(Photo by First Wind)
When Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar approved the 130-turbine Cape Wind project this week, supporters cheered. Opponents, who say the 400-foot-high structures are an eyesore, booed the decision -- and promised more lawsuits against the project that has been tied up for nearly a decade.
But for the majority of Americans who won't have to look at the turbines off the New England coast (they'll be hard to see from land anyway), the most common reaction was probably, "So what?"
That's understandable. When complete, Cape Wind will produce 468 megawatts (MW) of electricity, about the same as a medium-sized coal-fired power plant. Compared to existing wind projects, Cape Wind won't be a match for the one in Texas, which cranks out 780 MW. In Iowa, generating capacity from wind had already reached Cape Wind's goal in 2003. By the end of 2008, Iowa's wind capacity was 2,661 MW - five-and-a-half times greater than what Cape Wind's capacity will be when operational. Compared to the nation's total installed wind capacity (25,000 MW), Cape Wind is barely a blip on the national energy chart.
So, why all the fuss? Just because Cape Wind is the first offshore wind farm approved in the United States?
Well, yes -- for a couple of reasons.
"Approval," says Kit Kennedy, "is a green light for developing offshore wind power." As an attorney with the air and energy program at NRDC, Kennedy has been a leading advocate for developing a clean source of energy while protecting the ocean ecosystem in and around Nantucket Sound. "Secretary Salazar said as much on Wednesday," adds Kennedy. "He pointed out that Cape Wind was just the first of many offshore wind projects planned for the east coast."
Stanford professor Mark Jacobson agrees with Kennedy: "Once offshore east-coast wind jump starts, the potential for solving our nation's climate, air pollution and energy problems can start to be solved." Jacobson directs the Air/Energy program at Stanford and is one of the most influential thinkers on moving to a clean energy economy.
"Wind energy," says Jacobson, "is the least-polluting, healthiest, and least invasive of all energy sources, and the largest wind resource in the U.S. is offshore of the east coast."
While he favors a mix of non-polluting energy sources, Jacobson predicts that in the next three or four decades, wind power will provide up to fifty percent of the world's energy needs. The limiting factor? "Political willpower," he says.
Jacobson sees the Obama administration's approval of Cape Wind, however, as evidence that there is now sufficient political will for wind power to take its rightful place as the primary source of energy.
Being first makes Cape Wind important for another reason.
"When this process began in 2001," says Kennedy, "there was no roadmap to follow for permitting offshore wind. We had to create one."
There were false starts along the way. Initially, the Army Corps of Engineers was given the task of creating a permitting process and implementing it with Cape Wind. The Corps had spent years on the project, including time spent drafting a complex Environmental Impact Statement, when Congress decided that the Minerals Management Service, within the Department of the Interior, was better equipped to handle the job. That meant starting over with a new Environmental Impact Statement and redesigning the process for rulemaking.
But that part is now complete.
"We have a roadmap, now," says Kennedy. "Although it's not perfect, it's something to build on. And we simply didn't have that before."
Possessing the requisite political will, creating a roadmap for future permitting, and having a project about to begin in the waters off Massachusetts; it seems likely that an invisible line was crossed this week. On one side is the old energy economy: dirty, unsustainable and dangerous at every step - and best symbolized by the recent twin disasters of the explosion in a West Virginia coal mine and the oil rig blow-out in the Gulf of Mexico.
On the other side of the line is a renewable, clean energy economy. There will be setbacks, and the speed at which we make the transition is far from clear. But a line was crossed this week, and for many Americans who proudly call themselves environmentalists, that is plenty of reason to make a fuss.