02 May 2012

Waging the Battle to Build the U.S.’s First Offshore Wind Farm

After a decade seeking approval to build the U.S.’s first offshore wind farm, Cape Wind president Jim Gordon is on the verge of beginning construction. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he describes why his struggle has been good for clean energy — and why the fight is still not over.
By doug struck

Jim Gordon’s initial accomplishment in proposing a wind farm off the coast of Cape Cod was unintended: He managed to unite Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the liberal lion of the Senate, with William Koch, the conservative petroleum and coal magnate and GOP fundraiser. Both opposed Cape Wind, the plan to put 130 giant wind turbines six miles off land in Nantucket Sound.

Cape Wind President Jim Gordon
Courtesy of Cape Wind
Jim Gordon
Ten years later, Gordon is on the verge of starting construction on the nation’s first offshore wind farm. His plans have survived a regulatory gauntlet that included reviews by 17 government agencies, court challenges, and bitter public squabbles with opponents — funded in large part by Koch.

But just as he is poised to plant the first turbine, with blades reaching 440 feet above the water, the renewable energy industry has been shaken. The U.S. Congress has not renewed the chief tax incentive that has fueled development of wind power, and natural gas prices have plummeted, undercutting renewable prices.

But backed by a sympathetic governor and Massachusetts laws that require utilities to buy from renewable sources, Gordon says he is confident the logic of wind power will prevail. In an interview with Yale Environment 360 contributor Doug Struck, Gordon talked about his decade-long fight to build the U.S.’s first offshore wind farm, why he thinks renewable energy developers will survive a boom in cheap natural gas, and why Cape Wind’s long struggle will ultimately benefit the clean energy sector.

“It was painful, it was costly, it was frustrating,” Gordon said. “But you know something, if it makes it easier for others after me, I take some pride in that. And I take some hope in that because America needs renewable energy.”

Yale Environment 360: How did you come to develop America’s first offshore wind farm?

Jim Gordon: Well, when I graduated from Boston University, instead of heading to film school, I made kind of a fork in the road. I graduated during the Arab oil embargo [in the 1970s]. There were block-long gas lines to get your automobile filled. I felt that energy was going to be a challenge that would be facing not only my generation, but future generations. So I jumped into the energy business.

We built new state-of-the-art, combined-cycle electric generation plants, which were basically marrying a gas turbine to a heat recovery boiler in a steam turbine. And that allowed us to produce energy very efficiently, orders
The overwhelming majority of Massachusetts citizens... want the Cape Wind project built.”
of magnitude cleaner than the coal and heavy oil plants that made up most of the electric generation portfolio in New England. We did that for about 20 years.

And then in 2000, we took a step back. We felt that renewable energy was going to be the most important direction that we could take to further diversify New England’s energy generation portfolio and to produce clean, healthy electricity.

e360: But by picking offshore wind, you launched yourself into a 10-year fight that is not over yet. Is it worth it?

Gordon: I wouldn’t call it a fight, I would call it an epic battle. With every major energy or infrastructure project in New England you’re always going to have some opposition to it. People are resistant to change.

We were announcing a project that would produce over 75 percent of the Cape and islands’ electricity with zero pollutant emissions, zero water consumption and zero waste discharge — and most importantly harnessing an inexhaustible and abundant energy resource that’s ours, that’s not controlled by cartels overseas. We thought people would really be excited about it.

But we were surrounded by the wealthiest, most politically influential people in the United States, and a lot of them still are fighting this project. The overwhelming majority of Massachusetts citizens, according to independent public opinion polls throughout Massachusetts and on Cape Cod, want the Cape Wind project built.

e360: Why do you think it engendered a passionate opposition?

Gordon: This was bold. It was an ambitious project. It was certainly groundbreaking. And I think that people have a fear of the unknown and a resistance to change.

Over the last decade the project has gone through probably the most comprehensive and exhaustive environmental, socioeconomic review process of any energy project in the history of the United States, including nuclear
The results have shown the project is going to create significant public interest benefits at minimal impact.”
power plants and coal plants.

