Close to Home: Wind energy and lost wallets

Friday, March 11, 2011; 8:22 PM

Wind energy's costs and benefits

Last week, Local Opinions asked: "Wind energy in Maryland: Is it worth paying for?" Here is one reader's view:

In the debate over the costs of his offshore wind energy proposal ["Questions of costs, jobs and influence surround O'Malley's offshore wind proposal," March 3], Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) has scored some points. But he has missed the elephant in the room.

The governor is right when he figures that electricity from offshore wind farms will protect consumers from volatile fuel prices. Natural gas and coal, the main fuels used for electricity generation, may seem relatively cheap today, but who can say what they will cost two or 10 years from now?

Where the governor - and our legislature and our Public Service Commission - should widen their focus is regarding the bigger picture of electricity's real costs, and what measures are in consumers' overall interest. We are all citizens who breathe air, drink water, want to be able to enjoy our natural environment and seek value from the goods we purchase - including electricity. And the electricity we pay for every month comes with a hidden price. Here are some numbers:

The National Academy of Sciences has calculated that burning coal for electricity generation comes with a hidden cost of over $60 billion annually (no typo, that's billion) to the United States, a number that primarily reflects health damages from air pollution. That's equivalent to about 3 cents per kilowatt hour, or, for an average household consuming 10,000 kilowatt hours annually, $300 a year. The study also mentioned, but did not include in that number, other costs, such as harm to waterways and ecosystems, and impacts from climate change such as more extreme weather and higher allergy levels.

So, back to the governor's proposed surcharge of $1.44 a month, or $17.28 a year, for offshore wind energy. Those voicing concerns over costs to the consumer should look at the bigger costs from dirty electricity generation that silently hit Maryland citizens, year after year. In the public interest, our governor, legislature and Public Service Commission should not only help our imperfect market shift to cleaner energy sources but also tighten environmental protections and impose pollution surcharges. These steps would shift those hidden but very real electricity costs back where they belong: on the pollution itself.

Christine Real de Azua, Chevy Chase

The writer, a consultant on environmental and energy issues, worked with the American Wind Energy Association from 1999 to 2010 and previously directed the Accounting for the Environment project. The views expressed here are her own.

A lost-wallet story

On a Friday afternoon a few weeks ago, while at a Metro Exitfare machine, I realized, just as I heard the train pulling out of the station, that my wallet had slipped from my coat pocket. Panicked, I asked the attendant at Braddock Road what to do. He tried without success to call the driver of the train. I returned home, filled out a lost-property form on Metro's Web site and waited. I wasn't holding out much hope.

But one week later, I received an e-mail stating that my wallet had been found. Still skeptical, I assumed it would be empty. When I could not get to the lost-and-found location before it closed, I called, and the people there very politely agreed to send my wallet to me via Federal Express, which cost only $5.

Two weeks to the day after I lost it, the wallet arrived. To my surprise, all four of my credit cards and $60 in cash were right where I had left them. On one of the $20 bills, someone (yes, it might have been there before I had lost it) had written: "May God bless you abundantly." He has.

It's worth noting that this wallet passed through many hands on its way back to me - from the person who found it, to the attendant at the gate, to the lost-and-found site. To point out the obvious, any of them could have easily taken, at the very least, the cash - but they did not.

Who was I to be such a skeptic? The system works, and people are good. Thank you, Metro.

Suzanne Rainey, Alexandria

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