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America’s first offshore wind farm promises to be a picture of ugliness, with 130 turbines, each as tall as a 40-story skyscraper, marring the scenic Massachusetts waters off Cape Cod, Nantucket, and Martha’s Vineyard. Or it promises to be a vision of beauty, each white windmill spinning majestically as it produces an alternative to carbon-spewing fossil fuels. But one thing everyone can agree on is that Cape Wind will be big. The turbines, spread out over an area as large as Manhattan, will be visible from the coastline for miles.

There may be no single power project in the United States that has been contested longer and with more vehemence than Cape Wind, which is meant to generate 450 megawatts of power–about as much as a typical coal plant–from the breeze blowing above Nantucket Sound. Ever since it was proposed in 2001, the privately financed developer, Cape Wind Associates, has been locked in a heated war of words with protest groups and tied up in a string of lawsuits. Arguments have erupted over the environmental benefits of the project and the impact of building the massive turbines in an active fishing zone, an area that also serves as a boating playground for some of the world’s richest people. The protracted process, fueled by big bucks on both sides, raises a fundamental question that transcends the project itself: Is this any way to make major energy decisions?

That was the question left hanging in the air after a recent local preview of Cape Spin, a new documentary about the project. Above all, the Cape Wind controversy shows that while the problem of climate change is global, it’s also true that all energy issues, to paraphrase a famous Massachusetts congressman, are local. And while new power-producing facilities will be most effective if they are sited according to some objective strategy, there’s no avoiding the subjective reactions of those who live nearby. In this sense, the showdown over Cape Wind is a microcosm of a much larger debate. “Deciding where to put stuff is never simple,” says Lynn Orr, director of the Precourt Institute for Energy at Stanford University. “But this is part of the reason why we’ve had such a hard time coming up with a national energy policy.”

In the film, the camera follows the protests and proclamations of fishermen, sailors, Native Americans, wealthy vacationers, year-round residents, children, business owners, energy executives, lobbyists, and a plethora of politicians, including some from the Kennedy clan, whose family compound in Hyannis Port will have a nearly perfect view of the turbines five miles offshore. Many of these people were in attendance at the packed screening of the documentary, which is coming soon to film festivals and is set to air on the Sundance Channel this spring. “Good Lord,” its first-time director, Robbie Gemmel, confessed to the crowd. “I didn’t know what I was getting into.”

Gemmel, who shot 550 hours of footage, says he aimed for an evenhanded approach that also entertains. He begins with the frequently heard notion that the opposition stems from super-rich estate owners who simply don’t want their views of the water spoiled. “Remember, they paid good money–or inherited good money–to have these places,” says Robert Whitcomb, a newspaper editor who coauthored a 2007 book on the project.

But the demographics of the affected coastal areas are far more diverse than this stereotype suggests. Most of the year-round residents are members of the middle and working classes. To them, the battle is between building a model of a clean-energy future and preserving their way of life. These citizens are portrayed not as victims of the dustup but as active rabble-rousers, planting lawn signs and marching around with banners that shout “Save Our Sound” or “No More Delays” or “Cape Wind Doesn’t Float My Boat!”

All along, troops are being massed by the film’s two principal characters. Jim Gordon, the president of Cape Wind Associates, is depicted by turns as a tenacious clean-energy champion and a cold-hearted businessman who once tried to construct a diesel power station across from an inner-city school. Before seeing the film, Gordon told me that he hoped it would show how much time and money have already been wasted on the fight. If a small group of local citizens, he says, can hold up a project like Cape Wind, “I want people to see that.”

The second main character is Audra Parker, a widowed mother of four who runs the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, the chief opposition group. Her message is crystallized into a sound bite chanted at many protest rallies: “Great idea–but not here!” Parker is able to adapt her main argument to fit the concerns of various audiences: fishermen will be ruined, tourism will suffer, it’s about historic preservation, the costs are too high.