The results have shown the project is going to create significant public interest benefits at minimal impact. As these reports started to come out, you saw organizations like Greenpeace, Conservation Law Foundation, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Sierra Club, start to coalesce, and support the Cape Wind project, support a developer of an energy project. You had labor unions, health advocates, citizens-advocacy groups form and build a big coalition to support the project.

e360: Given that the opponents included Ted Kennedy and William Koch, the conservative billionaire and oil coal magnate, are you surprised you won?

Gordon: We haven’t won yet. Massachusetts won’t win until these are spinning, until we’re getting cleaner, healthier air, until we have created an emerging industry that I believe can stand next to biotechnology, medical technology, computer hardware and software engineering, information technologies, the great industries that have made Massachusetts a hotbed of innovation and prosperity.

e360: How much have you invested in this?

Gordon: Over $50 million.

e360: And most of that your own money?

Gordon: Uh, most of it is my own money, including the senior managers of Energy Management, our parent company that’s developing this project. We haven’t taken one outside dime.

e360: What will the total cost be?

Gordon: Of the project? That’s proprietary information.

e360: How much profit do you see in this?

Gordon: It’s very difficult to tell. I hope we’re profitable. I mean I want to show that it’s not just coal plants, and nuclear plants, and heavy oil-fired plants or even gas plants that can be profitable. We’re so far behind Europe
The Europeans have been operating offshore wind farms since 1991. America doesn’t have a single turbine in the water.”
and Asia in offshore wind. The Europeans have been operating offshore wind farms since 1991. America doesn’t have a single turbine in the water.

And part of it has been because the energy industry is extremely powerful in this country. They pay more money in lobbying and political contributions than any industry in the United States. And it’s a tough industry. And the incumbents, they fight for the status quo. We have enough offshore wind out there to power the whole United States.

e360: Wind power has been one of the fastest-growing new energy sources in the country. And yet, it is still just over 2 percent of our nation’s electricity supply. Do you foresee wind power ever being more then a niche in our U.S. energy scene?

Gordon: I do. And I can give you examples of other countries like Germany and Denmark. Denmark by 2030 will have 50 percent of their energy produced by wind. Germany by 2030 will probably have over 30 percent of their energy. Japan now, as a result of the Fukushima accident, they’re looking at offshore wind as a major future source.

I do believe that energy innovation and change takes a long, long time. It took us 50 years from going to hand-feeding coal in our basements to putting in oil-fired heating plants in our homes.

e360: What proportion of U.S. energy do you think wind can provide?

Gordon: The Department of Energy says by 2030, 20 percent of our energy can come from wind power and about 54 gigawatts of that would be offshore wind.

e360: Inherently, most people think wind power ought to be cheap, that the wind is free. And yet, the deals you struck with the utility companies will require them to pay 18.7 cents per kilowatt hour to start with, rising, perhaps, up to 31 cents per kilowatt hour. Currently, fossil fuels are at about 8 cents per kilowatt hour. What’s costing so much?

Cape Wind meteorological tower Nantucket Sound
Courtesy of Cape Wind
A meteorological tower collects wind data on Nantucket Sound, site of the proposed wind farm.
Gordon: In any of the beginning projects, if you look at other energy technologies like solar, the cost of solar panels have come down very dramatically — about 50 percent in the last five years. So the first offshore wind projects, there’s a lot of capital. We don’t have the infrastructure yet like they do in Europe. We don’t have the supply chain.

The more of these we build eventually will bring the cost down. But there’s something very important to remember: If you look at Cape Wind’s power, and you compare it against what you say is an 8-cent energy generation charge, you’re comparing that to the cost of fossil fuels. What you’re not calculating is a societal cost of burning coal, oil, and natural gas. I’m talking about the impact from climate change, I’m talking about military expenditures to defend the Persian Gulf supply lines, I’m talking about health impacts through the negative impacts of fossil fuel on our respiratory and cardiac [systems], on our health. Those things are not on your electric bill. They end up on your tax bill or your health care bill.

e360: Would the project be going ahead without the Massachusetts Renewable Portfolio Standard, which requires utility companies to get an increasing percentage of their power from renewables?

