Why We Need “Cape Wind”

by Diane Langley

If you live in Sharon or anywhere in Southeastern Massachusetts, you may have heard of “Cape Wind,” but you may not be familiar with its details or with the controversy it has engendered.

Cape Wind is a “wind park” of 130 giant windmills, or wind turbines, proposed for Horseshoe Shoal, an area of shallow water in Nantucket Sound. Each wind turbine will be 247 feet tall (above the water), and the blade tips will reach 75–417 feet above the surface. Combined, the wind turbines have the capacity to produce up to 468 megawatts (MW) of electricity.1 Cape Wind would produce this power without emitting any air pollutants, including greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide; without changing water temperatures by using river or ocean water for cooling; and without creating any hazardous wastes. At its average expected production of 170 MW, Cape Wind would supply 50–75 percent of the electricity needed by Cape Cod and the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.

The Massachusetts Energy Facilities Siting Board has said that Cape Wind’s electricity is needed for electric reliability in Massachusetts. Cape Wind is being developed by Energy Management Inc., a Massachusetts-based energy company that has developed clean energy generation projects in New England including six natural gas and one biomass projects.

Opponents have said that the wind turbines would spoil the sea view, and harm birds and underwater wildlife.

More energy from where?

Whenever a proposed energy project is evaluated in these times, it is important to keep in mind two premises. First, the growing population will demand more and more energy, primarily in the form of electricity. Second, all methods of producing electricity result in environmental impacts of some kind, and many also create adverse impacts on human health.2 If we accept that Americans, and indeed most people on planet Earth, are unwilling to lead lives using less electric power, we have to conclude that more and more power will have to be produced. The question then is, how?

Energy production sources are often categorized as conventional—coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear—or renewable—wind, solar, geothermal, biomass. All have some environmental impacts. Wind turbines, on land or offshore, will also have environmental impacts. Some people are distressed by a change in the sea view,3 which may formerly have been unmarred by any sort of human-induced changes. And it is true that wind turbines can result in bird deaths, including those of raptors, and that offshore towers can alter underwater habitat for fish and other ocean dwellers that are of commercial value to human society. Studies are ongoing to determine what measures can be taken to mitigate these impacts. But there can be no energy production without change and without impact. Those who oppose Cape Wind have looked at the project in isolation, outside of the context of the need for renewable energy and in comparison to other technologies.

Hazards of traditional energy production

Conventional electricity production, by coal, oil, or natural gas fired power plants, produces significant air pollutant emissions. These emissions consist of nitrogen oxides (which lead to ozone smog, acid rain, and nitrification/eutrophication of water bodies), volatile organic compounds (a major precursor of ozone smog), sulfur dioxide (which leads to acid rain), particulates (a human health hazard), and small amounts of other toxic air pollutants.

Fuel transportation to conventional power plants carries risk of serious impacts to water bodies and wildlife. The oil spill in Buzzards Bay on April 27, 2003, when a barge carrying 4.1 million gallons of No. 6 fuel oil to Sandwich leaked its cargo into the water, fouled over 94 miles of coastline in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. It covered beaches and killed wildlife from Westport and Dartmouth all the way up to Barnstable and out to Block Island. That barge was headed to an electricity- producing facility in Sandwich (Mirant Canal) that burns oil and natural gas to produce electricity for the Cape and the New England power grid. If you have traveled over the Sagamore Bridge, you may have noticed a power plant stack emitting a grey or yellow-brown plume of smoke. That plume consists not only of steam but also of the air pollutants mentioned above.

Water cooling used by conventional power plants damages underwater wildlife habitat. Mirant Canal is a water-cooled plant. It takes in cool fresh water from the Canal and releases it at much higher temperatures, which alters the habitat for fish and other sea life. Note that this plant is not operating illegally; it is generally compliant with permitted air pollution emissions limits and other permit restrictions. The Brayton Point (Fall River) and Salem Harbor power plants are also water-cooled, pulling water from Mount Hope Bay and Salem Harbor, respectively. Mount Hope Bay has been the scene of numerous significant fish kills as a result of water releases from the Brayton Point plant’s cooling structure that exceeded its permitted temperature limit. On hot summer days, when electricity demand peaks, the Brayton Point management struggles to provide enough electricity to meet the demands of the New England power grid, and the result is that the cooling water is discharged at dangerously hot temperatures.

The Brayton Point and Salem Harbor power plants burn coal in addition to oil and therefore produce not only the above-mentioned air pollutants but also mercury, leading to mercury pollution of water bodies in New England and Canada. Mercury contamination, in large part from coal-fired power plants in the midwestern and northeastern United States, has made most of the freshwater fish in New England unsafe for human consumption.

Air pollution kills people and damages their health and quality of life. Air pollution kills birds by impairing their health and damaging their breeding habitat. Tall buildings in cities and airplanes are responsible for their share of bird deaths. Water temperature changes and pollution kill fish and damage marine habitat. Nuclear power plants contribute their own potent brand of deadly contaminants to the air and to the waste stream. And power plants are not most people’s idea of pleasant scenery. The truth is that all human economic activity has detrimental consequences for the natural world.

If not now, when?

Like it or not, we are going to be seeing a lot more power generation units of one kind or another in New England, in the Northeast, and all over the globe. If we say we like wind power, but we don’t want it on the Cape, then we might be seeing a new fission unit at Pilgrim or Seabrook instead. If Cape Wind is halted or made financially infeasible by those who oppose it, we will be setting back offshore wind power development on the entire East Coast by at least several years.

We can’t just say that the power we need for an increasing number of uses must come from so far away that we don’t have to look at its source, or demand that it not have any environmental impact. If we don’t look at the big picture and realize that the decisions we make now will affect the quality of life for our children and grandchildren, we will be making a mistake that will be regretted for many years to come.

Why we need Cape Wind

In summary, we should support Cape Wind because

  • We need more reliable electricity in New England.
  • Cape Wind will produce a substantial amount of electricity with fewer environmental and health impacts than any other utility-scale electric-generation technology.
  • Development and operation of Cape Wind will advance the economic and technological feasibility of future wind energy projects.

If you have further questions about the Cape Wind project, look at the Web site athttp://www.capewind.org. If you would like to gain a broad view of energy production and demand in the United States and globally, I highly recommend reading The End of Oil by Paul Roberts.