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Offshore wind farm near Cape Cod, first in U.S., gets federal approval

By Juliet Eilperin
Thursday, April 29, 2010; A06

Ending a nearly decade-long political battle over installing wind turbines in the waters just off Cape Cod, the federal government approved the first offshore wind farm in the United States on Wednesday, a move that could pave the way for significant offshore wind development elsewhere in the nation.

In approving the Cape Wind project, a group of 130 modern windmills in Nantucket Sound that would start generating electricity by the end of 2012, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said he would "strike the right balance" between energy development and protecting the area. Some opponents of the project said it would endanger the habitat for seabirds; others decried the visual impact of the turbines, as close as five miles from shore.

Cape Wind President Jim Gordon said the "tragedy" of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico underscores the problems with traditional energy development.

"It gives the nation pause to reflect on, really, what are our energy choices, and how are we going to live with them?" Gordon told reporters. "Every energy project has some impact. This was never about a choice between Cape Wind or nothing."

Massachusetts Gov. Deval L. Patrick (D), who pushed for the wind project as part of his plan to generate 20 percent of the state's electricity with renewable energy sources by 2020, stood by Salazar's side at a Boston news conference. "We are on our way, and if we get clean energy right, the whole world will be our customers," Patrick said.

There are at least 11 other U.S. offshore wind projects in development, off Delaware, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island and Texas. NRG Energy Executive Vice President Drew Murphy -- whose company is developing wind farms off Delaware and New Jersey, and is eyeing sites in Maryland, Virginia, Ohio, Michigan and New York -- said the approval "gives everyone more certainty that the permitting process has an end point that has a positive outcome."

Massachusetts Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Ian Bowles said the decision was essential if the United States wants to catch up with Europe and China, which have offshore wind power. Three years ago, Bowles said, Patrick visited China, and officials there asked him about the technology; now China is generating 100 megawatts of offshore wind power.

Cape Wind eventually will produce 468 megawatts of electricity, an amount that could power about 150,000 homes. "We're just getting started," Bowles sad.

A battered industry

The decision drew plaudits from renewable energy suppliers, whose industry has been hurt by the recession and by uncertainty about the passage of climate and energy legislation in the Senate.

Vestas Wind Systems, the world's largest maker of wind turbines, said Wednesday that it lost $108 million in the first quarter of 2010 as shipments of turbines tumbled 64 percent. The company's revenue fell 32 percent as it suffered the consequences of the global credit crisis, which made it harder for firms to finance new purchases last year. Orders for new shipments fell by half in 2009 from the year before, Vestas said. The company said that orders are picking up.

Cape Wind remains hugely controversial, and a coalition of opponents announced Wednesday that it will challenge the decision in court. Salazar said he is "confident" that the decision, which has been scrutinized by 17 state and federal agencies, will be upheld.

"We will not stand by and allow our treasured public lands to be marred forever by a corporate giveaway to private industrial energy developers," said Audra Parker, president of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound.

Michael Fry, conservation advocacy director for the American Bird Conservancy, said that the project could "reduce prime offshore sea-duck foraging habitat" and that data suggest "that loons will likely abandon the area for years to come, and there may be significant impacts to endangered roseate terns, which breed in nearby Buzzards Bay and feed in Nantucket Sound."

A long controversy

Announced in 2001 by its developer, Energy Management, the proposal for the 25-square-mile wind farm split the Democratic Party. The late senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), whose family compound overlooks the sound, fought it, with criticism of its aesthetics and its effects on fishing and boating, while some local residents and state power brokers described it as essential to weaning the nation off oil and other polluting energy sources.

Tom King, executive director of National Grid, which is negotiating to buy all the electricity generated by Cape Wind, said the decision will serve as "a great catalyst to wrap up those discussions" and will allow his company to meet the state's renewable energy requirements.

Salazar imposed some restrictions on the wind farm, including cutting the number of turbines from 170 to 130, and requiring that the developer reposition some turbines paint them off-white to limit their visual impact.

The federal government will continue negotiating with two local tribes over the project's impact on the sound. The tribes have gotten the sound qualified for listing on the National Register of Historic Places because of its cultural significance.

"No amount of mitigation will change the fact that this is a site of great historical and cultural significance for our tribe, and is inappropriate for this project," Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Chairman Cedric Cromwell said in a statement.

Staff writer Steven Mufson contributed to this report.

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