Federal Decision Could Make or Break Cape Wind’s Future

In 2001, Cape Wind president Jim Gordon put forward a plan to build the first offshore wind farm in the United States off the coast of Massachusetts in Nantucket Sound. Nine years, countless public relations battles and a handful of lawsuits later, the project is just over a month away from receiving a final U.S. Mineral Management Service (MMS) decision that could make or break its future. The project was expected to be on a fast track to approval last year when MMS issued its final environmental impact statement on the project, which was favorable.

At the end of 2009 however, the Mashpee and Aquinnah Wampanoag tribes asked that Nantucket Sound be given cultural heritage site status, claiming that the project would obscure the view from an ancient burial ground. The application was considered by the National Park Service’s Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places and Nantucket Sound was deemed eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, a result that has the potential to block the development of not only Cape Wind, but other offshore renewable energy projects in federal waters.

Final Decision Must Be “Defendable”

Following the decision, last week U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar gathered project stakeholders is Washington D.C. in order to discuss actions that could be taken to minimize and mitigate Cape Wind’s potential impacts on historic and cultural resources. He said he hopes an agreement can be reached by March 1. Following the meeting, Secretary Salazar said that what is really needed for Cape Wind is a clear map forward and if the parties cannot come to an agreement, he is prepared to take steps on his own to bring the permit process to a conclusion.

“We need to have certainty,” Salazar said in a conference call with reporters. “We will reach a decision, and we will make sure it is defendable.”

Cape Wind spokesman Mark Rodgers said that he expects when all the facts are put on the table Secretary Salazar and DOI will approve the project and that construction will begin by the end of 2010.

“The issues the Tribes have raised will be carefully considered by Secretary Salazar, along with the totality of the public record on Cape Wind.  We are confident when he reviews the full record he will be convinced that the public benefits of new jobs, cleaner air, greater energy independence and action on climate change will far outweigh any negative impacts and the project will be approved,” Rodgers said.

Under the direction of DOI, the parties will continue to negotiate in the coming weeks. The public has until Febuary 12th to weigh in with its comments.

The Road So Far

In the nine years since the idea for the project was first floated, Cape Wind has overcome opposition first from residents in towns along the coast of Nantucket Sound worried it would ruin their views and lead to higher electricity prices; then from Massachusetts politicians, including then Governor Mitt Romney; then from Washington politicians and finally from environmental groups concerned with the wildlife impact. Below is an abbreviated time line of the Cape Wind Project to date.

July 28, 2001: Boston Globe story first describes Jim Gordon’s plan for an offshore wind facility in Nantucket Sound

Fall 2001: Opposition group Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound formed, organizes initial opposition to project from residents of coastal communities, group is still active today.

September 2002: Cape Wind applies for federal permit to build wind farm and the Army Corps of Engineers is charged with task of issuing Draft Environmental Impact Statement.

Fall 2002: Mitt Romney is elected governor of Massachusetts and is publicly opposed to Cape Wind.

October 2002: Political opposition to the project in Washington heats up as Sen. John Warner (R-VA) attempts, unsuccessfully, to prevent Cape Wind from erecting data tower in Nantucket Sound.

Summer 2004: Romney attempts to turn project into state issue by claiming rocks above sea level in Nantucket Sound extend border of Massachusetts into wind farm area. Cape Wind relocates planned positions of turbines into federal waters.

October 2004: Warner attaches amendment to Congressional defense appropriations bill in conference committee prohibiting Army Corps of Engineers from spending money on permitting any offshore wind projects. National attention forces Warner to withdraw amendment.

November 2004: Army Corps of Engineers issues favorable Draft Environmental Impact Statement.

Summer 2005: Energy Policy Act authorizes MMS to oversee permitting of offshore wind farms instead of Corps of Engineers. MMS commences second phase of permitting work on Cape Wind while working on a “programmatic” environmental impact process to be used for any future proposals.

Fall 2005: Rep. Young (R-AK), attaches amendment to Coast Guard Reauthorization Act in conference committee to prohibit any offshore wind farm within 1.5 nautical miles of a shipping channel or ferry route. Amendment later reworded to give the governor of Massachusetts the power to veto Cape Wind. Congressional battle continues until June 2006, when amendment is reworded to make it practically meaningless.

January 2008: Draft Environmental Impact Statement issued by MMS considered favorable to Cape Wind.

January 2009: Final Environmental Impact Statement issued by MMS also considered favorable to Cape Wind. Last stages will be Record of Decision from Secretary of the Interior and permit issued by Army Corps of Engineers under Rivers and Harbors Act.

December 2009: Mashpee and Aquinnah Wampanoag tribes submit application for Nantucket Sound to be given cultural heritage site status. National Park Service agrees.

January 2010 – March 2010: Secretary Salazar convenes meeting of stakeholders; Record of Decision pending.

Next Steps

If the project is to move forward, it is expected that Cape Wind’s developers will have to do some work to mitigate the potential impact on the landscape and environment. Gordon said that there are already some mitigation plans on the table that Cape Wind is willing to undertake, including using off-white turbines to decrease the visual impact from the shore and installing fewer turbines with higher individual capacities to have a smaller footprint.

“We have made a number of mitigation suggestions — one of them would be the reduction in the number of wind turbines from 170 to 130, reconfiguration of the turbines to reduce the breadth of view from national historic landmarks, eliminating daytime lighting to extent allowed by the Federal Aviation Administration, reducing nighttime lighting as allowed by the FAA, we’re going to use off-white colors to reduce visual contrast and we’ve reconfigured wind turbines to avoid all submerged areas identified as potential archaeologically sensitive,” Gordon said.

“The only proposals that opponents have brought to date, and they did this in the meeting [with Secretary Salazar] is they recommended that we start from square one and move the project to an area that was comprehensively studied, not only by the federal government but the Commonwealth of Massachusetts…and the commonwealth had come to the conclusion that the site opponents are recommending was environmentally inferior and technically and economically unfeasible.”

On top of potential mitigation measures, other factors that are expected to be considered by Secretary Salazar include the fact that Cape Wind’s grid connection in Barnstable, Massachusetts was approved by the Massachusetts Siting Board and National Grid has said that it will negotiate a power purchase agreement for the electricity the project might one day produce.

In December, National Grid and Cape Wind agreed to enter into negotiations for a long-term contract under which the utility would purchase the electricity generated by Cape Wind. The Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) is expected to be a critical requirement for financing the proposed offshore wind farm in Nantucket Sound. The PPA still has to go through state regulatory review.

National Grid is expected to file a Memorandum of Understanding with Cape Wind that includes the rationale for the deal, as well as the timeline by which the parties will pursue an agreement, with the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities (DPU). If DPU approves the process, National Grid and Cape Wind will enter into a mutually agreeable long-term contract and submit any final pact to DPU for review and approval.

In the end, Gordon argues that the project is not only something that will benefit Cape Cod residents, it’s also a symbol of the U.S. commitment to offshore renewables. Surely, the entire industry is watching closely as developers prepare to move forward with their own projects in the coming months and years.

“The reason that this project is so important to move forward on is that the offshore industry is watching this. As a result of Cape Wind’s efforts in helping to evolve the regulatory framework for offshore wind in America, there have been other offshore wind developers that are proposing offshore wind farms up and down the Atlantic coast. So it’s critical and this gives the Obama Administration and Secretary Salazar the opportunity to move this project forward and jump-start the offshore wind industry in the United States,” Gordon said.

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Former Editor at RenewableEnergyWorld.com, now Assistant Counsel at the New York State Department of Public Service, regulating New York's electricity, gas, and telecommunications industries.

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