Alan Muller on Bloomgate

November 5th, 2016

Bloomgate is distraction from Del.’s energy challenges

The Oct. 30 feature on Bloomgate and the responses generated have been informative, but not so much about the central purpose of subsidizing “renewable energy.”

The point of renewable energy quotas and subsidies is to increase the use of low-carbon electricity sources. This should be an urgent policy goal for Delaware, as carbon emissions to the atmosphere drive climate change and the resulting sea-level rise. Delaware, one of the two lowest-lying states and with climate dependent industries such as agriculture and tourism, is extra vulnerable to the effects of global warming. For a long time, Green Delaware has been arguing that our state should be a leader in pushing for solutions to climate change, but there has been little response from Delaware leaders, in thrall as most of them seem to be to industrial special interests.

The Bloom fuel cells are fueled by natural gas, a fossil, not a renewable fuel. Their efficiency in generating electricity from natural gas appears to be roughly comparable to the best combined-cycle thermal power plants. Bloom claims its fuel cell emissions are lower carbon than the coal-dominated “PJM” grid energy mix. The flaw in this argument is that natural gas, while lower carbon emitting at the point of use, is probably not lower carbon than coal overall, unless we disregard the emissions associated with extracting and transporting natural gas, not to mention the nightmare that fracking has created for many communities.

It also appears that, contrary to claims made during Coastal Zone Act permitting, that the Bloom fuel cells produce significant amounts of hazardous waste. The state of New Jersey has withdrawn subsidies for fuel cell electricity generation, and the California Public Utilities Commission staff recommended likewise.

To the extent that Bloomgate enables Delmarva Power to meet its renewable quotas with fossil fuels, instead of fuels that are truly low carbon, such as wind and solar, the point of the renewable quota is defeated and climate change at least slightly accelerated. I do not know how aware the Markell administration was of these underlying realities, or if it cared, as the administration has not displayed great technical sophistication or procedural transparency. The General Assembly and the Public Service Commission have done no better.

What is certain is that Mother Nature does not care about Delaware politics – or Delaware schemes and scams. Our planet will keep on heating up regardless, unless and until we take meaningful steps to reduce climate-forcing emissions to the atmosphere.

Green Delaware has been following energy policy in Delaware since the early 1990s. It appears that Delmarva Power is making less of a contribution now than it was then. The so-called Delaware Sustainable Energy Utility appears to have been cooked up primarily to get Delmarva Power off the hook. It is possible that the SEU is finally beginning to function effectively. We hope so, but critical years of progress have been lost.

The critical need is to transition to very low carbon energy systems. The good news is that we can do it. The wholesale cost of wind power is on the order of 2-3 cents for a kilowatt hour. The cost of solar electricity is still higher than on-shore wind but dropping steadily. Storage systems can address the wind and solar generation. Investment on the demand side is an available and cost-effective option, but will not be widely implemented if energy policy remains under the control of utilities in the business of selling more, not less, electricity.

The good news for utilities is that the widespread use of electric vehicles is on the near-term horizon and this has great potential to increase electricity use while curtailing the use of diesel fuel and gasoline. This is the most credible scenario for leaving the oil and the gas in the ground, where it needs to stay while maintaining a transportation infrastructure.

Bloomgate is a ripoff of Delmarva Power ratepayers and bad energy policy. Worse, it is a distraction from what we need to be doing. The Bloomgate utility bill surcharges should be removed and the existing installations made to stand on their own if they can. It is not so hard to envision an energy policy for Delaware that would put the long-term future of the state – and the interests of residents – first. But how to get there from here, given the limitations of our political system, is less obvious.

Alan Muller is the executive director of Green Delaware.

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