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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

April 8, 2005

Air Date: April 8, 2005



Catching the Wind, Part One

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Wind has the power to generate both electricity and controversy. Advocates say modern wind turbines provide unlimited, pollution-free power. But critics complain the huge machines scar the landscape and pose a menace to wildlife. On our program this week we explore the advancements in the technology and the debate over wind power. Our story begins in Germany, the nation that leads the world in producing wind energy, but where citizen opposition to the proliferation of windmills across the country and troubles getting offshore windmills sited are threatening that status. (12:45)

Catching the Wind, Part Two

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Our examination of modern wind power continues with a look at the United States. We visit Altamont Pass in California, the place where more birds are killed by wind turbines than anywhere else in the world. But California is also home to High Winds, an energy park that even critics of wind power agree is a model on how to do it right. We also talk with Benjamin Bell from GE Energy, the nation’s largest maker of wind turbines, about advances in the technology of capturing the wind, and why its becoming a big business. (18:30)

Catching the Wind, Part Three

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The future of wind power in the U.S.A. may rest off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. That’s where developers want to build the nation’s first offshore wind farm. It would consist of 130 turbines, each taller than the Statue of Liberty, that proponents say would supply seventy-five percent of the region’s electric power. But opposition to this proposed citing is strong. Critics charge it would spoil one of the most pristine environments in the nation. We talk with representatives from both sides of the debate. And just to show that wind power is not all work and controversy, we end our program on a Massachusetts beach and a ride on a buggy pulled by a kite. (18:30)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
GUESTS: Steve Stengel, Benjamin Bell, Jim Gordon, Susan Nickerson, Don McClasland


CURWOOD: From NPR, this is Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood. There used to be more than six million small windmills dotting the American landscape in the days before the power grid reached almost every home. Now, wind is back with massive turbines as a multi-national business.

BELL: In 2004, we did a little over one billion dollars globally. And we anticipate it will be close to two billion in 2006. We've got a long ways to go but it is growing.

CURWOOD: Wind is free. It doesn't warm the planet or poison the air and there's plenty of it. But the turbines aren't pretty and they can be dangerous for bats and birds, even though engineers say they're getting better.

CAVANNA: The machines are much more productive, you need fewer of them, they are more reliable and they are less intrusive on the landscape and, obviously, less of a threat to birds.

CURWOOD: The potential for wind energy is tremendous and so is its power to generate controversy. "Capturing the Wind" – this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.


ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.

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Catching the Wind, Part One

CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.


CURWOOD: The wind. You can't see it, but you certainly can feel it, from a soft caress on a summer night to a howling hurricane. It goes by many names: Mariah, the Santa Ana, the Hawk. We speak of winds of change, whispered winds of truth, ill winds and second winds.

[MUSIC "Against the wind..."]

CURWOOD: And, winds that inspire music.

[MUSIC WIND MONTAGE: "We were running against the wind...Everyone knows it's windy...Like a candle in the wind...Dust in the wind...The wind, it cries, very...Wild is the wind...Blow ill wind...The summer wind, warm summer wind..."]

CURWOOD: Untamed powerful winds can destroy; harnessed they can be put to work. Of the dual nature of wind, Henry David Thoreau wrote, "do not forget you are completely at the mercy of the wind and a fickle power it is." Today, the fickle force of the wind can be seen in its power to generate both electricity and controversy. Advocates say modern wind turbines provide unlimited, pollution-free power. But critics complain the huge windmills scar the landscape and pose a menace to wildlife. Today, "Catching the Wind." Living on Earth explores the advancements in the technology and the debate over wind power. Our story begins in the nation that leads the world in turning the wind into electric power: Germany.


CURWOOD: We get our first taste of German wind power on a hill high above the town of Klettwitz, just south of Berlin. On the remains of what was once the largest open pit coal mine in Europe, 44 modern windmills now stand. Manager Henri Louvenhart takes us to the top of one of the giant machines to show how wind power is transforming the German landscape.

LOUVENHART: And you can notice from up here also the contrast between the destruction of the old energy production of the mines, where the landscape was completely altered and changed to the new high tech and alternative source of energy that the wind park provides, which is yet a cleaner and more environmentally-friendly and safer.

Klettwitz wind farm in Germany.

CURWOOD: When it went online in 2001, Klettwitz was the biggest wind park in Europe. Some ten thousand windmills dotted the German countryside then. Today, there are 16,000 and there are plans to double that number by the end of the decade. A goal most, but not all, Germans support.


CURWOOD: In Esch, near Cologne, citizens pack an auditorium to argue the merits of a plan to erect a wind turbine that would rise 643 feet over their village. Many say it's just too big. Others, like Max Bearklutz, say it's just too expensive.

BEARKLUTZ: They say in this area, in the total year of 360 days, this windmill turns only 70 days. That's the capacity of the wind. So, why you need for 70 days production out of a year, a big thing which costs us eight and a half million Euro. [chuckle] You're lucky to have those things. [chuckle]

CURWOOD: The wind turbine planned for Esch was never built. A victory, perhaps, for a small, but growing network of wind power opponents in Germany. At a café in Berlin we met this movement's most vocal leader.