Gordon: No, and I don’t think low-income housing would be going forward, I don’t think historic [building] rehabilitation would go forward, I don’t think universities would be tax exempt. We have certain policy goals in this country. The majority of the public, in opinion poll after opinion poll, want more renewable energy, because they know it’s good for their health, they know it’s good for the economy, and they know it’s good for the environment.

e360: Congress is delaying renewal of the Wind Production Tax Credit. There are predictions that if the tax credit is not extended, the industry is going to be gutted, that new orders will drop by 75 percent. What would that do to Cape Wind?

Gordon: These are things we baked into the power contract to make sure that the project would go forward irrespective of how Congress acted.

Now, I do believe that the production tax credit, and maybe an investment tax credit for offshore wind, will be extended after the election. I really believe that, because, look, oil, coal and nuclear power have had subsidies for many, many decades. They still have lots of subsidies. For every dollar that renewable energy gets in an incentive, the fossil fuel and nuclear industry get $9.

We really need to understand a couple of things: That the energy business is subsidized in this country, in various ways. If you want to strip out all the subsidies and put everything on a level playing field, great. Do it. But you can’t have people screaming to keep the oil and gas subsidies for companies that are earning billions of dollars in profits for a single quarter, and complain that renewable energy gets 10 percent of the subsidy.

e360: Prices of natural gas have fallen to half of what they were three years ago. Does that undermine all renewables, and specifically, do you see in it any way stalling Cape Wind?

Gordon: It certainly gives people pause. And it certainly has interrupted the momentum that renewables were experiencing. So the question is: Are we going to put all our eggs in the natural gas basket when we’ve seen natural gas go up and skyrocket and then go down and skyrocket? These are cycles in the energy industry.

e360: In terms of technology, I lived in San Francisco, and I used to go over Altamont Pass where there’s rows and rows of wind turbines. I was often puzzled that so many of them were not spinning. And the explanation I got — right or wrong — is that they don’t work as well as we thought they would.

You’re going to be putting huge machines into the water, into an environment that can be hostile, that has known legendary storms. Do you ever — maybe before you go to sleep at night — think that you’re over-selling the technology and it’s not going to work as well as you think?

Gordon: The wind turbines that you’re referring to in the Altamont Pass were installed 30 years ago and many of them were manufactured by companies that are a distant memory, long extinct. They were made by
I just want to see some steel in the water, and if somebody else is first, God bless them.”
backyard garage shops, small agricultural companies that made tractors. Today you’re looking at companies like General Electric, Siemens, Alstom — major global power generation companies that have taken on this technology. And over the last 30 years, there’ve been tremendous strides in the reliability, in the cost effectiveness, in the output of these plants.

e360: In February, the federal government designated wind energy areas off Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, New Jersey. Do you think Cape Wind will make it easier and faster for other wind farms to be approved?

Gordon: Anything has to be faster then Cape Wind. I think we helped evolve the regulatory framework and it was painful, it was costly, it was frustrating. But you know something, if it makes it easier for others after me, I take some pride in that. And I take some hope in that, because America needs renewable energy.

e360: I’ve heard there are competitors in Texas and Virginia who say they might get a turbine into the water before you. How do you feel about that?

Gordon: I just want to see some steel in the water, and if somebody else is first, God bless them.


Green Energy’s Challenge:
The Task of Scaling Up

Green Energy’s Big Challenge: The Daunting Task of Scaling Up
To shift the global economy from fossil fuels to renewable energy will require the construction of wind, solar, nuclear, and other installations on a vast scale, David Biello writes. Can these new forms of energy approach the scale needed to meet the world’s energy demands?
I know that Cape Wind is going to be the first utility-scale project in federal waters and that will be a great sense of accomplishment and it will be a great victory for this region.

e360: You’ve already named an official eco-tour provider and anticipate a Cape Wind visitor center. Is your business plan modeled after more tourists than electrons?

