New, old technology
Only the final few furlongs remain, in the race to the finish line for the Cape Wind project. A year to 18 months from now, the 130-turbine project aimed at Horseshoe Shoal in Nantucket Sound may have its fate settled by federal, state, and regional regulators. Recently, Greenpeace joined supporters of Cape Wind with a $40,000-plus television advertising campaign. The Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound (Save Our Sound) has underwritten its own TV ad campaign - measured in dollars, about half the value of the Greenpeace campaign - in opposition. The Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce has added its opposition to the opposition of the Cape Cod Chamber. Both business organizations foresee detrimental effects upon the tourist industry. And, the state's commercial fishermen have renewed their opposition, on grounds that the shoal is valuable fishing territory.
Its supporters imagine that the Cape Wind proposal for Horseshoe Shoal stakes a claim in the energy future. But, if that were true six years ago when Cape Wind was proposed, it is not true today. The Cape Wind plan is an unfulfilled development in the first 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 wind to make electricity, many of them far offshore rather than a few miles from the beach. Cape Wind is a project that, if approved and built, will not operate until early in the next decade. 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. The bet here is that wind will play a helpful but minimal role in the non-polluting, energy generation industries of the future. Trading Horseshoe Shoals for such small gain will certainly cost more than it will gain us.
Ian Bowles, president of Commonwealth Inc., publisher of Commonwealth magazine, and now Gov. Deval Patrick's secretary of the Executive Office of Environmental Protection, writing in July of last year 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, wrote, before he became a Patrick lieutenant.
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 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 wild, empty ocean, near the shore and host to a wide variety of pleasure and commercial marine activities.
The economic success Mr. Bowles envisioned 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?
"In California," Mr. Bowles wrote, "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.