From the Editor

September 7, 2007

 

 

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From the Editor

 

From-the-Editor archives:

 

September 7, 2007:  Winds of Change

 

August 1, 2007:  A Way to Collaborate

 

July 12, 2007: Laying a Foundation

 

June 4, 2007:  Let the Turf Wars Begin

 

May 1, 2007:  Building Lives

 

March 27, 2006: Opportunity Expo, May 1, 2006, Cape Cod Community College

 

March 14, 2006:  Ideas on Sustaining Cape Cod's Water and Open Space

 

February 23, 2005:  Sustaining a Volunteer Center

 

February 7, 2005: The Pulse of Progress at Cape Corps

 

December 2004:  Volunteering to Sustain Cape Cod

 

October 2004:  The World Series

 

May 2004:  The Cape Cod Center for Sustainability Brokers Successful Partnerships among the Cape's Nonprofits  

 

April 2004:  Building the Wealth of the Cape

 

August 2003:  A Knuckleball of an Idea

 

 

 

 

 


 

Winds of Change

The Wind Farm: A Discussion

 

Trying to make sense of the proposed wind farm is not easy in any context. The use of wind to generate electricity on any grand and reliable scale is unproven in this country whether the windmills are land or water based. And the scope of the Cape Wind project to be built in the waters of Nantucket Sound is large no matter what measure you apply to it, including dollars, megawatts, feet, or miles. Large enough as well that the review process itself has extended its ensnarling inquiries with a growth spurt akin to the Little Shop of Horrors.


To gain some insights to perspectives espoused by both sides of the controversy, the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History hosted an event this past August that brought together the two people who know the most about the projectís strengths and weaknesses, Jim Gordon of Cape Wind Associates, the developer of the proposed wind farm, and Charles Vinick, then the head of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, the group opposed to the construction of an industrial plant in the waters offshore.


The format allowed each to present his thoughts and arguments for thirty minutes without interruption. After they finished, they remained for a question and answer session in which each had the opportunity to ask questions of the other. In addition, they fielded questions that the audience had submitted and questions that I offered as moderator. The format was modeled after one that the Cooper Union has used this past year in New York to present different views about issues of the day. This discussion on the wind farm was taped by the Cape Cod Community Media Center, which will broadcast it on local television.


As the moderator, my goal was to encourage constructive exchanges between the two principals. The purpose of the discussion was not only to provide exposure to the depth of substance that this proposal has conjured up but also to stimulate a broad array of questions that might dovetail with the more technical ones of interest to the regulatory review process that is gradually getting closer to reaching some conclusions. Although more than ninety minutes long overall, the discussion only lightly touched on many issues, and I, like others, left with some lingering questions for both sides.


For Jim Gordon, I wonder what is so magical about the size of the project, expressed in megawatts, as roughly 420 net megawatts transmitted to the grid. It's one very significant descriptive indicator that has not changed since he first publicly expressed his ambitions. Other specifics have. For example, technology improvements now increase the power that any one windmill can generate, and Gordon has thus reduced the number of windmills that he wishes to install. The number of megawatts has remained basically the same.


The size of the project, as measured in the amount of electricity that it can generate, is an important indicator because it drives the thinking and the assessment not only of its technical possibilities but also those relating to its economic foundation and, in turn, its overall potential benefit. Its generating capacity affects the number of the projectís construction jobs, equipment purchases, maintenance requirements, and other operational considerations. It affects the scale of the subsidy and other financing questions that define how the project may raise the capital needed not only in its first phase of construction but also operationally as the plant generates power and transmits it to the grid, to which it then hopes to sell the electricity at a revenue level sufficient to cover the plantís operating, management, and financing costs.


Questions of the projectís financing and its economic impacts affect other concerns less directly related to plant operations. For example, financial details determine whether it is realistic to conceive that a bond might be set in place to cover damages, decommissioning, or removal of the windmills in the event they are damaged in a storm, left standing idle because the company fails, or they are rendered obsolete as the technology advances. It is conceivable, for example, that new plants will be built successfully elsewhere in deeper, more turbulent waters less visible from shore.


This last possibility suggests that there is a path that might lead to a resolution regarding this project that is now so locally divisive. If wind power technology develops in ways that allow deeper-water sites to be viable operationally, sites that the opponents now say would be generally acceptable to them, is it really conceivable that we could dismantle an outmoded generation facility? And if such assurances could be made, would those opponents concerned about the aesthetics of the windmills be open to the construction of this plant as something of a beta site, one that would provide lessons allowing a more rapid development of projects that would need to rely on deeper-water technology?


After all, it's these aesthetic considerations that are at the core of the opposition to the project. Beneath the water, project opponents concede that the bed has been dragged, cabled, littered, and despoiled with sludge as well as other debris. And were it not for the fact that the proposed windmills will tower above the watershed, it's fair to say that the proposal would not have rallied as many people to oppose it or have attracted as much money to fight it.


