Questions for Dawn King

Why isn’t wind energy an obvious win-win?

January 25, 2013  |  Media Contact: Kevin Stacey |  401-863-3766
Cape Spin! An American Power Struggle, a documentary film about the controversial Cape Wind energy project to be built off Nantucket Sound, will premier tonight at the Cable Car Cinema on South Main Street in Providence, followed by a panel discussion with Robert Whitcomb, editorial page editor of the Providence Journal; Jim Gordon, Cape Wind developer; and M. Dawn King, visiting assistant professor at the Center for Environmental Studies. King talked with science writer Kevin Stacey about the project, the controversy and the film.

M. Dawn King“The United States needs to harness renewable energy to compete economically and combat climate change ... but we simply do not have stable policies.”M. Dawn King
“The United States needs to harness renewable energy to compete economically and combat climate change ... but we simply do not have stable policies.”
Could you provide some background on the Cape Wind project?

This project has been in the works for over a decade now, and, if completed, it will be the first offshore wind energy project in the United States. This could be a small step in the new chapter of U.S. energy and energy investment. Wind energy is renewable, doesn’t emit air pollutants (at least after the construction of the turbines), and doesn’t require massive amounts of water for cooling, as is the case with many fossil fuel power plants. It is the brainchild of Energy Management Inc., a traditionally fossil fuel energy company that wanted to expand into renewables. If completed, Energy Management claims it can provide close to 75 percent of energy needs for Nantucket, Cape Cod, and Martha’s Vineyard combined. Coastal New England has plenty of wind, and their site location off of Cape Cod sits on a sand bar, making the project cost-effective. Before the ink could dry on the proposal, an alliance to stop the project formed (The Alliance to Save Nantucket Sound or Save our Sound). So began a decade of political fighting. Since the transmission lines and other project infrastructure needed local and state approval, all granted by 2009, and the offshore turbines (farther than three miles from land) needed federal leasing approval, granted in 2010, there were more than enough opportunities for these two sides to clash.

Why is it so controversial?

First, many wind projects face opposition because they are “ugly.” This is especially true with offshore projects because people living near the shore almost always pay top dollar for the view. Second, the cost-effective location also happens to be four to ten miles away from some of the wealthiest families in the nation. The opposition tried many strategies to derail the project, including environmental arguments — like turbines and transmission lines hurting sea life migration patterns and discussing the project as an industrial plant disguised as a green solution. However, most scientific studies and environmental impact statements proved there would be very little damage to the local ecosystem. I think the film does a great job at focusing on both sides of the argument, and as much as the opposition claimed it was not a NIMBY (not in my backyard) issue, it is a NIMBY issue in my opinion. Time and time again, you hear the opposition say they support wind power — just not off of Cape Cod. That being said, I think their best argument against the project was pointing out the Cape’s historical significance as a beautiful coastal area, as opposed to complaining about their personal views or property values.

The politics around the project made for some strange bedfellows. Who were/are some of the players on both sides?

I think the ones that stand out are Ted Kennedy and Bill Koch. Koch made his billions in fossil fuels, so that is no surprise, but Ted Kennedy has advocated for renewable energy for years (John Kerry and Mitt Romney also opposed the project). Kennedy made many of the claims mentioned above — right idea, wrong location.

What does the controversy around Cape Wind tell us about environmental politics in general?

I think this is an important question. With any development project, there will be opponents and proponents, but renewable energy projects can often pit environmentalists against environmentalists. There is a similar problem with a solar project in the Mojave. Los Angeles needs renewable power, the desert has plenty of sun. Problem solved, right? However, the size of the project, paired with transmission lines that can cost up to $1 million per mile, are right in the path of the threatened desert tortoise. This project has also been in flux for close to a decade now. The losing side in these development projects will almost certainly appeal the decision in court. That could take additional years. Perhaps like our national politics in general right now, there just doesn’t seem to be room for rational compromise. It is unquestionable that the United States needs to harness renewable energy to compete economically and combat climate change in the coming decades, but we simply do not have stable policies to make sure this happens.

How well did the film capture all of this?

I think the film did a great job at capturing this, and they really tried to give equal airtime to both sides of the conflict.

What’s the state of the project now? Will it go forward?

The project is approved at all levels of government and construction is supposed to start this year. That being said, I’m sure the case will be in front of a court, or multiple courts, before the project proceeds. My personal opinion is that it will proceed, but perhaps not as soon as Energy Management claims.

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