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Globe Editorial

Though wind power isn’t free, benefits justify extra cost

May 13, 2010

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NO ONE EVER said the electricity from the turbines of Cape Wind would be cheap, and last week Massachusetts learned what the price tag would be — about $1.59 a month for an average household in the National Grid service area. That addition to the bill isn’t negligible, but the benefits aren’t just environmental. The extra nickel a day will also pay off in more predictable rates for consumers.

Cape Wind communities will be getting more than a green merit badge. The electricity produced by the project’s 130 turbines involves no fuel cost and will provide a hedge against the steep price fluctuations of natural gas, which powers many of the region’s generators. According to the state, rising costs of natural gas are to blame for a tripling of electricity bills in Massachusetts in the past decade. The state’s data show that, because of gas price spikes in recent years, on some occasions consumers would have paid less if Cape Wind’s turbine blades had been rotating out on Nantucket Sound.

Between the summer of 2008 and the beginning of this year, National Grid’s average customer bill dropped $20 per month because of the fall in gas prices — but in the decade before that, gas prices pushed up average state bills by 11 percent a year. To help level the seesaw, National Grid has decided to buy half of Cape Wind’s output for 15 years, which should help offset any future spikes in gas prices, while helping the wind developer get financing for the $1 billion project.

The long-term cost advantage of Cape Wind will be more pronounced if the United States puts a price on carbon dioxide emissions. The climate-change bill passed by the House last summer and the one pending in the Senate do just that by capping total emissions and pushing utilities to curb their use of fossil-fuel plants and seek out clean power sources. Even if the climate-change legislation does not pass, the Environmental Protection Agency is empowered to force reductions in carbon emissions, potentially increasing the cost of electricity from fossil fuels.

Nine European countries already have built 800 wind turbines off their coasts. Wind power causes no oil spills, deadly coal-mine disasters, or emissions of greenhouse gases. Its price is currently a tick above the going rate for natural gas, but it is too valuable not to have in the region’s electricity mix.

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