Last Tuesday, Sept. 8, the New England electricity grid system operator had a terrible day. What played out Tuesday (and dozens of other days, especially in summer and winter) is a glaring example of our feel-good energy policies leading to catastrophic results.
Temperatures were in the high 80s all over New England on Tuesday. ISO New England projected a peak load (demand) of 24,000 megawatts per hour for the day. We sprinted past that number at noon. While spot prices started the day under $30 per megawatt-hour, they topped $1,000 before we finished lunch (that’s the difference between 3 cents per kilowatt-hour and $1 per kilowatt-hour)! Immediately, ISO-NE went to Alert 2 status for the remainder of the day. This is when factories are asked by the grid to close up shop and send workers home. It is also when idle coal and oil plants fire up. The fiasco lasted until after 7 p.m.
New England has about 750 megawatts of wind capacity. We have about 850 megawatts of solar capacity, almost all of which is on rooftops where owners are able to sell their excess power to the grid. That combined 1,600 megawatts, an “investment” of at least $4 billion, wasn’t able to contribute even half of 1 percent of load Tuesday. It never exceeded 50 megawatt-hours all day, and at 5 p.m. when the sun was still intense and load was at daily peak, solar was contributing zero. (When the temperature gets hot, solar owners turn up their air conditioning so there is no power left for them to send to the grid.)
The billions New England wasted in the last decade on unsustainable feel-good generation assets were the same billions that should have been invested in critical, dependable, clean energy infrastructure. Specifically, our natural gas transmission constraints and our lack of access to large-scale Canadian hydro now stand as tragic examples of our grossly negligent misappropriation of resources.
The result of our negligence? While a few years ago we had almost entirely gotten off oil and coal, in the last three years we have quadrupled our burning of dirty oil for electricity generation. Why? Because when the power is needed on hot or cold days, all the region’s natural gas is being used by homes and businesses. Just 200 miles north of the world’s richest gas fields and lowest gas prices, we cannot get enough gas to run the dozens of new clean electric plants we bought to replace the coal and oil plants.
But shouldn’t Maine do its part to save the planet? Remember, only two states in the nation have electric sectors that emit less CO2 than Maine. Maine has the highest renewable portfolio standard in America, and in 2012 more than 99 percent of Maine generation was from clean sources other than oil and coal. But our unsustainable energy policy is now increasing rates, taxes and pollution. Amazingly, transportation accounts for almost five times more CO2 in Maine than electricity does. Yet, our Legislature raised the Interstate 95 speed limits while passing incentives for wind developers.
This is why Maine is increasingly getting dirty emissions from southern New England’s old plants. The absurdly high peak electric rates are unnecessarily bleeding hundreds of millions of dollars from Maine’s economy, and billions from New England’s economy. Scarce tax dollars funnel to wealthy wind developers, and vast expanses of Maine are slated to be industrialized with 50-story turbines.
But looking at those majestic white turbines on Maine mountains makes people in Massachusetts and Connecticut feel good.
Wind energy, as evident in Tuesday’s two-tenths of 1 percent contribution to load, cannot replace or even materially displace conventional grid generation.
Feel-good energy policy looks like this, and it is a major reason we are foolhardy to destroy our mountains with useless, unnecessary, unaffordable, unsustainable wind plants. If wind energy’s positive benefits could actually exceed its negative impacts, then maybe a few mountains could justifiably be destroyed. But we know otherwise.
The Friends of Maine’s Mountains mission is to educate the public about how destructive this feel-good policy is. Maine’s economy and environment are too important to squander.
Chris O’Neil is vice president of public affairs at Friends of Maine’s Mountains.