United States

United States

Tide of opinion turns with the wind

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Proposing an offshore wind farm for the playground of the privileged was bound to bring trouble, but nobody had foreseen how deeply and widely it would divide opinion or that it would lead to a winner-takes-all-war over the meaning of the Massachusetts constitution. The huge amount of publicity over the Cape Cod wind project, however, means that more and more people are learning about the benefits that wind power can bring them

Under the golden dome of the State House in Boston, beneath the sour-faced portraits of John and Abigail Adams, Representative Matthew Patrick is in the midst of a fight for his political life. He looks downright haggard. His eyes are tired and his skin a dull pallor. When it comes time for him to speak his peace at his public hearing, he passes. "I didn't think I needed to draw that out any longer," says the former Peace Corps volunteer several days later in his office.

Meanwhile, Patrick's opponent, Larry Wheatley, is behaving a bit like Mohammed Ali, still shadow-boxing, still up on the tips of his toes despite the months-long confrontation. "All options are open," says the military retiree, whose campaign slogan is "Elect a Veteran."

At issue in this legislative hearing is the seating of a Massachusetts State Representative in the historic Massachusetts House of Representatives. In November, in elections for the Third Barnstable District of Cape Cod -- home to many of the wealthiest and most avid opponents of the offshore wind farm proposed for Nantucket Sound -- more than 17,000 votes were cast. After ballots were counted and re-counted, Patrick led by a mere 17. The narrow margin inspired Wheatley to ask the courts to order a new election -- an extremely unusual thing in American politics. That request then chain-reacted into a war over the meaning of the state's constitution, written by John Adams himself in 1779 and later used as the model for the American constitution.

The proximal cause of the current free-for-all is the narrow margin of victory, but the distal cause is Patrick's unswerving support of the 420 MW offshore wind project. The proposed wind plant will be visible from the homes of some of America's most elite and powerful families, who have made no bones about just saying "no" to a wind farm in their backyard -- even if it means delaying the whole US offshore wind market. Most local politicians, fearing for their political futures, have toed the line and kept mum on the Cape Cod project. Patrick, however, has refused to kow-tow. At 50, his whole adult life has focused on renewable energy. After his Peace Corps service, he sold solar collectors before moving into politics and working on the state's energy issues.

In response, wind farm opponents funded Wheatley, a conservative Republican whose main political plank was "no wind farm." Says Wheatley: "The issue is about where it is being placed -- an issue about commercial interests using my natural resource with no appreciable benefit to the Cape."

Among Wheatley's many campaign contributors are the likes of US Ambassador to Ireland Richard J Egan, as well as many of his family and friends. Egan's family holds property along the shore of Nantucket Sound and several of the clan sit on boards of groups opposing the project. The ambassador began life as a member of working-class Boston, but a popular business magazine recently listed him as the 176th richest man in America. His star may have steadily risen, but certainly not all of his record has been shining. In the 1950s he was court-marshalled as a US Marine for being AWOL (he was in jail for stealing a car), and before being sworn in as ambassador in 2001, Egan had to pay more than $36,000 in fines for making illegal campaign contributions, according to the Boston Globe newspaper.

Silverbacks roar

Meanwhile, down south in Washington DC under the more sober marble-white dome of Congress, two old senatorial silverbacks having been roaring their displeasure at the wind plant proposal to any who will listen. Democrat Ted Kennedy and Republican John Warner (who was once married to the actress Elizabeth Taylor) also have family property in the Nantucket Sound area. Both men have tried various ways and means to get the project stopped.

The buzz in mid-January was that the pair, along with sidekick William Delahunt, a Congressional Representative from the Cape Cod region, had tried to quietly attach a rider to a funding bill which could have cruised through the Senate and House virtually unnoticed. Various versions of the rider were bandied about. In one version, any ability to permit offshore wind farms along the American coast would be completely withdrawn from the United States Army Corps of Engineers. If that were not agreeable, another version would have simply eliminated Nantucket Sound as a possible wind farm site.

