Friday, October 15, 2010

The Wind and the Tide

repower-5mw-wind-turbine Internet search engine giant Google announced Tuesday that it is investing in a mammoth project to build an underwater "superhighway for clean energy" that would be able to funnel power from offshore wind farms to 1.9 million homes without overtaxing the already congested mid-Atlantic power grid.

Why?

While the project is outside of Google's normal focus, officials said, "We believe in investing in projects that make good business sense and further the development of renewable energy."

Well, that makes enough sense as not to matter. If Google wants to do this, and its shareholders don’t raise objections, why not? It certainly has a good profile.

Some of what I’ve read raises questions, though not really about the utility of the project.

There’s this:

Consumers who would receive electricity through the grid would help fund the project, Mitchell added, although he said at this point, "It's hard to say what will be the impact on the consumer."

Mitchell is Bob Mitchell, chief executive of Trans-Elect, the electric transmission company that is taking the lead on the project. It sounds like CWIP, where consumers help pay for construction of a new plant. I assume this needs public utility commission support in the various states it will serve – I’m not sure this has happened yet.

There’s this interesting tidbit in the New York Times:

Yet even before any wind farms were built, the cable would channel existing supplies of electricity from southern Virginia, where it is cheap, to northern New Jersey, where it is costly, bypassing one of the most congested parts of the North American electric grid while lowering energy costs for northern customers.

That’s a net positive and it suggests where some money can be made by Google, Trans-Elect and their partners while the turbine work is done. But the very next paragraph suggests the countervailing force.

Generating electricity from offshore wind is far more expensive than relying on coal, natural gas or even onshore wind. But energy experts anticipate a growing demand for the offshore turbines to meet state requirements for greater reliance on local renewable energy as a clean alternative to fossil fuels.

So those who thought cap-and-trade an energy tax can now call this an energy tax, too. That’s a little snarky, but the truth is that any movement to renewable energy sources is going to imply a higher cost for electricity – whether it is government or industry that powers the move.

And that may be okay by many as long as the cost of electricity remains manageable and as long as carbon emission reduction as a desirable outcome doesn’t hit headwinds. We’ve seen a lot of politicians in the current election cycle deride global warming, which suggests that an interesting dynamic may emerge if they become a significant block of legislators.

And there’s this:

Now, apply those numbers [the cost of the Cape Wind project in Massachusetts] back to Google and Good Energies’ project. In order to produce 6,000 megawatts, they would need about 1,700 turbines, for a cost of over $32 billion. These are some sketchy numbers — nobody’s seriously proposed 1,700 turbines off the coast, nor is it clear where the extra $27 billion would come from.

I think these numbers are wildly overstated – this is a project where you cannot easily separate the turbines from the transmission – but I agree with writer Matthew Shaffer that numbers are flying around with only a vague sense of how to account for them. That may be the nature of a large project, but it will likely lead to some breathtaking financial obligations – for electricity vendors, state governments, consumers. Or maybe not – that Virginia to New Jersey connection noted above may allow for some impressive cost sharing over the span of the project.

None of this should be construed as objections or as a way to sow doubt over a wind project on a nuclear site. Quite the contrary – an infrastructure project this big raises innumerable questions that will find answers as it moves along, but that doesn’t mean it should be stopped or unnecessarily hindered.

There are many angles from which to compare this project to what a nuclear energy plant might offer in contrast. But let’s leave that aside this time. Instead, consider this post some initial scattered thoughts about a very interesting development and add your own thoughts – even if less scattered – in comments. After all, we’re all electricity buffs, aren’t we?

I’d never really seen a picture of erecting a turbine in the water, but it makes sense that it would include cranes on barges. Presumably there’s a community of divers to root them in place, too.

1 comment:

DocForesight said...

I can't help but wonder where the NEI gents get their information to stay abreast of "Global Climate Disruption" news and happenings.

It would appear, from some sources at least, that the wheels of the GCD bus are coming off, hubcaps and all.