Spaced out along 10 miles of mountain ridge about 100 miles north of my home are a line of humongous propellers mounted on poles. There are about 60 of the propellers, twirling, almost constantly, above Mahanoy City – a town in the center of Pennsylvania’s once-thriving anthracite coal industry. The slowly spinning blades drive turbines said to generate enough electricity to power more than 60,000 homes.
Phase II of the project – addition of 51 turbines to the original 13 – was accomplished in 2009 with the assistance of a $295 million federal grant. The money from us taxpayers, according to published reports, enticed investors such as Morgan Stanley and Citigroup to kick in more money – money they were loath to invest without Iberdrola, a Spanish wind energy firm currently involved in four other wind-power projects in the U.S., coming up with a significant investment.
The grant was part of more than $500 million we taxpayers kicked in during 2009, at the height of U.S. banks’ refusal to loan our money to anyone for anything – except bonuses to themselves. The Morgan Stanley, et. al., contributions give me hope. These guys don’t put money into things they don’t expect to return great profits. It’s nice to think money can be made building, maintaining and selling wind-powered electricity.
The proposed federal budget for the coming fiscal year contains a 29 percent increase for the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. It includes $310 million intended to help make solar energy cost-competitive; $95 million for developing wind energy technology; and $350 million for a program aimed at boosting innovative energy technologies. The budget request also sets aside about $5 billion for the department’s Office of Science, a 2.4 percent increase from enacted fiscal 2012 levels.
I mention all that because there are some folks who think investing taxpayer money in sustainable electricity technology is wasteful spending.
Wind farms are becoming a common sight in the Commonwealth. There is a huge wind farm south of the Somerset rest area on the Pennsylvania Turnpike; travelers can see only a few of the turbines from the interstate. North Carolina-based Duke Energy, which mostly builds the farms for other electricity sellers, has 15 wind projects in the U.S., including three in Pennsylvania – in Lycoming, Cambria and Blair counties. It has an expansion planned in Lycoming County, and appears poised to build another array in Cambria County.
Some naysayers, especially those selling coal or oil, or burning it to generate electricity, tell us wind is too expensive. But according to PaPowerSwitch.com, an online resource for consumers to compare energy prices and sources, the wind premium is not significant, if it exists at all.
The site lists Met-Ed at $63.56 a month for 700 kWh of residential electricity. Met-Ed sells power from a combination of sources, including coal, gas, water, wind and nuclear.
BlueStar Energy Solutions sells the same amount of exclusively wind-generated electricity for $59.16 a month.
NextEra Energy Services sells wind-generated power for $56.70 a month.
When we burned oil to light our homes and wood to bake our bread, electricity companies told us how much more productive we would be if we used electrons flowing through wires. It was such a wonderful idea, we spent gobs of tax money helping spread it to the hinterlands.
Now we hear from politicians and the companies they represent that using taxpayer contributions to help generate electricity from the wind and sun is wasteful spending that will kill jobs. The same arguments likely were made about bow and arrow vendors, who threatened massive layoffs among workers who’d been constructing hunting hammers by attaching sticks to stones with pieces of rawhide.
Solyndra, the solar panel maker that went bankrupt shortly after receiving a sizeable federal grant, did not close its doors because solar is a bad idea. In fact, the world solar panel market doubled in 2010, and jumped another 44 percent in 2011.
The California company and five other U.S. solar panel makers went bankrupt because China heavily subsidized its solar panel manufacturers and flooded the world market with artificially less expensive panels.
Wind and sun will not completely replace oil, gas and coal for decades, if ever. The switch from coal to cleaner sources will take time – and pressure from a public clamoring for cleaner air, and utility providers’ discoveries of ways to make the new technologies profitable.
A few years ago, when the county in which I live was looking at building a composter to process household waste, the company that made most of our trash disappear – Waste Management – found a way to reduce its prices. It knew what our county commissioners knew: taxpayers, absent an understanding of the consequences, generally will opt for the least expensive option.
Sure enough, new 10-year contracts were written with companies hauling trash to landfills, and the composter idea rolled over like the drum that was its centerpiece. But rotting trash generates methane, and companies such as Waste Management are finding ways to use the gas, rather than vent it into the air or wait for it to explode.
Capitalism is a wonderful concept. It creates new technologies and makes at least some people very wealthy.
Sometimes it needs a push – like a $295 million grant to build wind mills.
Photo by ali_pk
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