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‘When the wind is green’

Two years ago researchers believed they found remnants of the first windmill on Cape Cod, near Skaket Beach in Orleans, built in 1650. Two months ago Brewster residents voted down a proposal to build wind turbines – modern-day windmills – just six miles from the original millstones in Orleans. What a difference 361 years make.

The seething debate on wind energy from Bourne to Brewster, onshore and offshore, showcases a fundamental paradox between public/private partnerships that dominate modern governance: If government serves a public purpose it is for the good of the people (presumably); if developers serve to provide a product or service it is for profit (predictably). Their respective interests do not necessarily live in peaceful harmony.

Cape Wind professes a “daunting array of regulatory and permitting processes involving 17 federal, state and local agencies” and is subject to numerous lawsuits – evidence and reinforcement of the challenges facing potential job creators doing business in the commonwealth. But the project should be in jeopardy solely on the grounds that half its potential electrical production will be at above-market rates, with half of its capacity currently unsold.

Thomas Edison in 1879 boasted, “I shall make electricity so cheap that only the rich can afford to burn candles.” But unlike Edison Electric Light Co., Cape Wind, making no such statements like Edison, would receive subsidies for federal tax credits, state green credits and tax breaks through accelerated depreciation, according to the Beacon Hill Institute.

Last month, Robert Bradley Jr. wrote on Forbes.com, “Of the $10 billion invested by wind developers last year, $3.4 billion came in the form of federal grants. Thus taxpayers picked up a full one-third of the tab.”

Regarding Cape Wind, he stated that the “starting point for its power is set … almost double the average U.S. cost.”

Piping plovers seemingly are granted greater constitutional protections by the federal and state government than the economic protections afforded taxpayers and ratepayers. How is it in the public interest when subsidies fund a project that will provide higher, not lower rates?

No one is certain when Cape Wind will be profitable but costs for the project have risen since its inception. Hasn’t the commonwealth been exhausted if not embarrassed by grandiose projects promising to make things supposedly “better?” Government officials are flexing a progressive impulse about wind energy because it is virtuous, but they should also question the veracity and value.

Never one to resist hyperbole, Sen. John Kerry, in a letter (signed by all Massachusetts members of Congress) to Energy Secretary Steven Chu earlier this year urging speedy approval of a loan guarantee for Cape Wind (now on indefinite hold), wrote that savings from the guarantee would “be passed along to customers in the form of lower rates,” and would translate into millions in savings to consumers who purchase it.

Gov. Deval Patrick, speaking from the State House last year as the Interior Department approved a key permit for Cape Wind, with rhetorical overreach even he should blush at, said, “on balance it is good for our environment and good for our energy needs,” adding, “if we get clean energy right, the whole world will be our customer.”

Locally, the Cape Cod Times has reported conflicts of interest in Barnstable County’s municipal energy intermediaries, and Brewster selectmen reaffirmed their commitment to a town wind project already voted down by voters.

Only Sen. Scott Brown has consistently expressed concern for the ratepayer as a paramount concern.

The late Sen. Edward Kennedy was an ardent champion of “clean energy.” He called for a national wind energy policy, but he was against Cape Wind. For a brief shining moment Kennedy became a conservative but for the wrong reasons and, because of it, put his party, supporters and green advocates in a quixotic quandary: personal preference over sound public policy.

On Aug. 8, 2003, Kennedy wrote on these pages that “my family has a long history on Cape Cod. After growing up and raising my children here I understand the enormous national treasure we have in the Cape.” He made no mention, surprisingly, of the negative economic impact the wind project would have on Cape and Islands’ residents. Perhaps Kennedy was listening to Frank Sinatra:

“And we’ll never see all the wonderful things to be seen

When the wind is green.”

James P. Freeman of Orleans is a financial services professional.