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The power of place

Despite opposition from Cape Cod homeowners, windfarm supporters say their site is worth the fight

Jim Gordon recalls the moment when his vision for the nation's first offshore wind farm came into focus: Already drawn to Nantucket Sound, whose steady winds promised a sturdy flow of electricity, Gordon watched as a computer program drew tighter and tighter borders around a spot less than 6 miles off of Cape Cod.

One diagram showed that the site, called Horseshoe Shoal, could hold enough windmills to supply three-quarters of the Cape and islands' electricity needs during peak winds. Another showed that the site was clear of flight paths. Ferry routes neatly skimmed both edges. Shipping channels -- not a problem. The water was shallow and sheltered enough to limit construction costs and protect wind turbines from the ravages of crashing waves.

"We said, `Oh, my God, this is incredible,' " said Gordon, president of Cape Wind Associates. "It all came together. It was so optimal."

The particular spot that Gordon picked that day three years ago has since caused a maelstrom of its own. Nantucket Sound is, of course, no forgotten backwater, but a water body ringed by the vacation homes of New England's power elite. A well-funded opposition group has waged an aggressive marketing and lobbying effort against the project, forcing Gordon's company to do the same. And the opponents have found allies in some of the region's most influential politicians -- US Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Governor Mitt Romney and Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly.

If it seems an act of rare hubris or naivete to insist on building a first-of-its-kind, massive power plant right in the sight lines of the rich and powerful, consider this: Experts say Gordon may have landed some of the best offshore real estate in the country, free of charge.

"As far as I know, it's the largest location in the US that has both good winds and shallow water depths," said James F. Manwell, director of the Renewable Energy Research Laboratory at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. "From all vantage points, there doesn't appear to be anything like it."

Critics of the wind farm have eagerly suggested other places on sea and land where Cape Wind might build its project with less controversy, but, from a technical perspective, no one has come up with a site better than Horseshoe Shoal.

The Army Corps of Engineers, which will review Cape Wind's environmental studies, has ordered the company to do detailed studies of five of the most promising alternate locations, but at least two have obvious drawbacks. The winds are much slower at the only on-land alternative, located at the Massachusetts Military Reservation. A site in deeper water near Nantucket has plenty of wind, but the waves are three times as large, too.

Corps officials say the Cape Wind project is too important to dismiss other sites without a closer look. Gordon "is going to have to look at more sites. We are not going to narrow it down prematurely," said Col. Thomas Koning, the Corps' district engineer. The extra analysis is expected to take Cape Wind until next summer.

Gordon, who has run an independent power company, Energy Management Inc., since 1975, hopes to build 130 wind turbines -- each taller than the Statue of Liberty -- on Horseshoe Shoal. In average wind conditions, they would produce 170 megawatts, enough energy to meet the electric needs of 170,000 households, or about three-quarters of the Cape and islands.

His proposal helped to kick off a flood of offshore wind farm proposals, though many have since stalled. Winergy LLC pitched 17 wind sites off the East Coast, including two farther off the New England coast, but the company has let those proposals languish while it pursues a windfarm off the coast of Virginia.

Winergy president Dennis Quaranta acknowledged that the locations he set his sites on, east of Nantucket, would be more costly to develop because they lie in deeper waters unprotected from storms. He laughed when he considered the prospect of Gordon's site: Of course he would prefer to build on Horseshoe Shoal, which offers 17-mile-per-hour average wind speeds over water just 2 to 30 feet deep. Cape Wind's location is cradled between the Cape, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, leaving it less exposed to the elements.

"My hat's off to them," Quaranta said. "It's a phenomenal site."

Gordon refused to speak in detail about the economics of the Horseshoe Shoal site. He estimated his project will cost $750 million, but does not give similar estimates for other locations he considered.

But it is the math that irks the residents, town and business leaders who formed the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound. The group has argued that Gordon is trying to make a buck off a public resource, and that alternative locations, while they might cost more for him to develop, would be far more palatable to the public.

"I think it's the cheapest place for them to make the most amount of money," said Isaac Rosen, executive director of the Alliance. He said he believes Gordon's stubborn allegiance to one site conflicts with his statement that Cape Wind is a harbinger of a new trend in renewable energy.

"If this is the only place where you can build this thing," Rosen said, "then the future of wind energy begins and ends in Nantucket Sound."

Specialists say it is a matter of scale: Although there are plenty of places to build a single windmill, or even 10, there are very few locations with the 28 square miles that Cape Wind wants for its wind farm. The Corps quickly discovered that there is virtually nowhere on land to build a wind farm even half the size that Gordon wants. That's why four of the five sites Corps officials want Cape Wind to analyze are on the open ocean. But even there, sites are constrained by fishing grounds, shipping channels and the presence of birds, whales and other wildlife.

Sam Enfield, vice president of development for Atlantic Renewable Energy Corp. who has built onshore wind energy projects in several states, said, "It's not that easy" to find a viable spot for a windfarm. "There aren't that many [sites."

Opponents have stated that Cape Wind chose Horseshoe Shoal partly for political reasons: It lies outside the 3-mile boundary of state waters -- and largely outside the regulatory reach of state politicians. And while the site is free to use, Cape Wind stands to benefit from a federal tax credit for generating nonpolluting wind power, a benefit that could reimburse the company about $27 million a year for 10 years, according to Cape Wind. And Gordon can count on an instant market for green energy such as wind power because the state's Renewable Portfolio Standards require electric suppliers to buy up to 4 percent from renewable sources by 2009. "We're paying him to take over something he doesn't own," Rosen said.

The driving force of such projects, Thresher said, is economics.

"Typically, it costs quite a bit more to go offshore," he said, "but you can minimize those costs by cherry-picking the spots -- the shallow, sandy bottom close to shore and close to transmission [lines]. That particular spot has all those features."

The proposed wind farm includes 130 Statue of Liberty-sized turbines 5 miles offshore. The proposed wind farm includes 130 Statue of Liberty-sized turbines 5 miles offshore. (AP Photo Illustration / Cape Wind Associates)
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