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Renewable energy

10/17/03 12:00AM By Timothy McQuiston
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(Host) Last Week's "Renewable Energy Vermont" conference in South Burlington coincided with the awarding of the Nobel Prizes in Oslo Norway. Commentator Tim McQuiston thinks there is a connection.

(McQuiston) The renewable energy conference, among other alternative approaches, looked at the gains made by wind energy. It also looked, of course, at other generation means and at the price paid by the environment and human health by current generation methods, most notably by the burning of fossil fuels. Other topics included energy independence, and what Vermont, itself, could do to develop alternative energy programs.

With the cost of electricity among the highest in the nation, this is a relevant economic development issue for Vermont. While some see the complaint from businesses over electric costs as so much whine with their cheese, it's a very real concern for Vermont businesses and development officials.

The naysayers argue that for most businesses, electric costs, even at large users, is a small fraction of their total expenses. That's true. But if you simply lower the cost of electricity, that savings goes right into profits. A million pennies saved is a million pennies earned. That's why energy costs are important to the economy.

The alternative energy folks argue that wind turbines are a good idea because they create local generation, they're non-polluting, and we don't have to make a deal with the devil to buy nuclear energy, dirty coal power, or hydropower loaded onto the backs of indigenous peoples in northern Quebec. And more energy should also mean lower costs. At least eventually.

Advocates argue that while alternative energy costs are high right now, if you get to a critical mass, like computer components, the costs will come down dramatically.

And the eyesore of wind turbines? Well, one man's eyesore is another man's environmental tradeoff, one man's cell phone tower is another man's vital communication's link. You get the idea.

So what do wind turbines on Green Mountain ridges have in common with the Nobel Prize? The winners of this year's prize for physics won for their work in superconductivity. The most common use of superconductivity is in the creation of the magnetic fields used in the body scanning device called the MRI. Not coincidentally, the Nobel Prize in medicine this year went to the folks who advanced that very same MRI.

But another application for superconductivity could be for transmitting electricity very long distances with very little line loss. As one expert has put it, the United States has more sun than Saudi Arabia has oil. Why not just build huge solar power plants in the deserts out West and transport it across the country to the Northeast which needs it? They transport natural gas that distance.

However, the local generation of alternative power, whether it's wind power or the dams on the Connecticut River, might not be worth the long-term investment. Perhaps a new technology, whether it's solar energy using superconductivity transmission or fuel cells or fission or something else, is the answer.

My hunch is that wind power in Vermont is going to be too expensive over the long run and, because of the number of wind turbines required, people will start to get annoyed by the look of them.

This is Timothy McQuiston.

Timothy McQuiston is editor of Vermont Business Magazine.

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