Gordon: We had tourism directors from Denmark that hosted offshore wind farms for years saying that, “These are tourist attractions. We’re doing eco-tours. We have observation sites on land where people pay money to go up and rent binoculars and look at the wind farms.”

So I think Cape Wind is going to be one of the great eco-tourism attractions in the Northeast.


Doug Struck, who conducted this interview for Yale Environment 360, has been a foreign and national correspondent reporting from six continents and 50 states, a Harvard Nieman fellow and Pulitzer Prize finalist. At The Washington Post, he specialized in global warming issues in assignments ranging from the Northwest Passage and Greenland to melting glaciers on the Andes Mountains. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, Struck wrote about the environmental legacy of the Exxon Valdez spill and explored why most Americans do not feel an urgency to confront climate change.

SHARE: Tweet | Digg | | Reddit | Mixx | Facebook | Stumble Upon


Also see a briefing to Maryland legislators:

Posted by Noel Davis on 03 May 2012

"We haven’t taken one outside dime."

It is amazing how the greedy so easily wrap themselves in a fake cloak of altruism and righteousness when it lines their pockets at another persons expense.

Fossil fuels are at about 8 cents per kilowatt hour. The deals you struck with the utility companies will require them to pay up to 31 cents per kilowatt hour.

How is forcing consumers to pay 400 percent more for service good?

Posted by john on 03 May 2012

The Cape Cod project idea and the current wind farm design is already obsolete. There are better, more efficient, smaller and even offshore floating wind turbine designs (Germany is building them). The whole mega GE etc designs are similar to what we did with building power plants and dams — now we are closing them all over the world.

What will happen in 20 years when most of the wind trurbines' life spans will end? They will just stand there like the ones at Altamon Pass? EU is reporting on how inefficient the wind turbines are — and how monopoly and greediness is a trademark for alternative energies no different form oil, coal or gas. Why? Why cannot we invent and use 'in situ' energy production for each housing and infrastructure based on solar or wind? instead of transporting and digging the world. But who would than write the bill? Tesla discovered the best energy solution and it was for free. We should re-visit the past.

Posted by amina on 03 May 2012

Excellent interview with Jim Gordon.

The use of wind power in the United States has expanded quickly over the last several years. Construction of new wind power generation capacity in 2011 totaled 6810 megawatts (MW) bringing the cumulative installed capacity to 46,919 MW. This capacity is exceeded only by China. In 2011 the electricity produced from wind power in the U.S. amounted to 120 terawatt-hours (TW•h) or 2.9 percent of all electric power.

In spite of the higher costs and the uncertainties involved in offshore wind, research in this sector has been significant, and the main reason is the potential offered by offshore wind turbines, especially in lands close to water. At the end of 2011, there were 53 European offshore wind farms in waters off Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom, with an operating capacity of 3,813 MW,[ while 5,603 MW is under construction.

The United States has very large offshore wind energy resources due to strong, consistent winds off the long U.S. coastline. Offshore wind energy is a clean, domestic, renewable resource that can assist the U.S. in meeting energy, environmental, and economic challenges. A robust U.S. offshore wind industry could generate tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars of economic activity. Much of this activity would boost economically depressed ports and shipyards, which could be repurposed to manufacture and install offshore wind turbines.

In 2011, the NREL published a report, Large-Scale Offshore Wind Power in the United States, that analyzes the current state of the offshore wind energy industry. According to the report, "developing the offshore wind resource along U.S. coastlines and in the Great Lakes would help the nation":

•      Achieve 20 percent of its electricity from wind by 2030, as offshore wind could supply 54 gigawatts of wind capacity to the nation’s electrical grid, increasing energy security, reducing air and water pollution, and stimulating the domestic economy.
•      Provide clean power to its coastal demand centers, as wind power emits no carbon dioxide (CO2) and there are plentiful winds off the coasts of 26 states.
•      Revitalize its manufacturing sector, generating an "estimated $200 billion in new economic activity, and create more than 43,000 permanent, well-paid technical jobs in manufacturing, construction, engineering, operations and maintenance".