Ironically, the reality is that most Cape residents will have to travel out of their way to see these windmills. Most Cape residents do not sail or swim there. And the commercial fishing industry would cease operations tomorrow if this area were its only available fishing grounds.


Nevertheless, the opposition to the project is strong, well organized, and very well funded, as the discussion revealed. And itís the Allianceís financial strength that has lingered in my mind since that evening. It was something that Charles Vinick did not say and did not counter in response to a claim put forth by Jim Gordon that the opponents of the wind farm had already spent more than twenty million dollars in their effort to defeat it.


Twenty million dollars is a staggering sum when you consider that Cape Codís county government lacked funding this year to provide human services grants to help support outside agencies that totaled $520,000 and were recommended by the county's Human Services Advisory Council. Last year, the county granted $435,000 to human services agencies outside county government. And while a comparison of the need for human services funding is apples and oranges with regard to the spending by wind farm opponents, itís still dismaying to consider that twenty million dollars equates to forty years of the countyís desired support for outside human services agencies.


In the moderated discussion, I asked Charles Vinick about the group that funds the Alliance. Publicly known to be involved are people who have headed major energy companies, have very high personal net worth, are technically knowledgeable about renewable energy trends and innovations, are politically connected and experienced, and have been involved in many large-scale battles regarding other developments and the regulatory process. In short, this is not the type of NIMBY group that usually assembles when a community learns of a project that may personally and directly affect it.


Vinick commented that it was incorrect to think that the business interests of some of his group's supporters, steeped in oil and other energy-related enterprises, would be significantly affected in any way by a small project involving a new and largely untested renewable energy technology. And though that may well be the case, my question does not suggest that people directly affected should not rally or press a developer for sufficient detail or mitigation of a projectís impact. Rather, the question with regards to this proposed wind farm is whether the personal property and lifestyle of the group that opposes it are any more valuable than similar concerns that would arise if the windmills were to be located off the shores of New Bedford or Fall River, or Barnstable Village for that matter. And the irony about this group of heavy hitters opposing a project in Nantucket Sound is simply this: If they are so accomplished in business, knowledgeable about renewable energy, technically savvy, politically wired, influential, and committed to killing this project, how is it that they have not done so after having spent twenty million dollars?


News reporters who covered the discussion in August concluded that neither side presented any revelations or new information. The Patriot-Ledger described the conversation as ďlackluster.Ē It was clear that both sides were locked in to their positions, which leads to an overarching question: Does the review process we use to consider large, publicly affecting projects such as the wind farm actually help define a conclusion that results in a better project, or is it simply the context in which a battle of interested parties engages until one side wins and another side loses?


As an example, consider that Charles Vinick acknowledged that the Alliance had opposed the offshore installation of a single test tower as a way to obtain accurate information regarding wind data and data regarding bird migratory paths. And though the tower has since been used to gather data that the Alliance would now like to see made publicly available in greater detail, and while there have occurred no boating mishaps or other negative environmental consequences, the Alliance remains steadfast that the installation of the single tower should have been denied.


Generally, any regulatory process considers a basic question in determining whether or not to approve such a proposal: do the benefits outweigh the detriments? Itís the application of this type of "net benefits standardĒ that is how the Cape Cod Commission conducts its review considerations. Itís the type of standard applied as well by other governmental review bodies. Itís a standard that considers a number of specific indicators, some eighteen in all with regards to the Commissionís review. And yet, although each one of these elements may be quantifiable to some extent, their combination is not easily quantifiable or particularly objective. It's a little like asking whether my shopping cart full of vegetables, fruit, eggs, cereal, and ice cream is better or worse than your shopping cart full of fruit, vegetables, eggs, wheat crackers, and frozen yogurt. The bottom line is that each one of us will assess the merits of the wind farm based in part on our own individual preferences.

The discussion between Jim Gordon and Charles Vinick focused on the matters about which they disagree. Yet, listening to the two men and hearing more of their personal priorities, their work experiences, and their views on renewable energy generally, I wondered how a process of review might more effectively integrate their interests and their intellects rather than drive them apart.


Cynics aside, both men have exemplary records of civic engagement and innovative thinking. Each has pushed constructively at the edges of practices that benefit our environment and improve our overall quality of life. Their commitments to these ends are evidenced by their prior, proven accomplishments.


How healthy and constructive is the public review process, however, if those involved must spend tens of millions of dollars overall to further their interests? And after spending these sums, we find no indication that the spending of these funds has led or is leading to a broadly felt and positive community benefit. Itís a question that lingers in the air a lot these days on matters regarding not only how we are governed but also what we expect to occur as citizens as we engage in the governing process.

 

Allen Larson

Editor of the Larson Report and president of the
Cape Cod Center for Sustainability

 

 

 

 


 

Chatham