Another renewable energy proposal is in the wind

Last month, a Boston-based energy developer announced plans for another wind-power project for rural Hancock County. Under consideration (not for the first time) is a 17-tower, $140-million development next to the existing Hancock Wind and Bull Hill wind projects.

The applicant proposes to comply with the community benefit requirement of such projects by providing funds to restore a dam on Lower Lead Mountain Pond. This provision of “tangible benefits” has become familiar. Less familiar were County Commissioner Bill Clark’s questions about the funds the developer would bestow.

“I’m trying to figure out why we deserve anything,” Clark said.

Hold that thought.

Looking at the big picture, this latest proposal is a minor energy project. Compare it to the 174-turbine wind farm proposed for southern Aroostook County. That one’s the largest wind energy project anywhere in New England.

But we might want to keep in mind that these renewable energy innovations rely on government subsidies. This doesn’t bode well for market-based solutions.

California’s Governor Jerry Brown has signed a bill that would require the state to generate 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources no later than 2045. Historically a leader in this area, California’s wish to spur other environmentally tuned in states to action was cited as one of the factors for the legislation.

The pressure’s on. The Energy Information Agency states that world oil demand for 2018 is 100.1 million barrels per day (BPD). And it goes up, with the 2019 forecast to be 101.65 million BPD consumed by expanding economies and population growth worldwide. This despite the expansion of renewable fuel sources in developed countries.

While market forces have been able to push the price of oil higher this year, due largely to the U.S.-led economic expansion, the supply of oil, propane and natural gas has been constrained by pipelines and shipping issues, which also adds to consumer cost. This is not unlike the expense that renewable energy providers confront — new transmission lines are very expensive to build and maintain.

In Maine, that is a battle that CMP is now waging as it works to move vast amounts of energy from Hydro-Quebec to southern New England via an expanded transmission corridor in the western foothills of Maine. Critics are ramping up to prevent the line expansion, even while alternative energy providers need new transmission lines to move solar and wind project power to the heavily subsidized southern New England states that are working to embrace California-style power initiatives while using rural Maine as their personal wind farm. New England’s electricity rates remain among the highest in the nation despite these alternative energy expansions.

Much of the Maine-generated wind power, plus some proposed solar power projects, will be funneled to southern New England states. But ultimately, all of the power feeds the grid to support the region’s rapidly growing energy needs as regulators deactivate older carbon-fed power plants and aging nuclear facilities go offline.

To support wind expansion, Augusta created legislation that energy development projects must provide local tangible benefits, or community benefit agreement money, to host communities. Thus, small towns such as Osborn, Aurora and Waltham, as well as Hancock County itself, receive annual stipends for public purposes to improve the perception of the vistas as they sprout 384-foot wind towers across the landscape.

The Hancock County Commissioners have embraced wind tower expansion and have capably managed the tangible benefits money. In doing so, the commissioners have generally reflected the public’s embrace of alternative energy sources for the future. If wind tower projects continue to locate in this region, there will be more money and more requests from nonprofit agencies for a piece of the pie. We suggest directing the community benefit largesse to help area homeowners better handle energy consumption in their homes, especially the older homes you’ll find in every Hancock County town. What better use than helping residents reduce their energy needs and expense?

But be advised: the money given out and the money yet to arrive was our money originally. A recent study reveals that over $176 billion in local, state and federal subsidies have benefited the various companies represented by the American Wind Energy Association. Warren Buffet, the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, summed up his company’s outlook on wind power projects this way: “We get a tax credit if we build a LOT of wind farms. That’s the only reason to build them. They don’t make sense without the tax credit.”

We can all support alternative energy supply as an option that moves power reliance away from carbon-based fuels. Yet, we need to exploit the virtues of our ample, and free, hydro power as well as utilize the latest nuclear power capabilities if we are to truly replace the base-load power output of coal, oil and natural gas. Market-based solutions have never been more relevant.

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