"Things are getting almost biblical."
By Jack Coleman
HYANNIS - "Things are getting almost biblical." Such was the apt description from a panelist at yesterday's first major energy conference on the Cape, which coincided with the second Category 5 hurricane in less than a month roaring through one-third of the nation's oil and natural gas production in the Gulf of Mexico and heading for the major oil port of Galveston.
After the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, followed by a surge in oil and gas prices, denial of a persistent problems with the nation's energy supply was no longer an option. Hurricane Rita only reinforces this.
The conference, titled "Shaping Cape Cod's Energy Future," was held at the Sheraton Four Points Hotel and drew speakers from around the country, vendors selling renewable energy products and 200 attendees.
Daunting energy problems faced by Bay State
One of daunting energy problems faced by Bay State residents is the lack of it here - 80 percent of energy consumed in the state comes from elsewhere, according to Randy Udall, head of the Community Office for Resource Efficiency in Aspen, Colo.
This dependency on energy from elsewhere is mirrored on the national level. Americans consume so much petroleum, Udall said, that we should be dubbed "the oil tribe." That consumption equals eight gallons of gas per person every day, or 140 pounds per person weekly, and five supertanker deliveries of oil every day.
Oil is as important to us as bison was to the Sioux, Udall said. But the Sioux celebrated that with dances, prayer and rituals, he said. "We go to the Quicki-Mart and bitch about the cost of gas."
A growing body of evidence shows that oil reserves, two-thirds of which are concentrated among only five nations in the Middle East, are rapidly depleting.
Expecting a rational and effective energy policy from Washington is folly, Udall suggested. "Most of the good stuff," he said, is done at the local and state levels and involves changes to land use, planning, transportation, utility and civic purchases and initiatives to boost renewable energy.
"This clean energy journey is a long journey and we're trying to get started," Udall said.
Every year the US consumes "as much oil as it took a million years to develop," said Gordian Raacke of Renewable Energy Long Island.
Global demand for electricity is expected to double from its current 15 terawatts, Gordian said. To put that number in perspective, a terawatt is 15,000 gigawatts; a gigawatt is a billion watts. On average, the Cape Wind project would produce 170 megawatts, equal to 170 million watts.
To get to 30 terawatts, Raacke said, "we would have to build a 1,000 MW nuclear power plant every day until 2050.
"We've got our work cut out for us," he said. "The challenge is, how do we do that without killing ourselves?" Europeans are years ahead of us in dealing with dwindling energy supplies, said Steven Strong of Solar Design Associates in Harvard, Mass. A town in the Netherlands has mandated solar panels on all new buildings, Strong said, "or you don't build here."
One of the photos showed by Strong during a slide show was of a huge statue of an American eagle, painted in red, white and blue, "with its talons out and a piece of earth in its mouth" - in front of a Hummer dealership.
The image, Strong said, was a all too fitting metaphor for US energy policy.
Soaring fuel costs have relegated investors' interest in the 6,500-pound Hummers "to junk bond status," he said. While Massachusetts possesses no fossil fuels to draw upon, Strong said, it is blessed with an indigenous source of energy that - unlike fossil fuels - is also infinite in supply: wind.
Showing a photo of the wind turbine next to the high school in Hull, Strong said a survey of Hull residents found that 93 percent are in favor of the turbine and want to build more.
Ted and Mitt: "Go to Hull !"
To Senator Edward Kennedy and Gov. Mitt Romney, two opponents of the offshore wind farm proposed for Nantucket Sound, Strong suggested that they "go to Hull!," which drew laughter.
"I know there is lots of discussion about the aesthetics of wind power, but what about the aesthetics of this?" Strong said, showing a photo of the canal electric plant with emissions spewing from its stack.
For the Cape's first major conference on energy, the absence of Cape Wind from any of several panel discussions was conspicuous. But inviting Cape Wind CEO Jim Gordon would have dictated an invitation to the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound. The polarizing discussion to follow would have overshadowed the rest of the conference, according to one of the planners.
Cape Wind did have a table set up in the area set aside for dozens of vendors, as did the Clean Power Now advocacy group.
