At Large : Bad blow
The folks who want to put the wind in harness over Horseshoe Shoals in Nantucket Sound are approaching the finish line. Mostly, the regulatory news has been good for the developers, who must be weary of the whole thing by now.
Cape Wind wants to place 130 wind turbine generators on the shoals over which federal waters roll and tumble. Then the electricity will travel through cables along the seabed under state waters to shore on Cape Cod. Lately, the FAA has warned that the existence of the gigantic turbine towers will cause problems for radar tracking of aircraft traffic to the busy airports on the Cape, Nantucket, and the Vineyard. What impact the FAA will have on the Cape Wind plan is unclear.
A more significant impact - not on the regulatory approval that now seems likely, but on the actual construction of the wind farm - will come from the current global economic malaise, and from the consequent low cost of oil. Where the hundreds of millions will come from to develop the Cape Wind installation, when banks are failing to lend, and just plain failing, and when conventionally powered gas and oil plants can produce power more cheaply than wind farms can, is a mystery.
The examination of Cape Wind's plans has involved federal, state, and local agencies, affected Indian tribes, interested private and public organizations, and individuals. The Martha's Vineyard Commission and the leaders of Dukes County have recently taken steps to try to pry a share out of the royalties that folks hope will be blown in their direction by the wind.
The 130 windmills have been designed to generate "renewable energy" to be added to the New England power grid. Some particles of this energy will find their way into my house to toast my bagels. Some will find their way into your houses, or into houses on the Cape. Even fog-shrouded, distant, and inexplicable Nantucket might one day get a morsel.
There will be two thick extension cords carrying the "renewable energy" from Horseshoe Shoals to Yarmouth. NStar will take over from there.
You cannot see Horseshoe Shoals merely by looking at it. The current-wracked ocean 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 Vineyard 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.
Paul Schneider of Chilmark described 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 ... "
Horseshoe Shoals lies about four miles from Point Gammon on the Cape, 11 miles from Nantucket at its southeasternmost point, and five and a half miles from Chappy. Mostly, as the shoals are invisible from the sea surface, the wind turbines above the shoals will be invisible from the Vineyard shore.
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 Sound 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."
Knowing all this, who would bet that wind turbines will overcome the destructive marine geography that has had its changing way with Nantucket Sound for hundreds of thousands of years?