Cape Cod wind farm is a losing battle for greens

April 28, 2010

Apparent victory in a nine-year battle to win federal approval for a wind farm off Cape Cod is not the end of the story. Wealthy denizens of Massachusetts’ coastal mansions may still scupper the project. Given the poor economics of offshore wind, environmental advocates should choose a more promising battle ground.

The political obstacles to the project remain formidable. Offshore wind splits the environmental movement. While many are enticed by greenhouse-gas free electricity, others fret about damage to wildlife. Rampant not in my back yard-ism is a long-standing obstacle for wind. Even in the bleak Texas panhandle residents object that wind turbines would interfere with the mating rituals of prairie chickens. The affluent locals of Cape Cod are an even more formidable lobbying force. After all, the wind farm would be visible from the Kennedy family compound in Hyannisport.

These political challenges might be worth confronting if the sums added up. But there are far cheaper ways of reducing carbon emissions.

A case can be made for on-shore wind plants, which are becoming a big-league energy source in Texas. At $2,000 per kilowatt of capacity, construction costs are now roughly comparable to coal generation, according to Tudor Pickering Holt. With no fuel input costs, wind capacity has actually been driving down the price of electricity in Texas.

Sadly, the same would not be true of offshore wind, which is about twice as expensive to install, at roughly $4,000 per kilowatt — pricier even than solar at $3,500. As a result the project will struggle to win business from the retail power provider. Meanwhile, there would need to be heavy investment in the region’s electrical grid and transmission lines — around $10 billion if the New England project’s opponents are to be believed. Since wind is unreliable as a main source of energy, conventional fossil capacity would need to be kept idle for when the gusts fail, another expensive proposition. The resulting rise in electricity prices makes this venture a tough sell.

All said low-carbon campaigners would be wise to keep their powder dry. Sharp emissions cuts can be wrung quickly from greater use of natural gas — now close to price-parity with coal — and on-shore wind is gaining. Cape Cod looks like a battle they can — and maybe ought to — lose.

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