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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Catching the Wind, Part Three

Air Date: Week of

The future of wind power in the U.S.A. may rest off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. That’s where developers want to build the nation’s first offshore wind farm. It would consist of 130 turbines, each taller than the Statue of Liberty, that proponents say would supply seventy-five percent of the region’s electric power. But opposition to this proposed citing is strong. Critics charge it would spoil one of the most pristine environments in the nation. We talk with representatives from both sides of the debate. And just to show that wind power is not all work and controversy, we end our program on a Massachusetts beach and a ride on a buggy pulled by a kite.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

MALE ACTOR: I shall impersonate a man. Come enter into my imagination and see him.

CURWOOD: In the play "Man of La Mancha," the gallant knight takes on the world with an idealism bordering on madness.

ACTOR: To become a knight and sally forth into the world, righting all wrongs. His name--Don Quixote de La Mancha!

CURWOOD: But Don Quixote's visions are delusional. With his lance the noble knight charges what he believes are evil giants, paying no heed to the warnings of his manservant Sancho Panza that he is really attacking windmills.

ACTOR: And the wild winds of fortune. Shall carry me onward, Oh whithersoever they blow. Whithersoever they blow, Onward to glory I go!

CURWOOD: Today's crusaders against wind power aren't tilting at imaginary giants. They oppose real ones. Consider Hyannis, Massachusetts, on the southern coast of Cape Cod, near the Kennedy family compound. The company Cape Wind wants to build the nation's first offshore wind farm, seven miles off the coast of Hyannis on Horseneck Shoal in Nantucket Sound.

The 700 million-dollar project calls for the construction of 130 turbines, each taller than the Statue of Liberty. The turbines would be within eyesight of the town and popular beach communities on Nantucket Island and Martha's Vineyard. As part of the environmental review process supporters and opponents of the project have been attending public meetings, giving voice and even song to their points of view.

SINGER: How many windmills will it take to replace resources that leave the world unstable?

MAN: Cape Wind won't prevent climate change by itself, but it will offset nearly one million tons of carbon dioxide making this the single most beneficial action we can take to clean our air and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.

WOMAN: I oppose the idea of America's first offshore wind farm being placed on Nantucket Sound. My opposition is based on my opinion that this unspoiled area should not be squandered and disfigured.

MAN2: If somebody's view was disturbed, then I'm sorry, I really am. But the greater good is stewardship of the planet.

SINGER: Yes, and how many particulates must fill our lungs before a clean source can be found?

MAN3: I am not opposed to alternate energy sources, but at what expense? We have a very unique environment in the Sound and a very unique way of getting power and I don't know how we can marry the two.

SINGER AND CHORUS: The answer my friend is blowing in the wind, the answer is blowing in the wind.

CURWOOD: So far, it's been a seesaw battle over the Cape Wind project. Federal courts have ruled in favor of the plan, but in March of 2005 the Department of the Interior called a draft impact statement "flawed," setting the project back by as much as two years or maybe forever. On a cold rainy early spring day, along the Hyannis waterfront, I spoke with Jim Gordon, president of Cape Wind, the project's developer and Susan Nickerson, executive director of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, the leading opposition group to the wind farm. We met as fisherman unloaded their haul at the nearby dock.


CURWOOD: So, I want to thank you both for coming out here on a kind of a blustery, cold day (LAUGHS).

NICKERSON: It's a pleasure.

GORDON: Thanks for inviting us.

CURWOOD: So Jim, let's start with you. Now, if you get permission to build your wind farm, how would it operate on, well, this is a somewhat windy day today?

GORDON: Well, Steve, the winds off of Horseshoe Shoal average about 19 miles per hour. The reason that we picked Horseshoe Shoal is that it has some of the strongest, most consistent winds, it has shallow waters and low wave heights. We found that Horseshoe Shoal was the optimal site and the fact that it was close to the Cape and Islands, which has the fastest-growing electric demand in New England. So, here we're going to put a wind farm that's going to produce, on average, 75 percent of the Cape and Islands' electricity with zero pollutant emissions, zero water consumption and zero waste discharge.

CURWOOD: Why not go further offshore?

GORDON: Because right now the technology, Steve, doesn't allow you to build offshore wind turbines in very deep waters. Also, you know, the further out you go, the greater the losses are on the electricity, so it's less efficient. We looked at a number of the successful wind farms, offshore wind farms, in Europe and what we are trying to do is build a wind farm where the wind is, where the conditions are right. So, that it's technically and economically feasible to supply Massachusetts' citizens with, you know, lower electric costs, increased energy independence, a cleaner, healthier environment and new jobs.

