Energy Zone Raises Doubts
Feasibility of Proposed Area Close to Tuckernuck May Be Years Away; Need Grows for Clean Energy
By IAN FEIN
Selectmen across the Island this spring hailed a proposal to designate an area southeast of Chappaquiddick as a renewable energy zone, where they would promote offshore projects to supply the Vineyard and Nantucket with clean electric power.
Given the lure of federal funding, the concept was openly embraced by town officials and other groups who are opposed to the offshore wind farm proposed in Nantucket Sound. They presented the publicly sited area as a better alternative to the Cape Wind project, which a private developer has proposed on Horseshoe Shoal in Nantucket Sound.
But more than two months after extolling the idea, town officials acknowledged this week that they know virtually nothing about the details of the proposed zone.
At present, the zone exists only as a mention in a few letters sent to various federal officials. No funds have been secured, no legislation has been filed, nor have any new studies been conducted to determine whether potential projects south of Tuckernuck island are as yet economically feasible.
A number of regional energy officials said this week that any viable offshore project in that area would likely be years away, perhaps even a decade or more.
Facing severe electricity shortages in the region, and a dire need to move away from fossil-fuel burning sources, Vineyard energy advocates this week called the renewable energy zone an admirable goal for the future.
But they also warned against approaching the idea as a viable alternative to Cape Wind, which is more than five years into permitting and would use proven technology already in wide use throughout Europe.
Earlier this week, Cape Wind officials released data this week suggesting that their wind turbine project would offset almost 900,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year. Had the project been up and running, Cape Wind officials said, it would have produced more than 400 megawatts of power per hour on June 27 – one of the top 10 days for electricity demand in the history of New England.
"There's a reality check that needs to be made here. People have to level with themselves," said Peter Cabana, a member of the Martha's Vineyard Commission and the Tisbury representative to the Cape Light Compact.
"You can talk about what you want to do 10 or 20 years from now, but in the meantime we need to start using the clean fuel that's already available to us," Mr. Cabana said. "When you face the reality that low-cost, carbon-free electricity can be produced at Horseshoe Shoals, how can you keep that off the table? How is it you can keep saying ‘No, not there'?"
The comments underscore a philosophical debate that has beset the Cape Wind project since it was unveiled nearly six years ago as the nation's first proposed offshore wind farm: Should the country first establish a comprehensive plan for how to manage its oceans? Or, in the absence of such a framework, should the country let private enterprise pursue alternative energy projects on the water?
The stakes have escalated in the proceeding years, as more developers have come forward with new technologies and proposals, while state and federal lawmakers have dragged their feet in addressing the issue. Meanwhile, the Vineyard finds itself quite literally in the middle of the debate - surrounded on three sides by offshore renewable energy proposals, including Cape Wind and two tidal power projects.
At this point, virtually everyone agrees that the United States must quickly begin to harness the vast potential of offshore renewable energy sources, and that the nation has lagged far behind its European counterparts in preparing for and embracing such technologies. But as of today, no wind turbines yet stand in American waters.
So the question then becomes: How does the country best achieve that goal?
"Unless we designate which parts of our oceans ought to be utilized in an appropriate manner, it simply feeds the gold-rush mentality," said Mark Forest, chief of staff to Cong. William Delahunt, whose legislative district encompasses the Cape and Islands.
An early and vocal supporter of offshore zoning, Congressman Delahunt has opposed the Nantucket Sound wind farm proposal as an inappropriate site.
"Massachusetts ought to be a home for ocean development, but we have to have the building blocks in place first," Mr. Forest said. "And in the six or seven years we've been debating the whole concept of ocean zoning, others in Europe have done it."
A Cape Wind spokesman countered that the United States cannot hold up the private sector while public officials struggle to straighten out their differences. He noted that multiple efforts to adopt comprehensive ocean zoning on the federal and state levels have faltered thus far.
"Just as America is getting ready to take its first steps in this arena, I think it would be a mistake to decide to wait until some sort of master plan for the oceans is developed - because that could take decades," said Mark Rodgers, communications director for Cape Wind.
He also said that the ongoing regulatory process already in place will ensure that public agencies on both the state and federal levels find that the benefits of Cape Wind outweigh any negative impacts.
"They're going to have to find that the project on balance is in the public interest, that the site is appropriate, and that the project is not dangerous for navigation. We will have to pass all those tests," Mr. Rodgers said. "It's a higher bar than any fossil fuel plant in Massachusetts has ever had to pass. And if we want to encourage more forms of renewable energy, how much higher are we going to set that bar?"