MENGEL: My name is Hans Jochiam Mengel. I am professor of political science at the Free University of Berlin and living in the region of the Uchermach.

CURWOOD: Like many Germans, Hans Mengel favors alternative energy. He's a big advocate of solar, biomass and conservation as ways to reduce pollution and offset global warming. But he has a litany of reasons why he doesn't support wind power. In the first place, it's unreliable, he says. When there's no wind you have no energy. And, second, he believes government incentives and industry subsidies have led to runaway development of wind parks by investors just out to make a fast buck.

MENGEL: When I saw that the planning process, for example, to set up windmills has really been undercut by financial interests and, in my view, by overwhelming financial interests, and you took not any more consideration the protection of the landscape, then I started to think and afterwards to act.

CURWOOD: Hans Mengel took his anti-windmill arguments to the people. He ran for parliament and came in second in regional elections solely on a platform that claimed wind parks are destroying the cultural heritage of Europe.

MENGEL: And, I'm not alone with this opinion. One of the foremost playwrights in Europe and Germany and philosopher, Bota Strauss, he mentioned in a new book that by destroying these countrysides, these views, you are destroying the historic feeling of mankind, of European people. And, this is a very sad thing.

[MUSIC: Berliner Philharmoniker "Allegro con brio" Beethoven Symphony No. 5 (Deutsche Grammophon) 1984]

CURWOOD: Critics charge the proliferation of wind turbines is spoiling the German landscape--the idyllic countryside that inspired writers like Goethe and Schiller and composers from Bach to Beethoven.


CURWOOD: Germans even have a phrase for it: "Verspargelung der Landshaft." Roughly translated, it's a complaint that so many wind turbines are sprouting up, the country is turning into an asparagus field. Proponents of wind energy are heeding the criticism.


CURWOOD: Recently, the German Wind Energy Association agreed to a set of standards for the industry to follow when deciding where to put wind parks. Helmut Rusheisen is with the Nature Protection Society of Germany, an umbrella organization of environmental groups that helped draft the guidelines.

RUSHEISEN: You know, Germany has a long experience in wind energy. We have made mistakes at the beginning. That means we have chosen the wrong sites for windmills, too near to cities or the people are living, or at the wrong places, so that windmills may destroy the landscape. Also, may be dangerous for birds. And, therefore, having made these experiences, we think we should have, if you want to spread the wind energy worldwide and we want to do this, you need clear standards so that you can develop this without harm for environment or human beings.

CURWOOD: To put the anti-wind protest in perspective it's useful to note that according to polls, two-thirds of all Germans support wind energy. Wind power supporters accuse the coal and nuclear lobbies of fueling the protests. And they dismiss critics as "gross-städters," city slickers, who don't want to see the views at their country weekend country homes spoiled. With Germany committed to phasing out nuclear power and pledged under the Kyoto Accord to reduce greenhouse gases, the German Environment Minister Jürgen Trittin says plans to boost wind power will move ahead.

TRITTIN: We launched a renewable energy resources act. It was a decision by cabinet and it was a unanimous decision. And, this has the target to raise the share of electricity in the year 2020 up to 20 percent.

CURWOOD: That's quite a goal considering Germany now produces just six percent of its energy from wind, and, by some accounts, is running out of places to site wind parks on land. So, in the hope of sticking to its goal, the nation has devised two strategies. First: re-powering. That is, replacing aging turbines with more efficient ones. Then, says Peter Ahmens, president of the German Wind Energy Association, all eyes will turn north to the sea.

AHMENS: The idea is the offshore turbines, in 2030, shall produce more electricity, about 15 percent from the total consumption in Germany.


CURWOOD: In the spring of 2004, at a wind park in the North Sea port of Emden, one of the key elements to Germany's offshore energy future was unveiled. Built by Energon it's called the E-112, and at the time, it was the largest wind turbine in the world. From its base to the tip of its rotor blades it soars more than 600 feet into the air. The blades themselves are longer than the wingspan of a 747. The giant E-112 makes the other windmills here in this park look like play toys. This single wind machine can supply electricity for 6,000 homes. The E-112's size and power are meant to impress, not just Germans, but the entire world.

MALE: I want to welcome his Excellency the Ethiopian Minister of Infrastructure Doctor Kassell Laland and from the Republic of Yemen his Excellency the Minister for Electricity Mister Abu Raman Tamoon. Thank you all for coming to take part in this ceremony.


CURWOOD: But, so far, Germany's expansion of wind power to the sea is swamped in bureaucracy and is already behind by two years. Industry officials call the approval process for offshore wind parks a nit-picking nightmare that leaves investors nervous. So far, only eight of 33 proposed offshore projects have gotten the green light. Meanwhile, wind farms are springing up just off the coasts of Britain and especially Denmark where wind turbines are the third most important part of the manufacturing economy, behind only pharmaceuticals and Legos. Even the man who designed the E-112 says the German government's goals are overly ambitious. Energon founder and owner Aloys Wobben says it will take longer than expected because not enough is known about building huge wind parks in deep waters.

