For some, it was with a sense of relief that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar passed Cape Wind, the beleaguered offshore wind project on Cape Cod. For others, it was the latest in a drama that has lasted nearly a decade.
While the environment remains a low priority issue to most American voters, clean energy solutions have proven to be polarizing. Against the backdrop of rising expectations of a climate bill, the debate over Cape Wind has proven to be both enduring and exemplary.
With Salazar's approval today, it was given the green light to become the first offshore wind project in the United States. But for the last nine years, it has been an example of how even clean energy can provoke everyone from environmental nonprofits to conservative business groups to fight dirty, and to fight amongst themselves.
How is it that something so simple and so useful as a windmill make foes of allies, and allies of foes? Once you sort through all the dialogue, the barriers boil down to backyards, money and delays. Let's take each one in turn.
Wind turbines are built where the wind is most consistently strong. All you need to do is glance at a wind map of the US to see that these areas are often either rural -- North Dakota, Colorado, Texas, Vermont and Maine -- or coastal. As an energy resource, this is a good thing: the Great Plains has been called the Saudi Arabi of wind, while coastal wind can provide power to population pockets along the shore.
The Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe of Martha's Vineyard oppose the project on the ground that it would interfere with sacred rituals and desecrate tribal burial sites. The late Senator Kennedy also vehemently opposed the Cape Wind project, in part because the Kennedys, known as avid sailors, own a family compound that looks onto the project sight.
There is a very real and unavoidable problem: no matter where you put a windmill, it's always going to be either in someone's backyard, off their ocean dock, or along their hiking trail. This argument is not about windmills, but about fear of progress. Just ask the old man in New Mexico with whom a friend of mine recently held a conversation.
He said he remembered how up in arms everyone was when the town wanted to put telephone lines. Everyone, he said, thought it was going to ruin the main street. Once they were there, they became commonplace. Now, in most places, you hardly see them. The same, he said, would be true for wind turbines.
There are other examples of this fear of progress. But the simple truth is that our growing demand for energy will demand we build new sources of power. Ask yourself whether the drive up California's coastal Route 1 would be the icon it is with coal plants clustering the cliffs? And would Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard or Maine's rocky coast would be the summer tourist destinations they are if they were dotted with nuclear plants, both functioning and decommissioned? Off shore wind famers -- barely visible and glimmering in the sun -- are hardly disruptive in comparison to conventional sources of power.
Money is another leading concern. The initial investment required for an offshore wind farm is high -- nearly double that of onshore wind projects per kilowatt-hour.
This has proven to be a problem for Rhode Island's proposed off-shore wind farm. The developer, Deepwater, would have charged National Grid 24.4 cents per kilowatt-hour in 2013, when the contract was due to begin, with prices increasing in subsequent years. The retail price of electricity for a home in Rhode Island currently is about 13 cents per kilowatt-hour. At the time, the governor's office said the agreement would increase the average residential customer's annual electric bill by about $16.
Meanwhile, upfront investment costs are significant. The Cape Wind project, for instance, will likely cost more than $1 billion. The Rhode Island project is even larger, and will likely cost $1.5 billion, not including the $8 million already spent on an impact assessment report.
These costs have been made more significant by weak federal subsidies for renewable energy relative to European subsidies, and by the lack of a federal climate policy. The lack of a clear federal policy introduces degrees of uncertainty into US-based investments in offshore wind that inhibit growth, and lead other countries like China, Norway and Denmark to surpass the United States.
Of course, there are paybacks. Both of these -- the direct payback to investors and savings to local taxpayers -- will come in years to come. A study released earlier this year by a consulting firm hired by Cape Wind's developers Charles River Associates claimed that the project might save New England ratepayers $4.6 billion in energy costs over 25 years. However, these figures likely have little impact on political support. There is a large body of evidence that shows people account for potential but uncertain future savings poorly.
Finally, there is the issue of delays. Related to the issue of uncertain future savings is the issue of uncertain future impacts from climate change.
In scientific terms, the fundamental science of climate change is largely settled. But scientific terms don't always translate into cognitive certainty; where the evidentiary standards of science rightly err on the side of conservatism, our minds demand the bold and the immediate. Scientists cannot tell us more than they know, and climate change will not deliver its full drama in one shot, but unfold slowly over decades.
What does this mean? It means the climate delay exploits a human problem. If we had more immediate evidence of the need for clean energy solutions, we might be more willing to build more wind turbines. But lacking the kind of evidence humans learn most effectively from, we predictably delay and debate. In a snowy winter, such as the one DC and Europe experienced this year, we even confuse the weather for climate.
Not all is bad
Despite this, there is good news. Offshore wind will likely play a forceful role in clean energy development in the US in years to come.
Six governors of East Coast states -- Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island -- called on Salazar to approve the project, in hopes that similar projects in their states would benefit. These projects are part of a nascent but adamant wind industry. Twelve offshore wind projects from the Great Lakes area to the East Coast and Texas have been proposed. Cape Wind will no doubt lend certainty to these projects.
In addition to this momentum, it is unlikely that offshore wind would not play an important role in future clean energy development. It is only very conservative assumptions that yield a future in which one technology dominates. Instead, numerous technologies will likely play in a diverse portfolio.
Combine these considerations -- state momentum and likely projections -- with physical realities and you have a compelling combination. Lake and ocean winds are typically both more reliable and stronger. Offshore wind projects designed to capture such breezes are located close enough to population centers to limit the need for transmission lines while being far enough away to reduce the impact upon ocean views.
The green light Salazar gave to Cape Wind will likely fill the sails of these twelve offshore wind projects. It's simply a question of which way the winds will blow.