These are all valid concerns, and developers who ignore them do so at their peril. “This is a mistake that is made over and over again,” says Margot Gerritsen, a colleague of Orr’s at Stanford. As an associate professor of energy resources engineering, Gerritsen sometimes attends local meetings and workshops that attempt to hammer out disputes over solar thermal plants in the desert or new transmission lines in rural areas. “People get angry because they feel that they are not listened to,” she says. Developers, she adds, need to explain the tangible benefits, such as the prospect of new jobs. She also stresses the need to present hard data from existing energy projects to show the impact on things like real-estate prices and local wildlife.

These local issues are especially tough to sort out because people tend to fear the unknown. “People prefer the evil they know over the evil they don’t know,” says ­Gerritsen. Cape Cod, for instance, burns oil to generate electricity. Over the years, tankers delivering oil to the 40-year-old power plant at the Cape Cod Canal have sprung leaks–resulting in spills requiring expensive beach cleanups. What’s more, the pollution from its smokestack has contributed to what the American Lung Association calls some of the state’s worst air quality. Despite all this, it’s still quite common for people to say they’d “rather stick with an old power plant than accept a new one,” she says.

Such local debate masks the larger question of whether Cape Wind is a necessary energy alternative. Over the past three years alone, U.S. wind capacity has more than doubled, to more than 35 gigawatts; it now accounts for about 2 percent of America’s electricity. But many of the convenient sites suitable for land-based wind farms have already been developed. So even though offshore wind is more expensive (electricity generated by such installations currently costs up to twice as much as electricity from land-based wind farms), developers are now proposing more than 20 plants in U.S. waters–from the Jersey Shore to the Great Lakes to the Gulf Coast of Texas.

No one seems to dispute that many of these spots boast ideal wind resources. In Nantucket Sound, for instance, winds average 20 miles per hour, with little downtime, even in the summer. What’s more, the site is protected from large waves by the surrounding land, and it even offers a shallow shoal on which to mount the windmills.

But since the capital costs of building offshore wind farms are high, projected energy prices are steep as well. Under an agreement that must still be ratified by the state utility commission (a decision is expected by the end of the year), Cape Wind has promised to sell half its power to National Grid, a Northeast energy supplier, for 18.7 cents per kilowatt-hour. That’s higher than local retail rates for grid energy, which are in the range of 8 to 12 cents per kilowatt-hour. Whether Cape Wind will actually cost or save consumers money in the long run depends in part on what happens with prices for coal, gas, and oil over the next few years and decades, says Stephen Connors, a research engineer with the MIT Energy Initiative. Power produced by Cape Wind will be used by all National Grid’s customers, supplying around 4 percent of a typical customer’s energy. At current rates, Connors says, the investment in Cape Wind should cost the average National Grid residential customer anywhere from about $1 per month on the low side to “about two Starbucks lattes per month” on the high side.

In the decade that the battle over Cape Wind has been raging, offshore wind farms have been built in the waters of nine European countries, resulting in a capacity of more than 2.4 gigawatts–enough to power more than a million homes. A 10th country, China, recently completed a 102-megawatt turbine cluster off the coast of Shanghai. By 2020, 30 gigawatts of additional offshore wind capacity is expected to be built off the coasts of China. Yet America’s effort to tap offshore wind has lagged.

If Cape Wind’s Gordon gets his way, the turbines will be spinning by 2013. But that victory will have less to do with the economic and environmental merits of offshore wind power than with which side in the local political standoff has best withstood the epic wrangling. Many of the locals have grown cynical: as one citizen in the film says, “The people with the most money are going to win.”

In fact, it doesn’t have to end that way. The turbines, if they’re built, will be in public waters leased by Gordon and his associates. That means the public has a right to decide whether the project makes sense as part of a national effort to increase renewable power. But to make decisions wisely, we need a coherent national energy policy and international agreements that make sense of local energy development. In their absence, each new energy project will be caught in the local crosswinds.

Evan I. Schwartz is TR ’s senior business editor.

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Credit: Associated Press
Video by JR Rost

Tagged: Energy

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