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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Which way is the wind blowing?

The most controversial wind project in the US, the 400+ megawatt Cape Wind planned off Cape Cod, was approved by the Federal government Wednesday. Many considered this a surprising development, because of the adamant opposition of the Kennedy family — and other affluent members of the Massachusetts economic and political elite — who objected to the impact on their views of the Nantucket Sound.

As with solar energy in the Mojave Desert, this controversy found unlikely adversaries between pro-RE environmentalists and anti-development environmentalists. The Obama Administration, represented by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, came down (mostly) on the side of renewable energy.

The NY Times captured the tension of this conflict in its own backyard:
Friends and foes have squared off over the impact it would have on nature, local traditions, property values and electricity bills; on the profits to be pocketed by a private developer; and even the urgency of easing the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels, a priority of the Obama administration.

Opponents argued that Cape Wind would create an industrial eyesore in a pristine area; supporters countered that it was worth sacrificing aesthetics for the longer-term goal of producing clean, renewable energy.

Developers say that Cape Wind will provide 75 percent of the power for Cape Cod, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard — the equivalent of that produced by a medium-size coal-fired plant. It would also reduce carbon dioxide emissions by the equivalent of taking 175,000 cars off the road, officials said, and provide 1,000 construction jobs.

The project has also made for some strange bedfellows. Cape Wind is backed by both Greenpeace and the United States Chamber of Commerce.

It has been opposed perhaps most prominently by members of the Kennedy family. Senator Kennedy was a longtime sailor on Nantucket Sound and fought the project up until he died.
President Obama himself on Tuesday toured the Siemens factory in Iowa where the turbines would be made. (No mention whether Iowa’s pivotal role as a swing state played any role in the factory location or the presidential visit.) The administration expects a string of future offshore wind farms up and down the East Coast, as part of a plan to raise wind to 4% of electricity generated in 2030.

In my memory, renewable energy was last in ascendancy in the 1970s and early 1980s around the time of the two Arab oil embargoes. Of the influential politicians of the day, Jimmy Carter probably would have sided with green energy (and energy independence) over Kennedy views — particularly when Sen. Kennedy began his very public nomination challenge leading up to the 1980 election.

Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People MatteredI suspect that another Carter primary rival in 1976 and 1980 — Edmund G. Brown Jr. — would have come down another way. Then at the peak of his “Small is Beautiful” (ala EF Schumacher) infatuation, Jerry Brown was then about building less things, using less, spending less and consuming less.

What about today? In his adamant support for AB32 — the California precursor to national cap-and-trade legislation — Brown today is clearly about consuming less energy. While his campaign website brags about tax credits in the 1970s that brought windmills to California (mainly in the Altamont Pass,Tehachapis, and near Palm Springs), it doesn’t say how he’d come down on an RE vs. environmental preservation issue.

Our current Governator has strongly favored RE over environmental protection, implying that favoring the latter is something only a “girly man” who do. Given their moderate records on green energy, I suspect both of Brown’s GOP rivals — Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner — would also come down in favor of renewable energy (ala the Chamber of Commerce), particularly if there’s little government money involved.

But what would Jerry Brown do? I guess it depends on which way the wind is blowing. For the Obama administration, it appears that making progress on long-term renewable energy goals is more important than satisfying a small number of avid supporters in its base. This is good news for the wind turbine industry, and renewable energy advocates more broadly.

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