In a too-startling-to-be planned confluence of events, the federal Department of the Interior approved the Cape Wind project as thousands of gallons of oil spewed from a wrecked undersea well. This nine-year, multimillion-dollar Cape Wind permitting saga holds lessons for Maine’s plans for off-shore wind power projects. It points the way for a better national policy to evaluate such proposals and weigh them against our current reliance on fossil fuels. Such a policy must shorten the approval process so developers and opponents don’t have to spend so much money fighting. And it must also begin to wean developers from the lucrative tax breaks that make this industry an almost “can’t lose” financial prospect.
The Cape Wind project will build 130 turbines in a 24-square-mile area off Massachusetts between Hyannis Port, the Cape Cod home of the Kennedy compound and the exclusive islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. The 400-foot-high turbines, all of which will be at least five miles from shore, will be planted in the shallow waters of a sandy shoal where no shipping is allowed. The developers claim the turbines will produce enough electricity to power almost all of Cape Cod’s electric needs, though the power is actually fed into the regional grid.
Some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the country have summer homes or vacation in the area. Many would be able to see the towers from their verandas. That the process ended with permits being granted is, on one hand, a testament that the project was weighed fairly. On the other hand, the fact that it took nine years speaks to the inherent problems in the process.
Sen. Olympia Snowe called the nine-year regulatory review “totally unacceptable.” She has introduced legislation to streamline regulations and also called for long-term tax incentives for offshore wind projects.
Maine, of course, has an interest in the fate of Cape Wind — which now will face lawsuits from citizen and environmental groups opposing the project – because of proposals to develop floating wind turbines far off the state’s coast. Because the turbines will be far enough offshore to not be seen, some aesthetic concerns will be avoided. The floating nature of the proposal also avoids some of the environmental problems posed by disturbing the seabed.
The role of regulatory agencies must not be dismissed in the rush to build wind power. But narrowing the scope of their review may be a way forward. Like any other man-made structures, it should be a given that they will alter the landscape. But lighthouses, piers and shipwrecks — of which there are about 3,000 off Cape Cod — also alter the marine environment. So do oil spills.
Though wind power will never, by itself, replace fossil fuels, it will be an important part of the nation’s energy portfolio. Its impacts on the environment and people must be understood and appropriate mitigation required. Tax incentives should pave the way for building momentum for this technol-ogy, but those incentives must not be open-ended.
Cape Wind’s victory should buoy Maine’s efforts to become a major player in wind, but it should also lend some urgency to those efforts.