Wind Power Taking Off in New England
Thursday, August 11, 2016 10:24 AM
With all of the election-year static, it’s easy to overlook that 2016 will very likely be the hottest year on record. Fifteen of the 16 hottest years recorded have occurred since 2001, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and 2016 is reportedly on track to beat them. The lack of enthusiasm to take action on the climate is likely because voters often put global warming far down on their lists of priorities — below the economy, national security, taxes, health care, immigration, race relations, etc. But in recent years, public opinion has begun shifting and more and more voters are expressing an interest in reducing carbon emissions, which are known to contribute to global warming.
A construction crew assembles Deepwater Wind’s offshore wind turbines this week, 3.8 miles from Block Island, Rhode Island. The 30-megawatt, 5-turbine project will be the first offshore wind farm in the United States. (Photo Courtesy Deepwater Wind)
Earlier this year, the polling firm Gallup found that 41 percent of US adults believe global warming will pose a “serious threat” to them in their lifetimes, which is the highest level ever recorded by the firm. Sixty-four percent of those polled said they worried about the trend a “great deal,” which is the highest concern level recorded since 2008. And 65 percent said global warming was caused by greenhouse gases released by human activity, while 31 percent said it’s a natural phenomenon, marking the lowest level of climate skepticism the firm has recorded.
Meanwhile, the attorney generals of New York and Massachusetts are investigating whether ExxonMobil for years covered up its research revealing a link between burning fossil fuels and global warming. In July, Congressman and climate change skeptic Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who chairs the Science, Space, and Technology Committee, issued subpoenas to the two attorney generals along with eight environmental nonprofits as part of an investigation to investigate the investigators. The AGs have refused to comply with the order, according to press reports, which could result in a contempt-of-Congress showdown when Congress reconvenes in September.
“The fact that the House Science Committee Chair Lamar Smith … is going after the attorney generals and the Union of Concerned Scientists and other organizations suggests that we’re getting close,” said John Rogers of the Union of Concerned Scientists at an American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) regional conference in Portland last month. “And we are close to breaking this wide open in terms of getting the science of climate change out of the way so that we can focus on the solutions.”
One of those solutions, says Rogers, is zero-carbon-emitting wind power. Currently, Maine hosts over 200 wind turbines — mostly in the eastern, northern and western part of the state — with a total capacity of 710 megawatts. About 10.5 percent of the power generated in Maine comes from wind, and about 4.5 percent of the nation’s energy came from wind power in 2013, according to the Department of Energy (DOE). The cost of wind electricity generation dropped by 66 percent between 2009 and 2016, according to industry figures. Wind turbine technician is already the fastest growing job in America, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
And with an evolving energy market and better technology, the DOE predicts that wind power costs will drop below fossil-fueled plants within the next decade. By 2030, about a quarter of all electricity in the country will be generated by wind, the DOE predicts. In the Northeast, 30 percent of all proposed new regional generation is wind-powered, according to regional grid operator ISO New England, and that number is likely to grow as natural gas plants and renewable generators displace more costly and higher emitting resources.
But until market dynamics allow wind energy to be cost-competitive with fossil fuels, the technology will still need government support, say wind industry supporters. Wind power has been driven by federal and state tax incentives as well as state-level renewable portfolio standards, which require that utilities purchase a set amount of energy from renewable sources. And with the Northeast identified as a prime location for offshore wind and southern New England demanding more low-carbon energy sources, Maine will likely play an increasingly important role in the nation’s transition to renewable energy.
Offshore Wind on the Horizon
In the years since the first offshore wind turbine in the world was installed in Denmark back in 1991, about 12,100 megawatts of offshore wind power capacity has been installed worldwide, according to the Global Wind Energy Council, which is enough to power about two million homes. The majority of offshore wind is in northern Europe, but the DOE estimates that the US could install 86,000 MW of offshore projects by 2050. Later this fall the company Deepwater Wind is scheduled to connect America’s very first offshore wind farm — a 30-megawatt, 5-turbine project between Martha’s Vinyard and Block Island.
“New England is poised to undertake a major transformation of its energy platform in a way that’s been anticipated, but never realized, for many years,” said Massachusetts Conservation Law Foundation President Bradley Campbell at the AWEA conference. “We are just about a year from the first steel in the water on deepwater wind off Block Island. While it is a relatively small project, it demonstrated that the siting process could be done collaboratively, it could be done in a consensus-building fashion and it can be done relatively quickly. And that has really set the table for expansion of offshore wind in New England.”
On July 31, the Massachusetts Legislature also passed a new measure that will direct utilities to procure 1,600 MW of offshore wind power capacity through 15- to 20-year contracts by 2027 and an additional 9.45 million megawatt hours (MWh) of annual electricity generation from mostly hydropower plants but other renewable energy as well.
