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Harbor windmills are no bargain for Massachusetts residents

Energy produced by windmills is more expensive than energy generated by natural gas. (Thinkstock)

GLOUCESTER, MASS. — There is nothing like the beauty of the Massachusetts coastline of Gloucester, incorporated in 1642, north of Boston. But marring the skyline are three huge windmills that tower above the Gloucester harbor and beach.

The three windmills were erected in 2012. One, with a 2.5 megawatt turbine, was set up by Varian Semiconductor. It cost $8 million to build, with 30 percent of that total covered by the federal government under President Obama’s economic stimulus program.

The other two windmills were built by Equity Industrial Partners after Gloucester signed a 25-year electrical purchase plan to build the twin 2-megawatt turbines. Each cost $12 million.

Gloucester justifies the purchase on the grounds that the city will save $11 million over the next 25 years. Mayor Carolyn Kirk, quoted in the Boston Globe, said:

"The deal allows the city to power all of its buildings — from City Hall to its high school — at a subsidized rate, saving almost $500,000 a year for the next quarter-century."

But this calculation is flawed because it doesn’t take into account massive federal subsidies—which could have been used for other purposes to benefit Gloucester residents—and the lower cost of energy production using natural gas.

Energy produced by the windmills is more expensive than energy generated by natural gas. The U.S. Department of Energy calculates that the average levelized cost in dollars-per-megawatt-hour for an advanced combined-cycle natural gas plant is $66. For wind, it is $86, a difference of 30 percent.

So Gloucester residents are paying about one third more for the energy generated by the windmills. Plus, they have to look at the hideous structures defacing their historic harbor. Gloucester’s frugal 17th century founders would have been shocked both by the eyesore and the waste of resources.

The inefficiency of wind energy has been known for years. In July 2011, Bentek Energy, a Colorado-based energy analytical company, analyzed the environmental effects of wind power using emissions data from grid operators.

Using data from grid operators in four regions servicing 110 million customers, Bentek’s study countered the long-held belief of the green power of wind turbines.

Carbon dioxide reduction levels have been vastly misrepresented and exaggerated by groups such as the American Wind Energy Association, whose members have an interest in promoting wind energy. Plus, wind energy is more costly than natural gas and coal.

Due to the intermittent nature of wind power, traditional sources of power generation, such as coal and natural gas power plants, have to increase or decrease production in a very short time-frame to re-balance the power grid.

This “cycling” is the downfall of wind power, because cycling traditional power plants decreases the efficiency of the plant and the environmental control equipment.

This disproportionately increases sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide. The emissions offset by the installation of wind turbines appear to be surpassed by the need to cycle in states such as Colorado and Texas, which maintain renewable energy standards.

Robert Bryce, my colleague at the Manhattan Institute, calculates that producing 20 percent of domestic electricity from wind by 2030 would cost $850 billion, but only reduce global carbon emissions by 2 percent.

In Texas, although wind turbines make up 10 percent of the entire state’s summer electricity generation capacity, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas has only rated 8.7 percent of that wind generation capacity as dependable at peak.

Gloucester’s windmills are part of the new green theology, which holds that renewables always trump fossil fuels. Too bad for Gloucester residents that the facts don’t fit the fairy tale.

DIANA FURCHTGOTT-ROTH, a Washington Examiner columnist (dfr@manhattan-institute.org) and former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor, is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.