CURWOOD: What would these turbines look like from shore?

GORDON: We're actually about six miles from Horseshoe Shoal now, and if you were on the nearest public beaches and looked out on the horizon, the wind turbines, on a clear day, would appear about a half inch off the horizon. They would look like tiny sailing masts. So, what you're looking at here, these boat masts tower over a half-inch view off the horizon.

CURWOOD: Susan Nickerson, you're with the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound and you oppose the Cape Wind Project. Why?

NICKERSON: Steve, there are a number of reasons, and I'd like to get into them, but first, I'd like to emphasize that this is not an argument about the need for renewable energy. And, I think people on all sides of the debate agree, without qualification, that the country needs to move in the direction of renewables. The questions that we really face here have to do with where do you put these kinds of facilities? And, what are the trade-offs that people are willing to live with?

It turns out that Horseshoe Shoal is about the worst location on the eastern seaboard imaginable because of the existing uses out there. And, the fishing boats, the one that was just here at the dock unloading scallops, very likely got that catch on Horseshoe Shoal. We have fishermen that have stood beside us for many months and years now and have attested to the value of catch. Millions of dollars worth of fish each year they take off of Horseshoe Shoal. It's not necessarily deep-sea fishing; it's squid, it's scup, it's shellfish. And, if the turbines are built out there they won't use the area because they will not be able to maneuver their boats in between the turbines. They'll be concerned about their gear interlocking with the cables that will be connecting each of the wind turbine generators together. That's one example of the conflicts.

CURWOOD: So, what are your concerns on a national level here?

NICKERSON: That's a very important piece of this because, essentially, national energy policy is being formulated right here in Nantucket Sound and what happens here will have implications up and down the eastern seaboard, the Gulf of Mexico and the West Coast. What has happened with Cape Wind, they've exposed an enormous gaping hole in federal law. There is no federal law governing how the outer continental shelf can or cannot be used. And, if this permit were to be granted to allow Cape Wind to build on public land for private gain, it would essentially trigger a gold rush. And, other coastal states that right now have no more weight than the state of Massachusetts in saying what happens in federal waters off their coast would be affected.

CURWOOD: Now, Sue Nickerson, let me ask you about some of the other environmental groups. I'm thinking of Greenpeace, Conservation Law Foundation, Union of Concerned Scientists. I think it's fair to say, conditionally said that this project makes some sense to them. I think they have concerns about regulations and such, but at the end of the day they say, "look, this climate change thing is not getting any better. It's a matter of trading off; there's no perfect solution and this is better than, you know, having all of Cape Cod under a risen sea in however many years it's predicted." So, what about the dissent among environmental groups about this?

NICKERSON: Right, Steve, and that's one of the real tragedies of this whole debate, is it's pitting environmentalists against environmentalists and it's taking two very worthy goals, one of which is development of renewable energy and pitting it against ocean resource management, to no avail. And that's why we think there is a better way to do this, that there are win-win scenarios out there. This doesn't happen to be one of them.

CURWOOD: Win-win?

NICKERSON: Win-win, not wind-wind.

CURWOOD: Not wind-wind, win-win.

NICKERSON: Well, it might be wind-wind.

CURWOOD: So, what would be a win-win here?

NICKERSON: The problem with this project, as we've talked about, is that it's not appropriately sited; it's not the right project in the right place. And, we think that with the momentum that's developing around interest in renewables right now that there can be a consensus approach to this project that would identify a reasonable site. In terms of how we reach that consensus, I think that conversation needs to start with the public.

The problem with this project is that it's been developer-driven. Cape Wind did the computer analysis and found that this was the most lucrative site for their corporate profits and it happens to be in the middle of Nantucket Sound. We think if the public were behind selection of these sites Nantucket Sound would never be on the table for discussion because it is a national treasure and there are existing uses of the area.

GORDON: Basically what you're hearing from Susan is she tells you she likes renewable energy, but not just here. Put it somewhere else. The problem is, somewhere else is in someone else's view-shed, is in someone else's recreational area. And we all have to ante up in the fight against global warming. You know, there's an environmental justice issue here, because, you know, it's interesting. Here we have the fastest-growing electric demand in New England and we're talking about generating a new source of electricity with minimal impacts. It's not a choice between Cape Wind or nothing; it's a choice between Cape Wind on Horseshoe Shoal or putting a coal plant in Lynn, Massachusetts or an oil plant in Roxbury, Massachusetts or, you know, something in a less politically-influential or affluent area. And, renewable energy is a public purpose in Massachusetts. The legislature is mandating that we get increasing amounts of our energy from renewable energy over the ensuing years and if we don't build projects like Cape Wind, we're not going to meet that renewable portfolio standard and mandate.

