Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Put Your Finger in the Wind

A couple weeks ago, Governor O’Malley declared that wind turbines could not be constructed on state-owned land. While the Governor’s desire to protect forest land in Western Maryland is understandable, the simple truth is that his ambitious goals on limiting greenhouse gas emissions cannot be met without wind power.

The end of the last general session saw the defeat of a bill backed by the Governor that would have mandated a 25% emission reduction by 2020. At the same time, the Governor worked hard to secure a deal with Constellation Energy to recover rebates for customers and protect them from liabilities associated with shutting down the Calvert Cliffs nuclear reactor. And the Governor has a long-standing goal of limiting electricity rate increases for consumers. The only way to reduce emissions, restrain the cost of electric power for Maryland ratepayers and retire Calvert Cliffs simultaneously is to combine conservation with lots of new green power sources. That means windmills.

Longtime readers will recall the love affair some of my union members have for nuclear plants. My account may be true, but it is sometimes more complicated than that. The major problem with nuclear energy is the storage and disposal of radioactive waste. The national building trades unions have long favored construction of a waste storage site at Yucca Mountain, an hour’s drive outside of Las Vegas, but the issue strained the Southern Nevada Building Trades. Over ten years ago, at a chair-throwing, fist-brandishing meeting, the local trades voted to support the storage plan after much anguished debate. Balancing millions of man-hours against creating a nearby radioactive dump in the desert was a tough call for them.

The building trades have no ambivalence about wind power. My union pursues it with unrestrained eagerness and assigns international representatives to hunt it down. We have worked for most of the biggest wind generators in the country, including Florida Power & Light and Invenergy. Windmill construction involves laying power cables, pouring concrete pads, erecting and installing turbines and performing endless maintenance work. In Maryland, our total package is over $30 per hour, including payments for training, health and welfare and pension benefits. These jobs are as good as gold for the state.

Unfortunately, Maryland is not moving fast enough to realize this promise. In 1991, the state generated 39.9 million megawatt-hours (MWH) of electric power, of which 57% came from coal, 23% came from nuclear, 10% came from petroleum and 4% came from natural gas. Only 1.2% came from non-hydro renewables. In 2006, the state generated 49.0 million MWH of electric power, of which 60% came from coal, 28% came from nuclear, 1% came from petroleum and 4% came from natural gas. Only 1.3% came from non-hydro renewables. We are as dependent on fossil fuels and nuclear energy as we have ever been. What will happen when Calvert Cliffs, the state’s sole nuclear plant, is retired?

Wind power is becoming a more versatile source of energy with each passing year. Offshore developments are gaining traction, including this huge one planned for the British coast. Farmers are using them to supplement agricultural incomes. Some firms are even proposing roof-top windmills. But for the most part, windmills still have an important drawback: they require lots of land to produce modest amounts of power. A typical industrial wind turbine can put out anywhere from one-half to two megawatts (MW) of power, with a megawatt representing enough capacity to power 600-1,000 homes. So a development of 25 windmills on 100 acres could produce 12-50 MW. A fossil facility on a site of similar size could produce hundreds, even thousands, of megawatts. We do need land to build windmills and the Governor’s blanket prohibition does not help.

The United Steelworkers Union played a significant role in defeating the emissions bill. Their concern was that emissions restrictions would kill employment in their industries. The key to winning labor support for green energy is to tie it to the creation of lots of high-paying jobs. One way to do that would be to offer tax breaks to windmill owners (including small owners like farmers) that would only apply to windmills constructed by contractors with benefit plans and registered apprenticeship programs. The industrial facilities that employ the Steelworkers could use a cap-and-trade system to buy clean power credits from windmill owners. The state would get clean energy, residential and business consumers would have abundant electricity and less upward pressure on rates, power companies could avoid blackout risks and hundreds, maybe even thousands of Marylanders would have access to middle class jobs with training and benefits. Yes, it is possible for environmentalists and building trades guys to sit down at the same table, eating tofu and slamming cold ones, together.

So come on, Governor, stop shooting the breeze! Let’s get to work.

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