Who's Killing Renewable Energy?

A promising offshore wind energy project has languished on the East Coast for 15 years—and its enemies range from a Koch brother to the Kennedys.

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In 2001, Jim Gordon, a Boston-based energy entrepreneur who played a critical role in the development of natural gas–fired power plants in the 1990s, was searching for a way to produce energy on the East Coast. Gordon recognized that dependence on Middle East oil was unsustainable, scientists and environmental activists were just starting to sound the alarm about climate change, and states were beginning to outline standards for renewable energy projects.

New England, densely populated and far from energy production, is one of the most expensive electricity markets in the country. Although the region lacks space on land for renewable energy production, it has one easily accessible, top-notch natural resource: a windy and relatively shallow ocean.

Gordon knew the Netherlands was generating renewable energy from wind turbines miles offshore, and “the New England coastline had similar geography and population density to Northern Europe, so offshore wind made sense,” he says. He began working on what would become the Cape Wind Energy Project in Nantucket Sound, off the Massachusetts shore.

Fifteen years later, bureaucratic obstacles, high costs, and wealthy Cape Cod residents hostile to a major renewable energy project near their homes plague the endeavor. Gordon is optimistic about the project, but some experts and analysts think Cape Wind may never break ground. Still, it has dramatically changed the landscape for offshore wind power in the United States. The story of the pioneering project underscores the difficulty of cultivating ambitious renewable energy sources and helps explain why more than 25 years after the first offshore wind farm was commissioned in Vindeby, Denmark, when offshore wind can meet 10 percent of Europe’s electricity demand, the United States is struggling to create a market for the resource.

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