This winter found many of us trying to get inside from the cold, where the comforts of modern life awaited — warmth, lights, electronics, appliances, and a hot meal.
You may not have realized it, but the infrastructure that delivers energy to us, upon which all these comforts depend, was under great stress.
Massachusetts does not produce coal, oil or natural gas. We are at the end of the energy pipeline for all those fuels. Over the past 30 years our region has shifted more of our energy use away from coal and oil toward natural gas.
Yet our demand for gas, both in the heating and electric sectors, has been increasing much faster than the supply of gas that pipelines deliver us. During this cold winter, we saw spot market prices for natural gas and electricity rise significantly. This not only made electricity generated by gas more expensive, it also meant that as the heating sector used more gas there was less available for power plants. There were times in this past, brutally cold January when our region’s electric grid manager, ISO-New England, needed to run old, inefficient and dirty “peaker” power units just to keep the lights on.
These cold periods that stress our energy infrastructure also tend to be quite windy. We have all seen the meteorologists on TV telling us about the “wind chill effect,” and winter is our windiest season. Massachusetts is not at the end of the wind pipeline. In elevated locations, along the shore and particularly offshore, we have our own vast supply of clean wind energy waiting to be tapped.
Over the past 13 years, our company has been developing America’s first offshore wind farm, Cape Wind, on Horseshoe Shoal. During that time Cape Wind would have provided significant energy, economic, and environmental benefits to Massachusetts and beyond.
During a severe three-day cold snap in January, 2004, ISO New England contemplated the need for rolling blackouts because of the shortage of natural gas for electricity generation. The U.S. Department of Energy studied the region’s energy vulnerability and noted that during the entire three-day period winds over Nantucket Sound were strong and, had it been built, Cape Wind would have been operating at full capacity during most of that period and provided significant electric reliability benefits.
This past winter, Cape Wind would have eased the stress on the natural gas and electric spot markets and reduced price spikes. Had Cape Wind been operating, National Grid and NSTAR would have also saved millions of dollars this winter under their contracts with us compared with relying upon spot markets. Over time, Cape Wind’s impact in reducing electricity spot market prices will be significant, more than $7 billion over the life of the project, according to a study by Charles River Associates. Wind power consistently reduces electric spot market prices wherever it has already been installed on a significant scale, such as in Europe or in parts of the U.S.
Offshore wind is also particularly valuable during a less windy season, summer. One might think of the “dog days of August” when temperatures are high but winds are calm. Yet offshore, it’s a different story, where the sea breeze kicks in during hot summer afternoons. In fact, we have found that during the highest summer electric demand hours, Cape Wind would double its average hourly electric production.
There is a lot of interest in the direct bill impacts for electricity consumers from Cape Wind. The Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities (MDPU) carried out lengthy adjudicatory proceedings and heard from energy experts and project supporters and opponents alike. The MDPU concluded that Massachusetts residential and business electric consumers will see an increase in the range of one to two percent on their monthly electric bills attributable to National Grid and NSTAR’s power purchase from Cape Wind. As with every other energy technology, the cost of harnessing offshore wind will fall as it is further built out and greater economies of scale are achieved.
Those who scoff at the energy contribution that offshore wind can play ignore key facts. Denmark today gets 30 percent of its total electricity needs met by a combination of onshore and offshore wind power. Although Cape Wind’s electricity will be sold to electric consumers statewide, Cape Wind’s electricity supply will be consumed almost entirely on the Cape and Islands. Cape Wind’s turbines will produce power 88 percent of the time, and in average wind conditions will supply 75 percent of the average electricity demand of Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket.
It has been a long road for Cape Wind, but we are now in our financing stage and preparing for project construction. Right now Europe is successfully operating 64 offshore wind farms that were built over the past 23 years, creating 58,000 offshore wind jobs in the process. Massachusetts has some of the best offshore wind resources in the world and will soon have North America’s first offshore wind farm. Cape Wind will provide greater energy independence and electric reliability while also creating good jobs and contributing to a healthier, cleaner, and more sustainable energy future.
Mark Rodgers is the communications director of Cape Wind, based in Boston.