President Obama’s promised winds of change seem to be picking up: Today, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar approved the nation’s first offshore wind farm, to be built in Nantucket Sound, off the coast of Cape Cod. The farm, called Cape Wind, marks a major step forward in the country’s effort to meet the challenges of a rapidly warming climate, and will set a precedent for other offshore wind projects.
The process leading up to the decision, however, has hardly been a breeze. The project has been on the table for about nine years, exposed to numerous reviews, opposition, and lawsuits on several fronts, from environmental to cultural, from recreational to aesthetic. “There have been a variety of things that have added up to delay the project,” said Taber Allison, vice president for science, policy, and climate change at Mass Audubon, in a phone interview today, “so in some respects it’s not at all surprising that it was subject to such scrutiny.”
Initially, Mass Audubon shared concerns related to the farm’s impact on wildlife, and specifically its potential effects on roseate terns and wintering sea ducks, which make wide use of Nantucket Sound. But field research by Allison’s team led it to conclude that the risks posed by the farm to individual birds were low, especially compared with the threat of global warming-induced sea level rise on coastal nesting populations, such as roseate terns and piping plovers.
Of course, those still opposing the project might argue that Cape Wind—whose 130 turbines are projected to generate 468 megawatts of power (roughly the equivalent of a medium-sized coal-fired power plant), according to Greenwire—isn’t enough to curb rising seas that threaten coastlines. But, as Allison notes, the project, if anything, is symbolic. “It’s like that saying, 'even the longest journey begins with the first step,'” he said. Had the application been denied, he suspects “that would have had a major chilling effect on offshore wind development.”
From what Allison could ascertain from a debriefing session with Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, construction on Cape Wind probably won’t begin until next year. Obstacles including pending permits and opposition lawsuits could potentially delay the progress. For his part, however, Salazar seems confident that Massachusetts’s winds will be harnessed for clean energy, stating, as reported in the New York Times, “This is the final decision of the United States of America.”