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NStar chief not sold on Cape Wind

May says utility is ‘agnostic’ on project but backs alternative energy

By Erin Ailworth
Globe Staff / January 20, 2010

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The head of one of the largest utilities in Massachusetts is not sold on the state’s largest wind power project.

NStar chief executive Thomas May said yesterday that although he believes in alternative energy, he’s not counting on the proposed Cape Wind project.

Cape Wind, which has been supported by the Patrick administration, would place wind turbines in Nantucket Sound to generate electricity. The plan has been mired in environmental, permitting, and other issues for nine years.

“We’re agnostic,’’ May said during a meeting with Globe editors and reporters. “We haven’t done enough to research or analyze the issues that surround Nantucket Sound, so I don’t have an opinion on whether it’s the right place or not.’’

May, who described himself as an advocate of wind energy in general, said he also questioned whether Cape Wind’s planned 130 turbines could provide energy at a reasonable price to customers. He predicted energy prices would remain stable in the next few years, but would ultimately be driven upward by the cost of renewable technologies such as wind turbines and solar panels. Massachusetts already has some of the highest electricity prices in the country.

“Clean energy isn’t cheaper energy,’’ he said.

NStar competitor National Grid is currently negotiating a contract to buy energy generated by Cape Wind.

“We believe Cape Wind is going to offer consumers very good long-term value because it is going to be a stable price. It’s not going to face the intense volatility of fossil fuels,’’ said Cape Wind spokesman Mark Rodgers.

May would not say whether NStar would also buy Cape Wind energy, but he did not rule it out.

“We like any energy. We like every wind farm. We like every generator,’’ he said. “We want them to hook into our system.’’

Even if Cape Wind gets built, May said, he doubted Massachusetts could count on in-state solar and wind resources to meet the Patrick administration goal of generating 20 percent of its electricity with renewable sources by 2025.

“You need to have the geography. You need to have the wind,’’ May said. If “you were to just take and do the math on the number of wind turbines and solar panels you would need to do that, it can’t be done.’’

Part of the problem he said, is that Massachusetts lacks the windy countryside available in places like Maine, New Hampshire, New York, and Canada. And that means wind farms are more feasibly located outside Massachusetts, which would require investment in the transmission lines and other infrastructure necessary to bring wind-generated electricity into the state.

Ian Bowles, secretary of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, said that although the state’s goal is to build as many renewable energy resources in Massachusetts as possible, piping in clean energy from other states has always been part of the plan.

“We have a regional market for energy,’’ he said. “The majority of our power resources come from out of state.’’

May said the state’s best bet is in conservation. Massachusetts has long been a leader in energy efficiency, he said, and needs to continue its focus on helping residents and businesses cut their energy usage through home energy audits, weatherization, and so-called smart grid programs, in which technology is used to more efficiently distribute and monitor power use.

“Number one: energy efficiency,’’ May said. “I still believe that’s the cheapest source to keep our energy bills as low as possible.’’

Some programs have not been as popular as expected, May added. NStar Green, the program under which consumers can pay a premium to ensure some of their electricity is generated by wind, has attracted only 8,000 NStar customers - less than 1 percent of the company’s 1.1 million electricity consumers, he said.

“We were a little disappointed that it was not greater,’’ May said. “Being the greenest states in the land of the free, we have a more educated audience, we have a more concerned, socially conscious audience. So we thought we would do better.’’

May repeatedly expressed dismay about delays in developing a national energy policy, which he said would facilitate better prices for customers because utilities and government would be working under the same rules and regulations.

“I wish Obama had stayed with the energy plan,’’ May said. “What we really need is national direction. I wish he had focused on that instead of health care.’’

Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth@globe.com.