The proposal for Cape Wind, which was to be the nation’s first offshore wind farm, is teetering on the edge of failure after a 14-year saga of lawsuits and regulatory hurdles. Yet a bill pending in the Massachusetts Legislature would require that large amounts of electricity come from wind turbines located offshore. How can that possibly make sense?
But the bill has it right: For the Northeast to address climate change, developing offshore wind is a necessity. That’s because nothing beats offshore wind for generating power.
There is no longer any question among reputable scientists that greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activity are largely responsible for climate change. Conceptually, doing something to reduce those emissions is remarkably simple. Most of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions come from just three sources: electricity generation, transportation, and the heating of buildings. To cut emissions drastically, we need to do three things: reduce the amount of energy we use; “green” the electric grid with renewable sources of energy; and — as much as possible — use that clean electricity to run electric vehicles and heat buildings.
In other words, green electricity can keep the lights on while phasing out gasoline and dirty heating oil.
Offshore wind energy fits into this picture because of the need for clean electricity generation — both to power everything we now use electricity for, and as a prerequisite to electrifying transportation and heating.
In this part of the country, there are currently only four potential large sources of renewable power for generating electricity: onshore wind, hydropower (mostly from Canada and some from northern New England), solar, and offshore wind. Examine each option more closely and it becomes apparent that we cannot do without offshore wind.
Onshore wind power from northern New England is an important resource. But getting the power to Massachusetts requires transmission lines through the northern states, which poses a big political challenge. Placing large numbers of onshore wind turbines in southern New England is impractical — the area is more densely populated, and we will never have the large land-based wind farms here that have been built out West.
An enormous amount of hydropower is generated by huge rivers in Canada, and to some extent in northern New England. But the so-called “Northern Pass” proposal for transmission lines for hydropower from Canada through New Hampshire is on the rocks politically, which speaks, again, to the difficulty of running transmission lines south.
Solar power is becoming more affordable, and over time will become an increasingly significant source of electricity.
But given current technologies, no other renewable resource can compete in terms of scale with offshore wind. The northeastern and mid-Atlantic coast are some of the windiest areas in the world. Even though Massachusetts has done a remarkable job of increasing solar power over the last eight years, Cape Wind alone would produce more than half the power generated by all of the solar panels installed in the state to date. Europe is way ahead of us, with 74 offshore wind farms generating power equivalent to the production of 10 large coal-fired power plants, according to the European Wind Energy Association.
Yes, offshore wind remains expensive, although the economies of scale that will come with the development of an offshore wind industry should drive prices down. In addition, many other ways to keep electricity costs down have not been fully exploited. The most important are conservation and efficiency. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy has rated Massachusetts first in the nation in those departments, but we can do even better. The potential for conservation and efficiency is virtually limitless. For instance, the incandescent light bulbs still in circulation and some Energy Star air conditioning units are — at best — just 10 percent efficient. That means that 90 percent of their electricity is wasted. The point is that we don’t have to use anywhere close to the amount of electricity we do now, no matter how it is generated.
To create a truly green electric grid, however, we need offshore wind in a big way. It’s time for Massachusetts to stand up to the billions of dollars that funded the opposition that stopped Cape Wind. A commitment by the state Legislature to offshore generation would send that signal and offer meaningful encouragement to potential wind developers.
Ann Berwick was Massachusetts’ undersecretary for energy and later headed the Department of Public Utilities in the Patrick administration.