WOBBEN: So, we cannot jump now with a big step in the water and say now we are ready. This is too risky. And, if we fail, we damage the wind energy in Europe. So, that is one thing, what is not allowed, that we make this kind of mistakes. I know that the conventional utilities is waiting for that, that they can say, "Ah. Now, once a big company make a mistake, so the wind energy is not reliable." If something goes wrong, they blame me.

CURWOOD: Time is running out for Germany. To meet its goals the nation must reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent by 2020. But, by then, most of its nuclear plants will be gone and many conventional generating plants will reach the end of their life spans, leaving a huge gap in the power production this energy hungry nation demands. And, leaving many Germans wondering if catching the wind can fill the void.

[MUSIC: Charles Lloyd "Canon Perdido" Jumping the Creek (ECM) 2005]

CURWOOD: Wind power in the United States is growing by leaps and bounds, but not without its own controversy. Wind in the U.S.A. is just ahead. Keep listening to Living on Earth.


Related link:
German Wind Energy Association

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Catching the Wind, Part Two

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

[MUSIC: Rolling Stones "Gimme Shelter" Let it Bleed (Abkco) 1969]

CURWOOD: In December of 1969, the music of the Rolling Stones echoed through the canyons and valleys of Altamont Pass, just east of San Francisco. This was the site of the infamous concert at which a member of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang murdered a man, a symbolic end to the 1960s generation of peace and love.


(Photo: Chris Ballman)

CURWOOD: Today, another sound sweeps through Altamont Pass and some say it's just as ominous.

MILLER: (chuckle) The birds out here are yelling "gimme shelter," you know? The carnage out here that's going on with the birds is a lot more gruesome than what happened at Altamont.

CURWOOD: Jeff Miller stands on a high ridge and points to the wind turbines here at Altamont Pass. Below us, scattered across the Diablo Range as far as the eye can see, are nearly 7,000 turbines.


CURWOOD: Some are new and big. Most are old and small. Established in the early 1980s, Altamont is the birthplace of wind power in the United States. It's also the wind power industry's worst nightmare.

MILLER: If you were going to pick a place to put a wind farm and try to kill as many birds of prey as you could, this would be the place to put it.

CURWOOD: Jeff Miller is with the Center for Biodiversity. The group is suing the operators of Altamont Wind Park, claiming their turbines kill more than a thousand birds each year. Among them: protected species including the burrowing owl and the golden eagle.

MILLER: Right where we're standing here in the Diablo Range is the highest concentration of golden eagles anywhere in the world. The issue here is, are there things that they can do that are feasible that are within their, you know, reasonable economic costs that the wind power companies can do to reduce birds kills? Absolutely.

CURWOOD: Jeff Miller says his group wants operators to reduce bird kills by retiring the most lethal of these "cuisinarts of the air" as critics like to call them. He says remaining turbines should be clustered, their rotors made more visible. Setting aside bird habitat is another option. But there's only so much operators can do. Here's the problem: Altamont Pass is a major bird migration route, a factor that wasn't considered when the wind park was constructed. On the other hand, California urgently needs clean, renewable energy and at Altamont there's certainly plenty of wind. At peak capacity the turbines can produce 580 megawatts. That's enough power to meet the energy needs of nearly 190,000 homes.

MILLER: Society's going have to decide. I mean, at Altamont Pass the issue is, are we going to keep producing wind power at Altamont Pass? If the answer is yes, the next question is, is it acceptable to slaughter thousands of rare birds each year? Wind power doesn't have to kill a lot of birds. Appropriately sited, you can have wind power and very little risk to birds.

CURWOOD: Altamont is considered the wind power industry's "bad boy." But just a short drive away you can find its "good brother."

REARDON: There's a real art to learning to park a car on a wind site.

CURWOOD: Brent Reardon is technical manager at the High Winds Energy Center. This state-of-the-art wind park is about thirty miles north of Altamont Pass on the windy slopes of the Montezuma Hills.

REARDON: And you can always tell the rookies driving the trucks because the hinges are all bent out on their doors from parking downwind. And you get a 40-mile an hour wind when you open a door and it's unexpected. It just rips it right out of your hand, so...

CURWOOD: Ninety huge Danish-made Vesta turbines capture the wind here. These modern three-blade machines, mounted on 300-foot towers, can produce 162 megawatts of electricity. That's enough power for 75,000 homes. So if you do the math, you would need just 228 turbines at High Winds to produce the same amount of electricity as the 7,000 machines at Altamont.

CAVANNA: It was impressive for me for several reasons.

CURWOOD: Ralph Cavanna directs energy policy for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

CAVANNA: The machines are much more productive, you need fewer of them, they are more reliable and they are less intrusive on the landscape and, obviously, less of a threat to birds.

