TOPICS > Science

Wind Power Debate

November 29, 2005 at 6:00 PM EDT

TOM BEARDEN: Nantucket Sound is extremely valuable to the people who live here. The scenic beauty attracts millions of tourists to nearby Cape Cod and the surrounding islands. Hundreds of fishermen make their living from these waters. Many residents are afraid all of that will be destroyed by one man’s plan to harvest the Sound’s steady winds to make electricity.

Jim Gordon, president of a private company called Cape Wind, is determined to put America’s first offshore wind farm right in the middle of Nantucket Sound.

JIM GORDON: One of the reasons that we selected this site is because it does have some of the best wind resources on the East Coast, and it has a reasonable proximity to connecting the transmission line to the existing grid.

TOM BEARDEN: The farm would look something like this one off the coast of Denmark. It would have 130 wind turbines, each taller than the Statue of Liberty, five miles from the nearest land. Collectively, the turbines would be capable of providing Cape Codders with 75 percent of their electricity, or 1 percent of the amount consumed in the whole state.

Gordon, who made his fortune building clean natural gas power plants, says his aim is to reduce the region’s dependence on polluting fuels.

JIM GORDON: Every hour that Cape Wind operates, that means we displace power from a more heavily polluting fossil fuel plant.

In Massachusetts, we’re facing an energy crisis. We import all of our energy. Cape Wind is about tapping an abundant, inexhaustible resource: The wind.

TOM BEARDEN: Gordon claims the wind farm will fit right in with the coastal views.

JIM GORDON: What you would see at the closest beach are what appear to be tiny sailing masts about a half inch off the horizon. Now look, we’re standing right next to the harbor. Those sailing masts tower over what the Cape Wind turbines would look like.

TOM BEARDEN: It would seem that building a wind farm in environmentally friendly Cape Cod would be a slam dunk. Nothing could be further from the truth. Locals have organized to fight the project, claiming it would destroy tourism, the backbone of the local economy.

CLIFF CARROLL: As you look back over the plane, you see easily how the wind turbines are going to cover not only the ocean’s surface, they are going to cover the entire horizon for 24 square miles.

TOM BEARDEN: Cliff Carroll heads, a grassroots organization opposed to Cape Wind.

CLIFF CARROLL: You have a project that’s going to be 43 stories tall. It’s going to be covering an area the size of the island of Manhattan, New York. It’s going to be the 20th largest manmade horizon in the world.

TOM BEARDEN: Carroll likes to show off this picture. It’s a photograph of a transformer platform in a wind farm off the coast of Denmark. Cape Wind will have one, too, and Carroll says it’ll be a lot bigger.

CLIFF CARROLL: There’s going to be a ten-story 40,000-gallon oil-filled transformer station in the middle of this wind farm. We’re very concerned that transformers which are prone to overheating could possibly have a massive malfunction, spilling the 40,000 gallons of oil into our fishing beds, our clam flats, and our fishing grounds.

TOM BEARDEN: Cape Wind’s Gordon says the mineral oil used to cool the transformers is far less dangerous than crude oil.

JIM GORDON: We have triple spill control protection. But the important thing is, is that this project is going to offset hundreds of millions of gallons of heavy oil over its life.

We have the local power plant in Cape Cod now burning over 300 million gallons of heavy oil annually. There was a barge that spilled and killed birds, shut down shell fishing grounds, and spoiled miles of beaches. Renewable energy is about reducing the amount of fossil fuels that we burn and transport.

TOM BEARDEN: But even if no oil is ever spilled, commercial fisherman Ron Borjeson says the wind farm would totally disrupt the fishing industry.

RON BORJESON: This is prime fishing territory for squid and fluke right here. That’s absolutely prime. And those towers are going to come just like this.

TOM BEARDEN: He says the windmills will create a navigation hazard, making it too dangerous to fish there.

RON BORJESON: It would be a severe impact, whereas probably 70 percent of my income comes from directly from Nantucket Sound. And where the proposed site is for the 130 towers is one of the prime fishing areas in the Sound itself.

TOM BEARDEN: The president of Cape Wind says that commercial fishermen don’t go there because the draft is too shallow.

RON BORJESON: Well, that’s what he’s going to say to promote his own interest. But I have 158 commercial fishermen that fish there that say otherwise.

TOM BEARDEN: Cape Cod is also home to a large migratory seal and bird population. Charles Vinick, president of an opposition group called the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, says the wind farm would endanger these animals. He says Cape Wind is avoiding wildlife protections enacted by Massachusetts by planning the wind farm in a small patch of federally controlled water.

CHARLES VINICK: We’re in state waters. This is a protected area. And it’s only in the middle of Nantucket Sound at Horseshoe Shoal where this developer has decided to put his project. So he found a hole in the doughnut, a hole in the jurisdiction. And he chose a spot like that solely for his own purposes without looking at the public good.

TOM BEARDEN: Supporters of the wind farm counter that the greatest danger to wildlife comes from global warming, caused in part by fossil fuel used at facilities like the cape’s Canal Power Plant. We spoke with two environmental activists in front of the facility, which they hope will ultimately be replaced by clean energy plants. Chris Miller is with Greenpeace.

CHRIS MILLER: We think the proposal for America’s first offshore wind farm is a very important step in a solutions-based approach to the issue of global warming. And so we feel very strongly that this project moves this country in the right direction in terms of our energy policy.

TOM BEARDEN: But some prominent environmentalists adamantly oppose Cape Wind. Earlier this fall, Greenpeace demonstrators confronted Robert Kennedy Jr.’s sailboat, heckling the environmental attorney for his opposition to the Cape Wind project, despite his long-standing support for alternative energy. Critics say Kennedy and other powerful New Englanders, who have waterfront properties here, are simply exhibiting the so-called “not in my backyard” syndrome.

CHRIS MILLER: I believe that much of the opposition and those who fund our opposition are, in fact, people who object to this on aesthetic grounds. Whether it’s RFK Jr., Robert F. Kennedy Jr., or many of the other wealthy second homeowners who are, you know, funding our opposition, I believe that is the heart of the battle that we are fighting.

TOM BEARDEN: Vinick says it’s unfair to characterize his organization as just a group of wealthy landowners.

CHARLES VINICK: We certainly have some homeowners, we have some renters, we have people who are shopkeepers, we have recreational fishermen. So it’s a diverse group. But certainly it’s one that we would like to be as strong as possible to be able to match someone like Jim Gordon, who’s a business leader who owns great property, who in many ways represents much of the same that he accuses some of us being.

TOM BEARDEN: Both sides believe that what happens in Nantucket Sound might determine the future of offshore wind farms in the U.S. And as the country faces high energy prices and the possibility of rolling blackouts in New England this winter, demand for alternative energy is on the rise, but at what price? And what communities will accept these projects in their backyards?