Diverging Views on the Future of New England's Energy System

Dec 22, 2014

Solar Panels at Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.
Credit Daniel X. O'Neil / flickr

New England’s energy system is at a crossroads. Economics and climate concerns are driving a shift away from coal and oil, but experts remain divided on where to go from here.

If you want to get a sense of New England’s energy systems – past, present, and future – Sandwich is a good place to go. It’s the oldest town on Cape Cod, founded in 1639.

“It’s very nice, and I think it’s very historical,” says Takayuki Terai, a visitor from Japan. “I like this kind of New England atmosphere very much.”

While a village known for it’s historic homes and inns may seem an unlikely place to glimpse the future of electricity, closer inspection reveals jarring juxtapositions that tell a story of our ever-evolving energy system. Next to a centuries-old water wheel and mill, electric Christmas lights adorn a display in honor of the town’s 375th anniversary. A street light meant to look like a gas lantern instead holds a compact fluorescent lightbulb, and power lines crisscross views of Main Street.

“I think the wire is not so good for the sightseeing, for the historical look,” says Terai, and he’s not enthusiastic about the possibility of solar panels, either. “I think this should be maintained as it is. I like this very old-fashioned style very much. 

Herein lies the problem. We love our electric lights and digital devices, but we like to keep the sources of that power out of sight, out of mind. It’s no wonder, really. Making electricity is an industrial process, and it’s not always pretty. But it’s not something we can afford to ignore any longer. Our energy system is becoming less and less reliable, and scientists overwhelmingly agree we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions dramatically to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Broadly speaking, our options for a clean energy future fall into two categories and, just a mile from historic downtown Sandwich, they’re laid out for all to see. Standing at the Sandwich Marina, the Canal Generating Plant is just a few hundred feet away. It’s a hulking, boxy, green building where oil and gas are turned into electricity. One option for meeting future energy demands is more centralized, industrial-scale power production.

There’s an alternative visible from the same spot, though. Just to the south, a row of four wind turbines spins. Local, small-scale production of renewable energy, including wind, solar, and tidal, that’s the other option. And there are experts on both sides of the debate.

“I think natural gas will dominate the next 50-60 years,” says Dr. Jesse Ausubel, director of the Program for the Human Environment at the Rockefeller University. “What that involves for New England is building pipelines, primarily from Pennsylvania.”

After that, maybe nuclear, he says. Ausubel is not a climate change denier. He recognizes the need to reduce our collective carbon footprint, but he says renewables are not the solution to our clean energy needs. He calls them “boutique fuels,” arguing that they just won’t work at an industrial scale because they take too much space.

“If you try to provide New York City, all of New York City’s electricity from wind mills,” he says, “you’d need to cover the state of Connecticut. Every square inch.”

There’s plenty of room  – and wind – offshore, but developers like Cape Wind have repeatedly hit legal and financial obstacles. Ausubel says the ocean is an expensive and unforgiving place to develop, and those pushing in that direction are overly optimistic or naive.

Solar is more space-efficient than wind, and it can be placed on existing structures. A recent report from Environment Massachusetts found that rooftop solar panels on 700,000 homes and businesses could provide a fifth of the Commonwealth’s electricity. Ausubel suggests parking lots could also be covered with canopies of solar panels, with the dual benefit of providing shade and electricity.

But sunshine and wind happen when they happen. Batteries or other energy storage technologies are needed to make sure there’s electricity available when someone flips a switch. In the end, Ausubel says trying to go all renewable means one thing – a more industrial landscape.

“Baloney,” laughs Dr. George Woodwell, founder of Woods Hole Research Center, one of the top climate change think tanks in the world.

Woodwell says complaining about land use for renewable energy is disingenuous, considering the impacts of fossil fuel mining. (He calls coal mines “zones of substantial sacrifice.”) He also rejects the idea that renewable energy will make New England ugly.

“Here at Woods Hole Research Center, we built a building that is super insulated, has double and triple glazing in the windows,” he says of the building that bears his name. “It is in fact a beautiful building, inside and out.”

Woods Hole Research Center completely renovated a former estate-turned-inn to meet the highest standards of energy efficiency and sustainable building. The interior is modern and sun-drenched, with light wood and plenty of windows. But with a wrap-around porch and shingle siding, the exterior retains its historic look, with a couple of exceptions.

A large wind turbine stands in front of the building, surrounded by waist-high grass and wildflowers. Turn back to face the building, and nearly every flat or south-facing roof is covered with solar panels.

As a result, Woodwell’s building produces more electricity than it uses. The excess feeds the building next door, which is modeled after a carriage house. The entire campus is a melding of past and future that Woodwell says sets an example of self-sufficiency and local power production that every homeowner and town in New England could aspire to match.

“I think we will see an increasingly distributed energy system in 25-30 years,” says Janet Besser, vice president for policy and government affairs with the New England Clean Energy Council. “But I, at least, think we’ll continue to see some of what’s called central station generation.”

Besser says we need to be thinking about not only the sources of the energy we use, but also about how that electricity gets to consumers. Our current transmission grid was built for relatively constant, one-way distribution of energy. It isn’t equipped to handle the complex mix of energy sources – distributed and centralized, constant (fossil-fuel) and variable (renewable) – or meet growing spikes in demand that Besser and other energy analysts see coming.

“By it’s very nature, the grid is an interconnected network,” she explains, “and unless that network is modernized, all of the things you have attached to it – great as they may be, will be sub-optimal because they are not going to be able to work together.”

Besser says a more modern grid would give both providers and consumers a better handle on how much energy is being used, when, and at what cost. That information could be key in helping consumers reduce energy use, and that last point, at least, is something nearly everyone can agree on.

“We have to march on with all of these new possibilities for generating and using energy,” says Woodwell, “and conserving energy.”

“The only thing that’s truly green is efficiency,” says Ausubel. “All the supply strategies have headaches.”

Despite deep differences in how they see the future of our energy system, Ausubel and Woodwell have something in common: optimism - that we will find a way to relieve whichever headaches we take on, and provide the energy we crave without destroying the planet we need. There’s simply no other option.

This story was made possible by the Living Lab Radio project. Major support for Living Lab is provided by the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment. Additional support is provided by Lee McGraw and the Elizabeth B. McGraw Foundation and by the Kendeda Fund.

The entire Power Source series can be found here.