CURWOOD: Less of a threat to birds because the towers are taller and their blades are above flight paths. More productive because computers direct the blades to constantly follow the wind. The blades are longer, too, and spin slower, just 16 turns a minute instead of 72 like the old wind turbines. Ralph Cavanna says he's seen the future of wind power in the United States and its name is High Winds.

CAVANNA: You shouldn't make your judgments about wind power based on obsolete technology in the first generation. You should be looking at the latest generation, that's what High Winds is; I'm sure we'll do even better. But I found that to be a very hopeful signal about where the industry was going.


CURWOOD: More than 3,000 sheep graze on Ian Anderson's farm. The animals: oblivious to the turbines overhead. The Anderson family has been farming the Montezuma Hills for four generations. Among neat rows of hay and safflower stand 12 giant turbines. Ian Anderson says that leasing his land to those who harvest the wind has become a cash cow.

ANDERSON: There's a minimum payment and we do receive, I think, it's 600 dollars per machine so, in my case, there's 12 of them. So, I have a minimum payment of $10,000 a year, which is real helpful to my cash flow.


CURWOOD: Ian Anderson believes in the promise of wind energy. So much so, he plans to buy another thousand acres and lease more land to wind turbine operators. If it all works out, Ian Anderson says he'll produce meat and grain for 100,000 people and provide energy for as many as 50,000 homes.

ANDERSON: I'm just going to be a strong exporter not only of proteins but also the energy. So that's a really great feeling. The big question will be can they keep these machines running for the 30-year period. What will be the maintenance and repair costs on these and that's an unknown.


MAN: You need to swipe your badge right there and it'll beep and then [BEEP]...

CURWOOD: The company that operates the turbines at the Anderson farm in California is headquartered in a huge, ultra-modern building of glass, chrome and high security in Juno Beach, Florida. FLP Energy Spokesman Steve Stengel is optimistic about the long-term viability of their power generators.

STENGEL: With proper maintenance there is no reason to believe that those turbines couldn't continue to generate electricity for 25-plus years.

CURWOOD: Now, High Winds has been cited by environmentalist activists as the model for doing wind parks right. What did you take into consideration when siting this facility?

STENGEL: Well, there was an extensive amount of pre-construction studies that were done that looked at everything from avian issues to plant life issues to cultural resources. We looked at issues related to noise. And so, we did our homework up front to identify any potential impacts or problems that there might be with the site so that we could address those prior to construction.

CURWOOD: So, you did all this research. I imagine you found some sticky points. What did you do then to resolve those questions?

STENGEL: Well, I think, one of the things to focus on would be issues related to birds. As part of the permit that we received for this facility we agreed to do, for lack of a better term, avian monitoring. And what we do with that is we actually monitor any fatalities that may occur because of the wind farm. And over time, we look at any fatalities and we identify measures that we might be able to implement over time to reduce any of those fatalities.

CURWOOD: Now, FPL Energy also operates a number of turbines at Altamont Pass in California. And, as we know, you and other operators there are being sued by the Center for Biological Diversity over the bird kills there, specifically the golden eagle and other raptors. What steps are you taking to lessen the impact on these birds?

STENGEL: Well, since we began operating wind turbines in the Altamont area back in 1998, our company and our partners have done a number of things. For instance, we have already taken out of service approximately ten percent of the turbines that we operate in this region. That includes the removal of 169 turbines that we have replaced with 31 new modern turbines. And, in addition to that, we have shut down and have either removed or are in the process of relocating an additional 100 turbines. In addition to that, the turbine owners including FPL energy we have, what is called, an adaptive management plan and, ultimately, this plan calls for re-powering. And, what that is, is taking these older turbines, these turbines that are 10, 15, 20 years old and replacing them with newer modern turbines day like we've talked about previously.

CURWOOD: FPL operates something like 6,500 wind turbines in 44 locations in 15 states. That's pretty big. In fact, I think it makes you the largest generator of wind power in the United States. Why did you decide to make this big investment in wind power?

STENGEL: First and foremost, there is no emissions with wind power. In addition to that, from an economic sense, the cost of wind power today is much, much more competitive than it was 20 years ago. The technology is better. The machines are more efficient than they were 20 years ago. The other thing that is helping the competitiveness of wind is the high price that we're seeing of natural gas and fuel oil today. So, those are really the primary reasons that we think wind makes sense.

CURWOOD: That's dollars, and sense, to a growing number of companies and investors who are throwing big bucks into wind. Federal tax credits and mandates for renewable energy in 18 states and the District of Columbia are energizing the industry. Since 1981, wind power capacity has soared from ten to nearly 7,000 megawatts and is expected to double by the end of the decade. In the past three years alone, more than 400 million dollars has been invested in wind. What once was the province of backyard tinkerers and back-to-earth environmentalists is now a playing field for pinstripe investors like Goldman Sachs and multinationals including Shell, Siemens and General Electric.

GE VIDEO: Wind is the world's fastest growing power resource and part of GE Energy's commitment to creative energy solutions for the future....

