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Editorial

Shift from fossil fuels is under way

Changing technology continues to shake New England’s energy kaleidoscope, but since the pieces move very slowly, it takes a while to see what a picture of the future looks like. A few things are clear. The owners of more of the region’s coal-fired power plants, and perhaps even a nuclear power plant or two in addition to Vermont Yankee, will shut them down because they’re unable to compete, given the low price of natural gas and competition from cheaper sources of renewable energy.

This week, representatives of the wind energy industry led by companies in Spain, Portugal and Denmark, met with the Monitor’s editors. New Hampshire is now home to wind farms in Lempster, Groton and Coos County, and one or more proposals are under consideration. The meeting occurred just days after a consortium of large Massachusetts utilities announced they’d signed long-term contracts to purchase 565 megawatts of electricity from six planned wind farms in Maine and New Hampshire. That’s roughly half the power generated by the Seabrook nuclear power plant. What’s remarkable about the deal is the price – just 8 cents per kilowatt hour. That’s less than the cost of power produced by any other source, save for natural gas at current low prices.

Wind power is cheap for several reasons, one being that it’s subsidized by federal renewable energy tax credits that are slated to expire, as well as by state tax credits in some places. More important, ancient as the technology is – the power of the wind has been harnessed for some 2,000 years – it has improved dramatically recently. The cost of the wind turbines made by Vestas, a Danish company with a factory in Colorado, has fallen by half since 2009. Meanwhile, the turbines have become more reliable and are now capable of generating electricity 98 percent of the time the wind is blowing. They’re also more efficient. The same size turbine now produces 2.5 times the power it did 15 years ago.

Wind has an advantage over fossil fuels. It’s free. So is sunshine and the water, at least for now, used by hydropower projects. Bring down the costs of making use of free fuels, and that use will increase. Wind power, largely thanks to enormous wind farms in Texas, Iowa and other places with wide open, windy spaces, now equals the generating capacity of 60 large nuclear power plants.

Solar panels continue to become cheaper and more efficient. The cost per watt of solar panel capacity is now about one-fourth what it was just five years ago.

What we believe, and hope, is that even in chilly New England, a shift away from fossil fuels is under way. Someday, it might even allow the region to reduce its dependence on natural gas.

New Hampshire is in the process of revisiting its state energy policy, investigating the possibility of designating a state energy corridor or corridors, and reviewing the rules and procedures used to site power plants and transmission lines. As it does, it should do what it can to maximize the use of renewable energy, particularly when the cost of that energy is cheaper than power from other sources.

Plants capable of producing power on demand will always be needed, unless, that is, advances in the ability to store excess electricity efficiently and economically proceed as fast or faster than generating technology. Here’s hoping that happens.

The transmission of "green" power needs to be "green" also. Just as the future of power generation is changing, the future of power transmission is changing as well. It doesn't make sense to use the technology of the past to deliver the energy of the future. We'll still have overhead distribution lines for some time but large scale power transmission needs to be underground where it belongs. The "future" is now. The technology exists, is in use, and works. So bury it already.

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