Maine’s Climate Council: Another Y2K debacle?

By Randall Poulton | Oct 24, 2019

In April, Gov. Mills introduced (and later signed) legislation that created the Maine Climate Council. The new law sets lofty goals. This description is from the governor’s website:

“The Climate Council…will be charged with leading Maine’s efforts to reduce Maine’s Greenhouse Gas emissions by 45% by 2030 and at least 80% by 2050, and with achieving 80% renewable energy in Maine’s electricity sector – specifically energy consumed in Maine – by 2030 and 100% by 2050.”

Wow! Anyone with a decent understanding of Maine’s “electricity sector” would really question the feasibility of the 80% renewables goal. I sure do. That said, I have no question that the Maine Climate Council will spend lots of taxpayer money on endless meetings talking about energy and climate.

The first meeting of the MCC was held at a fancy, private, “green certified” conference center in Hallowell. I have been there many times; it is a nice spot. But I find it hard to believe that the MCC can’t find a free meeting space in Augusta. Of course, last I knew, the Hallowell venue had a windmill, so that may have been the deciding factor.

It’s deja vu, all over again. I remember back in 1999 when state government held endless meetings getting ready for the cataclysm of Y2K. For you younger readers (do I have any younger readers?), Y2K was the nifty acronym for the Year 2000 disaster that wasn’t. The thinking at the time was that at midnight on Dec. 31, 1999, the world would more or less end: planes would fall from the sky (I am not making this up!), cars would not start, all computers would die and so forth.

But, we in Augusta were ready. Actually, at midnight in Maine, I was in a bar and heavily medicated. You see, one important fact got lost in the frantic run up to Y2K: Midnight on Dec. 31 is an arbitrary invention of mankind that is repeated, on the hour every hour, 24 times that day, all around the globe. By the time The Ball dropped in Times Square, it was midday on Jan. 1, 2000, in Australia! Absolutely nothing bad happened there and absolutely nothing bad happened in Maine. Unless you count my Y2K-sized hangover. That was bad!

So, here we are in 2019, and the folks in Augusta are tilting at yet another windmill. Specifically, the MCC is charged with finding a way to achieve “80% renewable energy in Maine’s electricity sector” within 10 years. No details yet on how this might be done. But, it seems, just like Don Quixote’s idealistic quest, it will involve windmills!

So, how much of the electricity Maine consumes comes from renewables today? As I write this, New England’s Independent System Operator website (ISO) shows most of our electricity is being generated by natural gas (53%) and nuclear (31%). According to ISO, renewables are generating exactly 10% of the electricity consumed in Maine. And this is on a sunny, windy day ― ideal conditions for solar and wind generators.

Important note: ISO does not count electricity generated by hydro as renewable, but it seems likely the MCC will. So, to determine where we are today, add the 6% of electricity being generated by hydro to the 10% renewable as defined by ISO. That gives us a starting point of about 16% of the electricity consumed in Maine coming from renewables. How will Maine get from 16% today to 80% in 2030? I don’t think that is remotely possible. To understand why, let’s look at the data on renewables from ISO (ranked by size).

Hydro

Dams are generating about 6% of the electricity we consume, but are limited by how much rain and snow falls in their watershed. Despite “global warming,” the annual precipitation amount is unlikely to change much and we are not building any new dams these days. In fact, dam removal seems to be all the rage. Gotta save the fish, ya know.

Wind

Windmills are generating about 5% of the electricity we consume and that’s not likely to change much either. That’s because the land-based, taxpayer-fueled, windmill gold rush is on the wane and any significant offshore wind farms are more than 10 years out. Maybe a few more mountain tops will be clear-cut and windmills built, but I think any new capacity will be offset by older windmills that are breaking down and not being repaired.

Refuse

Today, trash burners (like PERC) are generating 2% of our electricity, but the smoke from these plants has been deemed very bad stuff, so no more will be built. Ironically, it is likely the trash burners we do have will need to be shut down for the MCC to meet another of their goals: to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (notice the inherent conflict here between lower emissions and more renewables?).

Biomass

Woodchip boilers are contributing another 2% or so but these plants are not economically viable. And talk about a carbon footprint! Not only does burning wood release all the sequestered carbon, but trucks hauling chips are burning lots of diesel. Thus biomass will be deemed very bad and likely to be shut down (see reasoning above).

Solar

Grid-scale solar is still in its early stages of development but shows promise. Today, solar is less than 1%. The big drawback to grid-scale solar is its intermittent nature (not much sun at night!). But, with the continuing improvements in battery technology, solar is sure to become more significant. Maybe in 10 years we will have enough solar online to make-up for the demise of the above-mentioned wood and trash burners.

So today, on the New England grid, we are at about 16% renewable (including hydro), and virtually all of the electricity consumed in Maine comes from the New England grid. While getting from 16% to 80% appears impossible, there is a viable option which would be a big step in the right direction: buy a whole lot of hydro power from Canada!

If the CMP transmission corridor is built, then the percentage of hydro power in the New England grid will jump up dramatically. And, if we can figure out a way to utilize all the hot air coming from the MCC meetings, Maine might get to 40% renewables by 2030.

After the Y2K 100% debacle, even getting it half right in Augusta would be cause for celebration!

Postscript: During the recent Nor’easter, wind generation jumped to about 8%. And, in the days, afterward, hydro also increased. (Typically, Brookfield, the power company that owns most of Maine’s hydropower dams, tries to draw down reservoirs in the fall, making room for spring runoff.) On the morning of Oct. 18, the New England grid was at 14% renewables and 11% hydro.

Randall Poulton is a columnist for The Republican Journal. He lives in Winterport.

 

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Comments (1)
Posted by: Kevin Riley | Oct 24, 2019 18:37

"By the time The Ball dropped in Times Square, it was midday on Jan. 1, 2000, in Australia! Absolutely nothing bad happened there and absolutely nothing bad happened in Maine."

Your welcome!

It's interesting that something that could have happened, didn't, therefore it wasn't real in the first place.

Oh, and only the media was saying all those gloom and doom things due to their ignorance of the subject matter. The Y2k date issue was real with many systems. Even the latest version of the Windows kernel had the problem. I can show you the 2+ years of overtime checks. Not really I didn't keep them. I was working for the Air Force at the Pentagon at the time. Those last four months were a blur

Lastly, there were some small issues that popped hear and there up that never made the news. One of the funniest ones was a video rental shop in PA.



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