CURWOOD: GE was showcasing wind power in this promotional video at a recent conference in Boston. And, that's where I caught up with Benjamin Bell, the company's point man on offshore wind turbine sales. For GE, Ben Bell says wind is a growing business.

BELL: In 2004, we did a little over one billion dollars globally. And, we anticipate it will be close to two billion in 2006. So I think it's an important, emerging market, you know, essentially double-digit growth rates in the industry. And, GE wants to be some significant part of that. And, globally in the world, is about 50 gigawatts installed. In the United States, we've got close to seven gigawatts. And, right now, if you look at countries like Denmark, 20 percent of their energy is generated by wind where as the United States, it's less than one percent. We've got a long ways to go, but it is growing.

Benjamin Bell (left), GE's offshore turbine expert, talking to Steve Curwood.

CURWOOD: How much has tax law affected your business? And, what's the current situation?

BELL: Significantly. The current tax law, the federal tax law, which is the production tax credit, is worth about 1.8 cents per kilowatt-hour and that has had significant impact on our development. In years in the past when the production tax credit had expired, didn't exist, we had zero sales. In the years that the tax credit is in place, we sell out. So, it has had significant impact. The industry isn't quite at a point where it can stand on it's own. Of course, I think that's probably true of the entire energy industry. If you look at subsidies to all energy sources, wind accounts for about one percent, as compared to some of the other technologies that are also getting regulatory support, whether it be coal, oil, gas, nuclear. Those are all subsidized, as well. So, I think, the federal production tax credit for wind really kind of just levels the playing field, but has really helped the market move forward.

CURWOOD: But this runs out now at the end of 2005.

BELL: That's correct. And, that has been a bit of an issue for the industry. Because with the tax credit starting and stopping, it makes it very difficult for manufacturers to ramp up produce machines and then have to, you know, ramp back down again when sales decrease if the tax credit goes away. So, we would very much like to see something long-term, or perhaps even a federal renewable portfolio standard that would help support this industry through this early development time.

CURWOOD: Give us a short history of the wind turbine. What were the first ones like? And how far have they come?

BELL: Well, obviously, the first turbines ever developed were around 1200 B.C. in Persia, but since that time modern technology wind turbines really started development in the mid-70s. And those were fairly simple technologies, "free-yah" machines, where the machines would steer themselves in the wind. And a number of machines produced in the ‘80s were "downwind machines," where the blades operate behind the tower. And, the machines were also installed on lattice-type Truss Towers. What we found out was that generally the downwind machines were noisier and sometimes utilizing those lattice towers, it provided a roost for birds to perch on. And so, we've really moved away from those technologies. We've turned the rotors upwind to help reduce the noise and we've also gone to tubular-type towers where birds can't perch on the towers. And the machines have become much more reliable. And, as the computers have developed over the past 20 years, that technology has been deployed with the wind turbines enabling us to monitor them remotely and being able to diagnose problems remotely. So, the very simple machines were smaller, less reliable, noisier and those are all the things that we've been working on over the past 20 to 25 years to help improve them and lower the cost of electricity.

CURWOOD: So, these are how far you've come with machines for today. How big can these things get?

BELL: It's hard to say how far the technology is going to go. It might be somewhere in the five to 10 megawatt range.

CURWOOD: So, if I were looking at an office building, how many stories high might this wind turbine be?

BELL: Oh, the largest machines. Well, currently the machines that we have in the water, say, at our Arklow Project, the rotor diameter – you know, if you drew a circle around the rotor, the distance across it is 104 meters, which is a little bit bigger than a football field. I think that rotor diameters could approach the 150-meter range, which is quite large.

CURWOOD: How big is big if I'm looking at one of these things? How tall might it be in terms of, say, an office building?

GE Energy's wind turbines installed at the Arklow Bank Offshore Wind Farm in Ireland. (Credit:  GE Energy.)

BELL: Probably on the order of around a 20-story building.

CURWOOD: That's big.

BELL: Yes.

CURWOOD: What's the advantage for an offshore placement of a wind turbine or a wind turbine farm, as opposed to being on land?

BELL: One of the advantages of going offshore is generally there are better winds offshore and those winds are also less turbulent because they just have to flow over water as opposed to going through trees and all the rest. So, generally better winds. And, typically you can get large wind projects closer to load centers, where the electricity has the most value. Say, on the eastern seaboard of the United States, where we're paying the highest energy rates in the country, we're able to put wind turbines close to those load centers to meet the energy demand.

CURWOOD: GE hopes to be the company chosen to supply the turbines for what will be the nation's first offshore wind park. A 130-turbine facility is slated for Nantucket Sound just off Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Proponents call it an answer--energy-hungry society dependent on foreign oil and threatened by climate change and air pollution. Wind energy is free and unlimited. But, opposition has been vociferous. Critics complain the turbines will be an eyesore, lower property values and kill birds. Some especially don't like elements of the developers marketing strategy.

