by Harvey Wasserman
originally published on The Progressive on October 30, 2017
A flag hangs from a highway overpass in Caguas, Puerto Rico declaring “Estamos de pie,” or “We are standing.” October, 2017.
The swampish saga would be hard to invent. In early October, Puerto Rico’s Energy Power Authority awarded a $300 million tax-funded contract to reconstruct the island’s hurricane devastated power grid to a two-person, two-year-old firm based in the small Montana hometown of Trump Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. The company is financially backed by a major donor to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
About eighty percent of Puerto Rico is still without power. Many hospitals are still dark. Local citizens needing medical treatments such as surgeries or dialysis have been forced to flee to places where electric power is available.
Puerto Rico’s power grid centers on antiquated oil, gas, and coal generators, the median age of which is forty-four years. Just two percent Puerto Rico’s juice came from wind and solar. One wind farm, on the south side of the island, survived Hurricane Maria largely intact, as did at least one small commercial solar array.
For Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million residents, restoring power is a matter of life and death. But the $300 million dollar contract was handed, with no public hearings, legislative discussion or long-term planning, to Whitefish, an obscure company from rural Montana.
At least one Zinke relative—his son—has worked on part-time contract for Whitefish. Zinke claims he had nothing to do with the deal.
Anti-Trump sentiment is rampant throughout the island, fed by a lack of concern expressed by the President for Puerto Ricans’ dire situation, and capped by a recent visit in which he pitched paper towels to a crowd of bewildered local residents. When San Juan mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz questioned the contract with Whitefish, the company threatened to stop work, then apologized.
The Puerto Rican power company’s contract astoundingly exempted Whitefish from official audits, stating, “In no event shall [governmental bodies] have the right to audit or review the cost and profit elements.” It also waived “any claim against Contractor related to delayed completion of the work,” meaning Whitefish was empowered to pretty much take as long as it wanted to complete the job.
Whitefish wasted no time deploying a gold-plated battalion of high-priced contract workers into the island. Each was granted $1,000 travel expenses for each flight to and from the island. The workers’ contracts called for $80/day in food expenses and $332/day for lodging. Wages were set at $240/hour for a foreman and $227/hour for linemen doing jobs for which prevailing U.S. wages are about $43/hour for supervisors and $23/hour for linemen. In other words, the deal reeked of Trump-era crony capitalism. When word spread, angry locals showered Whitefish workers with rocks and bottles.
But that was not the worst of it. Whitefish appeared to be rebuilding the wind-ravaged grid along exactly the same lines that existed prior to the storm. In other words, the company was reconstructing what was wiped away a month ago, and what would be virtually certain to be wiped away again by the next hurricane.
Since Maria, a lively public dialog has erupted over how to rebuild the island’s power system with sustainable design. Tesla’s Elon Musk sent in a shipment of Powerwall batteries designed to service solar-powered arrays. Tesla also installed a solar/battery/micro-grid array to make the Hospital del Nino entirely self-sufficient.
Musk has been in discussion with Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rosselló about rebuilding the region along renewable lines, with windmills and photovoltaic panels powering a network of micro-grids that would give towns, neighborhoods and buildings a resilient safety net capable of weathering the inevitable next storm.
Multi-billionaire Richard Branson, whose private Necker Island was ravaged by recent storms, has also called for a “Green Marshall Plan” to rebuild the Caribbean with renewable energy. In a recent New York Times op-ed, coauthored with green energy guru Amory Lovins, Branson wrote that by solarizing and decentralizing the region’s grids, “we can stop blackouts caused by monster storms while also saving fossil fuel and reducing emissions of the greenhouse gases that warm the planet and make these storms more likely and destructive.”
Since Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria roared through Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean, smaller nonprofits and activist organizations have also been focused on the vision of a totally green-powered master plan.
On Sunday, October 29, amidst a firestorm of local and Congressional inquiries,The New York Times reported that Governor Rosselló had canceled the Whitefish contract. The company claims to have already spent millions. The court cases will undoubtedly churn up numerous storms of their own.
But the uproar should also focus on the growing demand that the electric power systems in Puerto Rico and the rest of the Caribbean be reconstructed around renewables and microgrids, rather than fossil-fired central distribution networks.
Most likely those systems will not be built by Trump cronies flown in at huge expense, who then must dodge rocks and bottles being thrown by angry locals.
Long-time Progressive contributor Harvey Wasserman is a safe energy activist and radio talk host based in Los Angeles. Tune in for California Solartopia on Thursdays at 6:30 pm on 90.7 KPFK-fm in Los Angeles. Harvey’s Solartopia! Our Green-Powered Earth is at www.solartopia.org. and you can follow Harvey in Twitter @Solartopia
by Harvey Wasserman
July 26, 2017 (originally posted at Progressive.org)
Wind turbines in Blue Creek Township, Ohio
In the corporate war against renewable energy, a single Ohio regulation stands out.
It is a simple clause slipped into the state budget without open discussion, floor debate, or public hearings.
The restriction is costing Ohio billions of dollars and thousands of jobs.
