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New England Energy Choices

Paul Kando

Many Mainers would like to transition away from fossil fuels to renewably generated electricity. One problem is that transmission lines are needed to carry power from large wind and solar farms and hydro dams hundreds of miles, from remote northern locations to distant users. These massive power lines are expensive to build and often opposed by people living near them.

Energy Crossroads
photo credit: Grattan Institute

Half of New England’s electricity comes from natural gas burning plants, supplied by existing pipe lines that are proving too small on the coldest winter days. Yet the southern New England states don’t want to become even more dependent on natural gas. They wish to avoid gas pipeline expansion subsidized by electric rate payers. Gas-fueled power generators are large, conservative utilities that don’t have rate payer’s interests first on their minds. So prices could rise. Besides, natural gas use contributes to climate change by both methane leaks and CO2 emissions. So, without more gas lines from the south, or new transmission lines from the north, where might the region’s future power come from?

There are a few Maine wind projects already connected to existing power lines, with a combined peak generating capacity of about 600 megawatts. That’s enough to power over 100,000 homes, but since the turbines only turn when the wind blows and New England’s daily demand is a steady 17,000 megawatts, their contribution is limited. So, if other big wind, solar and hydro projects depend on prohibitively expensive transmission lines to get their electricity to market, the logical alternatives are improved energy efficiency and distributed, close-to-the-user power generation, i.e. rooftop and community solar, and energy storage. It is hard to argue against net metering when the homeowners’ transmission lines run only from their back yards, or the community's capped landfill and solar power contributes more than a dime per kilowatt-hour to everyone on the grid. Battery technology is also becoming economical for storing that power onsite. This is a threatening thought for conservative utilities and their political allies that want to keep their ratepayers captive. They like the status quo. This is the real reason why small scale solar is not getting the attention it deserves in the overall energy scheme.

My grid-tied solar system supplies about 75% of my annual home energy needs. Some days it produces next to nothing, some days twice what I need. And batteries can greatly reduce or even eliminate the power I take from the grid. Distributed solar does not require transmission lines from large power sources. It is non-polluting, low carbon energy, with no habitat loss, degraded mountain vistas, pipeline leaks, explosions, or fracked wells in someone's backyard. And the fuel cost is free — forever.

Of course, residential energy is just one part of the overall picture and in a post-fossil fuel world there are no one size fits all solutions. We must develop the best local solutions, including smart microgrids, and set a price on the currently externalized climate costs of natural gas and oil, with some mechanism to protect the interests of lower income people.