At Large: The windy 10-year war

At Large: The windy 10-year war

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If you have been marveling at the other marathon, that is, the marathon, unanesthetized colonoscopy now being performed on the Stop & Shop project, history suggests that this is nothing new. When we fight, especially when we consider change, we insular types don’t flag, we don’t cave, we hold grudges, we fight on. Winston Churchill — “Never give in”  — would be proud. The fight over the Nantucket Sound Islands Trust legislation went on for years, followed by the fight over the Martha’s Vineyard Commission legislation, the fight over the creation of the Land Bank, the battle over the golf courses, the vicious and wearing conflict over the Ramsey-Counter land claim, and on and on, beyond remembering.

But, it may be that the fight over Cape Wind, still muttering on in the background, will one day be crowned the mother of all political wars. Cape Wind, more than a decade in the application-permitting-financing journey, has not erected a single turbine, not created a single volt of electrical power, and it’s better than even money that it never will.

If you are one of those who favor a clean, plentiful, growing, cheap supply of energy to support the growth of the American economy — and, naturally enough, its many subdivisions, including this tiny, remote (but not remote enough) outpost we call home — I urge you not to despair.

The state of Massachusetts, in its nutty devotion to wind-powered, ocean-based generating plants deployed, in cooperation with the federal government, in a strangling circle around the Vineyard, does not feel your pain. Indeed, the state’s aim is not only to conspire over the Cape Wind project, but to elbow aside valid economic and environmental concerns expressed by Islanders, to allow, no matter what local opinions may hold, wind factories to the east, west and north of us. It’s a plan whose benefits are immeasurably small and diminishing compared with new, less expensive land based technologies — especially solar, whose installation costs have plunged in the last few years. But, it’s a plan whose time, if it ever came, has now gone.

Among the drawbacks, and the Cape Wind deal with National Grid draws this out plainly, are the state’s policy determinations to allow the expansion of wind generation, no matter what the cost to residential and commercial customers and no matter whether the local targets agree to the intrusion. Wind-driven sea-based power will be significantly more expensive than energy produced by any other source, but the state endorses it, subsidizes it, and would protect its higher costs by attempting to block energy suppliers from buying less expensive power — even power from renewables — created out of state. Absent the politically forced premium to be paid for Cape Wind electricity, the development of that wind turbine factory could not be funded. Wind power needs such well-intentioned but foolishly conceived support, otherwise developers of wind-driven electricity would not find financing or a market. At this point, wind enthusiasts point to billions in subsidies extended to other energy producers, notably oil. But, although oil doesn’t create much electricity in the U.S., it is a vital, current transportation fuel, and for good reason. Oil produces powerful energy, and does it relatively cheaply. It’s been worth subsidizing.

The argument here is that the energy future of our economy will be built on electricity and transportation fuels. Oil, whether produced here or abroad, does not figure significantly in electricity generation now and will certainly figure only marginally in the equation as we move forward. But it predominates as a motor fuel and a raw material in too many manufacturing processes to count, and it will continue to do so until replacement technologies can be concocted or discovered that furnish the same dense, cheap power and hugely variable utility.

The keys to plentiful, growing, and inexpensive sources of electrical power are conservation (especially in homes and vehicles), natural gas, and nuclear power. Something better may come along, but it won’t be wind. And, political manipulation will not make ocean-based wind power more desirable, more economical to build, or more reasonably priced for consumers.

As is apparent after a decade of debate over Cape Wind, the industrialization of 25 square miles of Nantucket Sound and of the empty ocean southwest and northwest of the Vineyard will diminish valuable, wild, clean seascapes, in exchange for modest, intermittent supplies of high-priced electricity that will in the end depend on traditionally fueled, efficient, powerful, economically scalable electricity generators capable of reliably producing power when we need it. And, doing it less expensively on a much less profligate footprint.

The Cape Wind deal to sell the electric power that the planned Nantucket Sound wind farm would one day produce will cost electricity end-users billions more than conventionally produced power. That’s not because wind-driven electricity is better electricity, or more dependable, or more easily scaled up to meet growing demand, or less demanding of the natural environment — consider the marine acreage to be consumed — but it’s because the political climate insists on it, no matter the costs.

For someone with a native fondness for New Bedford, the Whaling City, I’m happy to report that the only valuable spinoff from the failing Cape Wind project is the rehabilitation of a portion of the New Bedford waterfront.

Gov. Deval Patrick selected a portion of New Bedford’s waterfront that will be resurrected to serve Cape Wind’s construction and maintenance needs as the staging area for its turbine factory at Horseshoe Shoals. It’s about $35 million in investments, now underway in the form of dredging and dock building. We’re likely never to feel a single jolt from electricity produced by Cape Wind, but at least a community that needs investment and jobs is getting a lift from the project, now in hospice care.