At Large: A calculation favors a wild place

I am hostile to the wind farm plan for Horseshoe Shoal in Nantucket Sound. After a decade in the permit and financing hunt, with mixed results, that plan lurks still as a possibility. I am not hostile to wind farms in general or in theory or in other more distant, invisible locations. Modern wind turbine technology may be promising, but it’s expensive and erratic, depending unpredictably on tried and true, and polluting, energy generation systems that now carry the load.

Horseshoe Shoal is nearby, wild, unmolested, fecund, vacant, dangerous, strange and, so far, indifferent to man’s ambitions. That last is a quality that, by itself, is of unmeasurable value to humankind.

It has doubtless changed enormously over eons, but in the experience of modern man, it is what it ever was. To sailors who navigate by or fish over the shoals, it is a familiar place but one whose location depends upon a navigational calculation or a GPS readout. I’ve been by Horseshoe Shoal in the fog, never seeing a bit of it, but thankfully aware that it was where it belonged and so was I. It is vivid and meaningful, but featureless, as so much of the ocean is.

Current-wracked Nantucket Sound covers its 28 square miles of shifting sand. Wily seagoing types might point to the edges of the shallows where the rush of deep water begins to define the uncertain edges. Or they might describe the peculiar way in which the great ocean rollers break over the suddenly shallow ground. In a light vessel of extreme shoal draft, sailors can pass over Horseshoe Shoals in good weather without a care in the world. Deeper craft, or sailors passing during heavy weather, are likely to find the shoal only if they stumble upon it.

North of the customary track across Nantucket Sound to Nantucket or out through Great Round Shoal, Horseshoe Shoals is a mystery, like Middle Ground, or Lucas Shoal, or Squash Meadow, or Hedge Fence, or L’Hommedieu. You know it’s there — or there, or there — as the tides move the sand around. You see traces, you sense the threat. But you can’t see it.

It’s just as well. One doesn’t want to get too familiar with such places as Horseshoe Shoals. These shoals and all the others in Vineyard and Nantucket Sounds keep a ghastly record of death and destruction. Arthur H. Gardner, in his 1877 history, “Wrecks Around Nantucket,” listed more than 500 wrecks that he could document. Of course there were many more.

In “Block Island to Nantucket,” his 1961 account of his own small-craft explorations, Fessenden S. Blanchard wrote, “These shoals between Cape Cod and Nantucket are some of the most dangerous waters on the Atlantic Coast — with shoals, variable currents and frequent fogs which have challenged the courage and seamanship of cruising men since the days of Bartholomew Gosnold and Samuel de Champlain.”

Paul Schneider of West Tisbury describes the parentage of these lurking ocean obstacles in his terrific natural history, “The Enduring Shore,” (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2000): “When the final advance of the Wisconsin glaciation ended roughly eighteen thousand years ago and the backbones of the outer islands were in place, the ice didn’t give up unconditionally to the warming world. Several times, for periods of hundreds or even thousands of years, the ice stopped, or even pushed forward again, though it never regained all its lost ground. The recessional moraines thus formed created the parallel lines of shoals in Nantucket and Vineyard Sounds that appear on nautical charts … ”

Even unseen, Horseshoe Shoal ought to remain unmolested, and political efforts to protect Nantucket Sound and other important inland seascapes deserve unremitting support.

Plus, I cannot find evidence that would lead me to believe that wind turbines, on land or at sea, will ever account for a significant share of the electric power generation required by an expanding American economy. I am inclined to put more stock in conservation and pollution control technologies now on the lab benches and in the minds of engineers and dreamers.

Increasing energy efficiency, achieved through innovative technologies such as automobiles powered by natural gas, fuel cells or some other non–fossil fuel burning, non-polluting technology, seem a far more hopeful strategy than windmills for reducing our need for oil with its polluting consequences.

But it’s no sure thing.

And of course, no one would be building wind farms without the government subsidies and incentives that make financing such high-cost, low-output energy providers attractive for investors, and harmful to rate payers, including businesses. And consequently, grand, wind farm–type strategies appear unlikely to be substantial contributors to a cleaner energy future. The answer to the problem, when we find it, must be clean and economic.

But small steps, such as efforts to retrofit public buildings and private houses on the Vineyard with clean, energy-producing solar technologies, do allow for the possibility that we may be able to make a big difference by taking small whacks at the problem, though in each case affordability is a calculation whose outcome remains unclear.