Cape Wind Project Approved in Huge Boost For American Clean Energy

[UPDATED] This afternoon in Boston, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced that a massive wind farm off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, would move forward, despite intense local opposition.

Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts said construction on the farm was expected to start within a year. “America needs offshore wind power and with this project, Massachusetts will lead the nation,” Patrick said at a press conference.

Secretary Salazar said at the press conference that it was unacceptable for the project to have taken nine years, and expressed confidence that future wind projects would take less time.

Salazar’s decision sets an important precedent for the development of offshore wind farms in the United States and, indirectly, American clean energy in general, by demonstrating that the administration is willing to push past prominent opposition to move such projects forward. Opponents of the Cape Wind farm include a local Native American tribe and the Kennedy family, whose estate in Hyannis Port overlooks the site of the farm.

“I think this is likely the shot heard ‘round the world for American clean energy,” Ian Bowles, secretary of the Massachusett’s executive office of environmental affairs, told the New York Times. The paper has been following the story doggedly the last couple of days.

When completed, Cape Wind would have 130 turbines reaching 440 feet above the water spread out over a 24 square mile area of Nantucket Sound, about five miles from shore. The farm has a nameplate capacity of 468 megawatts, but is expected to generate an average of 170 megawatts, or about 75 percent of the electricity needed for Cape Cod and the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard.

But Cape Wind’s symbolic power far surpasses its megawatts. When completed, it will be the nation’s first offshore wind farm, presumably easing the way for dozens of other proposed farms, mainly along the Eastern seaboard.

Wind power has shown itself to be increasingly competitive with fossil fuels in generating electricity. The state of Texas generates as much as 19 percent of its electricity from wind, and plans a massive expansion of its generating capacity in wind-swept West Texas in the years ahead.

Offshore wind is more expensive than land-based generation, but because it is closer to population centers may not need expensive transmission lines to bring electricity to customers.

The Wampanoag tribe, who says its religious rituals require an unobstructed view of the sunrise, announced Monday it would sue if Salazar approves the Cape Wind project. The Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound and the Town of Barnstable also said they would sue.

Cape Wind has been in development for nine years.

BC (Ben) Upham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, and was a writer and editor for News Communications, Inc., a local paper consortium serving Manhattan. When he's not blogging on green issues -- and especially renewable energy -- he's hiking in the Angeles Mountains or hanging out at El Matador.