In addition, Maine Aqua Ventus, a University of Maine-led consortium of public and private developers, is one of three companies in the country to receive a lucrative DOE grant to continue work on its 12 MW floating offshore wind pilot project to tentatively be built at a test site off of Monhegan. If successful, the project would make it possible to construct a 500 MW wind farm 20+ miles offshore, which would be the first commercial floating wind project in North and South America. In the past, offshore wind development has been hampered by the lack of effective and affordable floating platforms and the cost and limitations of fixed offshore structures that can withstand ocean storms. But Maine’s floating wind turbines could lead to a revolution in offshore wind technology, says Bill White of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center.
“The United States is on the verge of finally establishing the offshore wind industry at scale,” said White. “Right now almost every state on the East Coast is diving into offshore wind through the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management process. The Great Lakes are moving forward and, of course, California. This California-Maine connection is important because of your deep resources and the need for floating [turbines]. All of those states are looking at it.”
A 2007 study published in Geophysical Research Letters, a geoscience journal, determined that there is enough offshore wind between Massachusetts and North Carolina to produce 330 gigawatts of electrical power — “a resource exceeding the region’s current summed demand for 73 GW of electricity, 29 GW of light vehicle fuels (now gasoline), and 83 GW of building fuels (now distillate fuel oil and natural gas).” The study’s authors estimated that such a massive undertaking would reduce the region’s CO2 emissions by 68 percent.
However, offshore wind faces a number of challenges, including siting and costs, which the US Energy Information Agency notes are the highest of all energy sources being considered for large-scale development. However, according to a study published this year by the University of Delaware, the costs of offshore wind development in Massachusetts will likely drop dramatically in the coming decades due to better technology, higher efficiency in turbine construction and “increased market visibility.”
“What [market visibility] really does is it creates volume and competition and it really lowers costs,” said Thomas Brostrøm, general manager of Dong Energy North America, the largest offshore wind company in the world. “You can see the benefits of this becoming global. You have Asia, China and Japan and North America coming in, and that will really fuel competition.”
And as the technology has improved, so has the efficiency of the turbines. Brostrøm noted that while offshore wind turbine capacity was once at around 20 percent, it has since increased to about 30 to 40 percent.
However, there is still uncertainty about the impact wind farms have on marine animals and the environment. Currently, Northeast Regional Planning Body (NRPB), which was created by a presidential executive order in 2010, is developing the Regional Ocean Plan with the stated goals of promoting economic growth and protecting the marine ecosystem. The NRPB includes representatives from all six New England states, federally recognized tribes and the New England Fishery Management Council. The body has no authority to create new regulations, but the plan — which covers fishing activities, wildlife habitat, military uses, sand mining, commercial vessel traffic, offshore wind and aquaculture — will provide a guide for future wind development and other ocean management decisions.
“The overall goal of this effort is to basically have a healthy ocean and vibrant economy and an ecosystem approach,” said Bob LaBelle, the Department of Interior representative on the NRPB. “Second is the goal of improving existing decision making in regard to multiple offshore uses.”
LaBelle said the group is currently collecting stakeholder input and identifying sensitive areas, which it will take into consideration as it develops the final draft of its plan. The body is compiling all of its data and interactive maps at northeastoceandata.org.
Southern N.E. Driving Development of Maine Wind
As public demand for clean energy has grown, other New England states are responding, which is driving the push for more wind transmission from Maine wind energy plants. Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts in particular have bolstered their carbon reduction targets. A May decision by the Massachusetts’ Supreme Court also determined that a state law requires mandatory volumetric greenhouse gas reductions, which was another win for climate activists.
“And that is significant not just for Massachusetts, but also for all of New England since Massachusetts drives 50 percent of the [electric] load,” noted Campbell of CLF, which helped bring the suit.
At the same time, AWEA estimates that the new Massachusetts renewable energy law could help create roughly 1,700 MW of new land-based wind capacity, although it’s unclear what that will mean for Maine, says Jeremy Payne of the Maine Renewable Energy Association.
“What I think it does in terms of opportunities for Maine is that it creates some additional [wind] development opportunities and more projects,” said Payne, whose organization represents wind companies.
But while Maine holds much of the land-based wind power capacity in the region, the projects are often in remote rural locations with fairly small transmission lines, which constrains the ability to get the power out to the highest-demand areas. Currently, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island are considering proposals to procure between 1.25 and 1.5 gigawatts of clean energy. The three states received 24 bids in response to the RFP, which include large solar, wind, fuel cell and hydro generation as well as transmission projects.
“This is … certainly the biggest single thing to come along and really probably bigger than all of the other procurements previously,” said Dave Wilby, the former vice president of state policy for wind developer SunEdison.
Two of the bid proposals include transmission projects through Maine, which aim to bring power down from Aroostook County as well as the western foothills where there are a number of wind projects in development. The Maine Renewable Energy Interconnect, proposed by Central Maine Power and Emera Maine, would help deliver about 1,200 MW from northern Maine to power at least a quarter-million homes in southern New England demand centers.
