Last week, Massachusetts announced the winner of a new offshore wind contract — which means the Bay State is about to get its first offshore wind farm. The Vineyard Wind project will be located at least a dozen miles south of Martha’s Vineyard and is expected to generate 800 megawatts of energy — enough to power 400,000 homes. Vineyard Wind is aiming for 2021 to be up and operational.
There is a lot to like about wind. The rows of wind turbines standing 397 feet tall (that’s 92 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty), rising out of the water are visually striking with their sleek blades turning in concert.
Wind energy is completely green energy, powered by a vast and inexhaustible resource. It does not pollute the water or the air. There is no ugly byproduct to contend with nor does the apparatus itself take up a lot of space. According to its website, “Vineyard Wind will offer $3.7 billion in energy related cost savings over the life of the project while eliminating 1.68 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions — the equivalent of taking 325,000 cars off the road.”
It sounds very promising as do a lot of the carefully worded highlights on the Vineyard Wind’s “Benefits” page. “Vineyard Wind’s turbines, totaling up to 800 MW, are expected to reliably produce the amount of energy used by over 450,000 Massachusetts homes. Offshore wind delivers much of its power in the winter, when Massachusetts needs the most energy for both heat and electricity generation.”
It feels right.
Let’s hope it works out.
But there is a lot of greenwashing going on in the renewable energy world. “Greenwashing” is essentially the spreading of disinformation by an organization to present an environmentally responsible public image. It’s a good word to know.
So let’s look at the questionable aspects of wind energy.
Wind farms have an intermittency problem. They only produce energy when there is wind and sometimes there is little or none. If there were a way to store energy from a windy day and use it on a windless day that problem would be solved. Unfortunately, a practical mass-storage system of the magnitude necessary to hold enough wind energy doesn’t yet exist, although companies are feverishly working on it.
There are environmental concerns about ocean wind farms. Not only do the blades kill a lot of birds but fishermen and others are concerned about the effects on sea life that pile-driving massive steel support tubes into the sea floor will cause.
Integrating wind energy into the energy network can turn out to be very costly. Because wind can be erratic, other energy sources will need to toggle their output to accommodate it. These other sources will have to “turn on a dime,” as it were, which they’re not really equipped to do.
It’s also worth noting why — apart from their noble commitment to the environment — so many big companies are getting in the game. The answer is three words: Production Tax Credits. The federal government offers PTCs to wind companies for each megawatt-hour of electricity they produce. That is like a cash refund for every time those blades spin.
Data shows that during years the PTCs aren’t available, wind output and wind development decline sharply. When the Wind PTC expired in 2013, new wind installations dropped 93 percent.
Solar has run a similar course.
Some think that the tax subsidy is the predominant driver of people to the marketplace. Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett is heavily invested in wind. In 2014 he explained, “We get a tax credit if we build a lot of wind farms. That’s the only reason to build them. They don’t make sense without the tax credit.”
Plenty of people get rich on fossil fuels, too, but it’s worth noting that wind energy is not selling itself solely on the merits at the moment. We’ll see if our new wind farm is just a product of clever greenwashing or a breakthrough solution in clean energy.