The wind blowing off America’s coastline has the potential to generate 54 gigawatts of electricity, enough to power 42 million homes. To capture some of that energy, this winter the US Department of the Interior leased 354,000 acres off the Bay State to two wind energy developers. In 2013, the feds leased 166,000 acres off Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and a fully funded wind project off Block Island will soon power 17,000 homes.
These projects would not exist if it were not for the now-jeopardized Cape Wind project and its president Jim Gordon’s pioneering efforts to build 130 wind turbines on Nantucket Sound. There were no projects like this anywhere in the nation in 2001 when it was first proposed, never mind rules governing how and where they could be built.
Cape Wind was introduced at a time when the United States, the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol reducing heat-trapping air pollution.
In the Northeast, we consume lots of electricity, produce little that is clean, and add lots of carbon to the atmosphere. Cape Wind was to be the region’s largest renewable-energy project mitigating the effects of human-induced climate change and cutting carbon emissions by 770,000 tons, the equivalent of removing 175,000 cars from the roads each year.
Cape Wind began America’s quest to join the global offshore renewable-energy market to catch up with Europe and its dozens of marine wind parks and jumpstart the industry on the eastern seaboard. The review of Cape Wind would set the standard by which all future offshore wind projects in the nation would be measured, and so it was important for
the developer and permitting agencies to get it right – and they did.
At Mass Audubon, we examined the project within the context of a planet not only experiencing rapid heating, sea-level rise, and intense coastal storms, but also oil spills, strip mining, and air pollution. We knew that the combustion of fossil fuels was releasing carbon, methane, and mercury into the environment and causing health problems for humans, especially pregnant women and children. Our examination balanced the good and bad of Cape Wind against the known and significant threats posed by fossil-fuel use and climate change.
At first, we were skeptical of the project since Nantucket Sound is home to a rich variety of avian life, including the endangered roseate tern, threatened piping plover, and half a million winter sea ducks. However, following three years of independent on-site research, an extensive scientific literature review, and a comparative study trip during bird migration season to Denmark’s offshore wind farms, we concluded that the benefits of Cape Wind far outweighed its detriments and that the project would have no significant adverse impact on the marine life of Nantucket Sound. As a matter of fact, in the long run Cape Wind would be beneficial. A leading Boston newspaper headline announced on March 29, 2006: “Audubon review supports wind farm. Threat to birds is less than feared.”
By default, the original permitting for this never-before-seen type of project fell to the US Army Corps of Engineers whose primary concern was preventing obstruction in the nation’s waterways. In response, Congress passed the Energy Policy Act of 2005, charging the stewards of the nation’s natural resources at the Interior Department with the responsibility to review, regulate, and permit offshore renewable energy projects.
The Interior Department worked with the public, the environmental community, and the energy industry to establish siting criteria for planning, leasing, building, monitoring, and eventually decommissioning offshore wind farms. Independent analyses of the potential impact on birds, whales and sea turtles, put into place during the review of Cape Wind, would became part of wind farm analyses, and a financial compensation program for host coastal states was added – all because Cape Wind was under consideration.
After hundreds of thousands of pages of environmental reports, input from seventeen public agencies, thirty unsuccessful opposing laws suits, hundreds-of-millions of dollars spent, and all the necessary permits in hand, the $2.5 billion project has stalled due to the termination of power purchase agreements with two utilities.
Cape Wind is the story of risk taking, bold ideas, and innovation. It was, and it remains, a groundbreaking endeavor to help end our addiction to fossil fuels and move us forward on the road to energy independence and a clean energy future.
Jack Clarke is director of public policy and government relations for Mass Audubon.