Northeast Utilities

Robert Whitcomb: Another trap in the energy cycles

A few years ago I co-wrote a book, with Wendy Williams, about a controversy centered on Nantucket Sound. The quasi-social comedy, called Cape Wind: Money, Celebrity, Energy, Class, Politics and the Battle for Our Energy Future, told of how, since 2001, a company led by entrepreneur James Gordon has struggled to put up a wind farm in the sound in the face of opposition from the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound — a long name for fossil-fuel billionaire Bill Koch, a member of the famous right-wing Republican family.  An amusing movie, Cape Spin,  directed by John Kirby and produced by Libby Handros, came out of this saga, too. Mr. Koch's houses include a summer mansion in Osterville, Mass., from which he doesn’t want to see wind turbines on his southern horizon on clear days.

Mr. Koch may now have won the battle, as very rich people usually do. Two big utilities, National Grid and Northeast Utilities, are trying to bail out of a politicized plan, which they never liked, forcing them to buy Cape Wind electricity. They cite the fact that the company missed the Dec. 31, 2014, deadline in contracts signed in 2012 to obtain financing and start construction. Cape Wind said it doesn’t “regard these terminations as valid” since, it asserts, the contracts let the utilities’ contracts be extended because of the alliance’s “unprecedented and relentless litigation.” Bill Koch has virtually unlimited funds to pay lawyers to litigate unto the Second Coming, aided by imaginative rhetoric supplied by his  very smart and well paid pit-bull  anti-Cape Wind spokeswoman, Audra Parker,  even though the project has won all regulatory approvals.

It's no secret that it has gotten harder and harder to do big projects in the United States because of endless litigation and ever more layers of regulation. Thus our physical infrastructure --- electrical grid, transportation and so on -- continues to fall behind our friendly competitors, say in the European Union and Japan, and our not-so-friendly competitors, especially in China. Read my friend Philip K. Howard's latest book, The Rule of Nobody, on this.

With the death of Cape Wind, New Englanders would lose what could have helped diversify the region’s energy mix — and smooth out price and supply swings — with home-grown, renewable electricity. Cape Wind is far from a panacea for the region’s dependence on natural gas, oil and nuclear, but it would add a tad more security.

Some of Cape Wind’s foes will say that the natural gas from fracking will take care of everything. But New England lacks adequate natural-gas pipeline capacity, to no small extent because affluent people along the routes hold up their construction. And NIMBYs (not in my backyard) have also blocked efforts to bring in more Canadian hydro-electric power. So our electricity rates are soaring, even as many of those who complain about the rates also fight any attempt to put new energy infrastructure near them. As for nuclear, it seems too politically incorrect for it to be expanded again in New England.

Meanwhile, the drawbacks to fracking, including water pollution and earthquakes in fracked countryside, are becoming more obvious. And the gas reserves may well be exaggerated. I support fracking anyway, since it means less use of oil and coal and because much of the gas is nearby, in Pennsylvania. (New York, however, recently banned fracking.)

Get ready for brownouts and higher electricity bills. As for oil prices, they are low now, but I have seen many, many energy price cycles over the last 45 years of watching the sector. And they often come with little warning. But meanwhile, many Americans, with ever-worsening amnesia, flock to buy SUV's again.

Robert Whitcomb oversees New England Diary.

National Grid's sunny start to 2015

This is from our friends at the New England Council:
National Grid, a New England Council member, announced plans on Monday to install solar panels at 19 sites around Massachusetts. The expansion is one of the largest solar projects in the state, and is expected to generate enough electrical energy to power 3,200 homes a year.

The installations will be located on public and private land, and are expected to include about 50,000 solar panels with 16 megawatts of power capacity. This will be added to the existing 700 megawatts of capacity that exists throughout the state already, including at the solar facilities of Northeast Utilities, a fellow NEC member. The expansion of such facilities is promising to bill-payers; a recent Deutsche Bank report said that solar electricity prices are on track to match or even fall lower than average electricity prices in most states by 2016, assuming various government incentive programs remain in place. Construction of the project is expected to be completed by June 2015.

“Solar generation is an increasingly important piece of the energy picture for Massachusetts and the entire country,” said Edward White, vice president of Customer Strategy and Environmental, National Grid. “National Grid is proud to join the Commonwealth in taking a leadership role to develop this vital clean energy source. As our network and our customers’ expectations evolve, we anticipate more opportunities for our company to strategically invest in new energy sources and technologies on behalf of our customers.”

The state’s goal in 2007 was to build 250 megawatts of solar power capacity by 2017. It passed that mark last year and is now working towards a new goal of 1,600 megawatts by 2020. The New England Council applauds National Grid for its tremendous efforts toward meeting these goals and advancing clean energy in New England.

Read more in National Grid’s press release.