Those who lived in Maine in the 1990s will probably remember that line. Especially if you were a kid at the time, waking up early to see local news anchors wearing sweaters on TV (it meant snow!) and announcing (hoped for) school closings. Commercial breaks would cut to the public safety announcement from Central Maine Power Co. And it gave us a great Bob Marley bit about “spah-kin why-ehs, bub.”
That message might have new meaning as CMP pursues its new front-running offer to bring Quebecois hydropower into Massachusetts. All for the low, low price of $950 million.
The Maine-based path was originally a bridesmaid to New Hampshire’s comely proposal, the $1.6 billion “Northern Pass.” But Granite State regulators saw the beauty fade and rejected it, opening the door for Maine’s largest utility company.
Opponents of the proposal have begun to beat the drum. One of the arguments is based on the source of the electricity: hydro. Essentially, the claim is that hydro should not be classified as “green” energy.
Why? Because new dam construction creates reservoirs, which flood areas, which lead to decomposition of plant matter, which releases various atmospheric gases. Once you incorporate these effects into your calculus, hydroelectric generation (based on reservoirs; not through river currents or tides) is less green than wind or solar.
Reading the studies offered by opponents, that is true. However, one such study also notes “even the highest emitting hydropower … emission rates are less than the lowest emitting oil, coal, and natural gas sources.” So it is an open question: where do we draw the line on whether energy is “green”?
Of course, the challenge with wind and solar generation is that the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine. Yet the demand for electricity doesn’t stop; food must be kept cold, hospitals must be kept running, and pumps must operate to give everyone clean water (and take away the other stuff). That means we need to supply a base load. It is either through some other consistent power source (like hydro or natural gas) or through battery-stored systems.
Those battery systems have their own negative environmental effects. Whether it is mining, transportation, or the significant amounts of electricity required to build a battery, incorporating that cost is necessary to consider the economic and environmental viability of wind and solar.
And, of course, building wind turbines and solar panels can have significant impacts. Sometimes, the blades of the windmills kill migratory birds and certain types of solar plants immolate them. And sometimes turbines catch fire, like the University of Maine at Presque Isle one, which was alight Easter evening.
Oddly enough, one of the “greenest” forms of energy is one which generates some of the most irrational hatred. The very word — nuclear — sends shivers down spines. But if people are willing to set aside their emotion, the unbiased data shows that nuclear energy has the lowest carbon generation out of any energy source. It is also responsible for far fewer deaths.
That is probably why the Brookings Institution — not exactly part of the right-wing conspiracy — found “nuclear, hydro, and natural gas … have far more net benefits than either wind or solar” in terms of CO2.
As Maine begins to debate moving Quebecois electricity through our state to Massachusetts, we should keep an open mind. It will be up to our leaders, be they on the Public Utilities Commission, in the Blaine House, or under the capitol dome, to find ways to obtain fair access to the low-cost energy. It is critical for economic development, particularly for environmentally friendly industries like engineered lumber. As I’ve written before, Maine-made “plyscrapers” can be an example — economically and environmentally — to the world.
No energy is really green, evah. But we aren’t going to stop using it, so let’s find the best way forward we can. Ok, bub?