Editorial: Cape Wind – not persuasive

Cape Wind has won an important victory in its pursuit of federal, state, local, and popular permission to build its 130-turbine project on Horseshoe Shoal in Nantucket Sound. The environmental impact statement (EIS) released Friday by the Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service (MMS) finds that Cape Wind will not significantly harm the environment, while promising to provide a quantity of electricity that at its peak output would fulfill 75 percent of the energy needs of the Cape and Islands. This judgment means that it is likely that the Cape Wind project will ultimately collect all the government approvals it needs to begin construction. As the permitting finish line approaches, more than a decade will have been consumed in the debate over Cape Wind’s plan for Nantucket Sound before a single kilowatt can be blown ashore.

Along the way, nearly all the conclusions drawn by regulators have favored the Cape Wind plan. Cape Wind’s supporters imagine that the wind energy proposal for Nantucket Sound stakes a claim in the energy future. Indeed, the future for electricity generated from wind has become somewhat better defined over the past six years. Enthusiasm for wind generation and other alternative energy sources is high and growing, and it will receive significant support from the new president and Congress. But, this page has been and remains skeptical. The judgment here is that while wind will play an increasing role in power generation, its contribution will remain small. As the demand for electrical power grows, other technologies hold greater promise to supply more and more dependable quantities of the needed juice.

The Cape Wind project is among the early generation of new, more efficient, less polluting solutions to the nation’s ravenous appetite for energy. The next generation of solutions to the clean energy mystery is in the labs today, including other approaches to using winds and tides to make electricity, at locations far offshore rather than a few miles from the beach, and many of them also refinements of older, and even disused or unjustifiably discredited technologies. For example, nuclear. Changing circumstances, including declining oil prices in a global economic contraction whose duration is unknown, will put pressure on the push for needed, new energy technologies. The push for needed, new, non-polluting and American energy sources is mirrored by the push to revise and clean older, polluting energy production methods. The likelihood is that some combination of new technologies and improved older technologies will emerge as the ultimate, or at least the interim solution. The bet here is that wind will play a helpful but modest role in the non-polluting energy generation industries of the future. Hence our resistance to the Cape Wind proposal, no matter its regulatory success up till now. Trading wild, empty, irreplaceable Horseshoe Shoal for small gain will be an unrewarding bargain.

What sort of energy technology will emerge from this nexus of investment and incentives, especially because private investment in energy production is stymied by the economic decline? Will the future line up behind wind farms as the energy producers of the future? Maybe, but here the bet is that other technologies will be more prominent in the mix of solutions. There’s room for Cape Wind, or rather for projects like it, but located elsewhere, when an analysis of the broader equities in such proposals finds that the benefits outweigh the detriments. It is impossible to draw that conclusion when the very small anticipated contribution from the Cape Wind installation is set against the loss of 25 acres of unmolested, feral ocean, near the shore and host to a wide variety of pleasure and commercial marine activities.

It’s not enough to be merely for wind power. It is certainly not wise to heavily weight the estimates of Cape Wind’s value to electricity consumers and to the environment, or its promised innocent impacts upon living creatures and the marine ecosystem, while at the same time weighting only slightly the value of clean, wild ocean acreage right nearby. The view here has not changed. If Horseshoe Shoal were Yellowstone, there would be no thought of placing 130 turbines there. It’s not Yellowstone, of course, but it’s not nothing.

For us, Cape Wind has paltry upside potential and unacceptable and unredeemable downside costs. On the one hand, the consuming focus on the struggle over Cape Wind has diverted important attention from the promotion and funding support of efforts to find more promising new energy technologies. And, on the other, a vast ocean wilderness may be traded for a small renewable power yield.