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Cape Wind: For Real?

The Cape Wind project has cleared its final regulatory hurdles, and developers expect construction to begin this year. NIMBY activists, however, aren't giving up.

For more than a decade the prospect of a wind farm in Nantucket Sound has sparked imaginations and spurred debate. At times it looked like a pipe dream, but the project is now fully permitted and construction is expected to begin in the next year. Jim Gordon, president of Energy Management Inc. -- the company developing the Cape Wind project -- spoke with Green Utility about the benefits of offshore wind power, and the challenges of developing the nation’s first offshore wind farm.

GU: How did your company get involved with wind energy?

JG: EMI has been developing energy projects in New England for the past 36 years. And our company successfully developed a number of biomass and natural gas-fired power plants from the ’80s up until around 2000, when we transitioned into developing renewable energy projects. So we’re not new kids on the block.

GU: Why did you decide to focus on offshore wind?

JG: We spent a year exploring New England to find the optimal site for a utility-scale wind farm. We looked in the mountains of northern New England, and out in western Massachusetts. There’s wind there, but the east is densely populated and we don’t have the availability of land like we do out west or in the plains states. So we looked across the Atlantic to see what the Europeans were doing. Sweden and in Denmark were beginning their offshore wind industry, and we saw that Massachusetts and Denmark share some similar geographic qualities.

We found a shallow shoal in Nantucket Sound called Horseshoe Shoal. It was away from the shipping lanes, the ferry lanes, and it was outside of the air-flight path. It was very shallow, so it didn’t have a lot of boating traffic. It had very strong wind, and a low wave regime, because it was sheltered by Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. Also it had reasonable proximity to the grid. It really possessed the optimal siting criteria. So we came up with a plan to develop America’s first offshore wind farm: 130 wind turbines, spaced a third to a half a mile apart. The project would produce, on average, over 75 percent of the cape and island’s electricity demand.

GU: Why is each turbine so far apart from the next one?

JG: That’s right. So shallow-draft vessels that want to fish or offer eco-tours can come on in. There’s plenty of room to navigate. Also you space the wind turbines apart, get the optimum production efficiency. You don’t want wind wake, where the wind turbines interfere with one another. It’s just like when an airplane takes off. You have to wait if you’re next in line, because you don’t want to get in the wake. So the project has been designed by meteorologists and engineers for optimum production efficiency within the existing wind regime and site.

GU: I understand that federal regulators just released the final plan for how the project will be built and operated. What’s the gist of that?

JG: Offshore wind is regulated by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and Regulations. It used to be Minerals Management Service; they changed their name. The construction operating plan is part of the regulatory process, and it outlines how the project will be built.

Seventeen federal and state agencies reviewed Cape Wind for almost a decade. We got our record of decision on April 28, 2010, and on October 6 we signed the first offshore wind lease in the history of the United States. That was signed with Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.

GU: The project has been kind of controversial. Is it really just a case of NIMBY-ism?

JG: Yes. There’s no question that when the project was first announced, some folks had a visceral, knee-jerk reaction, and that’s understandable. But that changed over the ensuing regulatory process, as the environmental impact reports and the socioeconomic reports came out. When the facts, science, and the environmental impacts were put on the table, the project started to garner a lot of support.

It’s very easy for an opposition group to form immediately, before the ink is dried on a newspaper article announcing a project. But most of the legitimate environmental organizations, health advocates and consumer groups want to see the science, the economics, and the facts. As the regulatory process unfolded, reports came out from the state and federal agencies that showed how Cape Wind would produce significant public-interest benefits: increased energy independence; offsetting almost 800,000 tons of greenhouse gases annually; reduction in pollutants; more stable energy costs; new green jobs; plus the opportunity to establish the region as a global leader in offshore renewable energy, with the first-mover advantage of attracting the supply chain and all the technology spin-offs that will revolve around the offshore wind industry.

My point is that today practically every major environmental organization -- NRDC, Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Union of Concerned Scientists, Conservation Law Foundation, Environment America and Environment Massachusetts -- support this project. We have health advocates, like the American Lung Association and Physicians for Social Responsibility, and grassroots groups supporting us, and the cape and island’s oldest environmental organization, the Association to Preserve Cape Cod.

Independent public opinion polls show that over 86 percent of Massachusetts citizens want this project built. Show me an energy project anywhere in the United States that has that level of support. It’s off the charts, but that doesn’t negate the fact that we have a very small, vocal and well-funded opposition group that has been fighting this project for nine years.

GU: What are their big arguments? Are they just saying it’s an eyesore?

