It’s a story made for the big screen: money, politics, corruption, corporate greed and even the Kennedys. It’s the story of Cape Wind as told in the fast-paced, oft-humorous 90-minute documentary “Cape Spin: An American Power Struggle.” The film, screened in Rhode Island for the first time last week, echoes the controversies that have erupted in the Ocean State as a separate wind farm off the coast of Block Island inches closer to reality.
Conceived in July 2001, Cape Wind proposes 130 wind turbines in Nantucket Sound. Proponents say the project promises to usher in a new era of renewable energy, while detractors call it lining the pockets of wealthy investors while destroying Cape Cod’s tourism.
The project, which received federal approval in 2010, is now in the financing stage and construction could start this year, company spokesman Mark Rodgers said last week. Opponents continue to fight the wind farm in court.
The documentary focuses exclusively on the Cape Wind project, traveling from the offices of developer Energy Management, Inc. to the headquarters of its main adversary, the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound. The producers let company executives, government officials, reporters and local residents narrate the story interspersed with dramatic patriotic music and comical transitions. (“You’re meant to have a good time with this film,” producer Libby Handros told the audience at Cable Car Cinema and Café in Providence.)
During a discussion after the film, the producers said they knew little about the Block Island project and could draw no parallels. Still, the film could offer a playbook for what’s to come as developer Deepwater Wind moves forward with its planned five-turbine wind farm three miles off Block Island’s southeast shore. The Providence-based company, backed by First Wind and hedge fund D.E. Shaw, hopes to start construction in 2014 or sooner.
Like supporters of Cape Wind, Deepwater advocates cite environmental benefits of reducing dependency on fossil fuel and gaining American energy independence.
Opponents charge the farm will ruin pristine viewsheds, depress property values and tourism and put fishermen out of work.
In Rhode Island, wind farm supporters are so far winning the debate. The project has garnered support from the R.I. Public Utilities Commission, grid operator National Grid and many state and local officials, including Block Island First Warden Kim Gaffett.
But unlike in the case of Cape Wind, no one on the island has formed a formal coalition to trumpet the benefits of the Block Island farm. Deepwater Wind, however, has retained Providence public relations firm Duffy & Shanley.
Nor has any formal group arisen to fight the project. And unlike Cape Wind foes, Deepwater opponents lack the assistance of the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, his nephew Robert Kennedy Jr., or billionaire industrialist Bill Koch. The film says that with financial support from these heavy hitters, the Alliance spent at least $15 million lobbying against the project.
On the other side, Energy Management teamed up with Clean Power Now and Mass. Gov. Deval Patrick to advocate for the project.
Combined, the film says more than $70 million was poured into the Cape Wind debate. And it got ugly, with charges of backroom politics in the U.S. Capitol to competing clashing protestors calling the police to force the removal of yard signs.
The Block Island project has been rarely discussed on Capitol Hill. Money spent has largely amounted to pocket change although Deepwater provided more than $7 million to the state for environmental studies. Sometimes emotions run hot, but the dancing polar bears or costumed pirates of the Cape Wind debates featured in the film have not appeared on the Block.
The reason may be that the projects are simply different. M. Dawn King, a visiting assistant professor at the Center for Environmental Studies at Brown University, noted Block Island relies on diesel-powered generators for its electricity. Deepwater’s wind farm promises a connection to the mainland grid and, the company argues, lower electric bills for island customers. King said that fact alone might sway island residents into the pro-farm camp.
Also, the project’s turbines would sit entirely in state waters. While some federal approvals are required, they are not nearly as extensive as those required of Energy Management. Plus, former R.I. Gov. Donald Carcieri designated Deepwater as the state’s “preferred developer” for an offshore wind farm, giving it an edge in permitting. Energy Management initially faced Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney, who adamantly opposed the project. Both governors are Republicans and the film notes that in the case of Cape Wind, supporters and detractors fell across the political spectrum.
The Deepwater project has faced opposition. Like Energy Management, the company has been forced to defend selling wind power at a price higher than power generated by natural gas or other traditional fuel sources. At 24.4 cents per kilowatt-hour in the first year and rising 3.5 percent each year thereafter, Deepwater’s pricing raised eyebrows. (Supporters argue the true cost of generating electricity from fossil fuels is significantly higher when environmental and health concerns are considered.)
Turbulence may only grow for Deepwater as it moves toward securing approvals to build a second, larger wind farm with 150 to 200 turbines 15 miles east of the island. That farm, in federal waters, will face a bureaucracy reorganized since the Cape Wind project took nearly seven years to pass federal review.
Still, if the scenes from Cape Spin are any indication, federal hearings could become political theater with costumed advocates, speakers from around the country and a federal project manager looking deeply stressed.
Which side prevails will likely depend on the details, and perhaps even on the success or failure of Cape Wind.
However, one thing is for sure. A Deepwater Wind documentary would be significantly leaner than “Cape Spin.” Since Deepwater proposed the project nearly four years ago, no documentary crews have been in tow, company spokeswoman Meaghan Wims said.
And the creators of “Cape Spin?”
“I think I’m all wind farmed out,” director John Kirby said.
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