New, old technology
Its supporters imagine that the Cape Wind proposal for Horseshoe Shoal stakes a claim in the energy future. But, maybe not. Perhaps the 130-turbine, wind farm plan is already, or soon will be, part of the first generation of new, more efficient, less polluting solutions to the nation's ravenous appetite for energy. After all, the road to permitting is a long one and likely to be longer still - Cape Wind has just applied to extend its permit for the data tower now in place on the shoals until 2012. In the meantime, changing circumstances, including rising oil prices, rising demand for petroleum, and legislative enthusiasm for new energy technologies, combined with sanctions on older, polluting energy production methods, are preparing the ground for the development of new, next-generation technologies.
Ian Bowles, president of Commonwealth Inc. and publisher of Commonwealth magazine, writing in July about the benefits for Massachusetts from investments in new energy technologies, encouraged public and private support for such new initiatives, which have, in his view, as much promise for the state's economy as high tech and the life sciences do.
"The nascent gold rush for next-generation energy technology could become an economic engine for Massachusetts," Mr. Bowles, a Falmouth summer resident and unsuccessful former candidate for the Democratic nomination for the 10th District seat in Congress, writes, "one that deserves a place alongside the much-trumpeted biotech sector. But only if the state's civic and business leadership gives the field the attention it deserves.
"Advocates have been banging the drums about climate change for years and about energy conservation for decades. However, a number of factors are now coming together to make energy technology take off."
Mr. Bowles's organization, the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth, describes itself as "an independent, nonpartisan research and educational institute ... a new kind of think tank - one that combines the intellectual rigor of academic research with the timeliness and energy needed to get our ideas into the public debate."
But, what sort of energy technology will emerge from this nexus of investment and incentives? Will these factors 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, when an analysis of the equities in such proposals finds that the benefits outweigh the detriments. It's not easy to draw that conclusion when the very small anticipated contribution from the Cape Wind installation is set against the loss of 25 acres of wild, empty ocean, near the shore and host to a wide variety of pleasure and commercial marine activities.
Nevertheless, as Mr. Bowles writes, "The results of the Commonwealth's 1997 utility restructuring are also being felt. One lesser-known part of utility restructuring is the Massachusetts Renewable Portfolio Standard -the requirement that an ever-increasing share of our state's power mix come from renewable sources. That provision offers significant financial incentives for projects like Cape Wind and a host of others. All this suggests that, where energy technology is concerned, change is coming. Globally, trillions of dollars will be spent as energy infrastructure gets replaced with more efficient technologies, new fuel types, and cleaner power production. Jobs and wealth will be created in this process - and Massachusetts should be part of the action. With our preponderance of venture capital and private equity, our skilled workforce, a history of leadership on environmental concerns, and some of the world's leading centers of innovation and invention in our universities, we are well positioned to cash in on the coming energy revolution."
However, the economic success Mr. Bowles envisions for Massachusetts, along with the national importance attached to finding new ways to satisfy the need for clean energy, mean that some tough decisions will need to be made. How will the capital to fuel research and development of new energy technologies be assembled and deployed?
"We already have some important leadership coming from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative (MTC)," Mr. Bowles points out. "Through grant funds and loans, MTC is helping to get new Massachusetts energy tech companies down the road to commercial projects. However, MTC's portfolio is limited by statute to renewable energy. The next generation of energy technology will be broader than that, involving such things as new transportation fuels (such as ethanol and biodiesel) and energy-efficient consumer products. We should broaden - and elevate - state government's engagement with this emerging energy technology cluster ...
"In California, ideas good and bad are floating about, including a proposed $4 billion ballot initiative to tax oil and fund alternative energy. Regardless of the merits of that particular proposal, no discussion of similarly big ideas is under way in Massachusetts. Here, you are either for Cape Wind or against it, and that is about as far as it goes. If that's the way it stays, Massachusetts will miss the energy technology boat."
The feverish, high-profile debate over Cape Wind's proposal has something in common with the critical risk-reward analysis of the wind farm proposal itself. Each has smaller upsides than downsides. On the one hand, the consuming focus on the struggle over Cape Wind may divert 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.