The regulation demands that wind turbines sited in the Buckeye State be at least 1,125 feet from the blade tip to the nearest property line, about 1300 feet total—nearly a quarter-mile.
Ohio’s setback rule is similar to one in Wisconsin, where progress on wind power has atrophied. Lincoln County in South Dakota just passed a requirement that turbines be at least a half-mile from any residence. And Vermont is pondering a rule change to require a setback of ten times the turbine height, which in the case of a 500-foot turbine would be nearly a mile.
Such regulations threaten to kill wind power, thus protecting corporate investments in nuclear power and fossil-fuel generators. The situation is Ohio is especially egregious.
FirstEnergy, owner of Ohio’s two dying reactors at Perry and Davis-Besse, is now strong-arming the legislature and regulators for $4.5 billion in handoutsto sustain two money-losing nukes whose electricity is far more expensive than what would come from currently approved wind projects, and whose 1,400-odd jobs would be dwarfed by the new turbine construction. Should the wind projects proceed, northern Ohio would be flooded with cheap, clean, reliable electricity that would push the two nuclear “mistakes by the lake,” as they’ve been called, even further outside the competitive pale.
Energy expert Ned Ford, based in southwestern Ohio, estimates it would take seven years or less for new wind construction to fully replace the production from Ohio’s two old reactors, and to do it at prices well below their current cost. A report by the American Wind Energy Association says proposed Ohio wind-energy projects could generate $4.2 billion in private investment, producing thousands of jobs in Ohio-based production, installation, and maintenance while generating billions in local income, much of it for badly stressed farmers.
Together, the cost to Ohio of this regulation adds up to $8.7 billion.
Proponents claim that tall turbines somehow threaten the value of neighboring properties. But the quarter-mile rule would thin out potential turbine installations to the point of making nearly all proposed wind farms economically unsustainable.
Ironically, northern Ohio has one of the world’s most potentially profitable wind regimes. The breezes coming down off the Great Lakes are strong and steady. The land is flat. The area is covered with access roads and established transmission lines. The power source is close to urban areas, such as Toledo and Cleveland, making transmission losses relatively marginal.
Major global wind companies such as Spain’s Iberdrola have long-since won approval for a fleet of Ohio wind farms whose capital investments range into the hundreds of millions, and whose construction jobs would be in the thousands, far outstripping the numbers working at the state’s residual reactors. Hundreds more jobs would come with long-term turbine maintenance.
According to Eric Thumma, director of policy and regulatory affairs for Iberdrola, the regulation “basically zones new wind projects out of Ohio.” That would include at least ten wind farms Iberdrola has had fully permitted since 2014, one of them with 304 megawatts of capacity, plus two more waiting in the wings.
Farmers in the region strongly support wind-energy projects. The footprint of a utility-scale turbine covers up just an acre of land. Farmers who host them lose a small fraction of their agricultural productivity, and access roads to build turbines can temporarily cost some crop space. But in many cases, once the windmills are in, farmers just plough over and plant those strips of soil on the usually safe bet that not much will go wrong.
Once installed, the turbines provide farmers with substantial lease payments that can even exceed what they make from actually raising crops other than electricity.
Ohio also stands to benefit from long-stalled projects slated for the middle of Lake Erie, where steady winds are among the world’s most powerful. Amidst relatively shallow waters, the sites, like those on land, are relatively close to major population centers. But while FirstEnergy beats up the legislature demanding billions in reactor subsidies, capital has been slow to flow to the offshore projects.
Recent attempts to rescind the anti-wind restriction are backed by some of the state’s strongest manufacturing, financial, and commercial interests. According to energy expert Ford, lifting the restriction could allow billions in currently stalled projects, and open the door to more. Even without the ones in the lake, Ford calculates that land-based turbines and solar panels could easily supply all Ohio’s electrical needs and make the state a major energy exporter.
In 2010, under then-Governor Ted Strickland, a Democrat, the Ohio legislature enacted a sweeping mandate in support of renewable energy. It was killed when Republican Governor John Kasich came to power and the GOP gained a death grip on both houses of the legislature. Many Republicans argued then (and now) that “market forces” should determine where Ohio’s energy will come from—while simultaneously demanding the uncompetitive reactors be bailed out and doing all they can to sabotage the influx of cheap renewables.
But according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, Ohio has more than sixtywind-related manufacturing facilities, more than any other state. In 2016, amidst a nationwide green power boom, that industry supported between 2,000 and 3,000 Ohio jobs, more than the 1,400 at Ohio’s two decrepit nuclear plants.
So the death of Ohio’s renewable energy mandate has not only cost it cheaper long-term electric rates and countless installation and maintenance jobs, it continues to cripple the domestic infrastructure poised to produce much of the hardware for the state’s own wind farms.
It’s a lose-lose proposition. The people of Ohio deserve better.
Harvey Wasserman’s most recent piece for The Progressive is “The Unstoppable Green Power Revolution.” He is author of Solartopia! Our Green-Powered Earth and co-author, with Dan Juhl, of Harvesting Wind Energy as a Cash Crop.