Blown away

Politics and other mistakes
By AL DIAMON  |  April 9, 2008

I’m sorry to inform you that there is an institution in Maine that repeatedly makes promises to the public, but rarely fulfills them. This same entity is also prone to issuing statements containing exaggerated claims about its accomplishments. And when it comes to the financial benefits it bestows on the public, let’s just say its veracity is questionable.

The Legislature? Don’t be silly. The Legislature’s veracity isn’t questionable. It’s nonexistent.

I’m talking about the wind-power industry.

Let me hasten to add that these businesspeople, intent on erecting enormous turbines on every zephyr-kissed outlook in Maine, aren’t entirely to blame for the false impressions they convey. They’re aided in their efforts by the ignorance and complacency of the news media.

Most journalists are really bad at math. For a dramatic demonstration of that occupational blind spot, just watch any TV reporter trying to explain the state’s budget problems. In addition, lots of reporters and editors are inclined to take whatever authoritative-sounding statistics they’re handed and present them in news stories as facts. Double-checking? Isn’t that something hockey players do?

Nowhere are these faults more evident than in reporting on wind farms. After all, this is about the kind of people who produce green power. The kind who reduce our carbon footprint. The kind who offset our reliance on fossil fuels. There’s no way they’d lie.

Is there?

Here’s a way: In late March, the owners of the state’s only operating wind farm in Mars Hill issued a report on their first year of operation. According to a story in the March 26 Bangor Daily News, “The Aroostook County facility has produced an estimated 133.5 million kilowatt-hours of power since beginning commercial operation in late March 2007. That is roughly the equivalent annual electricity demand of more than 19,000 New England homes.”

Keep that word “roughly” in mind.

The story goes on to say the output of the 28 turbines replaced 70,000 tons of coal and avoided the release of 60,000 tons of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas.

On March 28, the Bangor paper did another story in which it claimed Mars Hill “is now contributing about 25 megawatts to the ISO New England power grid at any given time,” according to the Maine Public Utilities Commission.

If the numbers from the March 26 story are true, that 25-megawatt figure can’t be right. Because 133.5 million kilowatt-hours produced in a year is the equivalent of a little more than 15 megawatts at any given time.

(Fun-with-math interlude: Divide the kilowatt-hours by the number of hours in a year, 8760, which gives you the average output in kilowatts per hour. To convert kilowatts — 1000 watts each — to megawatts — which means 1 million watts — divide by 1000.)

Math, schmath. It’s still a lot of power, right?

Actually, it’s a lot less power than the wind-farm’s owners promised. Back before construction began, they regularly tossed around the figure of 50 megawatts (Bangor Daily News, March 10, June 2, September 24, 2004). More recently, that number has been reduced to 42 megawatts (Associated Press, August 5, 2006; Bangor Daily, January 26, 2007).

Well, what’s the difference? It’s still churning out enough juice for 19,000 homes, isn’t it?

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