"The senator is open to legislative language to delay this wind farm proposal from moving forward until Congress has time to consider a project of this magnitude that has such huge ramifications, including benefits to the environment. There have been no final decisions and there's no final language," Kennedy's spokesman, Stephanie Cutter, said in mid-January. "There are things floating, but nothing final has been done."

Reports are that the trio's attempts were rebuffed. Other politicians apparently gave Kennedy's idea the thumbs down, saying the joint issue of clean energy and energy independence were too serious to be handled without an open and public debate. Although a group of environmental organisations expressed their opposition to congressional leaders to any kind of national moratorium on offshore wind, analysts say that while the immediate danger of that particular moment had passed, one of the three men may again try to impose a national moratorium.

Smoke-filled backrooms

In the past several months, the battle over the future of offshore wind in America has moved increasingly out of the public eye and into the court system and the smoke-filled backrooms of politics. Project opponents, for example, hired lobbyist John O'Brien, one-time head of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, to plead their case to Boston politicians.

Nevertheless, the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound has failed to build a substantial grassroots opposition movement. Hence, its move into the more expensive arenas of politics and lawsuits. Given that its membership list includes people from places like North Palm Beach and Vero Beach, California; Park Avenue in New York City; Wellesley, Massachusetts and Darien, Connecticut, this decision is not surprising. Many opponents live on a very special island in Nantucket Sound in an enclave called Oyster Harbors. The island is accessible only by drawbridge.

"Sadly for them, state law doesn't allow them to keep it up for no reason," says local wag and columnist Frances Broadhurst. "Those are the untouchables over there. They pay an enormous amount of taxes over there and they expect their wishes to be respected -- and one of their dearest wishes is to be left alone to enjoy their wealth."

Mediating compromise

In response to the marshalling of this kind of money, middle-of-the-road groups are beginning to try to mediate various compromises. "The Massachusetts attorney general sent a letter to a number of federal officials calling for a moratorium," says Nathanael Greene of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a nationally well-respected group. "We sent a letter to those same officials stating our strong opposition to a moratorium. We think the process as it exists now is not perfect, but it is sufficient to deal with this project. In the future, could it be made better? Absolutely. But calls for a moratorium in any format are unjustified."

Greene makes it clear that NRDC does not specifically support or oppose the Cape Cod project, but that it, along with a consortium of other national groups, believes that offshore wind can ultimately supply an important percentage of the Northeast's electricity needs. Siting the first few projects, he cautions, is likely to be a painful and painstaking experience.

Greene says an offshore project proposed by New York's Long Islanders for the south shore (box) holds good promise because it is being done through a team effort that combines local environmental groups, the quasi-governmental Long Island Power Authority (LIPA), and affected stakeholders like fishermen and home-owners.

The progress made by LIPA, in fact, is one reason why Washington politicians may hesitate before giving in to Kennedy's wishes for a complete moratorium. New York State has made a strong push for renewables, and Long Island, which suffers from a shortage of electricity generation, is especially interested in incorporating wind into its energy mix.

LIPA's Bert Cunningham says New York State is very opposed to any general moratorium. "Our approach is that it really should be up to the individual states to have the opportunity to make that determination. We have a state government that's very actively involved in pressing for the development and use of alternative technologies," he says. "If we as a local entity and as a state feel that that's beneficial for our energy needs, why shouldn't we have the ability to do that?"

educating people

On the home front, in Massachusetts, a cross-section of local community and civic leaders are beginning the process of educating people on the benefits of wind energy. Episcopal priest William Eddy, who grew up sailing in Nantucket Sound, built his first wind turbine in 1976 using a kit he ordered from California. He is a member of the growing "Faith and the Environment" movement, in which American clergy of all denominations are committing themselves to environmental change. While he supports offshore wind and is very interested in the Nantucket Sound project, he also cautions that local people are afraid of giving up control to a large and distant corporate entity.

"Supporting this wind project is saying that we stand for something on the Cape. On the other hand, the project could be scaled down a bit," he says. "There's a role here that small community groups can play, by creating new avenues between local folk and large entities like Cape Wind." Eddy hopes to organise a group of Cape Codders to visit Denmark in the spring, so they can see for themselves what offshore wind turbines sound like and look like.

