BOSTON – If you’ve followed the races for governor and the 10th congressional district, you probably noticed that Cape Wind isn’t just an issue for people who live near Nantucket Sound.
It’s not as if politicians ignored the 130-turbine project in the past. In 2006, Gov. Deval Patrick rode into office as an environmental champion. He easily bested then-attorney general Tom Reilly, a fierce Cape Wind critic, in the Democratic primary. At the time, Patrick pledged to help ensure that the country’s first offshore wind farm comes to fruition.
But Cape Wind is shaping up to be a much more important political issue in 2010. Patrick, who is running for reelection, had to beat back attacks on his support during the candidates’ debate on Monday. Cape Wind is equally unpopular in this year’s congressional race to replace Rep. Bill Delahunt, a Cape Wind critic whose district includes the Cape: Norfolk County DA Bill Keating is the only candidate in that race who supports the project.
Cape Wind has always had opponents, but it’s never been this rough. The debate has shifted lately from a focus on rich people, protecting their multimillion dollar views. The escalating expense and what it means for consumers’ electric bills make it a much easier political target today.
It’s hard to say how much power one politician can have over the project. But Cape Wind still isn’t a done deal, despite nine years of permitting. Developer Cape Wind Associates still needs an Army Corps of Engineers permit. And in Boston, Cape Wind awaits an approval from the state Department of Public Utilities for a 15-year contract to sell half of the power to National Grid. That contract will play a crucial role in Cape Wind’s hunt for investors.
But the contract also incited Associated Industries of Massachusetts to campaign fiercely against Cape Wind. AIM says National Grid wants to charge customers roughly double today’s rates for Cape Wind’s power.
The contract came up repeatedly in Monday’s gubernatorial debate. Republican Charlie Baker and independent Tim Cahill took Patrick to task for the project’s newfound costs and the fact Cape Wind didn’t need to bid against other developers. Even Green-Rainbow candidate Jill Stein, the only one of the four who owns a hybrid car, chastised Patrick for Cape Wind’s potential impact on ratepayers.
In the Democratic primary for the 10th district, Keating’s support of Cape Wind represents an intriguing turnabout. Originally opposed, Keating says he changed his mind last month after researching the issue more thoroughly – and watching the BP oil spill wreak havoc in the Gulf of Mexico. He says getting the U.S. less dependent on oil will help its national security and the environment, and ensure that we don’t cede leadership in the renewable energy industry to Europe or China. It may take a long time to wean our country off oil, but Keating believes we have to start doing more right now.
Keating’s opponent, state Sen. Rob O’Leary, has taken great pains to build his environmental credentials while on Beacon Hill. But he has been concerned about Cape Wind since it was proposed. The Cape Cod resident says he’s frustrated about the lack of competitive bidding and the fact there are cheaper renewable energy options in the Northeast. He says he realizes consumers should pay a premium for renewable energy’s benefits, but state and federal officials need to pursue less expensive alternatives to Cape Wind.
Both sides raise legitimate points. As an economic engine, Cape Wind will be helpful, but not a gold mine. There would be a few hundred temporary construction jobs, and then about 50 permanent positions to run the plant. The turbines and blades, unfortunately, would be manufactured in Europe.
It’s troubling that we no longer can get a straight answer about the project’s total cost, which would definitely exceed $1 billion and possibly pass $2 billion. A spokesman for Cape Wind says the developer doesn’t want to disclose the total price tag because it could hurt efforts to get a competitive price in the bidding process for a general contractor.
Will Cape Wind cause electric prices to go up? Almost definitely. But homeowners on National Grid’s system would pay only an extra $1.25 to $1.50 a month – and that’s based on today’s fossil-fuel prices. If the cost of oil goes through the roof five years from now, the relatively small Cape Wind portion of the bill won’t seem so bad by comparison.
There’s definitely a price to be paid for building a wind farm. But there’s also a price to be paid for maintaining our current dependence on oil and natural gas shipped in from overseas locations. The politicians have spoken about their priorities in this debate. Voters will soon get the opportunity to have their say.
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