WOMAN: It is absolutely, positively, unequivocally, unconscionable that Cape Wind is using the war in Iraq in support for its for profit venture. No more will their proposed wind plant cut down on the number of our soldiers dying in Iraq, then it will wean us from our dependency on foreign oil.

CURWOOD: The Cape Wind controversy is just ahead. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Support for NPR comes from NPR stations, and the Argosy Foundation Contemporary Music Fund, supporting the creation, performance and recording of new music; the Kresge Foundation, building the capacity of nonprofit organizations through challenge grants since 1924. On the web at kresge.org; the Annenberg Fund for excellence in communications and education; and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, from vision to innovative impact, 75 years of philanthropy. This is NPR, National Public Radio.

[MUSIC: Tord Gustavsen Trio "Being There" The Ground (ECM) 2005]

Related links:
- American Wind Energy Association
- GE Energy
- Wind Farms of California Information

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Catching the Wind, Part Three

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

MALE ACTOR: I shall impersonate a man. Come enter into my imagination and see him.

CURWOOD: In the play "Man of La Mancha," the gallant knight takes on the world with an idealism bordering on madness.

ACTOR: To become a knight and sally forth into the world, righting all wrongs. His name--Don Quixote de La Mancha!

CURWOOD: But Don Quixote's visions are delusional. With his lance the noble knight charges what he believes are evil giants, paying no heed to the warnings of his manservant Sancho Panza that he is really attacking windmills.

ACTOR: And the wild winds of fortune. Shall carry me onward, Oh whithersoever they blow. Whithersoever they blow, Onward to glory I go!

CURWOOD: Today's crusaders against wind power aren't tilting at imaginary giants. They oppose real ones. Consider Hyannis, Massachusetts, on the southern coast of Cape Cod, near the Kennedy family compound. The company Cape Wind wants to build the nation's first offshore wind farm, seven miles off the coast of Hyannis on Horseneck Shoal in Nantucket Sound.

The 700 million-dollar project calls for the construction of 130 turbines, each taller than the Statue of Liberty. The turbines would be within eyesight of the town and popular beach communities on Nantucket Island and Martha's Vineyard. As part of the environmental review process supporters and opponents of the project have been attending public meetings, giving voice and even song to their points of view.

SINGER: How many windmills will it take to replace resources that leave the world unstable?

MAN: Cape Wind won't prevent climate change by itself, but it will offset nearly one million tons of carbon dioxide making this the single most beneficial action we can take to clean our air and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.

WOMAN: I oppose the idea of America's first offshore wind farm being placed on Nantucket Sound. My opposition is based on my opinion that this unspoiled area should not be squandered and disfigured.

MAN2: If somebody's view was disturbed, then I'm sorry, I really am. But the greater good is stewardship of the planet.

SINGER: Yes, and how many particulates must fill our lungs before a clean source can be found?

MAN3: I am not opposed to alternate energy sources, but at what expense? We have a very unique environment in the Sound and a very unique way of getting power and I don't know how we can marry the two.

SINGER AND CHORUS: The answer my friend is blowing in the wind, the answer is blowing in the wind.

CURWOOD: So far, it's been a seesaw battle over the Cape Wind project. Federal courts have ruled in favor of the plan, but in March of 2005 the Department of the Interior called a draft impact statement "flawed," setting the project back by as much as two years or maybe forever. On a cold rainy early spring day, along the Hyannis waterfront, I spoke with Jim Gordon, president of Cape Wind, the project's developer and Susan Nickerson, executive director of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, the leading opposition group to the wind farm. We met as fisherman unloaded their haul at the nearby dock.


CURWOOD: So, I want to thank you both for coming out here on a kind of a blustery, cold day (LAUGHS).

NICKERSON: It's a pleasure.

GORDON: Thanks for inviting us.

CURWOOD: So Jim, let's start with you. Now, if you get permission to build your wind farm, how would it operate on, well, this is a somewhat windy day today?

GORDON: Well, Steve, the winds off of Horseshoe Shoal average about 19 miles per hour. The reason that we picked Horseshoe Shoal is that it has some of the strongest, most consistent winds, it has shallow waters and low wave heights. We found that Horseshoe Shoal was the optimal site and the fact that it was close to the Cape and Islands, which has the fastest-growing electric demand in New England. So, here we're going to put a wind farm that's going to produce, on average, 75 percent of the Cape and Islands' electricity with zero pollutant emissions, zero water consumption and zero waste discharge.

CURWOOD: Why not go further offshore?

GORDON: Because right now the technology, Steve, doesn't allow you to build offshore wind turbines in very deep waters. Also, you know, the further out you go, the greater the losses are on the electricity, so it's less efficient. We looked at a number of the successful wind farms, offshore wind farms, in Europe and what we are trying to do is build a wind farm where the wind is, where the conditions are right. So, that it's technically and economically feasible to supply Massachusetts' citizens with, you know, lower electric costs, increased energy independence, a cleaner, healthier environment and new jobs.

CURWOOD: What would these turbines look like from shore?

