Cape Wind battles reflect lack of energy seriousness

Approve project, NIMBY politics only feeds fossil fuel dependence

The steady winds that blow along the nation's coastlines are an untapped energy resource that could reduce the need for coal, oil and natural gas. In fact, one group proposed placing enough windmills in Nantucket Sound to supply 75% of the Cape Cod area's electricity needs.

That was nine years ago.

The battles since then vividly illustrate why wind energy still provides just one-half of 1% of the nation's energy, and why all alternative energy accounts for less than 5%. Virtually everyone agrees that the country's dependence on coal and foreign oil is destructive. But when the time arrives to actually do something, the response is too often "not here" or "not now."

Exhibit A is the project known as Cape Wind, which would build 130 huge turbines in about 25 square miles of ocean between Cape Cod and the islands of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard. Critics have raised objections about fishing, boating, aviation, federal subsidies, the price of wind energy and, most recently, the right of nearby Indian tribes to have an uninterrupted view of the morning sunrise. Some of the most bitter complaints seem to come from deep-pocketed landowners who don't want to look at windmills.

Yes, the turbines would be visible, if distant, on the horizon. But the site is close to perfect for a wind farm - in shallow water that makes construction easier and cheaper, partially sheltered from North Atlantic storms and close enough to shore that transmission costs would be minimized. Critics want the turbines out to sea and out of sight, which would raise costs and require still-developing technology.

For years, the objections have had ample hearing before state and federal regulators, almost all of whom have approved Cape Wind or suggested simple ways to mitigate problems. This week, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is to meet with interested parties to work out an agreement. Failing a compromise, Salazar has hinted he'll issue the final go-ahead.

The Senate, for example, has been the graveyard for efforts to put market forces to work by requiring that utilities get a minimum amount of electricity from alternative energy by a particular date - say, 20% by 2020.

Here's hoping he does, both to advance a worthy project and to signal that the nation will not let lesser considerations block the path toward energy independence. Obstructionism is everywhere, not just in "not in my backyard" groups. The Senate, for example, has been the graveyard for efforts to put market forces to work by requiring that utilities get a minimum amount of electricity from alternative energy by a particular date - say, 20% by 2020. At least 27 states have set such goals, and some have even increased them after meeting early targets. The Senate has rejected national standards in part due to objections from Southern senators, who say the region lacks sufficient solar and wind resources.

On another front, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and the Obama administration have slowed a vital push for more nuclear power plants by withdrawing support for the Yucca Mountain waste repository in Nevada and raising more doubts about plant security and proliferation, issues that have been researched to death.

The hazards of limitless emissions of greenhouse gases have been clear for a long time, and it has been a year and a half since $4-a-gallon gasoline sent yet another wake-up call about the nation's ruinous addiction to imported oil. Meanwhile, the Chinese are taking a huge lead in building solar power equipment, and the Europeans are moving ahead with wind. What's happening in the USA? Mostly bickering, debating and stalling. It is past time to get serious.

USA Today, January 11, 2010.

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