, Salem, MA

January 8, 2014

Letter: Are wind and solar energy the answer?

The Salem News

---- — To the editor:

In a recent column in the opinion section of The Salem News, “Moving from fossil fuel to renewable fuel” (Dec. 19, 2013), Brian T. Watson states that 52 percent of our electricity is currently generated from natural gas, up from 15 percent in 2000. He concedes that natural gas power plants are cleaner than coal or oil but still emit carbon dioxide and their increased use needs to be curtailed and replaced with wind and solar power.

Some opponents of the proposed 674-megawatt natural gas Salem power plant are also quick to point out that renewable energy is the answer and that this project needs to be scrapped. If, in fact, our region will need an additional 674 megawatts in the near future, I am not convinced that wind or solar is the best solution or is even achievable in the short term.

A good example is Cape Wind. The company will be installing 130 wind turbines offshore in Nantucket Sound. This project has been in the engineering and permitting process for about 12 years. I believe they now have all the necessary approvals, but construction has yet to begin. The combined maximum power output of the 130 wind turbines is expected to be 468 megawatts, or 3.6 megawatts per wind turbine. Manufactured by Seimens, each wind turbine has a three-blade rotor with a diameter of 365 feet and an overall height of 440 feet above sea level. To equal the power of the proposed Salem power plant would require 187 of these. General Electric, for example, offers a 4.1 megawatt wind turbine with a rotor diameter of 371 feet. I assume its overall height would be about the same as Seimens. To match the power plant, output would require 164.

Is there anyone out there who would like to be looking at 187 or 164 wind turbines? Could our region wait 12 years?

Another factor is the cost of electricity generated by wind power; it is projected to be about twice the amount consumers are paying today. Although wind is free, the high cost of wind turbines is apparently the driving factor; $2.6 billion for Cape Wind versus $800 million for the Salem power plant.

Solar energy is being used extensively on road signs, dwellings, schools (Beverly High School, for example) and some larger installations, including solar farms. However, the output of solar cells is low, and to match the proposed Salem power plant output with a solar farm would require hundreds of acres of solar panel area. This would be totally impractical and not even an option, in my opinion, especially here in New England.

An ongoing solar farm installation, for example, is the Agua Caliente Solar Project in sunny southern Arizona. Started in 2011 with completion expected by 2014, it will generate 397 megawatts and occupy 2,400 acres (nearly 4 square miles) of land area. The total cost is $1.8 billion. Imagine the amount of real estate that would be needed to generate 674 megawatts!

Perhaps, more efficient renewable energy ideas will evolve in years to come, although I cannot imagine what that would be. But in the meantime, I believe natural gas is the best, if not the only choice, considering the resources available today.

Robert D’Entremont