Guest commentary: Real plans for clean energy

Guest commentary: Real plans for clean energy

The Westerly Sun

The Governors of New England convened a special meeting in Hartford on Thursday to discuss the perilous state of the region’s energy system. Special attention was paid to the infrastructure needed to avoid the serious fuel shortages that have plagued the electric industry during the last two winters, and the even more serious problems — including brownouts, blackouts and severe price spikes — that are expected to occur unless steps are taken to prevent them. Simply stated, the Governors acknowledged the need for clean energy infrastructure.

These shortages — largely, natural gas — cost New England consumers $3 billion in the winter of 2013-14, and another $1+ billion in the winter of 2014-15. Additional billions of real, tangible consumer costs can be expected in the future, which show up as unavoidable increases in customers’ bills. What makes these costs so tragic is that they could be avoided by more timely investments in infrastructure.

Cognizant of the high social cost of expensive energy, the Governors’ statement noted the “New England consumers pay more for electricity than consumers anywhere else in the continental United States…” and that they are “relying on greater use of fuel oil to maintain reliability… revers[ing] progress on New England’s environmental objectives.” Fortunately, oil was cheap last winter. Should oil become expensive again, as most expect, the consequences of relying on oil in the winter will push the winter premium in power prices back from $1 billion to $3 billion.

What can be done about this? One response is to become more energy-efficient. Very significant progress has been made in New England in energy efficiency with Massachusetts and Rhode Island ranking one and two in energy efficiency with more to be done. But the fact remains that the climate is cold, and people need to heat their homes. Natural gas and electricity are the dominant winter fuels. If natural gas prices go up in winter because of restricted supply, consumers get a double whammy: skyrocketing prices of both the natural gas they use at home, and of the electricity, the price of which is often determined by natural gas.

Efficiency can’t be the only response. To prevent future price spikes, or even worse, rolling blackouts, New England needs more energy. One popular new source is solar power. The evidence is now clear that solar power — as awesome and exciting a new resource as it is — can provide up to 15 percent of electricity at best, and moreover can be installed only by folks who own their own homes and can access solar subsidy programs like tax credits. Less well-off customers will continue to rely on more traditional sources of power.

To augment bulk electric supply, the Governors issued an Action Plan listing a series of steps they intend to take. What’s notable about this plan is that the states intend to work together: the Governors rightly see the problem as regional in nature, requiring regional solutions. Every state in New England has or will soon have Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS), commitments to make renewables a larger and larger part of the overall energy mix, displacing fossil fuels and nuclear energy. The states are also committed to reduce the contributions to greenhouse gases made by the region’s power sector.

What’s needed is clean energy, and lots of it. No matter how much solar is installed, however, it will at best provide only a modest part of the solution. The rest of the clean energy needed will have to come from wind and hydro imports. The good news is northern New England and New York have a huge amount of wind energy potential, and eastern Canada has a huge amount of hydro that it would like to sell. Bring those two together, and New England could replace up to 20 percent of its existing fossil fuel dependence with clean and sustainable and competitively priced electricity.

Here’s the hard part: only new clean energy transmission can unlock this potential. Various companies have proposed projects that bring more Canadian hydro into New England. Others have proposed very large wind farm developments in upstate New York and northern Maine that have no transmission pathway to bring that power into the region. Under these proposals, New England would have to build two new and separate clean energy transmission systems: one to import hydro, one to access wind.

Building two new transmission systems — one for wind, one for hydro — exponentially increases the difficulty and cost of meeting our clean energy needs. It makes much more sense to build one new clean energy transmission system that brings both wind and hydro into Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island.

One efficient multipurpose clean energy transmission system: now that’s infrastructure we can live with.

Ed Krapels is CEO of Anbaric Transmission, a privately held company specializing in the development of energy transmission and smart-grid projects.


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