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Wind is a better answer than hydro for post-Pilgrim energy needs

AP/file 2006

With the announcement that the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station will be closing by 2019, Governor Baker is advocating for replacing the electricity that Pilgrim supplies with hydropower from Canada. Kudos to the governor for focusing on clean power rather than on natural gas to replace Pilgrim's carbon-free energy. But he's overlooking our own enormous domestic resource — offshore wind.

No question, if we can get more Canadian hydropower, we should. But will we be able to get it, and get it when we need it most?

There's still hope for Hydro-Quebec's Northern Pass project, designed to bring Canadian hydropower through New Hampshire to Massachusetts, but it has been stymied for years. It's possible that other proposed transmission lines will not encounter the same difficulties, but that remains to be seen. And if opposition forces transmission lines to be installed underground, rather than overhead, the costs of Canadian hydro will increase dramatically.

And will we be able to get the power when we need it most? Quebec has a winter-peaking electric system, and New England's system is summer-peaking. However, New England's electric system is under maximum stress in the winter, when it has to compete for natural gas with the region's heating needs. The unanswered question is whether Quebec will in fact be able to supply New England with additional electricity on the coldest winter days, when both their system and ours experience peak demand.


Given these circumstances, it is puzzling that the governor is focused on Canadian hydropower to meet the state's climate-related requirements, to the exclusion of offshore wind.

If the reason is the price of offshore wind, the administration is relying on outdated information. The price in the contract between National Grid and Cape Wind, without the 3.5 percent annual escalation factor, was $187 per megawatt hour. Thanks to advances in technology and experience building offshore wind farms, the target in Europe for projects under contract in 2020 is $113 per megawatt hour, which is approximately 40 percent less than the starting Cape Wind price.


Meanwhile, the price of Canadian hydropower is unknown, especially in light of the transmission costs of getting it from northern Quebec or Newfoundland.

If the governor's reason is that wind is an "intermittent" resource, and that hydropower is not, that perspective also needs clarification. The conventional wisdom lumps solar power and wind power together, on the theory that neither is available 24/7. But there's a big difference between the two. In Massachusetts, solar power is available only about 15 percent of the time (thanks to nighttime and the weather). But the newest offshore wind plants in Europe operate 50 percent of the time.

Meanwhile, our coast is one of the windiest places in the world. And the windiest times of day are the times when electricity-use peaks — that is, in the late afternoon and early evening, when we all turn on our lights.

As the Globe reported Tuesday, the Department of Interior has awarded three leases in federal waters for wind farms off Massachusetts and Rhode Island. These wind farms are rated together in excess of 4,000 megawatts. (For comparison, Pilgrim is rated at 680 megawatts.) The Interior Department leases mean that these wind farm sites have already cleared a major hurdle. And transmission through state waters to the Massachusetts mainland is within the state's control, in stark contrast to the situation for Canadian hydropower. The closest of these turbines to shore would be about 15 miles, barely visible in good weather (and more than double the distance of Cape Wind from shore).


Further, offshore wind is a local resource; Canadian hydropower isn't. We currently ship overseas most of the billions of dollars we spend on energy. Granted, Canada is not Saudi Arabia, but why would we finance Canadian hydropower and transmission construction jobs in the northern New England states to the exclusion of local offshore wind? Meanwhile, building an offshore wind industry in Massachusetts would create jobs associated with both the construction of wind farms themselves and with the entire supply chain.

Pilgrim supplies over 80 percent of the state's carbon-free energy. Even without its closing, the state was behind in meeting the climate requirements of the Global Warming Solutions Act. The fact is, we need both hydropower and offshore wind. We'd be far smarter to negotiate the price for Canadian hydropower with our own large domestic resource — offshore wind — in hand.

Ann Berwick was Massachusetts' undersecretary for energy and later headed the Department of Public Utilities in the Patrick administration.