In March, Massachusetts Environmental Affairs Secretary Ian Bowles ruled that the project complies with the state's Environmental Policy Act, allowing Energy Management Inc. -- the company developing Cape Wind -- to pursue state permits.
But Cape Wind is still waiting for a go-ahead from the federal government. Horseshoe Shoal, the shallow bank where the turbines and transformer platform would be located, is federally controlled. To lease that land, EMI has had to submit an extensive environmental impact study, detailing every stage of the project from construction to decommissioning.
The Minerals Management Service, the lead federal agency responsible for assessing Cape Wind's environmental impact, is set to release its draft report later this summer, delaying the federal permitting process until at least 2008.
The lag is due in part to the groundbreaking nature of Cape Wind. Maureen Bornholdt, head of the MMS Outer Continental Shelf Alternative Energy and Alternate Use program, explained that concurrent with its analysis of Cape Wind, the agency is developing a national standard for future wind energy projects under the 2005 National Energy Policy Act.
"As we are going through the NEPA evaluation, we are made aware of certain elements that we need more information or that further analysis must be done. And I think that's the case with Cape Wind," said Bornholdt.
Piecing together the report, however, has uncovered the challenges of balancing local concerns with the benefits of developing a clean, renewable energy source.
One of the organizations strongly opposing Cape Wind is the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound. Comprised of fishermen, business owners, local residents and other stakeholders, the alliance has attacked the project not for what it would provide -- clean, renewable energy -- but where it would be located.
Audra Parker, the group's director of strategic planning, said that Horseshoe Shoal is a poor site for a wind project because of the potential economic, environmental and human safety issues it would create.
Fishermen allied with the group claim that constructing turbines on Horseshoe Shoal will displace fishing grounds and affect commercial species spawning.
The potential impact on marine mammals and birds has yet to be fully analyzed, Parker said.
She also noted that the project might interfere with existing ferry lanes between the Cape and islands. About 3 million passengers use the service each year, according to statistics from Hy-Line Cruises and the Steamship Authority, the region's two major operators, which are both members of the alliance.
Parker described the ferries as a "lifeline" to the islands. Under current plans, the ferries would pass within a quarter mile of the turbines, creating a potential for collision during times of low visibility or inclement weather and possibly hinder the Coast Guard's ability to stage a rescue mission, she said.
But the visual impact of the wind farm has proven the most controversial aspect of the project. According to company literature, Cape Wind's turbines would stand about one-half inch above the horizon when viewed on a clear day from the closest beach 5.2 miles away.
Parker said this could mar views, affecting property values and tourism, a cornerstone of the local economy. The Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce -- which is a member of the Alliance -- estimates that about 40 percent of the Cape's revenue (or $1.3 billion) comes directly from tourism. And other industries, such as real estate and retail, depend indirectly the thousands of people who visit the Cape every year.
For those advocating the construction, the arguments against the project are well known and, according to Mark Rodgers, a spokesperson for Cape Wind, are exactly the issues being studied by regulators.
"The only way in which Cape Wind will be approved and get its permits is after having studied these issues," he said.
Moreover, according to Rodgers, preliminary studies refute the claims made by Parker's organization.
Horseshoe Shoal, he noted, constitutes only 5 percent of Nantucket Sound, and parts of it are too shallow for commercial fishermen to drag their nets. In Europe, where a number of offshore wind projects have already been developed, the turbines have been a boon to local fish populations, as marine growth has covered concrete foundations and provided new spawning grounds, according to Rodgers.
In 2006 after five years of study, the Massachusetts Audubon Society made a public statement in favor of Cape Wind, saying that it will support the project if continued monitoring finds that no significant threat is posed to native bird populations. Moreover, the society found that Cape Wind could help reduce the threat to avian populations by lessening the impact of global warming.
In terms of public safety, Rodgers said the U.S. Coast Guard and Federal Aviation Administration must both deem the project safe. He added that "if a sober analysis of this doesn't support [our] assertion," about ferry lanes, then the project won't be approved.
Though the precise economic impact on Cape and Island communities is difficult to assess, Rodgers said experiences of communities in Europe where offshore wind farms have been built do not support the claim that the turbines hurt property values or tourism.
He counters that historic windmills are part of Cape Cod's history, and that if marketed right the turbines could be part of the region's economic future by serving as an example for the global community.
Sometimes lost in the local debate are the broader implications of building a large-scale wind energy project in the heart of Nantucket Sound.
Cape Wind could supply 75 percent of the local energy demand -- some 170 megawatts on an average day -- diminishing the communities' current dependence on fossil fuel-powered electric utilities. In his statement approving the project, Massachusetts Environmental Affairs Secretary Ian Bowles concluded that this would be akin to taking 175,000 cars off the road every day.
Moreover, Cape Wind's proponents say the project will, in the long run, provide a cheaper alternative to coal- and oil-generated electricity. With current technology, the company believes it can be competitive in today's energy market and believes it will become even more so in the future. Wind power, Rodgers noted, can be provided at a fixed rate unlike fossil fuels which are subject to market fluctuations.
These factors have compelled national and international environmental groups -- from Greenpeace to the Natural Resources Defense Council -- to champion the project. Many Cape Wind supporters say that pursing offshore alternative energy is not only essential to mitigate the effects of global warming, but long overdue.
In a 2003 article on Cape Wind in the magazine Orion, environmentalist Bill McKibben wrote: "The choice, in other words, is not between windmills and untouched nature. It's between windmills and the destruction of the planet's biology on a scale we can barely begin to imagine."
Given these implications and the growing demand for clean, alternative energy, the government's decisions in the Cape Wind case are seen as critical to setting the standard for what projects may get approved or killed moving forward.
MMS' Bornholdt said that government must weigh local and global factors in their work, and that does not fit easily into a mathematical calculation. "It would be absolutely impossible to value somebody's concern over not being able to perhaps access a fishery or someone's concern over a health issue associated with hydrocarbon-based energy generation," she said.
For now, the regulatory agency is proceeding in a deliberative manner, thoroughly studying the many stakeholder issues, according to Bornholdt.
"Before we put out a draft [environmental impact statement]" for Cape Wind, Bornholdt said, "we want to make sure that [the] analysis is complete and self-contained so that when the public reads it they had a sense that okay we understood what the implications for this resource were."