Cape Spin

Offshore windpower: They'll come to love it

Excerpted from the Sept. 1 "Digital Diary'' column in GoLocal24.

It’s too bad that it has taken so long, but the completion of Deepwater Wind’s five-turbine wind farm off Block Island, R.I., is very good news for New England.

The facility, expected to start producing electricity inNovember, will mean that a little more of New England’s electricity will come from the region’s own sources andthat we might be able to use a little less natural gas from fracking.  That process, contrary to the corporate publicity and wishful thinking, does not slow global warming because the process releases so much methane from the fracking sites.  And the Block Island project will help reduce air pollution:  The island’s electricity has been produced by unavoidably dirty diesel fuel.

Further, success in getting this project up will boost, by example, much bigger offshore windpower projects planned for  nearby waters,  most notably between the eastern tip of Long Island and Martha’s Vineyard. Eventually, this should dramatically improve the reliability of our electricity and in the long run cut its cost as windpower technology improves.

As usual with such projects in places like Block Island, Deepwater Wind had to fend off some affluent summer people who were offended that they’d have to look at wind turbines (which many folks think are beautiful) on their horizon.  Most famously, a group of very few rich people in Osterville, Mass., led by Bill Koch (of the Koch Brothers) have managed to block the big Cape Wind project, which was to go up in middle of Nantucket Sound,  although the project has been supported by a large majority of theMassachusetts public. Yet again,  a few privileged NIMBYs have sabotaged the public interest. (I co-wrote (with Wendy Williams) a bookabout that controversy, called Cape Wind, later made into a movie called Cape Spin.)

The Obama administration and some states, including Rhode Island and Massachusetts have, to their credit, enacted laws and regulations to encourage offshore wind. This is especially attractive in the Northeast, with its reliable breezes and shallow water extending a lot further offshore than you see off the West Coast.

The Europeans have long embraced offshore windpower, for environmental reasons and to reduce reliance on fossil-fuel imports, especially from an increasingly aggressive Russia.

I predict that many current offshore-windpower foes will come to tolerate and even like the turbines’  curious beauty. And the fishermen will  come to love them because fish congregate in the supports of such structures.

--  Robert Whitcomb

Robert Whitcomb: Another trap in the energy cycles

A few years ago I co-wrote a book, with Wendy Williams, about a controversy centered on Nantucket Sound. The quasi-social comedy, called Cape Wind: Money, Celebrity, Energy, Class, Politics and the Battle for Our Energy Future, told of how, since 2001, a company led by entrepreneur James Gordon has struggled to put up a wind farm in the sound in the face of opposition from the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound — a long name for fossil-fuel billionaire Bill Koch, a member of the famous right-wing Republican family.  An amusing movie, Cape Spin,  directed by John Kirby and produced by Libby Handros, came out of this saga, too. Mr. Koch's houses include a summer mansion in Osterville, Mass., from which he doesn’t want to see wind turbines on his southern horizon on clear days.

Mr. Koch may now have won the battle, as very rich people usually do. Two big utilities, National Grid and Northeast Utilities, are trying to bail out of a politicized plan, which they never liked, forcing them to buy Cape Wind electricity. They cite the fact that the company missed the Dec. 31, 2014, deadline in contracts signed in 2012 to obtain financing and start construction. Cape Wind said it doesn’t “regard these terminations as valid” since, it asserts, the contracts let the utilities’ contracts be extended because of the alliance’s “unprecedented and relentless litigation.” Bill Koch has virtually unlimited funds to pay lawyers to litigate unto the Second Coming, aided by imaginative rhetoric supplied by his  very smart and well paid pit-bull  anti-Cape Wind spokeswoman, Audra Parker,  even though the project has won all regulatory approvals.

It's no secret that it has gotten harder and harder to do big projects in the United States because of endless litigation and ever more layers of regulation. Thus our physical infrastructure --- electrical grid, transportation and so on -- continues to fall behind our friendly competitors, say in the European Union and Japan, and our not-so-friendly competitors, especially in China. Read my friend Philip K. Howard's latest book, The Rule of Nobody, on this.

With the death of Cape Wind, New Englanders would lose what could have helped diversify the region’s energy mix — and smooth out price and supply swings — with home-grown, renewable electricity. Cape Wind is far from a panacea for the region’s dependence on natural gas, oil and nuclear, but it would add a tad more security.

Some of Cape Wind’s foes will say that the natural gas from fracking will take care of everything. But New England lacks adequate natural-gas pipeline capacity, to no small extent because affluent people along the routes hold up their construction. And NIMBYs (not in my backyard) have also blocked efforts to bring in more Canadian hydro-electric power. So our electricity rates are soaring, even as many of those who complain about the rates also fight any attempt to put new energy infrastructure near them. As for nuclear, it seems too politically incorrect for it to be expanded again in New England.

Meanwhile, the drawbacks to fracking, including water pollution and earthquakes in fracked countryside, are becoming more obvious. And the gas reserves may well be exaggerated. I support fracking anyway, since it means less use of oil and coal and because much of the gas is nearby, in Pennsylvania. (New York, however, recently banned fracking.)

Get ready for brownouts and higher electricity bills. As for oil prices, they are low now, but I have seen many, many energy price cycles over the last 45 years of watching the sector. And they often come with little warning. But meanwhile, many Americans, with ever-worsening amnesia, flock to buy SUV's again.

Robert Whitcomb oversees New England Diary.