CMP has also submitted the Maine Clean Power Connection proposal that would transmit 550 MW from wind projects in Johnson Mountain Township along a new 66-mile transmission line to Pittsfield. Both projects will be able to transmit power out of state via the recently upgraded 345,000-volt “backbone” transmission network that runs from New Brunswick, Canada, to southern New England. According to CMP, ratepayers in the procuring states would pay for the projects.
“I can see Maine having a very important role as a host, both to wind generation and the transmission needed to support it,” said former Maine Public Utilities Commission Chairman Tom Welch at the AWEA conference. “But I think it’s unlikely that there’s going to be substantial support, certainly in this administration, as a buyer of energy in future solicitations.”
Welch also noted that it will take a lot of lobbying to “persuade the relevant constituencies” in the towns along the routes to accept the proposals, but he believed the transmission projects will get off the ground.
“Candidly, I think that there’s a very good prospect that there will be enough support to get that built,” he said. “And in a sense, these projects will help build a loop all the way up to Quebec, Ontario, back to New England and back up through Maine. I think that would bring huge advantages.”
The tri-state consortium is expected to announce the winners any day now, and power purchase agreements could be awarded by the end of the year.
Natural Gas and the Future of Wind
In the next decade, the region’s energy market will go through a rapid transformation, says ISO New England CEO Gordon van Welie. Natural gas along with renewable power and energy efficiency upgrades are displacing older coal, oil and nuclear plants as one third of existing electric generation capacity is expected to go off line by 2020. ISO New England has also reportedly begun the process of figuring out how to tie the cost of carbon into wholesale electricity markets, which could drive the development of more renewable energy. Within a decade the region could also have a “hybrid grid” that would allow 20 percent of power resources in New England to be connected directly to retail customers or to local distribution utilities, rather than through a transmission system.
“Widespread residential solar power and storage systems, electric vehicles, and smart meters will change not only how much electricity people draw from the grid, but when they draw it,” wrote van Welie in ISO New England’s 2016 Regional Energy Outlook. “These three waves of change are not unique to New England, but the transformation began early here and is quickening, putting the ISO and its stakeholders at the forefront of nationwide efforts to rethink nearly every aspect of grid operations, markets, and system planning.”
However, van Welie argues, while renewable resources can potentially serve “a sizable portion of regional power needs,” displacing a large amount of natural gas use with renewable resources will take time and substantial investments in transmission infrastructure. He added that adding more wind- and solar-powered resources in New England “will paradoxically increase the region’s need for fast-response, flexible resources” like natural-gas-fired generators because the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine. Natural gas power plants already make up nearly half of the region’s electricity-generating fleet as well as 63 percent of new generation being proposed by private investors in New England. .
“Until grid-scale energy-storage technologies become economic and widespread, the region will be calling on natural-gas resources to counter fluctuations in output from renewables,” van Welie wrote. “Adequate gas infrastructure is clearly important for ensuring reliability as the region transitions to a renewable power future.”
He noted that lack of adequate gas pipeline capacity has led to spikes in wholesale electricity prices during peak winter demand times. In order to relieve pipeline congestion and effectively flood the market with gas, the Maine PUC gave conditional approval for a measure that could potentially charge Maine electricity customers up to $1.5 billion to subsidize the expansion of a private natural gas pipeline that would serve the region’s gas-fired electricity generators. The subsidy is contingent on whether Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New Hampshire agree to join in the scheme.
But for Campbell, whose organization CLF staunchly opposes the pipeline subsidy, “the bane of wind and other renewables development” is not going to be transmission hurdles. It’s going to be natural gas.
“I think it’s important for the [wind] industry to understand that opposing the effort to prop up gas is as important a policy issue as any other,” said Campbell. “We now have three new natural gas plants proposed across the region that are in some form of permitting at this point. Stopping those plants is going to be critical to the clean energy future and ensuring that New England doesn’t lock in to an energy platform in which big gas replaces big coal and big oil.”
Campbell argued that, rather than requiring states to commit to subsidizing a pipeline that will be around for decades, pipeline capacity constraints can be better solved by making effiency improvements to the electric grid,
In the meantime, wind industry lobbyists and their allies in the environmental community say that they will continue to pressure state lawmakers to preserve and expand renewable energy portfolio standards while making sure Congress doesn’t renege on its agreement to continue federal tax credits for wind. AWEA’s Public Affairs Vice President Peter Kelley says his organization has been assured by Republican leaders in Congress that they will make good on a deal passed last year to preserve the wind tax credit for another five years. However, while Democrats are committed to keeping the credit, several Republicans, including GOP presidential contender Donald Trump, have vowed to “simplify” the tax code, which could mean doing away with various credits like the wind-energy incentives.
“It depends on who you believe,” said Kelley. “I think that it would be very unlikely for them to undo that deal. It was hard to get to, but it was a deal that was reached and makes sense and it’s working for our industry, which is a success story. So I don’t think it’s politically feasible to undo that deal.”