Monday, May 07, 2007

Asking the Right Questions

Delaware needs more power, and it is considering a wide array of options for providing it, including a large offshore wind power project. What makes this situation unique is that, while high-profile offshore wind farms have been proposed--and opposed--near Cape Cod and Long Island, it is rare that the choice of wind versus coal or gas-fired power is so explicit and direct. This tradeoff usually happens at a more nebulous regional level, where it is much harder to attribute directly to the decision on whether to permit a specific wind farm. Based on the front page article in today's Washington Post, it sounds like Delaware's officials are asking the right questions.

The three primary options under consideration are apparently a 200-turbine wind farm, a gas-fired power plant, and a 600 MW coal-fired plant that might incorporate sequestration of its carbon dioxide emissions. As a result, the state must examine the nature of its power needs, whether for baseload electricity that a coal plant could best supply, or for mid-load power that either wind or gas could provide. They must also decide how to address the greenhouse gas consequences of generating more electricity. They can choose a relatively low-carbon fuel like gas, wind with zero emissions, or a promising but unproven technology for capturing and storing the larger emissions from coal. At the same time, the utility could come up with a demand-side option that would create enough efficiency gains to obviate the need for any more power. For the latter to win, however, it would have to be much better defined that the fuzzy notions of conservation that are often raised in opposition to wind farms and other energy projects.

Unsurprisingly, the citizens of Rehoboth Beach, a resort community popular with DC-area residents, are worried about whether tourists would consider a cluster of wind turbines--near the typical limits of visibility--unsightly. Some , at least, seem willing to consider the possibility that a wind farm might actually attract more tourism. That is a pleasant change from the vitriolic debate that has plagued the Cape Wind project near Nantucket.

However Delaware's choice is resolved, the issues being considered make it a microcosm of the energy choices that the whole country faces over the next several decades. It would be helpful to the national debate to have a framework that similarly puts all of the options on the same plate, so that the tradeoffs become explicit, instead of remaining murky and divorced from accountability.

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