GORDON: We're actually about six miles from Horseshoe Shoal now, and if you were on the nearest public beaches and looked out on the horizon, the wind turbines, on a clear day, would appear about a half inch off the horizon. They would look like tiny sailing masts. So, what you're looking at here, these boat masts tower over a half-inch view off the horizon.

CURWOOD: Susan Nickerson, you're with the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound and you oppose the Cape Wind Project. Why?

NICKERSON: Steve, there are a number of reasons, and I'd like to get into them, but first, I'd like to emphasize that this is not an argument about the need for renewable energy. And, I think people on all sides of the debate agree, without qualification, that the country needs to move in the direction of renewables. The questions that we really face here have to do with where do you put these kinds of facilities? And, what are the trade-offs that people are willing to live with?

It turns out that Horseshoe Shoal is about the worst location on the eastern seaboard imaginable because of the existing uses out there. And, the fishing boats, the one that was just here at the dock unloading scallops, very likely got that catch on Horseshoe Shoal. We have fishermen that have stood beside us for many months and years now and have attested to the value of catch. Millions of dollars worth of fish each year they take off of Horseshoe Shoal. It's not necessarily deep-sea fishing; it's squid, it's scup, it's shellfish. And, if the turbines are built out there they won't use the area because they will not be able to maneuver their boats in between the turbines. They'll be concerned about their gear interlocking with the cables that will be connecting each of the wind turbine generators together. That's one example of the conflicts.

CURWOOD: So, what are your concerns on a national level here?

NICKERSON: That's a very important piece of this because, essentially, national energy policy is being formulated right here in Nantucket Sound and what happens here will have implications up and down the eastern seaboard, the Gulf of Mexico and the West Coast. What has happened with Cape Wind, they've exposed an enormous gaping hole in federal law. There is no federal law governing how the outer continental shelf can or cannot be used. And, if this permit were to be granted to allow Cape Wind to build on public land for private gain, it would essentially trigger a gold rush. And, other coastal states that right now have no more weight than the state of Massachusetts in saying what happens in federal waters off their coast would be affected.

CURWOOD: Now, Sue Nickerson, let me ask you about some of the other environmental groups. I'm thinking of Greenpeace, Conservation Law Foundation, Union of Concerned Scientists. I think it's fair to say, conditionally said that this project makes some sense to them. I think they have concerns about regulations and such, but at the end of the day they say, "look, this climate change thing is not getting any better. It's a matter of trading off; there's no perfect solution and this is better than, you know, having all of Cape Cod under a risen sea in however many years it's predicted." So, what about the dissent among environmental groups about this?

NICKERSON: Right, Steve, and that's one of the real tragedies of this whole debate, is it's pitting environmentalists against environmentalists and it's taking two very worthy goals, one of which is development of renewable energy and pitting it against ocean resource management, to no avail. And that's why we think there is a better way to do this, that there are win-win scenarios out there. This doesn't happen to be one of them.

CURWOOD: Win-win?

NICKERSON: Win-win, not wind-wind.

CURWOOD: Not wind-wind, win-win.

NICKERSON: Well, it might be wind-wind.

CURWOOD: So, what would be a win-win here?

NICKERSON: The problem with this project, as we've talked about, is that it's not appropriately sited; it's not the right project in the right place. And, we think that with the momentum that's developing around interest in renewables right now that there can be a consensus approach to this project that would identify a reasonable site. In terms of how we reach that consensus, I think that conversation needs to start with the public.

The problem with this project is that it's been developer-driven. Cape Wind did the computer analysis and found that this was the most lucrative site for their corporate profits and it happens to be in the middle of Nantucket Sound. We think if the public were behind selection of these sites Nantucket Sound would never be on the table for discussion because it is a national treasure and there are existing uses of the area.

GORDON: Basically what you're hearing from Susan is she tells you she likes renewable energy, but not just here. Put it somewhere else. The problem is, somewhere else is in someone else's view-shed, is in someone else's recreational area. And we all have to ante up in the fight against global warming. You know, there's an environmental justice issue here, because, you know, it's interesting. Here we have the fastest-growing electric demand in New England and we're talking about generating a new source of electricity with minimal impacts. It's not a choice between Cape Wind or nothing; it's a choice between Cape Wind on Horseshoe Shoal or putting a coal plant in Lynn, Massachusetts or an oil plant in Roxbury, Massachusetts or, you know, something in a less politically-influential or affluent area. And, renewable energy is a public purpose in Massachusetts. The legislature is mandating that we get increasing amounts of our energy from renewable energy over the ensuing years and if we don't build projects like Cape Wind, we're not going to meet that renewable portfolio standard and mandate.

CURWOOD: Sue Nickerson, if this were a public project, if no one was going to make a dollar for private pocket, this was done by a public agency, would it be okay to put wind turbines out in Nantucket Sound?

