No Way To Do Wind

By 60 Plus Chairman Jim Martin

As a long-time advocate of access to reliable, affordable energy for seniors living on a fixed income, I have been an “All of the Above” energy guy since before it was popular. I have worked hard to promote new projects that increase the availability of low-cost solar, wind, coal, oil, natural gas, geo-thermal, nuclear and hydro power. The reason is simple: It makes sense to increase the supply of electricity so low-income seniors can more easily afford it. But it doesn’t make sense if a new energy project shifts costs to seniors, potentially forcing them to make a choice between electrical power and groceries or medicine.

This is the risk behind the proposed Wind Catcher Energy Connection project, an ambitious plan to harness the wind that come sweeping down the plains of Oklahoma, generating 1,400-megawatts of electricity for transmission to Louisiana, along with Texas and Arkansas. In a phrase, Wind Catcher a bad deal for seniors because it could raise their energy bills. A survey by the Applied Public Policy Research Institute for Study and Evaluation found that higher energy prices forced 30% of lower-income seniors to go without food for at least one day. Four in 10 would forego medical or dental care, and a third would not fi ll a prescription or take less than a full dose of medicine, while a quarter of seniors would become sick because their home is too cold.

Given these and other problems with the Wind Catcher proposal, it’s not surprising that regulators, administrative law judges and energy economists are warning of something foul in the air around Wind Catcher. The backers of the Wind Catcher project have not and cannot demonstrate that they can complete the project on time or on budget. They cannot promise to protect Louisiana consumers from higher electric costs. Indeed, ratepayers in Louisiana would likely be responsible for bearing the financial costs associated with the project, with Southwestern Electric Power Company (SWEPCO) expecting Louisianans to chip in more $1 billion in higher utility bills. The developers haven’t even used a competitive bidding process for several major portions of the project.

Then there are the transmission lines to export this power to Louisiana. With 300 miles of high-tension power lines requiring regulatory review and approval across four states, and the likely opposition of hundreds of property owners along the way who aren’t keen on having these transmission lines running across their land, the odds of completing this project on time approach zero. The savings promised to Louisiana ratepayers, which are based in large part on the successful completion of transmission lines from Oklahoma, are unlikely to materialize. Any of these flaws, taken individually, would raise eyebrows among boards and commissions that regulate public utilities. Taken together, Wind Catcher is setting off alarm bells from Baton Rouge and Little Rock to Austin and Oklahoma City. Most major power projects have a few wrinkles to iron out before getting started but Wind Catcher can’t overcome the flaws of its conception. None of this is a knock on wind power, any more than pointing out the design flaws that led to the sinking of the Titanic is an argument against cruise ships.

But for seniors living on a fixed income, there just aren’t enough lifeboats to save them from higher electricity bills. If wind power can keep the lights on at a lower cost to ratepayers, that’s a fine thing and I’m all for it. But Wind Catcher looks like a bona fi de boondoggle, one that would raise electric bills for seniors in Louisiana, with no reliable budget or timeline for completion. Frankly, it’s more than a little disappointing but there’s just no other way to assess this project. For all the talk about the Wind Catcher project, it just doesn’t withstand scrutiny, even among people like me who support wind power.

At first glance it sounds good, but the Wind Catcher project is a house of cards that falls if anyone gives it a passing glance. With Louisiana consumers expected to bear more than a billion dollars in costs for this project, that second glance shows it’s a bad deal for electrical customers in Louisiana, especially for low-income families and seniors living on Social Security. Regulators in Baton Rouge should reject Wind Catcher.