BOSTON – At the height of the oil embargo in 1974, Jim Gordon was sitting in a line for gas that extended two blocks, frustrated that the United States had become so dependent on foreign oil.
That led him into the clean energy business and, decades later, to plan the nation’s first offshore wind farm, to be called Cape Wind. It would provide clean power to 200,000 homes on Cape Cod and spur the building of other such farms up and down the East Coast.
But after 16 years – and $100 million of his own money – that dream is, well, gone with the wind. Mr. Gordon has pulled the plug, stymied by endless litigation and a series of financial and political setbacks that undermined Cape Wind’s viability.
After so many years in limbo, he said, he wanted some finality.
“In a football game, if you have a tie, there’s an overtime period, a sudden death period,” Mr. Gordon, 64, a clean energy entrepreneur and president of Energy Management Inc., said in an interview at his office here. “We were kept in a repeated sudden death period, and the goal posts kept moving.”
Over the years, the highly effective opposition included Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, who died in 2009, and was led by William I. Koch, a billionaire industrialist who made his fortune in fossil fuels and is the brother of Charles G. and David H. Koch, who have underwritten conservative causes.
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The opposition was so relentless, well funded and determined that in all this time, no turbines were ever anchored to the ocean floor, no blades ever spun, no power was ever generated.
“The project unfortunately demonstrated that well-funded opposition groups can effectively use the American court system to stop even a project with no material adverse environmental impacts,” said Ian Bowles, who was the state secretary of energy and environmental affairs under former Gov. Deval Patrick, who supported Cape Wind.
That said, the significance of Cape Wind “has become less each year as wind and solar have exploded in the Northeast, and offshore wind is now also set to emerge shortly on the Eastern Seaboard,” said Mr. Bowles, who is now managing director of WindSail Capital Group, which invests in innovative energy projects.
Indeed, just as Cape Wind’s obituary is finally being written, the offshore wind industry in this country looks more promising than ever.
As Cape Wind faltered, another wind farm off Block Island, R.I., got up and running. And with concerns about climate change intensifying, states like Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Virginia are all looking to offshore wind to meet renewable energy goals.
Mr. Gordon said he was not fazed that others had pushed ahead. In fact, he said, this was the outcome he always envisioned, that multiple windmills would someday capture the stiff breezes off the Atlantic coast and produce clean power.
“Think of me as the mortally wounded soldier who stays behind and holds that line so that my comrades can – ” he said, without finishing his sentence. His message was clear: He sees himself as a trailblazer who drew deep criticism but established legal precedents that set a course for those who followed.
So why did Cape Wind fail?
One of its biggest problems was its location. Critics insisted that Mr. Gordon was putting his $2.6 billion project in the wrong spot.
He wanted to plant 130 turbines in the shallow waters of Nantucket Sound, where they would have been protected by Cape Cod, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard.
But they also would have been visible to wealthy waterfront property owners like the Kennedys, Mr. Koch and Rachel Lambert Mellon, the heiress and philanthropist who was known as Bunny and who died in 2014.
The bitter dispute over Cape Wind was not limited to rich homeowners or their concerns about spoiled views. Critics, who included many local officials, business owners, fishermen, Indian tribes and residents, cited the high cost of offshore wind power, navigational hazards and threats to the environment.
But Cape Wind’s location really rankled them.
The Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, of which Mr. Koch was chairman, said the site was essentially a land grab of unregulated federal waters by a private developer.
“He was targeting a regulatory void,” said Audra Parker, president and chief executive of the alliance and one of Mr. Gordon’s most persistent opponents.
Since Mr. Gordon announced this month that he was abandoning the plan, Ms. Parker has redirected the alliance’s goal from blocking Cape Wind to making certain “that never again is a private developer given the rights to land that belongs to all of us.”
Today, most new wind farms are being planned farther out to sea, not visible from land.
“By contrast to Cape Wind, these other projects are going in locations that have been chosen through a public process that are truly offshore and are meant to minimize the conflicts,” Ms. Parker said.
Mr. Gordon said he could not locate Cape Wind farther out because when he began, “we didn’t have the technology to go out farther.”
Besides, he said, the visual effect of the turbines would have been minimal, appearing merely “as a tiny sailing mast off the horizon.”
He said he believed that the location in federal waters was appropriate because Cape Wind would have benefited the public. “Throughout history, people have been doing things on public land if it’s in the public interest,” he said.
But Mr. Koch’s alliance was a formidable opponent. Mr. Koch told CommonWealth magazine in 2013 that his strategy against Cape Wind was to “delay, delay, delay.” The alliance raised and spent $40 million doing just that, repeatedly challenging legal rulings that favored Mr. Gordon.
Mr. Gordon said he persisted because the benefits of offshore wind – an endless supply of clean power, reduced pollutants and energy independence – were overwhelmingly obvious.
But the alliance’s strategy took its toll. “In my wildest imagination, I never envisioned just how exhaustive, how time consuming and how expensive this would be,” Mr. Gordon said.
Cape Wind was dealt a crippling blow in 2015, when Mr. Gordon failed to meet a construction deadline and two local utilities canceled their contracts to buy his power. He was denied permission to build a transmission line to carry the wind power to land. And when the Massachusetts Legislature last year required utilities to buy large amounts of offshore wind, it excluded Cape Wind from the bidding process, allowing only projects at least 10 miles from shore to compete.
As Cape Wind’s fortunes waxed and waned, Mr. Gordon turned his attention elsewhere. He has been developing a portfolio of renewable energy projects involving solar and biomass, none of which, he noted with a smile, required permission from anybody.
“Am I wistful about what could have been?” he asked. “Of course I am.”
But he said he was ready to move on. “I guess I was 10 years ahead of my time,” he said. “The beautiful thing is that it’s all starting to happen.”
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