September 11, 2010

Cape Wind proposal faces a renewed political storm

By EVAN LEHMANN AND CHRISTA MARSHALL of ClimateWire, The New York Times, 10 September 2010

Political candidates in Massachusetts are attacking Cape Wind, making the nation’s first federally approved offshore wind project a target of liberals and conservatives seeking seats in Congress and the governor’s office.

Complaints are centered on the cost of power to be produced by the 130 turbines planned for construction 5 miles off the sandy shores of Cape Cod. It is an argument echoed in elections around the country that warn voters of climate policies that might raise the cost of energy.

But it’s different in Massachusetts. And it’s in the numbers. Every challenger – except one – opposes the shoal-based wind project in the race for governor and the state’s 10th Congressional District, an open seat in coastal Kennedy country, where the 400-foot turbines would be seen from shorelines and boat decks.

“All people want to talk about is Cape Wind,” said state Sen. Robert O’Leary, a Democrat seeking the House seat. “It’s a very, very high-priced project. We need to do the most … cost-effective, the best ones first. Cape Wind got in early, and it’s now turning out to be much more costly.”

The wind plan has always been controversial on the curving cape, where Democrats like late Sen. Edward Kennedy and Rep. William Delahunt, who is resigning from Congress, have fought the project. Now, with Republicans maneuvering to seize the House seat and gain a rare foothold in New England, the divided allegiances to clean energy and cheap power are magnified. It’s a pocketbook issue; the eyesore argument is on the back burner.

O’Leary is facing Norfolk District Attorney William Keating in the Democratic primary next Tuesday. Keating is the only candidate in the race to support the wind project. Even he, however, was against it until this year.

His new position appears to separate him from O’Leary, who is promoting his environmental record in the race. It also ties Keating to the Democrats’ national position on renewable energy: More of it means less foreign oil, more local jobs and less pollution.

“It’s easy to keep postponing this decade after decade after decade,” Keating said of a broad change toward renewable energy. “But it’s clearly what we should be doing.”

That message has been challenged by Republican candidates around the country this year who warn that Democratic climate policies, like cap and trade, will hike utility costs. Cape Wind is getting some of the blowback.

You want wind power? You pay for it

“Generally, I’m not in favor of them,” accountant Raymond Kasperowicz, a Republican facing three opponents in the House primary next Tuesday, said of offshore turbines. He’s against federal subsidies for renewable power and a state law requiring utilities to buy clean energy.

“If somebody wants to put a wind turbine up and pay for it all themselves, fine,” he added.

Kasperowicz has less funding and name recognition than two of his Republican primary rivals, former state Treasurer Joseph Malone and state Rep. Jeffrey Perry. Bob Hayden III, a former assistant district attorney, also hopes to win the GOP nomination.

The debate around Cape Wind comes at a sensitive moment. State regulators are holding hearings this month on whether the project’s power purchase contract with the utility National Grid is fair to ratepayers. That contract would set the price for half of Cape Wind’s power at 18.7 cents per kilowatt-hour, followed by annual price increases of 3.5 percent.

Supporters say the increase would be minimal, perhaps $1.25 per month for ratepayers on average. Opponents, however, point to much lower natural gas prices and claim Cape Wind will cost ratepayers millions over the 15-year contract.

Yet the contract includes benefits not seen in fossil fuel transactions. Renewable energy credits are included in the cost, for example, and could be used to offset costs on ratepayers. The project could also push down the region’s wholesale cost of power and provide a constant price for electricity in the future, even if the fluctuating costs of natural gas, oil and coal rise sharply.

“The irony is that this is not going to increase utility rates,” said Jim Gordon, president of Cape Wind Associates, the project’s developer. “We don’t look at Cape Wind over a day, a month or even a year. We look at the project over the long term, and we believe that Cape Wind is going to provide significant value to electricity consumers over the term of the contract.”

Gov. Patrick braves the downdraft

At a gubernatorial debate on Aug. 16, Gov. Deval Patrick (D) stood as the sole defender of the project. Republican Charlie Baker, independent candidate Tim Cahill and Green-Rainbow candidate Jill Stein hammered Patrick for accepting campaign donations from companies with a financial interest in Cape Wind. His opponents also accused him of supporting a wind farm that they said would be too expensive.

“When you’re a state that has the fourth-highest electricity costs … I can’t possibly on an issue like this come down on the side of going forward,” Baker said.

Patrick said that the United States risks falling behind global competitors already building offshore wind farms and said that fossil fuels such as natural gas have unpredictable prices without low emissions.

“I think it’s an important symbol for us to be a leader among the Eastern Seaboard states who would die to be where we are right now,” said Patrick, who also refuted the notion that campaign contributions influenced his support for the project.

Several political analysts said that Cape Wind was unlikely to swing the election, but it could play into voters’ decisions in terms of raising questions about the future cost of monthly electrical bills.

“It’s not surprising that during a time of economic strife that the political game is to focus on fear,” said Chad McGuire, an assistant professor at the University Massachusetts, Dartmouth.

Even though Cape Wind has been on politicians’ lips since it was proposed, the tone of the debate is harsher this year, he said.

Cape Wind themes echo in other projects

Supporters of offshore wind projects say they don’t see the hostility in Massachusetts as a sign of national antagonism toward projects generally.

Jim Lanard, president of the Offshore Wind Development Coalition, said support for offshore wind has remained steady among bipartisan lawmakers in Congress and in governors’ houses.

In New Jersey, for example, Republican Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill in August providing a financing structure for turbines off the state’s coast (ClimateWire, Aug. 20). In Ohio, Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland is standing by his promotion of offshore wind in the Great Lakes, despite a tight re-election campaign, Lanard said.

The current focus on the cost of Cape Wind is just the latest attack issue for opponents, who will jump from issue to issue until they find something that sticks, said Frank Maisano, an energy specialist at Bracewell & Giuliani who represents wind developers. It’s the same strategy that follows with any renewable project, he said.

Yet Barry Rabe, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan said similar opposition that popped up in the early stages of Cape Wind is appearing in other states considering offshore wind farms. In Michigan, loud opponents appearing at community meetings preceded Oceana and Mason Counties rejecting a proposed Lake Michigan wind farm this summer, forcing the developer to consider other options in the region.

The opposition is largely confined to members of local communities, Rabe aid, but could become a political issue for state and gubernatorial candidates down the road if projects move beyond the plan-on-paper stage. All it would take is for a Kennedy-esque figure in some states to create prickly problems for candidates running for office, he said.

“I used to tend to think that Cape Wind was unique, but what we’re seeing in Michigan is very similar to Cape Wind in its early stages,” Rabe said.

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