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I never thought I’d agree with a member of the Kennedy clan, but Bobby Kennedy’s son got it right when he dismissed the much-hyped Cape Wind project that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar approved last week. “It’s a boondoggle of the worst kind,” Kennedy said. “It’s going to cost the people of Massachusetts $4 billion over the next 20 years in extra costs.”

If anything, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an environmental lawyer, underestimated the cost of Cape Wind. The project will see the construction of 130 wind-powered turbines off the coast of Cape Cod Massachusetts that will, according to its developers, generate an average of 170 megawatts of electricity for the Bay State. The turbines will cost about $1 billion to build. Let’s assume that the useful life of the wind turbines is twenty years, that the maintenance costs of the windmills is zero, and that nobody has to pay a dime of interest on the $1 billion worth of financing needed to construct these windmills. Even if we accept such wildly inaccurate and charitable assumptions, the cost of energy generated by Cape Wind over those twenty years will be over thirty-three cents per kilowatt. That’s more than six times the typical wholesale price for electrons today, around six cents per kilowatt, depending on the market.

Thanks to government subsidies, Massachusetts’ residents won’t have to pay the full price for Cape Wind power. Instead, they’ll only have to fork over four and a half times the going rate, rather that something over six times that benchmark. According to Bobby junior:

“We’re the windiest country on earth and we have lots and lots of land. Americans don’t want to pay 27 cents a kilowatt hour for energy.”

Truth be told, Americans don’t want to pay 26 cents a kilowatt for energy, or 25 cents a kilowatt, or one fraction of a penny more than they have to. They rather reasonably expect that the free enterprise system will function properly and allow them to find the most competitive – aka: least expensive – source of power available. Kennedy is putting the economic argument to use here in a very limited sense of course. The Kennedys don’t really care what you and I pay for power. It’s just that the Kennedys don’t want a forest of giant windmills interfering with their view while they’re yachting majestically down Nantucket Sound. But, the same logic in fact applies everywhere in the “windiest country on earth”: wind fired energy is expensive.

I recently asked an energy executive why his company was investing in wind-power so heavily, when we both know it doesn’t make any economic sense to do so. His reply was that it’s all about the government subsidies. Once those run out, they intend to forgo any further – very expensive – maintenance, run the things till they break down and then forget about them. Given the high cost of wind power, and the fact that you have to have an equivalent amount of fossil power ready to back up wind energy (since the wind doesn’t blow all the time outside of the halls of Congress) it’s reasonable to assume that this fellow isn’t the only person in the energy industry thinking along such lines.

Yet wind power projects are still all the rage and promise to be for quite a while yet. Wind power recently passed biomass power as number two on the Department of Energy’s renewable power rankings. The Obama administration loves windmills, but apparently not just because it’s “green energy.” It appears that there has been some spreading of the green involved as well. Former New York Sun managing editor Ira Stoll uncovered some of the connections at his website, Future of Capitalism. Stoll noted how $503 in stimulus money was awarded to a couple of wind energy companies that have close ties to the Obama administration:

“…the recipient of $294 million, Iberdrola SA, had executives who had donated more than $21,000 to the Obama campaign and related funds. Another $115 million in funds for windmills went to a company called First Wind, which, I noted, had owners that included D.E. Shaw and Madison Dearborn Partners. Shaw is the firm at which President Obama’s chief of the National Economic Council, Lawrence Summers, held a $5.2 million a year, one-day-a-week job, and Madison Dearborn is the firm of which Rahm Emanuel, now the White House chief of staff, said, “They’ve been not only supporters of mine, they’re friends of mine.”

Odd that the mainstream media has shown no interest in these sorts of ties, especially after journalists spent eight years drawing every connection they could, no matter how tenuous, between the Bush administration and the oil industry. It’s not surprising that such ties exist of course. They smack of the kind of “pay to play” politics for which Chicago is justifiably famous.

If you really want to understand the futility of wind power, consider the following analysis. In 2007 (the last year for which verified data is currently available) the Department of Energy reported that there were 389 wind-farms producing electricity in the United States, with a net generation capacity of 16,596 megawatts.  If all of those windmills were churning out electrons at capacity all of the time, they would have produced a little over 145 million megawatt hours of electricity in 2007. How much did they in fact produce? A little less than 27 million megawatt hours, or less than twenty percent of capacity (also called “capacity factor” in the business).

If a coal-fired plant providing base-load power operates at something less than a ninety percent capacity factor, it’s owners are going to take a long, hard look at the way it’s being run. But windmills – both because they’re expensive and thus often among the last units to called into service to meet demand, and because you just can’t count on the wind – are built in droves despite the fact they are eighty percent useless. But for government subsidies, Cape Wind, or any of the big wind farms sprouting up across the country, would not exist.

FrontPage Magazine, 6 May 2010