June 5, 2011

Energy choices and the No Free Lunch Principle

Critics of wind power fail to acknowledge that it calls for much smaller economic and ecological trade-offs than any other source.


Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal told CNN recently that he wants oil prices to drop so that the United States and Europe don't accelerate efforts to wean themselves off his country's supply. "We don't want the West to go and find alternatives," he declared.

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Staff illustration/Jeff Woodbury

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Angus King is a former governor of Maine and partner in the company Highland Wind LLC.

Wow -- I've never seen it put so bluntly. These guys know that the only threat to their gravy train is if we're dumb enough to fail to "go and find alternatives" -- and they'll even lower the price (a little, temporarily) to keep us on the hook. And all the drama about wind power in Maine plays right into their hands.

The truth is that we face a stark reality in energy. Either we stay addicted to oil or go and find alternatives (there's that phrase again), which means two things: change and choices. The question isn't whether we need energy -- it's the basis of our economy and daily life -- but rather where will it come from and what are the costs and trade-offs between the various options for producing it. The key word here is choice, and doing nothing is, in itself, a choice -- almost undoubtedly the wrong one.

It's this crucial perspective that's been missing from the debate about wind power in Maine. Wind opponents don't seem to realize that if they want to say no to wind, that's OK, but when they do, they are actually saying yes to something else, and that something else will most likely have much greater economic or environmental impacts.

Right now the answer to the question of where Maine gets its energy is crystal clear. It's oil. Period. And Prince Talal wants to keep it that way.

Almost 80 percent of all the energy used in Maine (for electricity, heating and transportation) comes from oil, none of which -- nada, zip, zilch -- comes from within the state. This was no big deal when oil was cheap (in 1970, it was $3.39 a barrel -- you read that right, $3.39 a barrel!) but after this spring, the economic danger of this dependency is staring us directly in the face. In fact, I have come to believe the upward spiral in the price of oil represents the most serious crisis Maine has ever faced.

For every $1 increase in gasoline and home heating oil (like over just the past year), almost $1 billion evaporates from the Maine economy -- it's as if our income tax were doubled, but we got nothing for it.

Here's what this means in real life. In 1998, the energy needs of a typical Maine family (electricity, heating and transportation) took up 4 percent of the household budget. Today, that figure is 15 percent and climbing. If it climbs much further, people simply won't be able to afford to live here, and we'll be that big national park many of the wind opponents seem to want.

The only way to change this is a combination of conservation and substitution. We need to use less energy and get it from sources other than oil -- preferably sources which are renewable and can be produced locally -- and the most logical substitute is electricity.

Electricity can be efficiently used for home heating (which is 40 percent of the energy used in Maine -- now 70 percent from oil) right now, either with electro-thermal storage or electric heat pumps, and it will be ready for prime time in cars (50 percent of the energy used in Maine -- now 100 percent from oil) within the next couple of years.

And the cool thing about electricity is that it can be made from a variety of sources -- natural gas (currently about a third of our electricity supply), hydro, nuclear, biomass, waste-to-energy, tidal, coal and yes, wind and solar.

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