Friday, January 23, 2009

Independent Wind Power

Last night former governor Angus King gave a talk on wind power in Maine at the Freeport Community Building. This talk was one of a few sponsored by Wolfe Neck Farm on renewable energy in Maine. The talks are supported by Royal River Natural Foods.

T. Boone Pickens may be the most famous entrepreneur in this country to bring large scale wind power projects to our attention as a way to do good while making lots of money but close to home we have our own well known advocate, Angus King. The title of his talk was, "The Future of Wind Power in Maine". King started a new company, Independent Wind ( to tackle implementing large scale wind power projects in our neck of the woods.

He began his talk with some statistics on Maine's energy use- here is a summary of the talk:

1. Usually we think of how to improve the efficiency of our electricity use but our total energy use breaks down as 10% electricity, 40% heat and 50% vehicles. And 55% of the electricity we use here comes from natural gas. Thus, he shows us how little difference slight improvements in efficiencies regarding our current electric use (replacing bulbs, etc.) though important, makes a very small dent in our dependence on fossil fuels. 

2. Since 80% of our homes in Maine are heated with oil- the highest in the country- and basically 100% of our autos use oil, we are currently in a dangerous situation, depending on outside sources of energy not to mention contributing to global warming. He points out that the country of Singapore until recently obtained all their fresh water through a pipe from another country (Malaysia). They decided this was a national security risk and invested in desalination plants with the result that they are now water independent. We should follow their example with our energy policy.

3. It is a big mistake, King says, to think our oil price crisis is over. If you look at the big picture the trend is up because countries like China and India are only going to consume more and more energy. A good way to look at energy use globally is to use the measurement, millions-of-BTU's-per person-per-year. Using this measurement we get: US=340; China=52; India=14; Sub Saharan Africa=8. Since economic growth and energy use is essentially a one-to-one correlation, energy use in developing countries will go up. Just to get an idea of the populations of places like China, King told us a friend of his who lives in one of China's lesser known cities said there were 80,000 students in just one grade in his city.

4. When oil prices in Maine go too far up the state becomes uninhabitable. A good way to understand this is that nationally, for every $1 the price of gas goes up, $1.2 billion dollars comes out of our spending on other things and goes into gas (since Maine homes are 80% heated with oil, we get devastated). Essentially we dodged not just a bullet but a howitzer this winter because if the price of gas had stayed at $4 (thus heating oil very high too), people would have died here (unable to afford to heat their homes).

5. For King, a good way to look at our precarious situation is to look at our purchase of house insurance. Though the risk is very low, most people purchase this insurance. Our risk of oil price going up is very high but we have no insurance to deal with this (thus he has implied a complete state of denial on our collective part probably leftover from the days gone of cheap oil. Just to add my own caveat, I think many of us make it a priority to have a wood stove whenever possible).

6. Thus, a list of ideals for energy would include: local source; big source; non-polluting; doesn't burn stuff (coal, gas, oil); and stimulates the economy. Wind power meets this check list. Wind power is a great solution now. Nuclear creates waste which we don't deal with. Hydro he thinks is mostly done (this is a point probably very worth disputing and later crops up as a good example of clean energy).

7. Wind power can be divided into on-shore (or shallow water) and off-shore. On-shore is doable in 2-3 year time frame with permitting, etc. Off-shore is not ready to go yet as needs platforms, etc. to handle the deep water but is what we need to think about now as well.

8. Wind power is not a complete solution, probably 20% of our energy needs maximum. Norway for example is 90% hydropower (water). He sees wind power as best solution implementable right now.

9. Impact of wind power on environment: makes sound that can bother you if 3,000 feet or closer to windmill (1/2- 1 mile away you won't hear it very often); shadow flicker will occur as sun passes through blades if 1/2 mile or so away or closer. Thus not a free lunch but pretty darn good. Visual impact of turbines seen from a distance some see as negative, others like them. He thinks we should identify mountain sites now that are agreeable to people so that end of it is already in place.

10. Efficiency of turbines is they move about 80% of the time but full power probably only 30% of the time. Output of windmill is cube of the wind speed is good way to consider it.

11. King described the Gulf of Maine as the Saudi Arabia of wind with potential to produce 250,000 megawatts of energy. All of New England uses 30,000 megawatts now.

12. We should think of wind as not just environmentally sound but as REPLACING OIL! (independence= national security).

13. King believes we should get ready now and pre-permit off-shore wind farms so that we can build them when the technology of the platforms, etc. necessary for deep water installation arrives we can quickly get them built.

24. The electric grid we use now in Maine was implemented after the great blackout of 1965 and therefore obsolete. We desperately need to upgrade our grid now.

Questions followed and here are a few topics:

1. One attendee thought that wind farms had a devastating visual impact using the Roxbury Pond windmill project up in Lincoln Maine as an example where he had a camp. He wondered why we should not better spend our efforts on the two energy problems, heating and autos (of course, if we have electric cars and passive homes electricity is very relevant). He offered the website as a resource for his opinion.

2. Another man pointed out that the state has put the top third of the state in a non-expedited zone so permitting is harder and why is that. King said getting permits for wind farms is very time consuming and generally costs millions of dollars and that projects in the lower two thirds still require a lot of time. He thinks the state should revisit this zoning and the whole approach to wind projects (I do not have this opinion in my notes so I am going on memory and that this is implied in his talk).

3. I asked if state legislators should consider telling municipalities that they must get a large percentage of their energy from non-fossil sources and leave it up to them how they do it. I mentioned that Gary Lawrence of Arup's office in a lecture last week suggested not dictating through legislation what to use for energy reduction or water use reduction (what kind of windows or insulation, etc.), only that a building had to meet certain performance goals and that would allow developers to be inventive. Thus towns could purchase energy from a wind farm or hydro (dam or tidal turbines) or solar farm or even make each home have a windmill or whatever they decide. Mr. King did not quite understand my question due to my bungling delivery but did say that big projects are more efficient and that the state needs a big amount of non-oil energy.

4. Someone pointed out that Delaware, Rhode Island and New Jersey are already working on permitting process for wind farms.

All in all a very inspiring and informational talk by the former governor. We are lucky to have someone doing what needs to be done rather than putting out reports. 

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