A plan to anchor 170 towering wind turbines five miles off the coast of Cape Cod has created some unusual foes.
On one side are the Humane Society, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the International Wildlife Coalition and environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr., among others. On the other side are groups that might normally be considered allies, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Union of Concerned Scientists and Greenpeace.
They're clashing over a power source that defenders say will offer bountiful clean energy to the region, but opponents say will blight the view off the Massachusetts cape, kill birds and harm fishing and tourism.
The $700 million wind-power project, which has won preliminary approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is now under environmental review.
"We support the development of responsible alternative energy policy," says Isaac Rosen, executive director of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, a recently incorporated neighborhood association set up to oppose the wind-power project. "But Cape Wind Associates' proposal … goes against everything for which the character of the cape is known worldwide."
The debate is revealing how even so-called renewable energy sources are rarely innocuous.
NIMBY at Play?
Wind power — the fastest-growing energy resource in the world, according to the Department of Energy — does not leach pollutants or gobble up finite resources. But wind turbines dot prime landscapes, generate noise and can pose a hazard to birds and other wildlife. And in nearly every place where companies have set up or proposed wind plants, including California, Wisconsin, West Virginia, New York, Kansas, Maine and now Massachusetts, local groups have risen up in protest.
Deborah Donovan, head of the New England policy project at the Union of Concerned Scientists, argues wind power's ill effects don't stack up against its benefits and that people are suffering from a "not in my back yard" mentality.
"Society has to at some point accept that if we want electricity we have to get it from somewhere and wherever that is, it won't be zero impact," she says.
Worldwide, the United States lags behind many European countries in generating wind power. Denmark relies on wind for 16 percent of its power, for example, and wind-generating capacity jumped by almost a third throughout the world last year. In the United States, companies added 1,700 megawatts of wind power last year, enough to provide electricity for 500,000 homes.
The proposed project at Cape Cod by Cape Wind Associates would entail anchoring turbines in a 28-square- mile grid pattern on a five-mile-long stretch of offshore shallow waters known as Horseshoe Shoals. Each carbon-steel turbine would rise about 40 stories above the water line — taller than the Statue of Liberty.
The company chose the Horseshoe Shoals for the powerful breezes that consistently blow over the area. Mark Rodgers of Cape Wind Associates says the company expects the turbines to generate an average of 170 megawatts of power a day. On very windy days, it hopes to generate up to 420 megawatts a day.
"It would be a major renewable project in New England," says Rodgers. "It would put the region toward the top of the list in the entire country as getting most of its power from a nonpolluting renewable resource."
But Cape Cod is a region famous for its pastoral ocean views, including the one visible from the Kennedy compound at Hyannisport. Once built, the wind-power plant would be faintly visible on the skyline of this tourist-dependent community, particularly during clear days.
"We wouldn't build a wind farm in the middle of Yosemite," Robert Kennedy Jr., son of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, has argued. "People want to look out and see the same sight the Pilgrims saw."
Dead Birds, Plane Hazard
Rosen says the community's opposition to the plant is based on much more than spoiled views.
Among the critics are members of the fishing community, who fear the poles of the turbines, which would be sunk about 80 feet into the seabed, could disrupt the feeding and nursing grounds of valuable fish, including striped bass and summer flounder.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association cites the heavy traffic of commercial and private planes in the region and suggests the turbines would present a hazard.
"Placing 170 of these wind-driven turbines in this area, in our opinion, is a disaster waiting to happen," wrote Mike Suriano, a NATCA Facility Representative, in a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Previous wind-power projects have shown that the plants can become virtual killing fields for migrating birds. At a massive 7,000-turbine power plant in California's Altamont Pass, 182 birds were killed over a two-year period ending in 1992. The dead birds included five bald eagles and 114 other birds of prey.
Since those studies, researchers have learned that a lattice structure used at the Altamont plant increased the risk of bird deaths since birds used the structures to nest and then were caught in the blades. Turbines are now designed to have clean blades, free of lattices.
Engineers have also made the blades of turbines longer so they can rotate more slowly and stil generate the same amount of power. This makes them more visible to birds and, the hope is, more avoidable.
The Massachusetts chapter of the Audubon Society has expressed concern about migrant bird populations on Cape Cod, particularly the Roseate tern — an endangered, wave-skimming seabird that populates the area. But the chapter is remaining neutral on the project until further studies about local bird migration patterns and the potential effects of a wind farm are finished.
Opponents: ‘Gold Rush’ Needs Oversight
One of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound's main arguments against the proposed wind farm is that a private company will be using public, offshore property to establish a moneymaking enterprise. This would be the first offshore wind-power plant in the country and Rosen argues that before it moves forward, Congress needs to establish a regulatory structure to oversee it and others like it.
"It's like a gold rush. We've seen a deluge of offshore proposals — more than 20 from Maine to Maryland," he says. "If anything speaks to the need of congressional oversight, it's the rapid pace that companies are sucking up land."
Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas Reilly has written to Congress requesting that it regulate such offshore projects and the office of Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., has led the effort to come up with new regulations.
In the meantime, construction has already begun of a 200-foot test tower at Horseshoe Shoals. The tower will measure factors like sea conditions and wind speed to help determine how to construct the power site if and when it is constructed. The alliance wants to stop the tower's construction and has filed a lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers to halt it.
The entire project is now under a state and federal environmental review that could take up to five years to complete. Rosen expects researchers will conclude the wind project is not "green" at all. Donovan argues the alternative — relying on traditional energy sources — offers a worse scenario.
"There are major downsides to continuing business as usual," she says. "A hundred years ago no one may be worried about the view because a lot of the cape could be underwater because of global warming."