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New York's Aggressive Renewable Energy Program? If Only...

In an article last month on energy, Bruce Fisher made the claim (no doubt also made by others) that “in anti-fracking, anti-nuke New York, there is an aggressive wind turbine program…” (“The Real Fight,” Artvoice, October 10, 2013). While this environmentally friendly sentiment is greatly appreciated, this appears to be mostly wishful thinking. The term “if only” seems more appropriate.

There is no other source of renewable energy capable of more than powering up New York State electrically, at as low a real, unsubsidized cost, as commercial-scale wind turbines. And this state has more than enough land to do this, as well as having a pretty decent offshore wind energy potential on our north (Great Lakes) and south (Atlantic Ocean) coastal waters.

But we have a horrible renewable energy pricing system that is screwing up this potential as well as the chance at the huge number of jobs that could be created making and installing wind turbines in New York State.

We now base our electricity pricing on a casino-like system (hourly marginal pricing) that is ill-suited to generation that does not require fuels, and where most of the generation cost is tied up with an upfront investment. What is needed to boost wind energy manufacturing and installation business/employment is long-term stable pricing, which is something not possible for natural gas sourced electricity. No one really knows what future natural gas prices will be, or for that matter how long the gas industry can go on selling fracking-based methane for less than half the cost of extracting it.

In New York State, we now consume around 16,000 megawatts (16 gigawatts) of electricity that is made in New York State (about two gigawatts is imported, mostly from Quebec, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania). Of that, around three gigawatts is renewable (mostly hydroelectric and wind turbines), and of that three gigawatts (delivered basis) of renewables, around 400 megawatts is from 1,638 megawatts of wind turbine capacity.

In order to transition from pollution-based electricity (about 13 gigawatts, mostly nuke, natural gas, and some coal) to clean electricity, we would need at least 13 gigawatts of renewables on a delivered basis, plus some extra for the losses associated with pumped hydroelectric energy storage systems. Using new low wind-speed turbines (LWST) on tall (100 to 140 meters) towers (typical is 80 meters these days), about 32 gigawatts of new wind turbine capacity (around $80 billion worth) would need to be installed, plus around $20 billion in new pumped hydro facilities and associated new transmission lines located throughout the state. That would end the scourge of pollution-based approaches to make electricity in New York State.

This year, only one significant project (Orangeville, 94 megawatts from 59 new low wind-speed turbines) will be installed in New York State. This is obviously not going to do the required job (32,000 megawatts, minimum), where around 16,000 new turbines (one per 2.8 square miles of land) on land or some combination of on- and offshore are needed (maybe 12,000 turbines for a mix of on- and offshore). And this is goal could be readily accomplished. All we have to do is get a sane pricing system for renewable electricity—and generate a lot of employment, too. $80 billion worth of turbines is 1.2 million job-years, mostly for the manufacturing of these systems somewhere, and the goal should be to maximize New York’s capacity to manufature the systems. But so far we only have about 300 jobs in six companies making wind turbine components to show for our $3.6 billion worth of already installed wind turbines. Compare that with about 6,000 jobs in Quebec), 7,000 jobs in Ohio, and more that 12,000 jobs in Ontario in the wind business. This New York performance to date is way less than abysmal.

We should be able to go all renewable in New York State in around a decade if we actually bothered to try, or we could slow-walk this over a 20-year period. That $100 billion investment (to be paid off via rate-payers over a 20- to 25-year period) will actually be cheaper than using that highly addictive fracking-based methane, which won’t continue to be sold for less than half of what it costs to make it for long. Fracked gas is sort of like our electricity crack cocaine.

Done correctly, that $100 billion investment becomes jobs—somewhere, hopefully here—and that investment staunches the export of hundreds of billions of dollars worth (over a 20-year period) of money to import methane.

By the way, continued or increased rates of natural gas consumption speeds up the demise of New York City via rising ocean waters from the melting/collapse of the Greenland ice-sheet via CO2 and CH4 induced global warming, and that will not be good for anyone in New York State.

Of course, more expensive renewables investments might lead to more jobs somewhere, but if the price of electricity is of concern, going mostly with the wind would be the smart way to power our future. And this even sets the stage to mostly eliminate the use of natural gas for heating. Electrically powered ground-sourced heat pumps could do that.

But the present bad pricing system based approaches, despite the possible good intentions of state officials trying to steer us to electricity produced in a sane manner (no nukes, no methane to speak of), won’t cut it. Over a 10- to 20-year period, electricity prices are going to go up considerably if we remain hooked on fracking-based methane. And if you want lower-cost wind-sourced electricity, the key is in the financing. For wind turbines, low-cost money for low-risk, long-term investments yields lower-cost electricity. NYPA or other state and municipally owned wind farms can produce electricity for around six to eight cents per kilowatt/hour for onshore facilities, and around 12 cents per kilowatt/hour for offshore units. And while the bulk electricity prices this year have averaged around four cents per kilowatt/hour, that’s the sucker play from electricity made with drastically underpriced methane. Sooner or later Exxon-Mobil and friends will insist that methane achieve their expected profitability levels. And that’s where a public addicted to natural gas will get raked over the coals…

So, it all boils down to what kind of future we want. The wind-based generation technology already exists, the “hydro-battery” technology is completely proven, and this is a great way to convert unemployment into middle-class employment and lots of new businesses on a large scale in New York State. The question remains whether the public, to use the Blue Oyster Cult refrain, chooses “On your feet or on your knees.” What do you say, people of New York? You’ve only your excessive and outrageous levels unemployment to lose.

> Dave Bradley, Buffalo

Dave Bradley is a member of Buffalo Wind Action Group:

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