Winds of Change
Entrepreneur Jim Gordon plans to harness the winds of Cape Cod and reshape our energy future.
By Corinne Steinbrenner
Inspired by the oil embargos of the mid-1970s, Jim Gordon (’75) founded Energy Management Inc. just days after his BU graduation, and he’s been focused on bringing energy conservation technology and clean power to New England ever since. Today, he’s the driving force behind Cape Wind, a controversial proposal to create America’s first offshore wind farm by placing 130 turbines in Nantucket Sound. After eight years of environmental reviews, public hearings, permit applications and lawsuits, Gordon expects to clear one final regulatory hurdle and begin construction this year.
Gordon recently spoke with COMtalk about Cape Wind and the future of renewable energy.
COMtalk: We all know the arguments for renewable energy (fossil fuels pollute the environment, and dependence on foreign oil is politically and economically dangerous). What are the specific arguments for wind energy, and particularly for offshore wind farms?
Jim Gordon: The Department of Energy and the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative have confirmed that there are 900,000 megawatts of offshore wind potential off the coasts of the United States. And the coastal states now consume approximately 78 percent of the electricity in the United States. So here we have this enormous offshore wind resource that produces zero pollutant emissions, isn’t controlled by foreign cartels, and can put local people to work in major sustainable economic developments, and you’re putting the offshore wind farms next to the big population centers—the largest electric load demand centers—and you’re doing it in a way that’s going to improve our health, improve our economy, improve our balance of trade and create jobs that are not exportable.
Why did you choose Nantucket Sound for your wind project?
Because Nantucket Sound represents one of the best offshore wind resources in the United States. We found a very shallow shoal, called Horseshoe Shoal, that is away from the ferry lanes, away from the major shipping channels, out of the air flight paths, has a low wave regime and is at a shallow depth so that most boaters avoid it. We spent a lot of time in Europe [where wind farms proliferate] looking at the site criteria for technically and economically feasible wind farms, and this site represented the best site in New England.
Are you at all concerned about environmental impacts of the Cape Wind project? Could the turbines pose a threat to birds, or could running cables on the ocean floor damage sensitive animal habitats there?
The greatest threat to birds and fish and wildlife is climate change. If we don’t start solving this global warming and climate change crisis, we’re going to lose important species. So the greatest threat is inaction. Wind turbines are not harmful to species. What’s harmful is the continued burning of coal and heavy oil that creates greenhouse gas emissions that are the precursor to climate change. This project is designed to produce a healthier environment for human beings and wildlife. Contrast that with the current power plant in Sandwich, Mass., which has the capacity to burn 300 million gallons of heavy oil, consumes millions of gallons of water annually and discharges thermal effluent into the water. The question isn’t Cape Wind or nothing. The question is Cape Wind or should we build a heavy oil power plant or a coal-fired power plant or a natural gas plant or a nuclear plant. Our electricity demand continues to increase. We’re going to have to build new electric capacity. We’re going to have to retire plants—some of the plants in New England are over 50 years old. So what are our choices?
I’ve read that wind energy can be difficult to integrate into the country’s electrical grid because the output from wind farms is so inconsistent (sometimes the wind blows, sometimes it doesn’t). Is that still a real concern?
It’s not so inconsistent. Wind power is intermittent, but the nice thing about offshore wind is you have stronger and more consistent winds. So probably over 86 percent of the time, we’re going to be producing electricity from the wind farm. We’re talking about, at peak output, producing over 400 megawatts of electricity—that would be enough to power about 400,000 homes, so this project has the potential to produce over 75 percent of the Cape and Islands’ electricity.
Offshore wind has been operating successfully in Europe for years. Wind farms are being built all over the world on land and at sea. The technology is proven. Of course, you have to walk before you run, so right now, offshore wind farms can operate in shallow water with low wave regimes. Eventually as the industry evolves, in the next 10 or 20 years, we’ll be able to move wind farms out into deeper waters. But right now, if you’re asking me what works and what’s technically and economically feasible, land-based wind farms and shallow-water wind farms can, today, provide significant benefits for the public.
Cape Wind is often touted as the country’s first offshore wind farm, but it’s been in development a long time. Are there other offshore projects under way that might beat you to being first?
We always said our hope was that Cape Wind would encourage other communities to look at their offshore wind resources, and that’s exactly what’s happening now. This has been a very high-profile project. It’s been written about. We’ve had film crews from Korea, Taiwan, the BBC. This project is being followed by a lot of people because it’s such an important project. It’s going to make a statement as to whether we are really serious about getting our energy house in order. What we have gone through by helping to evolve the regulatory framework has made it easier for other people to come after us, and that’s good. That’s a great thing. We’re proud of it. I believe that Cape Wind has a big head start, and we’re hoping that Cape Wind can help establish Massachusetts as a worldwide leader in offshore wind.
Are there other forms of renewable energy you find promising?
Absolutely. Solar, geothermal, biomass—these are the technologies we need to create policies around that are going to incentivize the industry to move away from fossil fuels. The fossil fuel industry for decades has received huge subsidies. The fact of life is that in the energy industry, in some form, there’s always been subsidies and incentives involved. The great thing about the Obama administration and the Patrick administration in Massachusetts is that they are trying to create the incentives to really catalyze these promising renewable energy technologies. And New England and Massachusetts certainly have solar and biomass potential as well as wind.
Do you have other renewable energy projects under way?
We have a biomass project in East Texas, and we plan to look at other offshore wind opportunities along the East Coast.
Cape Wind has not been an easy project, but it sounds as if you’re not deterred.
I’m not deterred, and one of the reasons is that I get so much encouragement from so many people I’ve met along the way, from all walks of life. They’ve been extremely encouraging in saying, ‘Don’t quit, this is really important, we understand what you’re doing and why we need this project.’ And that keeps us going forward.