Interior Secretary Ken Salazar pledged on Wednesday to make a final decision on the controversial Cape Wind project on Nantucket Sound in April, while some powerful opponents said they will keep fighting until the wind farm is moved to a less visually disruptive site.
The project has been caught in a regulatory net for nine years.
"I think that nine years after an application is filed for a permit from the United States government, to have it continuing to face a future of uncertainty is bad for everybody that's involved," Salazar told reporters.
The announcement followed meetings in Washington with officials from local towns, tribes and opponent and proponent organizations.
Salazar said if the parties can't resolve their standoff by March 1, he would terminate the consultation process and make a decision to fully deny or approve the project on his own.
Native American Concerns Biggest Hurdle
The meetings were largely intended to help clear a last-minute roadblock to Cape Wind's approval — the claim by two Native American tribes that the turbines will disturb their ancestral burial grounds now covered by ocean.
Salazar said the meetings were "very constructive" but added the concerns of Native Americans remain a sticking point.
The tribes — the Mashpee Wampanoag of Cape Cod and the Aquinnah Wampanoag of Martha's Vineyard — say the 130-turbine project would destroy their spiritual ritual of greeting the sunrise each day.
Sheryl Andrews-Maltais, chairwoman of the Wampanoag tribe, praised Salazar for being "open and respective to hearing our concerns."
"That [Salazar] took the time to listen to us ... that really tells me that we're hopeful, that this administration is serious about consultation and working with Indian tribes," said Bettina Washington, tribal historic preservation officer for the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe.
Earlier this month, the tribes won support from the National Park Service. The agency determined that Nantucket Sound is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places for "its significance as a traditional cultural property and as an historic and archaeological property."
While the ruling clearly added a hurdle for the Interior Department, Salazar will ultimately get the final say.
Clean Energy vs. Preservation
Some clean energy advocates see trouble if it fails.
The developers of Cape Wind say the project would generate 75 percent of the community's electricity and shrink greenhouse gas output by 880,000 tons a year.
The project has already undergone two environmental impact statements, and "the negative environmental impacts of the project have been documented to be minimal," said Jeremy Firestone, an associate professor in the College of Marine and Earth Studies at the University of Delaware.
"With its small environmental impacts and the amount of time and energy devoted to that project, it would be harmful to the industry if it were not to continue to move forward," Firestone told SolveClimate.
In his view, the alternative to building Cape Wind will be more of the same — new coal, natural gas, hydroelectricity or nuclear power plants.
The environmental impacts of these alternatives would also have to be considered, Firestone said. These include: the human health costs of coal, the ecological effects of the release of cooling water from fossil fuel and nuclear facilities, and the impact of hydroelectric plants on streams and fish.
Opponents say the issue isn't renewable energy — it's location.
"We are very supportive of wind energy," said Audra Parker, CEO and President of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, a group of local business people and residents who are fighting the project. "But [we] urge Secretary Salazar and Interior officials to consider other viable alternatives outside of Nantucket Sound that respect tribal rights and preserve a treasured national resource."
As the project stands, turbines would sit five miles off the coast of Cape Cod on a patch of ocean the size of Manhattan.
Opponents, many of whom are deep-pocketed residents, say the turbines would be an eyesore and harm tourism.
The alliance said an alternative site at a nearby location called South of Tuckernuck Island has already been "vetted and has demonstrated sufficient water depth and area to accommodate a project similar to that of Cape Wind, but with far fewer adverse impacts." It could be "shovel-ready in 2010 to qualify for necessary federal subsidies," the group added.
"A new location would require a new application," Salazar pointed out.
When asked if the alliance would be willing to compromise on relocating the project, Parker said "no."
"Nantucket Sound has to be absolutely off limits to development," she said, calling it "absolutely the worst possible location."
Wind Future Not Dependent on Cape Wind
With Cape Wind in regulatory limbo, the United States has yet to plant the first turbine off its shores. Meanwhile, the European market is taking off, with over 100 GW of power in the planning pipeline, or 10 percent of the continent's electricity.
"There's no reason why the United States of America should be way behind Denmark and the United Kingdom," Salazar said.
In June, Salazar issued the nation's first five exploratory leases for offshore wind off New Jersey and Delaware. "We made the development of offshore wind energy a top priority for Interior," the secretary declared then, noting the nation's resource potential.
Winds blowing off the East Coast from Massachusetts to North Carolina could deliver 330 GW of electrical power, five times the region's current electricity demand of 73 GW, according to a 2007 study by the University of Delaware and Stanford University.
Offshore advocates say these gusts blow stronger and steadier than those onshore, generating more power per watt. Further, offshore wind does not require costly transmission lines: An underwater cable would connect the turbines right to the existing grid.
Cape Wind was long expected to be the first offshore wind facility, and it still could be.
Currently, there are three other offshore wind projects moving ahead in Delaware, Rhode Island and New Jersey, said Willett Kempton, professor of marine policy at the University of Delaware and lead author of the Delaware-Stanford analysis.
These face a smoother path to approval, mainly because of "none of them having any significant public opposition," Kempton told SolveClimate.
"We have done surveys on the Cape and elsewhere, and we find more opposition on the Cape than other places surveyed," he said.
"In Delaware, we find close to 80% support statewide. We find support by those living in coastal communities," said Firestone, who led the survey with Kempton. "And we even find majority support in those who have ocean views, and those who believe they will have a view of the Delaware project."
Even on the Cape, support is growing. In a study published in December, Firestone and Kempton concluded that 57 percent of those surveyed now support the project — up from 44 percent in 2005. But Cape Wind's highly financed opposition, championed until last year by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, is still too powerful to counter.
Whatever the outcome, Salazar said that the future of the wind industry in America is not dependent on Cape Wind — offshore or onshore.
"When you look at states, including the State of Massachusetts and the renewable portfolio standards, which they have adopted for their states, they are looking at producing very significant percentages of their energy from renewable energy resources," Salazar said, "and their principle way of getting there is through the development of wind energy."
(Photo Illustration: Cape Wind illustration of expected view of wind farm from Craigville, Mass., near Hyannis Port on Cape Cod)