Finally, a Political Tailwind for Offshore Wind Power

COM grad Jim Gordon’s plans for Nantucket Sound gather momentum

By Seth Rolbein

Jim Gordon believes that by 2012 he will build a wind farm in Nantucket Sound that will look much like one up and running off Nysted, Denmark. Photos courtesy Cape Wind

Jim Gordon believes that by 2012 he will build a wind farm in Nantucket Sound that will look much like one up and running off Nysted, Denmark. Photos courtesy Cape Wind

Sitting in his Arlington Street office, musing about seismic political shifts in Washington, Jim Gordon, whose 130-turbine wind farm in Nantucket Sound has been stalled by legal challenges, controversy, and red tape for eight years, does one thing he hasn’t done before: he refers to his opposition in the past tense.

“They’ve marginalized themselves,” says Gordon (COM’75), CEO of Cape Wind. “That, and the earth has shifted under their feet.

Gordon is talking about political turf as much as growing awareness that the best response to global warming will involve wind and solar energy. President Obama has given a broad endorsement of renewables as a cornerstone of his energy policy, and the administration’s new secretary of the interior, Ken Salazar, has zeroed in on Gordon’s project, announcing support for turbines atop the shallows of Horseshoe Shoal between Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard. Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, along with the bulk of state and federal regulators, also has signed on to the project that Gordon says will supply 75 percent of the electricity needed on the Cape and islands, with zero emissions, zero water consumption, zero waste discharge, and zero foreign energy. And reputable polling data suggest that more than 80 percent of the Massachusetts public now thinks building a mammoth wind farm in the Sound is a sound idea.

sailboat2_tGordon sees his project as having the potential to kick-start a whole new industry. “I believe that offshore wind could be the next biotech, the next medical tech,” he says. “We could become the world’s leader in this, too. This project alone, ready to go, will create hundreds of jobs in technological spin-offs, helping allied industries.”

There is still one political player, however, who is not aligned: Edward M. Kennedy, the state’s senior U.S. senator, elder statesman, and most powerful politician. Kennedy has provided political cover and credibility for a small but wealthy alliance, funded mainly by property owners on the Cape and islands, which has fought the wind farm in Congress, in court, and through the regulatory process. So while regulators are all but satisfied, there are still opportunities to change the fate of the project in Washington, and more court appeals could keep it stalled.

Kennedy maintains that his opposition to Gordon’s wind farm is based on his belief that Nantucket Sound, whose waters he has plied so often in his sailboat, should not be industrialized by a huge grid of interconnected turbines whirring atop massive poles speared deep into the ocean’s floor. But it’s true that on all but the foggiest days, Gordon’s wind farm would be visible from Kennedy’s beloved family compound in Hyannis, leaving him open to the charge of NIMBYism: that’s a fine idea and all, just not in my backyard.

Mention of Kennedy transforms the relaxed, genial Gordon into a guarded, careful interviewee: “I’m hoping now that Senator Kennedy has the benefit of all the environmental reviews, from 17 distinct agencies, showing that Cape Wind will produce significant benefits with minimal impacts,” Gordon says, “that he will become a supporter of this project. After all, he’s always expressed the need for energy independence and reversing climate change.”

Gordon knows full well that such a sea change is not likely. He also knows that Kennedy’s failing health renders the conflict more sensitive than ever. He acknowledges that even if all the permits come through within a few months, more legal challenges and political wrangling are likely. But for Gordon, backing down now, after building so much support and spending $40 million of his own money on everything from scientific studies to legal action to lobbying in Congress, is not an option.

“We’ve been up against some very powerful political forces all along,” he says with a shrug, “but I had faith. Really, it was the merits that kept coming to the fore.

“I want to produce electricity by 2012. I just feel at this point that we, as a nation, have wasted so many years.”

Seth Rolbein can be reached at srolbein@bu.edu.

This article first appeared in BU Today on March 27, 2009.

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