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People want to know: Is NStar's announcement yesterday that, beginning in July, customers willing to pay an extra fee will be able to get half or all their electricity from wind generators a big deal, or just a bunch of hot air?

The answer is, neither. It doesn't give Massachusetts utility customers any greater ability to support the development of wind power than they already had, but it may accelerate the trend, regardless.

For some time, a small group of utility customers both in Mass. and Rhode Island could sign up — through their utility but administered by a third party — to buy energy from renewable sources, and any Massachusetts utility customer could go directly to the New England Wind Fund, operated by the nonprofit Mass. Energy Consumers Alliance, to pay to support development of wind energy.

Though with NStar's offer, you'll be dealing directly with the utility instead of a third party, the practical effect is pretty small: You could agree to pay more to foster wind-power generation before the announcement, and you can now too.

Still, it could accelerate Bay Staters' involvement, since people are used to paying for their electricity on their electricity bill, a point acknowledged by Larry Chretien, executive director of Mass. Energy: "It’s positive that all NStar customers are going to have a chance to buy a green product and pay for it on their monthly bill."

Chretien said Mass. Energy will continue to operate both the wind fund and the agreements it has with about 6,000 National Grid customers, and he said the group may appeal to the state to be allowed to list its service on NStar bills as well.

Regardless, he applauded NStar's move. "The way we look at it, it’s good that customers have one more green option than they had yesterday. But we hope they’ll have two, or more."
NStar will charge those who ask for half their power to come from wind $4.25 extra per month, and those who want it all will be charged an additional $7.25. One substantial difference between using NStar or Mass. Energy is that NStar's premium charge is not tax deductible, while contributions to Mass. Energy are. Mass. Energy does not specify an amount required.

NStar has signed with two wind farms, one in upstate New York and one in Maine expected to begin producing next year, to provide its customers with wind energy. Mass. Energy has contracted with the Princeton (Mass.) Municipal Light Department to supply wind power, also expected to be in operation next year.

Anyone, of course, can invest the large amounts of capital needed to enter the alternative-energy production market, but they have to compete with long established coal plants. To foster the new industries, the law allows producers, in effect, to sell their power twice. The first time is for the power itself.

But they are also allowed to sell renewable energy credits, which is why their power costs more. Customers who buy wind power not only provide more money to help support the industry's establishment, they provide hard evidence to prospective entrepreneurs that there is consumer demand for the product.

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