Can Wind Power Survive the NIMBY Syndrome?

President Obama's energy policy has been a pretty tough slog. His $36 billion proposal for nuclear power plant construction took heat from both environmentalists and conservatives. Ditto his decision to open coastal areas for offshore oil drilling.

We are about to learn if there's lift beneath a crucial third pillar of the president's plan: wind power. Safer and more eco-friendly than nuclear plants and offshore drilling, wind turbines might seem to be an easy political sell. But at the end of 2009, wind power accounted for a mere 1.9% of the electricity production in the United States, and the vast majority of wind turbines are onshore.

Now, the uphill battle for energy reform has reached a turning point with the impending administration ruling on Massachusetts' long-delayed Cape Wind project, the nation's largest proposed offshore wind farm and a primer on what can go wrong with the politics of wind energy.

The Boston developer who has sunk millions into a proposed 130-turbine farm on shallow shoals of Nantucket Sound claims it will offset 75 percent of the gas and coal-based electricity use on Cape Cod, Nantucket, and Martha's Vineyard. Polls show the project has broad public support. Nonetheless, nine years after its initial proposal, progress on Cape Wind is stalled. A ruling that could break the stalemate is expected in the coming weeks from Interior Sec. Ken Salazar. And the administration's willingness to use the same muscle it's been flexing on health care and education reform could have political ramifications well beyond Cape Cod.

The politics of Cape Wind extend far beyond environmental issues, in part because the project's green credentials have survived all assault. Early claims of irrevocable damage to wildlife habitats were refuted in 2006 by the Massachusetts Audubon Society, which deemed Cape Wind a minimal risk to the delicate ecology of Nantucket Sound.

Economic complaints fared no better. Multiple reports by the U.S. Minerals Management Service found Cape Wind would have a negligible effect on oceanography, commercial fisheries and tourism. But those failures haven't stopped Cape Wind's opponents. Salazar's final deliberations have included an eleventh-hour claim by a local Native American tribe, the Wampanoags, who say the wind farm violates historic preservation laws by impeding on sunrise views and desecrating burial grounds.

This part of the Cape Wind story can be seen as good news for wind energy's future. Rulings in the case have set important precedents for future research, planning, and construction of wind turbines. And the Wampanoag roadblock may be more the exception than the rule. The Economist noted recently that some Native American tribes have sought out investments in wind farms on tribal lands, anticipating significant local development.

But the underlying political principles of the anti-Cape Wind movement speak to tougher challenges facing Obama's energy agenda, starting with NIMBY.

The American Wind Energy Association says opposition to wind power arises most commonly when "some people perceive that the development will spoil the view that they are used to," and Cape Wind is exhibit A. "The right project in the wrong place," sums up the view of key Cape Wind opponents, most notably, members of the Kennedy family, whose famous Hyannisport compound overlooks Nantucket Sound. The late Senator Edward Kennedy twice nearly killed the project with legislative sleight-of-hand. Eco-activist Robert Kennedy Jr. has railed against the wind farm, rationalizing his logic in a strained op-ed in the New York Times.

Jared Keller is a former associate editor for The Atlantic and The Atlantic Wire and has also written for Lapham's Quarterly's Deja Vu blog, National Journal's The Hotline, Boston's Weekly Dig, and Preservation magazine. 

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