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"Cape Wind Damage"

Op-Ed, The Boston Globe

March 14, 2005

Author: Henry Lee, Director, Environment and Natural Resources Program

Belfer Center Programs or Projects: Energy Technology Innovation Policy; Environment and Natural Resources; Science, Technology, and Public Policy


AS THE battle over whether to site a large wind farm off the coasts of Martha's Vineyard and Cape Cod continues to rage, a number of critical points seem to have been forgotten or ignored. Certainly, locating any large project within eyesight of wealthy coastal communities is asking for trouble since its inhabitants will have no trouble hiring high-priced lawyers and lobbyists. But there is a larger set of issues at stake.

Massachusetts is one of the few states in the country that has decided to address the climate problem and restrict carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. On paper, it has extolled the virtues of renewable energy and has put in place requirements that will force its utilities to purchase an ever increasing amount of their power from renewable sources. At this time, the only feasible renewable option for meeting a significant portion of these requirements is to build a measurable amount of wind generation. Since no one is suggesting that the state or federal government build this capacity themselves, private developers have to be willing to step up to the plate and invest their money to meet their goals.

Opponents make several arguments. First, the developer is trying to site the facility in the wrong place, and if he would move it or if someone else would propose a wind farm in another location, the reception would be different. There are two faults with this argument. No one is proposing a large wind farm in another location, and there is no location that would be free of well-heeled opposition. The reality is that even moderately sized energy projects have an environmental footprint. The developer and the government can do their best to reduce the footprint or compensate for it, but they cannot make it disappear.

Until a project receives a permit and financing, all costs are paid out of the developer's pockets. The longer the permit process is extended, the harder it is for the developer to bear the growing expense of keeping the project alive. In reality, the opponents do not have to persuade the government to reject the permit application; all they need to do is stretch out the process and the developer is likely to throw in the towel.

If this happens with Cape Wind, why would any sane investor expose himself to this same risk off Gloucester or Hull or even out in the Berkshires? The citizens who live in these areas can hire good lawyers just as easily as the residents of Martha's Vineyard. Maybe the government would look more kindly on another site, but it is unlikely that any developer will spend the money to find out.

A second argument is that if the project were smaller or used different wind machines, it would be vastly improved. But no one is proposing such projects. The only large-scale renewable project is Cape Wind. If it is disapproved there is no backup wind project waiting in the wings. The tendency of some advocates to pit actual projects against hypothetical, unfunded projects is not reasonable.

Finally, Cape Wind, for better or worse, has gained so much press coverage that it has become a national news story. If Cape Wind is defeated, its demise will not only impact future projects in the state and region, it will affect the willingness of investors and developers to pursue these projects in other parts of the country. The stakes have grown, and they are much higher than they were two years ago.

There is no question that for some citizens and environmental groups, wind energy has serious land-use implications and is perceived as an 'aesthetic polluter.' To others it is one of the principal options for developing an environmentally sustainable energy system.

In the last four years only one wind project of any appreciable size has come forward; the Cape Wind project. If this project is scuttled, the state's goal of deriving 4 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2009 will be unattainable. Even if you believe that Cape Wind is undesirable, its demise requires all the parties to go back and rethink their electric policy and the environmental regulations that accompany it.

Henry Lee is director of the Environment and Natural Resources Program and a lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School of Government's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.


For more information about this publication please contact the Belfer Center Communications Office at 617-495-9858.

For Academic Citation:

Lee, Henry. "Cape Wind Damage." The Boston Globe, March 14, 2005.

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