BY Donald J. Breed, Special to The Journal
In 2001, as he was exploring the possibilities of installing electricity-producing wind turbines in Nantucket Sound, Jim Gordon was warned: “Only two or three hundred people run the Cape. If you don’t have them on your side, forget it. If Ted doesn’t like this, you’re going to have a problem.”
That was sound advice — except that Cape Wind isn’t forgotten. After six years of determined efforts to kill it, the project to install 130 turbines on Horseshoe Shoal, five miles from the Cape Cod’s southern shore, is still alive. But it must gain numerous federal, state and local permits — opponents count 21 of them — before it can begin financing, construction and power generation.
Given the wealth, political influence and determination of Cape Wind’s foes, it’s quite possible that Rhode Island, which is just now talking seriously about wind turbines, will have some up and running before Gordon’s.
The authors are familiar to regular readers of The Journal. Robert Whitcomb is editor of the editorial page, which has endorsed Cape Wind as steps toward energy independence for New England and away from global warming. Wendy Williams, a journalist and environmentalist who lives on Cape Cod, has written for the editorial page. Their views are well-known, so I initially wondered: Who will read this book? Opponents of the project will dismiss it without a read. Fans are already on board.
A vast audience outside Southeastern New England awaits
I had forgotten that there’s a vast audience outside Southeastern New England who will find this a fascinating story in which a developer, of all things, is David, while Goliath is an alliance of fabulously wealthy summer people, media darlings such as like Walter Cronkite and David McCullough, and politicians, such as like Mitt Romney and, above all, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who’s on the right side of every environmental issue except the one that involves where he sails. (Cronkite, to his credit, dropped his opposition in 2003 when he learned all the facts.)
Even those of us who thought we knew about Cape Wind will learn a lot that didn’t fit into the sound bites and newspaper stories. For example, there’s a description of the electrical grid that serves New England and how Cape Wind would fit into it. We learn about the oil spill in Buzzards Bay, including the different kinds of toxins that vary according to the source of the oil.
But most of all this is a people story. On the one hand is Jim Gordon, the entrepreneur who grew up working in his father’s two corner stores in working-class Allston, Mass. After college, he soon went out on his own and, by taking risks with new energy technology, became wealthy enough to finance the long and costly process of starting Cape Wind. Another personality is state Rep. Matthew Patrick. He started out questioning Gordon, but became one of the few local politicians backing Cape Wind; he almost lost his seat to a well-financed challenger. Theodore Roosevelt IV has a summer home on Chappaquiddick but, true to his great-grandfather’s heritage, supports wind energy, even in his backyard.
On the other hand, there are clever profiles — unwelcome to the subjects, I’m sure — of the plutocracy who went to the mat to keep windmills from sullying their horizons. Foremost is Rachel “Bunny” Mellon; she’s the reason why a U.S. senator from Virginia, John Warner, would use every parliamentary tactic to kill a project so far from his home state. Another leader of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound is Douglas Yearley, who made his money on open-pit copper mining and sat on the board of Marathon Oil Corporation. The book periodically notes that their vast mansions are heavy users of the electricity now being generated at a polluting facility on the Cape Cod Canal.
The machinations in Congress that came close to killing Cape Wind illustrate the old saying that politics makes strange bedfellows. Why are two Republicans from distant Alaska — Congressman Don Young and Sen. Ted Stevens — doing the heavy lifting for Ted Kennedy, a liberal Democrat who’s against their cherished plan to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge? But there are equally unlikely allies for Cape Wind — take Robert Novak and Greenpeace. Above all,As I say, this is a people story.
That said, I would have liked just a little more about how wind turbines work — not what you’d find in Scientific American (although Williams has written for that publication) but some idea of the evolving technology. We’re told at the outset that Gordon had expected to install 170 turbines but was able to cut that to 130 as they got larger and more efficient. Will the turbines continue to improve, and if so, will Gordon in the end benefit from the delay?
One final note: This book really needs an index*. With such a complex cast of characters, it’s frustrating to have to riffle through the pages to look up a name.
Don Breed is a retired writer and editor.* The book's publisher, not the authors, decided to not have an index to keep the number of pages and thus the cost down.
CAPE WIND: Money, Celebrity, Class, Politics, and the Battle for Our Energy Future on Nantucket Sound
by Wendy Williams and Robert Whitcomb.
Public Affairs Books. 326 pages. $26.95.