Despite all the chaos over offshore wind, the future of wind in general promises to improve both in the state of Massachusetts and the New England region in general. The state's new Republican governor Mitt Romney has made no public statement regarding offshore wind, but he has made statements about the importance of finding new energy sources for the region.

Initially, some people suspected this was little more than talk. But Romney then delighted sceptics by bringing into his administration two influential thinkers from the non-profit Conservation Law Foundation (CLF). CLF, which has developed a reputation for aggressive litigative protection of the ocean, has taken the lead in organising state and national environmental support for the Nantucket Sound proposal. Indeed, it is quite likely that without CLF's leadership, the issue of offshore wind would have quickly ended up dead in the water.

In addition, there are plenty of other signs pointing to an upswing for wind throughout New England. As General Electric's wind division gets under way, politicians are beginning to realise that a wind turbine manufacturing facility in the region could mean new jobs for a variety of professional and working people. In fact, the buzz from Washington says that some of the calls made to Kennedy's office objecting to his interest in a moratorium were from labour leaders and blue-collar workers. "This is a blue-green issue," says one observer.

GE's money and pizzazz and just plain savvy promises to put a seal of legitimacy on an industry that only a year ago looked like left-over "flower-child" mania to many conservative New Englanders. The electricity giant has put together a super-slick infomercial about wind energy, full of nostalgia and filmed in the sepia tones of yesteryear, designed to warm the cockles of chilly New England hearts.

Robert Pratt, new head of Massachusetts' Renewable Energy Trust Fund, says the state hopes to develop 750-1000 MW of renewable energy before decade's end. "Most of that will come from wind," he says. "These projects really work and they're cost-effective." Before coming to state government, Pratt worked in energy development in Central and South America. In 1998 his company developed, financed and built a 32 turbine, 24 MW wind project in Costa Rica, which went online in 1999. He sees a good future for similar small-scale land based projects in Massachusetts and the region as a whole. Pratt says the $150 million renewables trust fund will be concentrating on encouraging those kinds of community-based projects over the next several years.

The German model

"I think we're going to take more of a German model," Pratt says. "Those projects are not large wind farms. They tend to be smaller. In Massachusetts we do not have the kind of land resource that you have in Texas. Siting is an issue, as everyone knows. I would not be at all surprised if we got between 200 to 250 megawatts along the coast, aside from the Cape Wind project. Most projects are likely to be one megawatt here, six megawatts there."

Indeed, possibly in reaction to the mess created on Cape Cod, many towns suddenly seem intent on incorporating several turbines into their local energy mix. In Hull, Massachusetts, on the southern rim of Boston Harbor, the town's light department erected one turbine on a point of land in 2001. Although there was some opposition initially, it seems to have melted away.

The town has basked in the journalistic spotlight over the past year as local and national writers have compared the reaction of Hull's voters to those of Cape Cod. Competition between towns is ingrained in New England history and townspeople often relish an opportunity for one-upmanship. Support for wind now runs exceptionally high in Hull, according to a recent post card survey indicating that 95% of townspeople want the town to buy more turbines.

The city of Quincy, just north of Hull, is also considering buying four to six turbines. "Quincy has a number of sites that could easily accommodate wind," says Pratt. "We're in a position where we could really make Massachusetts proud."

Pratt's sentiments must offer at least some comfort to the beleaguered Matthew Patrick and his conviction that renewable energy is a cause well worth making a stand for. The Patrick-vs-Wheatley saga could continue for some time yet. The region's major newspaper, the Boston Globe, recently editorialised in favor of seating Patrick and not calling another election. If Wheatley does not back off-and he says he will not- some observers say the argument-ostensibly over the 17 votes that made Patrick the winner--could extend through the whole of the current term, two more years.

At issue is the power of the state legislature to decide who represents the voters. Most people agree that the Massachusetts state constitution awards that power to the House of Representatives in this particular case. Should the legislature decide to do battle against the courts, the issue could continue for a long time to come, eventually maybe ending up in state or national supreme court. Wheatley is already raising funds for his next campaign. Patrick is going about his mission, working on improving the clean energy infrastructure in Massachusetts.

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