The announcement last month that Northeast Utilities, National Grid, and Unitil signed long-term contracts to purchase wind power from farms being built in Maine and New Hampshire is a welcome step toward cleaner energy production. But for the region to fully benefit from the deal, New England’s utility companies will have to focus their attention on improving the region’s antiquated electrical grid.
The agreement states that the three utility companies will buy 565 megawatts of wind power at around 8 cents per kilowatt hour — a rate that is significantly cheaper than most conventional energy sources. And analysts predict that setting a precedent for large-scale renewable energy purchases by utilities will encourage further investment. All of these developments will help provide alternatives to natural gas, which is used to generate half of all electricity in New England. Natural gas is currently inexpensive by historical standards, but having multiple sources creates a buffer against price fluctuations.
However, it is important to note that New England’s aging grid can barely keep up with demand already. During last summer’s heat waves, wind farms in northern New England were asked to reduce their output because the grid couldn’t safely handle all the electricity that they were producing. To meet demand during peak hours, utility companies had to fire up old coal- and oil-powered generators. Any further increases in wind power will have to be coupled with improvements to the grid, or else consumers won’t be able to take advantage of the clean energy when they need it.