effects of global warming. These costs are real. These costs are a direct result of our current dependence upon fossil fuels. As a citizen concerned for the health of life on this planet, both now and in the future, I need to see an accurate, full accounting that includes these externalities in any true financial analysis comparing wind-generated power versus fossil fuels.

In a similar vein, no one speaks of an additional germane consideration: those costs in wealth and quality of life to be borne by future generations in what we can now know will be their inevitable need for cleanup and repair of our current neglects if we continue to fail to change our current embedded reliance on fossil fuels. Let no one be mistaken on this crucial point: While none of us now will be here to have to face it, our children’s children’s children and those to follow will all be left with a huge bill just to return the environment, and thus their opportunity to enjoy it, to what we know take for granted.

If, as in Fletcher’s assessment, we must now run in the “red,” as far as ratepayers’ costs are concerned, to begin this long-term process of preserving and returning the Earth to what we would expect it to be if we were alive in the future, let us now begin to take some of the responsibility. Haven’t we already extracted more than our fair share of benefits at their expense? And what’s more, given the considerations of those costs of externalities discussed above, certainly over time we will see a progressively lesser shade of red in the pursuit of these alternative sources of energies.

As one suggestion to meet these additional expenses, why couldn’t those who more greatly benefit from our current energies, i.e., the more affluent among us, share a proportionately greater burden of these costs. The price for the use of energy could, and probably should, be scaled so a certain basic level of usage would be billed at one lower rate, with progressively greater usage above that level billed at an increasingly higher rate, something along the same lines as the current progressive income tax system is suppose to be.

All of us should recognize the need to begin this inevitable process of energy conversion, as we will certainly be rightly so judged and held responsible by all those whose lives are yet to come, in a way that is now new within human history.

And also let this discussion of energy policy be a clear indication of how political, social and economic decisions are being evaluated by elected officials whose governing principles in office are based on knee-jerk, black-and-white, profit-and-loss perspectives. As we can see in this issue of energy policy, so many equally cogent factors are lost to consideration with such irresponsibility. We only get what we vote for.

David McQuade lives in Hancock.

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