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

The Battle for Cape Wind

Air Date: Week of

(Photo: Jeff Young)

The continuing saga of Cape Wind pits renewable power against an ancient culture. It could be the country’s first offshore wind project, offsetting millions of tons of greenhouse gases with clean energy. But Native Americans whose ancestors first settled the Cape and islands of Massachusetts say the windmills would threaten one of their most treasured spiritual rites—greeting the rising sun. Host Jeff Young visits the people of the rising sun and the man who wants to harness the wind.


YOUNG: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young. For wind energy enthusiasts, Cape Wind in Massachusetts is probably the most famous and frustrating proposal in the U.S. What could be the country’s first offshore wind farm has been without a permit for construction for nine years—blocked by those who want to protect the ocean view off Cape Cod. U.S. Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar wants an end to the delay. He recently boarded a boat to go see the Cape Wind site and hear from both supporters and opponents.

SALAZAR: We have an imperative to harness the power of the wind. But as I’ve always said, it’s important to do wind energy in the right places and that is the critical question we are addressing here on Nantucket Sound, is this the right place for wind energy or is it not?

YOUNG: For years, Cape Wind’s opposition came from the Cape’s most famous part time residents—the Kennedy clan. But the latest and possibly toughest hurdle comes from the first to inhabit this area: the Native Americans whose ancestors settled Cape Cod and the islands thousands of years ago.


YOUNG: The wind puts on a show the day I visit Martha’s Vineyard, with gusts whipping the Sound’s waters into whitecaps. But my guide, Bettina Washington, is not too bothered.

WASHINGTON: It’s a little windy today, a little cold. But beautiful and sunny, so that’s good.

YOUNG: The sun is Washington’s concern here, specifically the rising sun. Washington is Historic Preservation Officer for the Wampanoag Aquinnah Tribe, based on the island. If Cape Wind’s 130 turbines go up as planned about nine miles from this beach, it would affect the view of the rising sun. Washington explains that greeting the dawn is at the core of Wampanoag culture.

WASHINGTON: Our name is the Wampanoag, which means people of the first light, or the dawn. It’s our identity. It gives us a sense of place, where we belong; it’s how other tribes relate to us. So this place is very special to us.

Bettina Washington. (Photo: Jeff Young)

YOUNG: We huddle on the leeward side of a wall and Washington tells me some stories from the tribe’s oral history. Most feature Moshup, a giant who caught whales to feed the people. In another story, it’s Moshup who causes the waters to rise and fill Nantucket Sound.

WASHINGTON: When Moshup brought us here he dragged his foot and created the Sound. That’s how the waters came in.

YOUNG: The legend has echoes in archeological records that show the Wampanoag have been here so long that land they once lived on is now submerged. Horseshoe Shoal, now under 50 feet of water, is one of the likely spots of early Wampanoag activity—it’s also where Cape Wind’s towers would be anchored.

WASHINGTON: Our oral history says we walked across here, so we would have been traveling across living here, making our livelihoods here, and also burying our people here. When you’re talking in excess of ten thousand years, you know, that’s a long time.

YOUNG: So what would it mean if you came to this beach and along with the rising sun you saw wind turbines out there?

WASHINGTON: It would definitely be a disturbance because if that is built our children and those that are yet to come will not be able to do this. It’s like a sense of – a type of extinction of a cultural practice. [Sighs]

YOUNG: About four years ago the Wampanoag of Aquinnah and nearby Mashpee argued that the Sound itself has cultural significance to the tribes. In an unusual decision this year the National Park Service’s Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places agreed.
The keeper made 560 square miles of Nantucket Sound eligible for listing in the National Register—a first for an open body of water. Cape Wind president Jim Gordon says that decision should not be allowed to further delay his project, which he started developing back in 2000.

The sun rising over Martha’s Vineyard. The Wanpanoag, or “the people of the first light,” say they don’t want wind turbines to come between their daily dawn greetings. (Photo: Bettina Washington)

GORDON: We thought that the development would take three or four years. This has been a tough, tough slog.

YOUNG: Gordon also tells me a story about rising waters, and avoiding them. He says polls show 80 percent of Massachusetts’ residents support the project, largely because they want clean energy to combat the threats of climate change.

GORDON: I’m talking about our beaches eroding away. I’m talking about more frequent and increased hurricanes and storms, warming of the ocean, ocean acidification. Cape Wind really is about preserving and enhancing the environment of Cape Cod and providing a healthier environment for the citizens that live in that fragile coastal community.

YOUNG: If Cape Wind were operating today, what would it mean in terms of greenhouse gas emissions offset?

GORDON: Well you’re looking at my iPhone and that’s dialed right into our solar powered meteorological station. Right now, Cape Wind would be producing 422 megawatts of clean renewable power. That would be enough to power almost 400 thousand homes. We would be offsetting almost one million tons of greenhouse gases annually.

YOUNG: Cape Wind would provide about two percent of the state’s electricity. But Ian Bowles says it represents more than that. Bowles is Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs for Massachusetts. He hopes Cape Wind would jumpstart other wind projects that would eventually meet a quarter of the state’s power needs.

BOWLES: Well, you know, it has a symbolic importance at the national level; it’s probably the highest profile wind energy project in the world at this stage, and something being closely followed. And I think if many observers view that we can’t move forward with projects like this we have problems in terms of making the tradeoffs and the choices we need to make for renewable power.

YOUNG: Even with its controversy, Cape Wind has pushed along federal and state rules and planning for offshore wind. Laurie Jodziewicz of the American Wind Energy Association says that means other projects should have an easier path, regardless of Cape Wind’s fate.

JODZIEWICZ: I would say if it does not happen there is tremendous momentum behind all of these other offshore projects. And so while we’d all like to see the Cape Wind Project be successful it certainly is not a make or break issue or make or break project for the offshore wind industry as a whole.

YOUNG: Jodziewicz says projects in Delaware, New Jersey and Rhode Island look strong. Massachusetts will know soon if Cape Wind could still be the first in the water.
Interior Secretary Salazar has set a deadline of March first for the parties to reach a consensus agreement. But after his trip to Nantucket Sound, the secretary didn’t sound especially hopeful.

SALAZAR: This project underway for a very long time, and there are passionate feelings on both sides. And so I’m not holding my breath for a consensus.

YOUNG: If there’s no agreement Salazar says he will make a decision on the permit himself by April.



Wampanoag Tribe Home Page

Cape Wind Home Page

National Park Service- Nantucket Sound


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