Greg Watson, vice present of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative and a senior advisor to Massachusetts Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Ian Bowles, said yesterday that the nation clearly must develop a thoughtful framework for reviewing offshore wind energy development. But at the same time, any pending projects must be looked at in the context of global climate change. Secretary Bowles this spring said that building the Cape Wind project would be equivalent to taking 175,000 cars off the road.
"In terms of offshore renewables, we are talking about using a resource that is a public trust. But we're also talking about developing projects that would address our greatest threat," Mr. Watson said. "Given the severity and gravity of the climate change problem, we need to be doing everything we can, and we need to be doing it as soon as possible."
Energy officials say a key flaw in the south-of-Tuckernuck proposal is that potential wind projects there may not be economically feasible at any time in the near future.
The ocean depths are far greater than the shallow waters of Nantucket Sound, and so-called deep water turbines face longer transmission cables, higher wave heights, larger capital costs and more difficult maintenance challenges than near-shore projects like Cape Wind.
While deep-water projects are the subject of much research and investment, and will almost certainly play a role in future development because winds are stronger further offshore, the technology is still five to 10 years away from being commercially viable, Mr. Watson said.
Town officials on the Vineyard and Nantucket this week acknowledged that a primary reason for their preference of the south of Tuckernuck site is that it would be farther away from homeowners and recreational boaters than the Cape Wind proposal in Nantucket Sound. Edgartown selectman Arthur Smadbeck and Oak Bluffs selectman Kerry Scott, who both support the Tuckernuck idea but oppose Cape Wind, also acknowledged that they had done no further work at the local level to actually pursue the offshore zone.
"There are appropriate places to put things, and places not to put things," said Mr. Smadbeck, who championed the offshore energy zone on the Vineyard. "Nantucket Sound is a place where people do a lot of recreation. People fish, they sail, they boat."
The Tuckernuck zone originated at the Nantucket planning and economic development commission. Nantucket officials then got in touch with Mr. Forest, who quickly embraced the idea and introduced it to Vineyard officials at an invitation-only meeting held at the Martha's Vineyard Commission this April.
At that meeting, Mr. Smadbeck saw the proposal for the first time and lent his strong support to the zone. Later that day, the Edgartown selectmen formally endorsed the idea.
But other Vineyard energy advocates who attended the invitation-only meeting were less enthusiastic.
John Abrams of West Tisbury, who has long been a supporter of wind turbines on the Vineyard, said that to his knowledge neither Congressman Delahunt nor Mr. Forest had every visited the Island before to speak in favor of a wind project.
Because only one selectman was invited from each town, the gathering avoided requirements of the Massachusetts open meeting law. The meeting was not posted or publicized in any fashion.
"I don't think they wanted the public to know what they were doing," said Mr. Cabana, a retired civil engineer who spent his career in the energy industry.
Mr. Cabana said he asked Mr. Forest at that meeting why the site near Tuckernuck was preferable to Horseshoe Shoal for offshore renewable energy development. He was told his question was inappropriate.
The following week, Mr. Cabana wrote in an e-mail to Mr. Forest: "For clarification, I would like to ask again what advantage does the area south of Tuckernuck island have over Horseshoe Shoals for generating electricity?"
In a reply, Mr. Forest said he would "be back in touch" about the question. Mr. Cabana said he never received a further response.
Mr. Forest this week said Congressman Delahunt is pursuing the Tuckernuck zone as an initiative completely separate from the Cape Wind debate. He said the congressman is waiting to hear back on the idea from the Minerals Management Service, an agency within the U.S. Department of Interior that has lead authority over renewable energy projects in federal waters.
A spokesman for the Minerals Management Service said yesterday that the agency does not see the creation of such a zone as fitting with its mandate, and that the service was not giving any additional weight to Congressman Delahunt's proposal than to any of the other thousands of comments it received regarding the development of offshore renewable energy policies.
For his part, Mr. Rodgers maintains that Horseshoe Shoal is the most viable site for an offshore wind farm in the region. He noted that the Minerals Management Service will soon release a comprehensive alternative site analysis with its larger Cape Wind environmental report, perhaps as early as next month.
"We won't know until we see it, but we believe that kind of analysis will validate what we've been saying about this for several years now. We think it's going to raise real questions about south of Tuckernuck, especially for offshore wind at any time in the near future," Mr. Rodgers said.
"Eventually the technology will advance, the economics will improve, and many more sites like that will become viable," he said. "That will be an exciting day, but we think that's 10 to 20 years from now."
"Rather than wait for that, we can make substantial progress now by building America's first offshore wind farm here in the waters of Nantucket Sound, and provide the Cape and Islands with three-quarters of its electric supply," he said. "And by giving people that experience, we feel that will help the deep-water day come sooner."