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Perspective

What really toppled Cape Wind’s plans for Nantucket Sound

With the ambitious wind project seemingly dead, a look back at what went wrong.

istockphoto/globe staff photo-illustration

In the end it was about money and politics, as are so many things in Massachusetts. But it was not Koch cash or Kennedy pique that may have killed a commercial offshore wind plant in Nantucket Sound. It was the hubris of Cape Wind’s developers themselves.

Almost 14 years after Cape Wind Associates unveiled plans to erect 130 wind turbines across 24 square miles of pristine Horseshoe Shoal, Jim Gordon and his investors seem to have run out of time, money, and political capital. The decision by NStar and National Grid to walk away after Cape Wind missed a December 31 contract deadline appears to leave Cape Wind “dead in the water,” as Gordon’s nemesis, Audra Parker of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, so poetically put it.

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Gordon blamed the collapse of what would have been the first offshore wind facility in the United States on litigious obstructionists financed by Bill Koch, the conservative scion of his family’s oil refining fortune, and other wealthy property owners protective of their ocean views. Then, without apparent irony, he promptly lashed out at the utilities that abandoned him, essentially claiming the relentless legal battle he has been whining about for more than a decade was an unanticipated disaster akin to an act of God.

The truth is, Gordon simply could not deliver. He never won the lasting support of the people of the Cape and Islands whose homes bear no resemblance to Koch’s Oyster Harbors manse or the Kennedys’ Hyannis Port compound. The Town of Barnstable opposed him. So did a Wampanoag tribe. Among the legal challenges the project has faced was a suit by struggling fishermen from Martha’s Vineyard who argued that the massive wind plant threatened their livelihood. (The fishermen withdrew their lawsuit only when they found themselves unable to pay their lawyers and Cape Wind offered them an undisclosed settlement.) Fifty-nine percent of respondents to a Cape Cod Times online poll in January pronounced themselves “happy” that Cape Wind looks doomed.

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Yet, from the outset, Gordon has cloaked himself in environmental virtue and cast any and all critics as defenders of “dirty energy.” To doubt the merits of this particular project was to oppose renewable energy itself. To object to this specific site was to reject offshore wind power entirely. To express safety concerns — as regional airports and ferry operators who serve the mainland and the Islands did — was to brand yourself a dupe of the fossil-fuel lobby. To want to protect the aesthetic beauty of Nantucket Sound was to cast your lot with climate change deniers.

There was no middle ground for Gordon, who put Koch in the role of big-oil bogeyman but who staked his claim to those federal waters off Massachusetts without a competitive bidding process.

Charlie Baker was not wrong when he characterized Cape Wind as a “sweetheart deal” during his unsuccessful run for governor in 2010. I suspect his view hasn’t changed much now that he has claimed that corner office in the State House and has suggested he won’t get involved in the contract dispute.

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Demonizing his critics worked for Gordon for more than a decade, but in the end the NIMBY charge lost its sting when the public recognized Cape Wind as a classic bait and switch. Developers promised cheap, clean energy, and then planned to sell 77.5 percent of the power they were going to produce to NStar and National Grid for some two times the average cost of power generated by US suppliers. The contracted price of 18.7 cents per kilowatt-hour was slated to rise 3.5 percent every year of the 15-year contract.

The developers dangled the prospect of good manufacturing jobs but then went to the German company Siemens to buy the turbines and the offshore transformer and to contract for maintenance services.

They touted their ability to attract private investment but then failed to secure all the necessary financing for the $2.5 billion project or to nail down purchase contracts for the final 22.5 percent of the power they planned to produce. (They had less trouble tapping public money, winning subsidies, tax breaks, and conditional commitment of a $150 million loan guarantee from the US Department of Energy.)

With the election of Baker last fall, Cape Wind lost the influence of Deval Patrick, who had pressured NStar, now part of Northeast Utilities, to buy power from Cape Wind when the two utilities needed the state’s approval for their 2012 merger. Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe had signed on to represent Cape Wind opponents in their appeal of a federal court ruling that rejected their argument that Massachusetts had discriminated against out-of-state power companies by forcing NStar to buy more expensive power from Cape Wind.

Cape Wind might be dead, but prospects for developing wind power off the Massachusetts coast are not. The US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management estimates that enough energy to power 1.4 million homes could be produced by wind turbines erected in the Atlantic Ocean across 742,000 acres well south of Martha’s Vineyard. Unlike Cape Wind, those leases are subject to a competitive bidding process.

Related coverage:

More doubt is cast on Cape Wind plan

Cape Wind’s future called into question

Two utilities opt out of Cape Wind

Editorial: Offshore wind can still rise despite Cape Wind’s fall

Pulitzer Prize winner Eileen McNamara, a former Globe columnist, teaches journalism at Brandeis University. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.
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