CURWOOD: Sue Nickerson, if this were a public project, if no one was going to make a dollar for private pocket, this was done by a public agency, would it be okay to put wind turbines out in Nantucket Sound?

NICKERSON: If there were all of the environmental factors were considered and the economic factors were considered and it came out that there was no adverse economic impact, there was no adverse environmental impact, then any site would be acceptable. But, the fact of the matter is we don't have any standards; we don't have any yardsticks. And, the folks from Cape Wind like to talk about the project in terms of panacea, that it's going to cure the asthma epidemic, that it's going to decrease global warming. That's entirely false when you look at what's really going on here. The contribution that this project is going to make in those directions is miniscule and the costs that are going to be incurred because of it are enormous.

And the problem with the Cape Wind project is that it's so controversial, it's basically mired the development of an entire new energy industry in this country, being offshore wind energy development, that ought not be mired. It needs to move ahead.

CURWOOD: Well, thank you both for taking this time. Jim Gordon is the CEO of Cape Wind. Susan Nickerson is executive director of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound.

GORDON: Thank you.

NICKERSON: Thank you, Steve.

CURWOOD: Catching the wind means more than putting it to work. Three thousand years ago the Chinese built some of the earliest kites out of bamboo and silk. Of course, kites are still a thrill for kids and some adults, too, like Don McCasland, who's taking his kite in new directions.


MCCASLAND: We are at Carson Beach in South Boston and right now we are rigging kites to get ready to go buggy kiting. I've been buggy kiting since the early 1990s. The fastest I've ever gone is 42. I know many people who like to cruise in the 45 to 50 mile per hour range, but that's a bit fast for my taste. The wind is faster than I expected actually. They were saying a sea breeze would kick in, but I thought it would be later this afternoon. It's quite good. It's the perfect direction for long fast reaches. And, it's blowing probably about 10 to 15 miles per hour.

Don McClasland gets his buggy ready for action.
(Photo: Bruce Gellerman)


MCCASLAND: I've got to get the tire pressure up so we won't have too much resistance. The easier the vehicles roll, the faster we can go. We're at 40 PSI; we'll move to 60. I love doing this, as program director at Blue Hill talking about whether there's a strong relationship between air pressure, which is of course, going into this tire and wind. Wind is the result of high pressure going to low pressure and from an educational point of view, pumping up a tire is a great way to express that.


MCCASLAND: The great thing about the wind, whether it's buggy kiting, traditional kiting, sailing, is the relationship that you have with it. That feeling of the wind, the air rushing through, it filling your lungs, it going by your body. Right now, there's a nice gust I can feel. It's saying, "ok, it's time to get going and rig up the kite."


MCCLASLAND: I've got the kite overhead, it's just sitting there; I'm hovering it. I'll put my feet on the pegs for control and then I'll bring it down into what we call the power zone and it'll start pulling us along. Here we go.

Don McClasland pilots a wind buggy on Carson Beach in South Boston. (Photo: Bruce Gellerman)


MCCLASLAND: So, we're not exactly zooming along and that's what I like for my first time out is to be moving, but be in control for safety. The sand hasn't dried out completely so it's a bit soft and that is creating a challenge for our traction. There's a pretty large amount of pull on my arm. It's a good workout. In terms of this sport, it's just a great way to put that wonderful force of nature to exhilaration. To get the blood pumping, to use all the muscles and the brain, concentrate. I always tell people don't spend money on an ATV, buy a kite buggy. You don't have to pay for gas, it doesn't pollute and it's a lot more fun.

CURWOOD: Wind buggy pilot Don McClasland is program director at the Blue Hill Observatory in Milton, Massachusetts.

[MUSIC: "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" Vince Guaraldi:Cast Your Fate to the Wind:Jazz Impressions (Fantasy) 1991]

CURWOOD: We leave you with this thought: In the 19th century, American inventiveness, Yankee ingenuity, sparked the development of clipper ships to sail on the whispers and wails of the wind, giving our merchants the advantage of speed in world trade. In time, the sleek clippers yielded to bigger and heavier boats powered first by coal and then by oil, ships, which could move with more predictability and some might say less seamanship. But, a clipper ship provisioned with fresh water and food could ride the wind almost forever and leave behind on the horizon only a graceful silhouette instead of a noxious smudge. And, so that is the challenge for this age. Toxic and polluting sources of power are steadier and kilowatt for kilowatt, more powerful. But, now the hope of engineers is to once again capture the free and inexhaustible supply of wind for today's human needs—so we too, if we dare, can go on gracefully and forever.




Cape Wind

Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound


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