In just eight years, Maine’s burgeoning wind energy industry will have grown from an idea to more than 700 megawatts by the end of 2015. These wind farms will be equal to about 10 percent of the state’s energy generation.
This is a major success story for our economy, environment and energy security. For example, a study earlier this year by former state economist and professor Charlie Colgan found that wind development will create 4,200 jobs in 2015 alone and lead to employee earnings of more than $250 million. Also, the environmental benefits continue to accrue to Maine. A study completed by Sustainable Energy Advantage found that by 2020 our wind energy will reduce harmful carbon pollution by 2.5 million tons, which is equal to the pollution of 400,000 passenger vehicles.
While wind energy continues to make good on its promises, there are others who attempt to mislead the general public with their own creative storytelling. A recent opinion piece ran in which the writer expressed his misguided belief that because of one hot day last month when it was not as sunny or windy as he would have liked he believes we have invested poorly in our clean energy future with wind and solar farms. In essence, the claims seem based on that single day’s energy output, and we are supposed to then project out for the other 364 days of the year and conclude wind and solar are not viable?
Imagine if we applied that same logic to other parts our lives. If it doesn’t rain tomorrow, should we throw away our umbrellas? If there are no fires in town, should we close down the fire station? More directly, if natural gas supplies are insufficient to meet our demand — as they were during the 2014 polar vortex — should we remove the pipeline infrastructure?
Certainly the answer to all those questions is “of course not!” And that also applies to the question of whether we made a mistake by investing in Maine-made, emission-free energy. One can quickly see how foolish it is to extrapolate one day’s data to reach a desired conclusion about the viability of a particular technology or industry.
The truth is we have invested wisely and carefully in our energy future by harvesting our natural resources: the wind, the water, the wood and the sun. Just recently, we learned that the Oakfield wind farm soon will become fully operational and will become the largest wind farm in New England — Kibby Mountain at 132 megawatts had been its largest. This project will deliver nearly $27 million in economic benefits to the community over its 20-year lifespan. These dollars will be spent on community-approved projects — new fire trucks, road reconstruction and a donation to a veterans memorial, for example.
In addition to the economic and environmental advantages of investing in wind energy, we also know that the cost of wind is at an all-time low. In fact, two recent term sheets initially approved by the Maine Public Utilities Commission included costs below the standard offer, or default service, rate paid by ratepayers. The savings were projected to total $32 million to $73 million over the proposed 20-year contracts. Wind is able to offer these competitive prices because it has no fuel costs. Wind offers the equivalent of a 30-year fixed mortgage. Our “monthly payment” will always be the same because there are no fuel price swings. On the other hand, relying heavily on fossil fuels is like signing an adjustable rate mortgage. The prices can and do change without warning.
But it is also important to acknowledge that no one resource — not wind, not solar and not natural gas — is the answer to Maine’s energy challenges. Instead, there is enough room at the table for all resources to help us achieve our goals of a growing economy, a clean and breathable environment and a more secure energy future.
Overall, Maine’s energy future is very complex, and there are no easy answers; however, when we do consider heeding the advice of others, I would suggest we make sure those who are offering it are knowledgeable and credible.
Jeremy Payne is executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association.