Forget Quebec, look offshore for power

But for wind to work we need to change some things

THE SELECTION AND THEN REJECTION of the Northern Pass project is proving to be a remarkably important moment of reckoning about Massachusetts’ energy future. For beyond the desirability of Northern Pass looms much larger questions: How much more energy will we need from across the border in the North, especially in the form of hydropower, as renewable energy technology rapidly evolves? And how do we create a better process for securing the right kind of generation and transmission for the future?

We are in the beginning stages of a renewable energy revolution, led by offshore wind and increasingly firmed by emerging battery technology. The revolution hasn’t quite reached US shores yet, but it’s coming. The challenge for Massachusetts is how it can lead the way rather than be a follower. Thus, while the Northern Pass choice riled many, in part because it was a pure hydropower play (and, in effect a nod to the past), the real action promises to be in the Bay State’s ocean. There, renewable energy promises to be much cheaper and abundant.

Signs of the renewable revolution are particularly strong in Europe, but also gaining a foothold in the US.

  • Europe installed 3.1 gigawatts of offshore wind in 2017 and should have 25 gigawatts of capacity by 2020. At full output, this capacity would match New England’s peak electricity demand.
  • Europe’s commitment is paying off big-time: Prices continue to tumble, and already are competitive with traditional fossil fuel generation.
  • Wind turbines contribute about 15 percent of Texas’ power, often at very low prices. Texas built the transmission capacity, and the wind developers plugged in.
  • New York and New Jersey are planning large offshore procurements, combined over 5,000 megawatts.

Massachusetts’ procurement of 1,600 megawatts promises to make the state a leader in offshore wind generation, but it is flawed in three critical ways that will hold us back if they are not addressed. First, the procurement is not ambitious enough, especially if Massachusetts wants to build an industry — a genuine supply chain — around offshore wind and realize the pricing benefits of true scale.  Massachusetts should at least double the procurement number to 3,200 megawatts. If it does, it will be rewarded with the kind of wind prices that are blowing through Europe.

Second, the necessary transmission infrastructure — a grid for the ocean — has been an afterthought rather than an essential foundation of the process. To gain true efficiencies, the ocean grid needs to be independently bid and operated, allowing a wider range of generators to plug and play.

And the same bid selection flaws that led to the selection of Northern Pass are also built into the offshore wind procurement process. We shouldn’t have a request for proposals in which utilities are both bidders and selectors of the bid.

Transmission – the proper planning of it – will decide our energy future. Thus, the question of transmission isn’t whether Massachusetts needs more of it, but where it’s needed. A major transmission line to Quebec will lock the state into decades of dependence on that province’s hydro, most likely at a rising price. An offshore transmission system will enable the state to harvest large-scale wind, whose price in the last 10 years has been falling.

There is a lot of excitement about offshore wind, as there should be. European experience now shows that when the offshore infrastructure and transmission is well designed, the wind generators no longer need subsidies! For the generators, it’s often the transmission cost that makes the wind so expensive.

Moreover, the intermittent nature of offshore wind – often cited as a big problem for the grid operator – can be managed more effectively if there is a lot of battery storage dispersed throughout Eastern Massachusetts. In essence, power from batteries can “firm up” power from offshore wind. A long transmission line to Quebec isn’t an essential part of that kit.

Meet the Author
With the right commitments from the state regulators, the ideal clean energy kit for the Commonwealth, it turns out, is just off our shores.

Edward N. Krapels is the CEO of Anbaric Development Partners, an energy transmission developer.