Energy choices and the No Free Lunch Principle

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.

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.

Substituting electricity for oil for heating and transportation, however, will require a doubling of our electricity supplies — so the question then becomes, where should all this new power come from?

The first part of the answer is to remember the TANSTAAFL Principle. TANSTAAFL, of course, stands for “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” — and this certainly applies to energy production. Whichever option we choose will have some economic and/or environmental trade-offs.

Coal, for example (which supplies about 10 percent of our electric power in Maine), is the cheapest and most widely used energy source available today — and is also undoubtedly the dirtiest. Opponents of wind energy often repeat the silly charge that wind power somehow “destroys” mountains. They should go to West Virginia and see what the real thing looks like — mountains torn right down to the ground to get at the coal.

The next most likely source is natural gas — which is (currently) cheap and (currently) plentiful and is cleaner than coal or oil, at least in the burning. Today, natural gas is about $4.50 per million British thermal units — a great price. However, less than three years ago, it was $12.60 per million BTUs — and had the price stayed at that level, our dependence on natural gas would have hammered the Maine economy.

And the method of producing much of that gas — called hydrofracking, where millions of gallons of water and a powerful mix of chemicals (we don’t know what they are because the gas industry won’t tell us) are pumped into the ground to fracture the bedrock and release the gas — is being reconsidered as the extent of groundwater contamination and environmental damage becomes more apparent.

Also, is it sensible or prudent to put all our energy eggs into one basket again (natural gas this time), especially when you are dealing with a commodity, like oil, all of which comes from out of state and over which we have no control whatsoever?

Local hydro is renewable and has been a major part of our energy mix for more than a century. The reality is, however, that there is not much untapped hydro potential in Maine. And it carries its own set of environmental challenges — as I can attest from working on hydro projects in the ’80s (“Why don’t you leave our rivers alone and build wind?” they shouted at me at more than one hearing). New hydro, by the way, is about the same cost structure as wind — expensive to build but essentially free to operate.

Do I have to even discuss nuclear?

So, how about Hydro Quebec? Unfortunately, recent Hydro Quebec contract prices are set up to track the “market,” which means their price will move in step with natural gas, which sets the market price for electricity in New England.

This is like taking out an adjustable-rate mortgage on our whole economy — which puts us right back on the fossil fuel roller coaster, with no jobs or tax revenue to Maine. And don’t forget the necessity of some really big transmission corridors through, you guessed it, Maine’s western mountains.

Now let’s compare these options to wind power: a nonpolluting, renewable resource that can tap the enormous “river” of energy flowing over Maine every day and put it to work heating our homes and powering our cars. Sure, it must be properly sited — not too close to residences or fragile ecosystems, for example — but that can be achieved.

And yes, turbines will be visible, but does this really compare to what it takes to produce the fossil fuels we use every time we turn on the lights, start the car or heat our homes? The whole energy world is falling down around our ears, and we’re arguing about the occasional view? Give me a break. I’ve never heard a soul say they aren’t going to Denmark or Sweden or Germany or Spain or Prince Edward Island because they don’t want to see the windmills.

Is it really OK to say we want the power when we flip the switch, but the folks in Pennsylvania or out West get the serious (compared with wind) environmental impacts? To paraphrase the country song, we get the gold mine, they get the shaft.

In addition, wind brings with it the first major investment in Maine in the past 15 years. And with this investment come hundreds of construction, engineering, and operation and maintenance jobs, a huge increase in local tax base and a much-needed economic stimulus to Maine’s rural areas.

Wind isn’t the whole answer; no one contends that it is. But it should be a part of the answer because it’s a resource we have, here, in Maine. And the key point is that saying no to wind is saying yes to something else — at the moment, mostly oil — whether we want to admit it or not. I don’t think wind power is perfect; I just think it’s a lot better than the other alternatives.

– Special to the Telegram

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