Wind power is the fastest growing alternative energy source in the world today. In the United States, the pace of wind power development was recently given a boost when the U.S. Congress renewed a tax incentive for companies to invest in wind energy. One of the beneficiaries could be a proposed project off the Atlantic coast of Cape Cod, in the northeastern state of Massachusetts . If built, it would be the nation's first off-shore wind farm. But the project faces fierce opposition from local residents.
Glance at a map of the New England coast and it's clear why the Cape Wind project appears so promising to its supporters. Cape Cod juts dramatically out into the Atlantic Ocean, where the average wind speed is higher and steadier than on the mainland. But some Cape residents believe a massive wind power project will ruin the area's most important asset: its natural beauty.
"In front of us you can actually see Martha's Vineyard in the distance. And that is approximately 20 miles (32 kilometers) away from us," says Alice Fardy, who owns the Oceanside Motel, located on the shore of Nantucket Sound. As she gazes out at the Sound from the motel's deck, she explains why she opposes the Cape Wind project. "Now Martha's Vineyard is not a very high mass of land. However, the wind farm is proposing to put 170 towers only 6 miles [10 kilometers] out directly in front of us and of course these things are going to be very visible to the public. There's no way that they aren't going to be able to see these towers at only 6 miles [10 km] away."
Not surprisingly, Brian Braggington Smith, one of the partners in the international consortium that owns Cape Wind, has a different view. Mr. Smith says what's most important is that Cape Wind could eventually produce the equivalent of half the Cape's annual electricity needs. "Here we have the fastest growing energy resource in the world, we have the best wind in the country, some of the best people in the world, and we have a net energy demand that is growing at a very rapid pace in a region that has no other indigenous resources other than this," he says.
With their huge rotating blades fully extended, the Cape Wind turbines will each be forty stories high. Opponents like to point out that this would make them taller than the Statue of Liberty. Longtime Cape resident Peter Hickman says that would create an eyesore for tourists and residents alike. "We think that this would represent an industrial intrusion, degradation is the right word, of a beautiful pristine body of water," he says. "If we lose our coastal waters, Cape Cod might as well be plunked down in the middle of Ohio."
But supporters of the Cape Wind project, including many in the scientific community, argue that its environmental benefits are well worth the impact it might have on the local scenery. Joe Hackler is a scientist with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. He says where you stand on the issue depends on your values. "People who have waterfront properties and who have yachts feel that it's a detriment to their experience out in Nantucket Sound," he says. "For those of us who are concerned about climate change, toxification, human health implications of the use of fossil fuels, these tiny little specks on the landscape are sort of an exciting thing."
Peter Hickman bristles at the notion that only well-moneyed yacht owners oppose the project. Indeed, commercial fishermen worry that because the turbines would be located in prime fishing ground, they could interfere with harvesting. Local officials say the project would harm the tourism business. Opposition is so strong that none of the candidates running for Governor of Massachusetts this year have endorsed the project.
At a recent gubernatorial debate on the Cape, one candidate, former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich, argued that there are two types of environmentalism of equal value. "We talk about one aspect and that's renewable energy, clean air, clean water here on the Cape and everywhere around Massachusetts and we need it. But one aspect of environmentalism that's not talked about often enough in my view is scenic beauty and preserving the scenic beauty of the Cape and everywhere else."
Even without the opposition, Cape Wind has a long way to go before it can become a reality. The proposal has to be studied and approved by federal and state agencies, a process that could take two years. Regulators will use that time to decide, among other things, whether the need to preserve an area's natural beauty outweighs the need to support a clean and inexhaustible energy source.