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Cape Wind and the Clean Energy Economy



Nicolas Loris
The Foundry, The Heritage Foundation
April 28, 2010

The government is announcing its approval of the nation’s first off-shore wind farm today after a contentious, nearly decade long debate including many interested parties. Millions have been spent on lobbying both to move the project forward and stop it in its tracks. This is nothing new to energy projects. Coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear and renewables each have supporters and naysayers. Overregulation and special-interest politicking are two problems that are unlikely to disappear any time soon, but given the small percentage of energy that renewables provide and the ambitious goals our government has, this will likely be taken to a whole new level.

The Cape Wind off-shore wind farm would be the first in the United States and is in its 9th year of federal review. The 130-turbine project that would spread across 25 square miles received support and opposition from environmentalists – some arguing we need more clean energy production, others arguing that it will harm the marine’s ecosystem. The late Senator Ted Kennedy long argued the aesthetic beauty of the Nantucket Sound would be ruined and tourism would suffer as a result. Indian tribes argue it will destroy sacred land.

The Institute for Energy Research provides more details: “Overall, the project is estimated to have a maximum delivered capacity of 454 megawatts based on a design wind velocity of 30 miles per hour and greater to a maximum operational velocity of 55 miles per hour. Based on the average wind speed of the Nantucket Sound of 19.75 miles per hour, however, the average generation capacity of the Cape Wind project would be approximately 182.6 megawatts. At this capacity, the Cape Wind project would annually deliver about 1,600 gigawatt-hours of energy.”

Let’s set aside the $2 billion cost of the project and the federal subsidies Cape Wind receives and focus on the problems that will occur as we attempt to replace fossil fuel-based energy with renewables – both on-shore and off-shore. To replace one offshore natural gas platform we would need 59 Cape Wind projects, which means more than 7,700 turbines covering an area the size of Rhode Island. We would need 24 of these projects to replace one of the 104 nuclear plants we have in the United States.

This certainly isn’t unique to wind and clear doesn’t follow party line dissent. Just last December California Senator Diane Feinstein introduced legislation to block a large scale solar and wind project in the Mojave Desert. The NIMBY crowd is everywhere contesting everything, which makes for an exceptionally long time for energy projects to come online.

If wind or solar can compete absent subsidies, mandates or tax credits, then Americans will benefit from a more robust, competitive energy market. Years of subsidies and tax credits haven’t helped wind and solar projects compete with more reliable sources of energy. Solar power supplies less than one percent of the country’s electricity demand; wind does slightly better. That’s not necessarily a red flag to stop building more, but it is indicative of how far we have to go and how costly (in terms of pricier electricity and competing special interests) and contentious it would be to transform to our government’s vision of a clean energy economy. When you add in the necessary transmission lines to transfer the power from where it is generated to where it is needed, it becomes all that more costly and contentious.

The process could smoothen out as more projects come online but reform that calls for a quicker, efficient review process for all energy projects would be a welcoming step, as would peeling back the subsidies to determine whether these projects can stand on their own two feet.

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