BOSTON – Jim Gordon always put his faith in the regulatory process.
But the fate of the now-defunct Cape Wind project was up against more than a maze of paperwork, public hearings and local, state and federal reviews; the controversial wind farm faced a deadly combination of money and political connections.
“I had never used lobbyists before Cape Wind,” Gordon said last week about his 40-year career as founder and president of Energy Management Inc., which has offices in an efficient third-floor suite a block away from Boston Common.
Framed photos of biomass and natural gas power plants as well as of large, industrial solar arrays adorn the walls. Bookshelves are filled with plaques and other memorabilia, representing more than $2 billion of completed projects.
Opposition formed within days of the announcement in 2001 that his company wanted to build the first commercial wind farm in the U.S. on a shoal in Nantucket Sound, Gordon said. The “narrative,” he said, was that the turbines would kill birds, impede navigation by boats, hurt whales, ruin views, shut down marinas and harm tourism.
“It’s a little bit over the top,” Gordon, now 64, said during an interview inside a windowless conference room at the heart of his offices.
The Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound would ultimately spend $40 million to stop Cape Wind, which shelled out at least $100 million before folding up earlier this month without a single turbine in the water. The Hyannis-based alliance was funded by billionaires who used their money to confound regulatory permitting through legal appeals and political influence, Gordon said.
The message about the benefits of Cape Wind – reduced reliance on coal and oil, zero greenhouse gas emissions, cleaner air and new job creation – was slow to emerge given the complex but ultimately favorable federal permitting reviews, he said. The location on Horseshoe Shoal was also upheld in reviews of alternatives, he said.
But, eventually, he even convinced the Cape’s largest environmental group.
The Association to Preserve Cape Cod, in its 2009 position statement in favor of Cape Wind, said “the time is overdue for the country as a whole, and the Northeast in particular, to begin in earnest to develop widespread alternatives to the use of fossil fuels.”
“While Nantucket Sound may not have been our first choice as a project site, we have to start somewhere,” according to the statement.
With a final environmental impact statement and a federal lease in hand by 2010 for 46 square miles in the Sound, the project was expected to provide about 75 percent of the electricity demand for Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. The renewable energy generated from the $2.6 billion project would help the state meet its renewable energy use standards.
In late 2014, however, the company told the two electric companies slated to buy the energy that financing was not complete and that unforeseen circumstances, including legal challenges, had caused delays. By early 2015, the utilities had canceled the contracts with Cape Wind, kicking off a series of setbacks.
Despite all of that Gordon had still hoped to bid on offshore wind energy contracts promised through 2016 state clean-energy legislation, he said.
But Cape Wind was blocked from participating in the bidding process for the state contracts, a move Gordon says was clearly unfair.
On Dec. 1, Cape Wind announced it would end its federal lease in Nantucket Sound, which would otherwise have stretched into the 2040s.
“There comes a point where you’ve fought the good fight,” Gordon said. “We think we made a significant contribution and we’re proud of that.”
The “travails” of Cape Wind and the investments made by its developers and supporters were not in vain, said Greg Cunningham, director of the Conservation Law Foundation clean energy and climate change program.
“Cape Wind opened this country’s eyes not only to the massive clean energy potential right off our shores but also to the need for coordinated site selection and permitting processes,” Cunningham said.
The company’s “worthy fight” prompted the Obama administration’s effort to boost offshore wind development through advance site identification and rigorous environmental assessment, including lease areas in New England, he said.
With Cape Wind passing into his rear-view mirror, Gordon reflected on what he has made a living doing, staying several steps ahead of the region’s energy and technology needs and looking for business opportunities.
In the circular hallway at EMI, Gordon points to large, glossy photos that illustrate the company’s progression from its first 10 years of analyzing energy use in corporate facilities to developing, constructing and operating clean, independent power generation facilities using natural gas and biomass, estimated at more than $2 billion in construction costs and more than 1,100 megawatts in capacity.
Like a proud father, Gordon recounts each project in detail, highlighting how the construction of more heavily polluting facilities was offset in each case and what he sees as the hypocrisy of concerns related to the siting of energy projects.
Triple-decker apartment dwellers were living next to the coal-fired Brayton Point Power Station near Fall River, until it closed, with “arsenic and lead and pollutants raining down on them,” Gordon said, drawing a comparison to projects such as Cape Wind, which he says would have provided a clean source of energy but ran into a buzz saw of politically and financially powerful opposition.
“Does the consolidation of wealth and political power automatically exempt people from pitching in and helping to transition to a better energy future?” he said.
Among the opponents of Cape Wind was the Kennedy family, led by the late U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, whose compound in Hyannisport overlooks Nantucket Sound. William Koch, with an estimated net worth of $1.7 billion, according to Forbes, owns property in Osterville and is chairman of the alliance’s board of directors.
Gordon grew up in Newton and graduated from Boston University College of Communication with the thought that he would make films. He began thinking about energy when he saw the long gas lines during the 1973 oil embargo. He already had found himself pitching an innovation he was passionate about, breaking records selling cable television, going door-to-door under the Mystic River Bridge in Chelsea.
“I was just really enthusiastic about it,” he said of what was then a new and burgeoning technology. “I believed in it, and I had studied it.”
Adhering to a similar pattern, Gordon and his team had by 1999 begun to think seriously about renewable energy. EMI sold its five natural-gas-fired power plants. Company officials visited offshore wind farms in Europe. They visited turbine factories. Back in the U.S., the company’s vice president of engineering, an avid sailor in waters off the Cape and Vineyard, studied nautical maps and thought that Horseshoe Shoal in Nantucket Sound made a lot of sense, Gordon said.
At the first public hearing about the project, held in West Yarmouth, about 150 people showed up. Some made inflammatory comments, but local opposition was generally expected based on the company’s previous experience, Gordon said. After the meeting, he spent the night at his family’s summer house in South Yarmouth.
“We ultimately thought that, even if our most vociferous opponents didn’t believe a word we said, once we went through the regulatory process and the results came out, and the benefits were delineated, that that would assuage, turn around, mollify, whatever term you want to use, that it would happen,” Gordon said. “All we were trying to do was develop a project that would solve some of the energy, environmental and economic challenges.”
Gordon won’t rule out another offshore wind energy project, but he’s looking ahead in other ways for now. In early November a biomass energy plant in Gainesville, Florida, that EMI developed sold for $750 million, he said.
Gordon pushes a visitor to Google one of his latest ventures, a ground-mounted photovoltaic system with a fan of panels that open, close, self-clean and rotate with the sun each day.
“We have a lot going on,” he said. “We hope that the industry flourishes and believe it will.”