The Politics of Wind Power: Coastal States Vie for Position

Among policymakers concerned about energy independence and climate change, wind power is one of the hot topics. And for politicians in the coastal states, there’s a lot of competition for the government and industry dollars at stake in developing wind’s potential. This spring saw, not one, but three conferences on the Eastern seaboard focused on offshore wind — one in Maine, one in Virginia, and one in the Carolinas. A Virginia Beach conference highlighted some of the difficulties of offshore wind power development, the Hampton Roads Virginian-Pilot reported (“ Va. Beach conference debates: Is wind energy in doldrums?” by Scott Harper). Wind turbines can interfere with military radar, with commercial shipping, and with conventional oil and gas development, some speakers noted. But some feared that Virginia could fall behind other states competing for federal money. “Delaware, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Massachusetts all are in various stages of permitting offshore wind projects. Those states also have one thing in common: they all have requirements that utilities use a certain amount of renewable energy to create electricity. They must use a certain percentage of solar, geothermal, biomass or wind energy as party of their portfolio or face a stiff fine,” the paper noted. “Virginia, by contrast, has a voluntary renewable energy standard. Utilities here shoot for certain percentages as a no-penalty goal. But without mandatory standards, most environmentalists and many conferees argued that the state is fighting an uphill battle in enticing offshore wind development.” But wind-power boosters touted Virginia’s natural advantages for wind power development, the paper said: “They note that the state has a power station at the ready in Virginia Beach to handle offshore wind; maintains a sophisticated workforce with experience in ship repairs and maritime industries; is politically gung-ho about wind power; and is home to military bases under orders to use more green energy and burn less fossil fuel.” North and South Carolina wind-power advocates meeting in Charlotte, N.C., meanwhile, made much of those states’ natural gifts. Said a release from the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (“ N.C. & S.C. Collaborate on Offshore Wind Projects”): “According to a report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, 33 percent of the total East Coast offshore wind energy within 50 miles of the shoreline is located off the coast of North and South Carolina and both states have offshore wind energy resources that exceed their current installed electricity generation capacity. ‘Based on the report, North Carolina and South Carolina have the largest offshore wind energy resources in shallow water on the Atlantic Seaboard,’ said Ralph Nichols, Wind Energy Program Manager at the Savannah River National Laboratory.” Nichols argued, “This excellent wind resource, combined with outstanding port facilities in the region, should attract investment by utilities and the offshore wind industry.” And wind advocates suggest that the Carolinas’ low-cost labor resource could give that region an edge. “This is an industry where about 10 percent of the cost is materials and 90 percent is labor, and that represents a significant advantage for the lower-cost labor markets of the Southeast to attract manufacturing,” said Jen Banks of the N.C. Solar Center. Meanwhile, in Portland, Maine, the Boston Globe reported, 200 conference-goers honored Republican Senator Olympia Snowe as a “political pioneer” for her efforts in support of wind power (“ Ocean energy conference under way in Maine,” by the Associated Press). “Last year, Snowe introduced the Deepwater Wind Incentive Act, which was aimed at providing certainty for offshore wind technology investments,” the paper reported. At the Maine conference, the state’s civic boosters said that Maine should look beyond mere power generation, and seek to establish itself as a manufacturing power supporting wind energy projects worldwide, the Portland Press Herald reported (“ State's ocean energy potential goes beyond generating power,” by Tux Turkel). “Maine was once the world's lumber capital, said Peter Vigue, Cianbro's president and CEO. Today the state has the steady breezes, manufacturing capabilities and proximity to population centers to export offshore wind power as a commodity, and become New England's renewable power provider. ‘Why not Maine?’ Vigue asked participants. Bath Iron Works is best known for building Navy ships, but its 5,500 employees have the engineering, mechanical and design skills to construct the vessels and components needed to support ocean energy development, said Lisa Read, the company's project manager. Maine businesses, panel speakers said, have a chance to participate in a supply chain that is emerging to serve the ocean energy industry.” But wind power remains controversial in Maine, and in other coastal states as well. One reason is that so far, wind-generated electricity remains as much as four times as costly as conventionally generated power — and that’s based on some rather generous assumptions. This spring, advisers to newly elected governor Paul LePage said the new administration was skeptical about offshore wind, the Bangor Daily News reported (“ LePage