NREL’s report concludes that "the development of the nation’s offshore wind resources can provide many potential benefits, and with effective research, policies, and commitment, offshore wind energy can play a vital role in future U.S. energy markets"

Being the country which gave boost to wind power since 70s, it is hoped U.S. will advance in leaps and bounds in offshore wind farms as Americans believe in THINK BIG and being late entrants to offshore wind farms can correct the mistakes of earlier offshore wind farm developers in Europe.
Put the WIND(Offshore) to WORK: To get inexhaustible, pollution-free energy. Which cannot be misused.

Dr. A. Jagadeesh Nellore (AP), India

Posted by Dr.A.Jagadeesh on 03 May 2012

Big Wind is as oppressive as Big Oil. Taxpayer subsidies and forced high rates on consumers draw in the worst of commercial predators.

My small rural town in Northwestern Connecticut has been forced by a corrupt political statewide siting council to harbor the six tallest wind turbines in the country, at 530+ feet each. They are predicted to generate power less than 30 percent of the time because the winds are marginal even at that height, yet because the investors can't lose thanks to government entitlements, they build them anyway. And, after the developers promised us property taxes for their monstrosities, as soon as they got their approval (with no local approvals required), they asked the legislature for tax abatement.

Our town will be destroyed by these towers. It is a place of intact forests and wetlands, not a subdivision or traffic light around. Yet here comes industrial wind, much of it pushed by YFES and its alumni.

So much for social ecology and the sense of place that we were taught. Apparently, it's all smoke and mirrors.

Posted by Farfel on 03 May 2012

Dr. A .Jagadeesh

Looking for a fat consulting contract? I'll be thinking of you when my electric bill doubles or triples.

Posted by john on 04 May 2012

It would be great if this author could now interview Audra Parker, Graduate of MIT and Brown, and CEO of Save our Sound.

That way you will produce the accurate update on several facts left out of this interview.

1. The FAA was just overuled in Federal Court and the FAA approval was revoked. This is due to the fact that this project is proposed in the middle of 3 airports with over 400,000 flights a year through that airspace and will cause major radar interference.
2. There are several more Federal Lawsuits that have not come before the courts yet.
3. The Wampanoag Tribes are filing a Federal lawsuit because of the ancient sacred burial grounds that this project would be built on.
4. There is nothing clean about a 43,000 gallon ,10 story transformer filled with transformer oil being put in the middle of our rich fishing grounds just off our pristine beaches.
5. This project will never be built, the true cost are being exposed everyday as these electric contracts become public.
5. This project has been politics over science from the start. Around here on the Cape and Islands we call it a sad example of "The dirty politics of clean power"
The local Town, Airports, Tribes and Fisherman have all spent thier hard earned money, over 20,000,000 just to try to save what we have. This is a battle of profit vs. passion. This project does not belong in this historic setting.

Even the National Historic department for the Federal government has voted against this project.

Please do Yale some justice and give equal time to Ms. Parker at Save our Sound. Here is her email:

Posted by Cape Codder on 05 May 2012

Cape Wind cost is prohibitive if all goes well.

This project triples current energy cost to make the source less reliable, and requires public subsidies of 60 percent or more.

How can one argue in favor of Cape Wind that is 130, Siemen's 3.6 MW wind turbines, "sinking," "shifting," and "corroding," offshore UK where installed along with the entire offshore wind industry using monopiles and gearboxes, and triple the price AFTER public subsidies?

Cape Wind was earlier spec'd as GE 3.6 Wind turbines that GE "discontinued" as the "Project Action" and scope of 17 reviewing entities nvolved in the project's permitting and DEIS 4,000 pages.

Without tax credits, there will be no Cape Wind.