NICKERSON: If there were all of the environmental factors were considered and the economic factors were considered and it came out that there was no adverse economic impact, there was no adverse environmental impact, then any site would be acceptable. But, the fact of the matter is we don't have any standards; we don't have any yardsticks. And, the folks from Cape Wind like to talk about the project in terms of panacea, that it's going to cure the asthma epidemic, that it's going to decrease global warming. That's entirely false when you look at what's really going on here. The contribution that this project is going to make in those directions is miniscule and the costs that are going to be incurred because of it are enormous.

And the problem with the Cape Wind project is that it's so controversial, it's basically mired the development of an entire new energy industry in this country, being offshore wind energy development, that ought not be mired. It needs to move ahead.

CURWOOD: Well, thank you both for taking this time. Jim Gordon is the CEO of Cape Wind. Susan Nickerson is executive director of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound.

GORDON: Thank you.

NICKERSON: Thank you, Steve.

CURWOOD: Catching the wind means more than putting it to work. Three thousand years ago the Chinese built some of the earliest kites out of bamboo and silk. Of course, kites are still a thrill for kids and some adults, too, like Don McCasland, who's taking his kite in new directions.


MCCASLAND: We are at Carson Beach in South Boston and right now we are rigging kites to get ready to go buggy kiting. I've been buggy kiting since the early 1990s. The fastest I've ever gone is 42. I know many people who like to cruise in the 45 to 50 mile per hour range, but that's a bit fast for my taste. The wind is faster than I expected actually. They were saying a sea breeze would kick in, but I thought it would be later this afternoon. It's quite good. It's the perfect direction for long fast reaches. And, it's blowing probably about 10 to 15 miles per hour.

Don McClasland gets his buggy ready for action.
(Photo: Bruce Gellerman)


MCCASLAND: I've got to get the tire pressure up so we won't have too much resistance. The easier the vehicles roll, the faster we can go. We're at 40 PSI; we'll move to 60. I love doing this, as program director at Blue Hill talking about whether there's a strong relationship between air pressure, which is of course, going into this tire and wind. Wind is the result of high pressure going to low pressure and from an educational point of view, pumping up a tire is a great way to express that.


MCCASLAND: The great thing about the wind, whether it's buggy kiting, traditional kiting, sailing, is the relationship that you have with it. That feeling of the wind, the air rushing through, it filling your lungs, it going by your body. Right now, there's a nice gust I can feel. It's saying, "ok, it's time to get going and rig up the kite."


MCCLASLAND: I've got the kite overhead, it's just sitting there; I'm hovering it. I'll put my feet on the pegs for control and then I'll bring it down into what we call the power zone and it'll start pulling us along. Here we go.

Don McClasland pilots a wind buggy on Carson Beach in South Boston. (Photo: Bruce Gellerman)


MCCLASLAND: So, we're not exactly zooming along and that's what I like for my first time out is to be moving, but be in control for safety. The sand hasn't dried out completely so it's a bit soft and that is creating a challenge for our traction. There's a pretty large amount of pull on my arm. It's a good workout. In terms of this sport, it's just a great way to put that wonderful force of nature to exhilaration. To get the blood pumping, to use all the muscles and the brain, concentrate. I always tell people don't spend money on an ATV, buy a kite buggy. You don't have to pay for gas, it doesn't pollute and it's a lot more fun.

CURWOOD: Wind buggy pilot Don McClasland is program director at the Blue Hill Observatory in Milton, Massachusetts.

[MUSIC: "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" Vince Guaraldi:Cast Your Fate to the Wind:Jazz Impressions (Fantasy) 1991]

CURWOOD: We leave you with this thought: In the 19th century, American inventiveness, Yankee ingenuity, sparked the development of clipper ships to sail on the whispers and wails of the wind, giving our merchants the advantage of speed in world trade. In time, the sleek clippers yielded to bigger and heavier boats powered first by coal and then by oil, ships, which could move with more predictability and some might say less seamanship. But, a clipper ship provisioned with fresh water and food could ride the wind almost forever and leave behind on the horizon only a graceful silhouette instead of a noxious smudge. And, so that is the challenge for this age. Toxic and polluting sources of power are steadier and kilowatt for kilowatt, more powerful. But, now the hope of engineers is to once again capture the free and inexhaustible supply of wind for today's human needs—so we too, if we dare, can go on gracefully and forever.


Related links:
- Cape Wind
- Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound

Back to top


CURWOOD: Our program, "Catching the Wind" was produced by Chris Ballman and Bruce Gellerman with help from Jennifer Chu, Steve Gregory and Lee Fuoco. Our interns are Katie Oliveri and Katie Zemtseff.

Our technical director is Paul Wabrek. Alison Dean composed our themes. Promotional audio courtesy of GE Energy. Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. You can find us at our Web site, Living on Earth dot o-r-g. That's living on Earth dot org. I'm Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science; and Stonyfield Farm, organic yogurt and smoothies. Stonyfield pays its farmers not to use artificial growth hormones on their cows. Details at Stonyfield dot com. Support also comes from NPR member stations, and the Ford Foundation, for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues, and the Wellborn Ecology Fund.

ANNOUNCER2: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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