administration questions feasibility of offshore wind power,” by Jamison Cocklin). “Ken Fletcher, director of the Governor’s Office of Energy Independence and Security, said that initially the price of electricity from offshore wind would be very high. He estimated it would cost about 27 cents a kilowatt-hour,” the Daily News wrote. “The average price for electricity in Maine is now about 16 cents a kilowatt-hour. Fletcher said although costs would come down as the technology is developed, it is unclear how long it will take to reach the point of affordability... James LaBrecque, owner of Flexware Control Technology in Bangor and a technical adviser to LePage, said technologies such as offshore wind and solar power are not viable because of their high cost and low performance rates.” But after University of Maine professor Habib Dagher, whose fiber-composites research facility has garnered big grant money to pursue advanced materials for wind-generator propellers, met with Fletcher, the new administration sang a slightly different tune. Maine Public Broadcasting has that story (“ Maine Energy Official Backs Away from Offshore Wind Criticism,” by Tom Porter). “Ken Fletcher, head of the Maine Office of Energy Independence and Security, was quoted recently as being worried by estimates that offshore wind power will cost around 27 cents per kilowatt hour, 11 cents higher than existing rates. But after a meeting with the man leading the state's research efforts in offshore wind, Fletcher says those concerns may have been unjustified,” the network reported. “Fletcher says he based his 27 cents estimate on the cost of a planned pilot project due to start producing power next year off Monhegan Island. He now accepts that this price factors in the cost of research and development. ‘This really is R&D work in the beginning to really understand what the potential is and to learn as to what things need to be put in place to bring it to a commercial operation,’ he says. ‘So I think that we're in alignment with that and the administration, I think, wants to understand what they can do to be a partner with them.’ Fletcher says a meeting he had late Tuesday afternoon with UMaine engineering professor Habib Dagher shed light on the cost issue. Dagher heads the DeepCWind Consortium, a coalition dedicated to making Maine a leader in offshore wind technology.” But some Mainers remain deeply skeptical, and, in fact, bitterly opposed to wind power in Maine — at least on land, if not offshore. Maine back-country guides, for example, took issue in July with plans for a wind farm on Bowers Mountain, 60 miles from the coast near the Canadian border, the Bangor Daily News reported (“ Guides say Bowers Mountain wind project would disrupt wildlife, harm business,” by Nick Sambides Jr.). Some commenters on the paper’s website were in sympathy: wrote one, “I have a feeling that when the Govt subsidies for these windmills dry up, companies like First Wind will also dry up. The people of Maine will be stuck with these eyesores till the Chinese come and knock them over for the scrap metal.” In what could be a signal development, the Rhode Island Supreme Court ruled in favor of utilities and wind-power developers in a case brought by two heavy industrial power users in the state who sued to block an agreement by the utility to purchase high-priced windmill power. The Providence Journal has the story (“ R.I. Supreme Court upholds power-purchase pact for wind farm off Block Island,” by Alex Kuffner). “Toray Plastics and Polytop Corp., both heavy users of electricity, filed an appeal with the Supreme Court after the state Public Utilities Commission approved the power-purchase agreement last August. The plastics manufacturers’ chief complaint is that the starting price of power — at more than three times the price from conventional sources — is too high,” the paper reports. In ruling against the suit and allowing the power agreement — and the wind farm — to go forward, the Justices did not endorse the policy. In his 75-page opinion, in fact, Justice Gilbert V. Indeglia expressed reservations about the whole idea: “Although we view with trepidation the General Assembly’s unwavering quest to sink this demonstration wind farm into the sediment of Rhode Island’s continental shelf, we nonetheless are constrained by our standard of review and the bounds of the revised [long-term contracting] statute,” the decision says. Wrote the Justice, “this Court recognizes the parade of irrational possibilities that could incur from this legislative direction.” But the Justice said that things could turn out all right in the end — comparing the state’s investment in a seemingly uneconomical power source to the U.S. purchase of Alaska from the Russians in the 1800s, which was criticized at the time as a boondoggle. “It is this Court’s fervent hope that our Legislature’s William Seward-esque policy decision championing this amended purchase-power agreement proves as lucrative and majestic as the Alaska Purchase of 1867,” the Justice wrote. The power industry had a different spin: This is Rhode Island’s chance to beat out the other states in the ocean power race. William M. Moore, Chief Executive Officer for Deepwater Wind, said in a statement: “Today’s ruling solidifies Rhode Island’s position as a national leader in building a clean energy future for our country.”