And rare was the discussion yesterday that did not contain references or allusions to the proposed wind farm. In his lunchtime remarks to the group, Chris Powicki, of the Cape & Islands Renewable Energy Collaborative, referred to it as "the Project That Must Not Be Named."
That unnamed proposal "would more than satisfy peak demand" on the Cape and islands, Powicki said. But it had also split the environmental and business communities and diverted attention away from other efforts, such as conservation, greater energy efficiency and other local renewable energy sources, such as harnessing tides through the Cape Cod Canal and waves off the National Seashore.
Our problems with relying on fossil fuels are coinciding with global climate change brought on by greater concentrations of carbon in the atmosphere, Powicki said.
Since the onset of the Industrial Revolution, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have risen 40 percent, to 380 parts per million, Powicki said, citing the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. That level is expected to rise to 550 ppm by the end of the century, according to the convention.
"We don't know what the effects will be or what the tipping point is for severe consequences," Powicki said. "The only way to address the energy challenge is a wholesale transformation of the carbon economy."
Fortunately, he added, several elements are in place to place the Cape on the cutting edge - "an abundant resource base" and "emerging clean energy cluster and infrastructure," "dedicated funding streams" in the forms of tax credits and state mandates such as the renewable portfolio standard, along with renewable energy academic offerings in local schools and "complimentary institutions" like the Cape Light Compact.
Over at Mass. Maritime, ! work is well underway to build a 667-kilowatt, $1.2 million wind turbine at the academy's campus on Taylor's Point in Bourne to offset electricity used at the school.
Even if a $500,000 grant for the project falls through, the turbine will be built anyway, said Rick Gurnon, president pro temp of the academy.
"We can't keep getting into other people's sandboxes for cheap oil," Gurnon said. "The wind is ever present and it's free."
The turbine would offset at least a quarter of the school's annual $300,000 electricity bill and be used as part of the curriculum for engineering students.
The academy is part of a collaborative effort, along with Cape Cod Community College, the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth and the two technical schools on the Cape, in providing environmental technology certificate programs.
Certificates are offered in coastal zone management, environmental site assessment, geographic information system, wastewater management and water supply.vc
The collaboration was boosted with a $350,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, according to Stephanie Brady, assistant coordinator for environmental technology at the community college. Cape Wind Associates donated $100,000 to the community college last year for its renewable energy curriculum.
The curriculum will expand in the spring semester with courses in renewable energy sources and energy efficiency/conservation.
Our current energy woes are reminiscent of an earlier dilemma, said Greg Watson, vice president for sustainable development & renewable energy at the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative.
After World War II, the state began losing 20,000 acres of farmland every year, Watson said, to the point that most food had to shipped here from elsewhere.
It wasn't until the Blizzard of '78 - and the bare supermarket shelves that followed - that state officials released the significance of the problem and began working to preserve remaining farmland, said Watson, who moderated a panel on energy policy.
It was an example, Watson said, that "policy isn't just something done in a vacuum."
On the state level, efforts are underway to remove barriers that deter residents, businesses and municipalities from generating electricity from solar and wind, said Matt Palmer, executive director of Clean Power Now.
Under current use of "dual metering," renewable energy is sold back to the grid at wholesale rates, rather than at the more generous retail rate.
Palmer is asking state legislators to implement "net metering," which would pay the same rate.
Palmer and other renewable energy advocates are also pushing to raise the cap on electricity sold back to the grid from renewable sources from its current limit of 60 kilowatts. Two bills before the Legislature would raise the limit to 500 kilowatts from solar and 800 kilowatts from all renewable sources. California and New Jersey, meanwhile, have much higher caps already in place - 1 and 2 MW, respectively.
Clean Power Now is also fighting efforts to include electricity from waste-to-energy facilities, such as the SEMASS incinerator in Rochester that burns trash from the Cape, in the state's renewable portfolio standard. The standard, which took effect in 2003, mandates a half-percentage point increase in electricity annually from renewable sources, to 4 percent in 2009.
As of this year, the state is several hundred megawatts short of meeting that mandate.
The conference, which may become an annual event, was organized by Cape & Islands Self-Reliance, Cape Cod Community College, Cape Cod Economic Development Council, Cape Light Compact, Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve and Water Energy & Ecology Information Services.