JG: Some of the arguments are aesthetic. The guy who is the major funder of the opposition group is William Koch. He has a multi-million dollar estate in Oyster Harbors, which is one of the ritziest areas of Cape Cod. He’s in the coal and petroleum business. So beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Some people would rather have just the landscape -- the oceanscape -- unchanged. But you have to realize that if you were standing on the nearest beach and looking out at the horizon where Cape Wind is going to be built, it would have to be a very clear day to see anything, and then what would appear on a distant horizon would look like half-inch tall sailing masts. Actually less than half an inch.

GU: How tall are the windmills?

JG: The hub height is about 246 feet. And the blade tip, it’s about 440 feet when the blade reaches 12 o’clock. But to make this aesthetic argument, you need to go out in a boat to the wind farm. It will be a very modest visual impact from the Cape and Islands.

GU: It’s been said that there’s no NIMBY like a rich NIMBY.

JG: Exactly right, especially when they view this as a disruptive technology.

Offshore wind will be a major component of Europe’s energy future, and that’s going to take business away from coal and petroleum and natural gas. I believe that offshore wind will be a major component of America’s energy future. One only has to look at the turmoil in the energy markets today, with the Mideast problems, with the terrible tragedy in Japan, it’s going to accentuate the irreversible trend toward more natural gas-fired power plants and renewable energy.

The Department of Energy has validated over 900,000 MW of offshore wind potential within five to 50 nautical miles of our coast. To put that into perspective, the total installed generation capacity in the United States is about 980,000 MW. I’m not suggesting that offshore wind is going to replace our generation capacity, but it can become a major component of it. And the most abundant offshore wind resources are in New England and the mid-Atlantic. These are areas where we don’t have indigenous oil, coal, or natural gas.

GU: Did the NIMBY resistance have any significant impact on the timing or cost of the project?

JG: Yes, absolutely. Unfortunately they’ve slowed the process down and caused the project to get more expensive. They’ve been pretty good at trying to manipulate and abuse the regulatory process. They filed appeals literally on every approval that we’ve received. And we’ve received a lot of approvals. But we’ve won every single judicial decision and regulatory decision against them.

I look at it as a futile, scorched-earth policy. They’re delaying good jobs in Massachusetts. They’re delaying a cleaner, healthier environment. They’re delaying increased energy security and independence. But we believe in this project passionately. We think it’s the right project at the right place and the right time, and that America needs to move forward with offshore wind.

GU: Let’s talk a little bit about the economics of it. Offshore wind is a lot more expensive than land-based installations. Why is that?

JG: Because first of all, whenever you’re constructing something in the ocean, it’s more expensive than building on land. Because you have to use barges and marine cranes, you’re laying cable undersea. But the thing that negates or neutralizes that is the fact that the offshore wind is more consistent and a stronger resource. Most land-based wind turbines produce most of their power at night, off peak, whereas offshore wind tends to produce at times of peak demand.

GU: How does the capacity factor compare to land-based wind farms?

JG: It really depends on the site and the particular meteorological conditions. Offshore wind gets higher capacity factors as a rule of thumb, and you’re producing power at the peak. If a land-based wind farm has 20 or 25 percent capacity factor, offshore wind has 37 to 40 percent capacity factor.

GU: What about transmission requirements for Cape Wind compared to onshore wind farms?

JG: That’s a really important point. We have a very short transmission line to an existing grid that has the capacity to carry this power to consumers. Our whole transmission line, right to the substation, is buried either under the sea or under town streets.

GU: Google Energy is planning a 900-mile offshore transmission line in the Northeast. What does that mean for Cape Wind and for other offshore wind development?

JG: They’re only bringing it down from New Jersey to Virginia, but I applaud them for doing it. For us, it just brings more attention to the potential of offshore wind and to the fact that forward-thinking companies like Google are moving into the space. You see private equity companies starting to move into the space as well.

The question is, are utilities going to sit on the sidelines, or embrace offshore wind as a potential source of energy for all the right reasons? Are they going to resist it? Are some going to get involved in it, like PSEG has done in New Jersey? The more utilities learn about offshore wind -- the more they understand how it can help their business, and more importantly how it can help their customers -- I think you’re going to find more and more utilities embrace it.

GU: Cape Wind will be the first offshore wind farm in America, but will other projects follow? Is momentum building toward offshore wind?

JG: It’s irreversible. The simple fact is that our energy demand is growing. Do you want to build more coal, nuclear and natural gas plants? Or do you want to start transitioning toward a more sustainable energy generation platform with offshore wind, other renewables and natural gas?

GU: When do you expect the project to be completed?

JG: It’s about a two and a half year construction process. Permitting is complete. We are still trying to sell more power -- half has been sold to National Grid. And we still need to finance the project, which we hope to do by the end of this year. There is also litigation advanced by project opponents on our permits, so we can’t rule out the possibility of delay. But their legal track record so far is dismal, so we don’t expect the outcome to change. We hope to start construction this year.