Cape Wind could not have selected a more conflicted location than Nantucket Sound with a multitude of high values that the industrial project threatens, from federally protected migratory and endangered birds, to the North Altantic Right Whale, to ancient tribal burial ground and Tribal Cultural Property, rights to a fishery, commercial and recreational use by the public, an Essential Fish Habitat, squid spawning ground. Aside is the lure of the internationally recognized tourist destination location, with National Historic District and NHL's, that the Cape Wind industrial scale wind facility threatens according to a vast community of historic preservationists.

As a Cape and islands' tourist, I consider that Cape Wind would destroy what appeals to me about this region, day and evening — with it's Manhattan Island-scale 425' turbines with flashing red lights at night, and its blight of the ocean views from Cape Cod's beaches.

Dukes County fishermen/women, and the federally recognized Wampanoag of Gay Head (Aquinnah), and the many others involved in legal disputes with Cape Wind and regulators, I trust will prevail in Court.

Cape Wind is Pandora's Box best left unopened. Jim Gordon is a well spoken and clever salesman, with a well rehearsed Big Wind script and admirable temerity, and a risk taker.

The opposition will prevail and Cape Wind casualties will be avoided by the final battle that determines the outcome of the ten year Cape Wind war in federal court.

Cost is important, but the biggest flaw with Cape Wind that has received the least attention is its threat to public safety.

Posted by Barbara Durkin on 09 May 2012

Some posters are misrepresenting the conclusions of this article. The coal power claimed to be $0.08 kwh, is known to cost double in health and environmental damages. This is compared to the actual starting price of $0.18 kwh. One cannot compare the present cost of coal with the 20 years later cost that the contract may eventually reach. Clean power has no health or environmental damages other than a temporary disruption of the local sea floor during base construction. There is very little leakage of machine oils from turbines, in fact I have not heard a single instance of oil leakage being a problem with turbines on land. There is no reason why fishing activities cannot continue around turbines, as the clearance from water is more than sufficient for most ships. Bases of turbines have shown to be used by sea life as an artificial reef. There is a few floating turbine projects in operation, and these will likely be refined, allowing only multiple anchors to be used instead of fixed bases. This is no greater impact than a ship at anchor. However, the Cape Wind product will use fixed bases, with firm attachment to stable bedrock, so there is no reason to assume they will sink or tilt. Obviously corrosion resistance is engineered into the design.

Claims of "eye sore" are ridiculous when turbines are 5 miles away form the beach. At the most calm and clear days they appear 1/2 inch high on the horizon, obscured by the slightest waves. One can look at pictures of a field of turbines elsewhere and see that they disappear into the haze in a mile or two.

Those vested in the captive utility markets see wind energy as competition for their schemes, and that is why there is a lot of noise in the press and on comment threads.

Posted by aligatorhardt on 21 Aug 2012



Obama’s Environmental Legacy: How Much Can Trump Undo?
Few groups were as shocked and chagrined by Donald Trump’s victory as the environmental community. Yale Environment 360 asked environmentalists, academics, and pro-business representatives just how far Trump might roll back President Obama’s environmental initiatives.

What a Trump Win Means For the Global Climate Fight
Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency signals an end to American leadership on international climate policy. With the withdrawal of U.S. support, efforts to implement the Paris agreement and avoid the most devastating consequences of global warming have suffered a huge blow.

On College Campuses, Signs of Progress on Renewable Energy
U.S. colleges and universities are increasingly deploying solar arrays and other forms of renewable energy. Yet most institutions have a long way to go if they are to meet their goal of being carbon neutral in the coming decades.

For European Wind Industry, Offshore Projects Are Booming
As Europe’s wind energy production rises dramatically, offshore turbines are proliferating from the Irish Sea to the Baltic Sea. It’s all part of the European Union’s strong push away from fossil fuels and toward renewables.

In Fukushima, A Bitter Legacy Of Radiation, Trauma and Fear
Five years after the nuclear power plant meltdown, a journey through the Fukushima evacuation zone reveals some high levels of radiation and an overriding sense of fear. For many, the psychological damage is far more profound than the health effects.


Donate to Yale Environment 360