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Wind on the water

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A big shift to alternative energies such as wind and solar will take a change in thinking. One example is the Cape Wind project. Cape Wind plans to build 130 windmills in the water. It would be the country's first off-shore wind farm, but not everybody likes it. Mark Brush reports the fight over this wind farm could clear the path for others.

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Transcript: Mark Brush, December 24, 2009

Say you want to make some money putting up windmills. You need a place with lots of wind, lots of open space, and lots of people who will want to buy your power.

It turns out, Nantucket Sound off the east coast is an ideal setting.

Jim Gordon first proposed the Cape Wind Project in 2001. The windmills would be as tall as 40 story buildings. And could power hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses.

"Look, it's not a question of Cape Wind or nothing. It's a question of Cape Wind or a new nuclear plant or a new coal plant, or a heavy oil fired power plant."

And that's where people on Cape Cod get their power now - a power plant that burns oil. Boats making deliveries to the power plant have spilled oil into the water.

Jim Gordon thought it was a no-brainer. Replace dirty power plants with clean renewable energy.

But his plan ran into a bunch of opposition from rich and powerful people.

Roger Whitcomb wrote a book on the Cape Wind Project. Whitcomb said at a recent lecture that a lot of the opposition came from names we're all familiar with - the Kennedys, the duPonts, and the Mellons.

"Most of these people were summer people. And they basically just didn't want to look at these wind turbines, or the way they thought would look, because many of them had actually never seen a wind farm or a wind turbine. But they didn't like the idea of anything violating the visual integrity of their horizon."

There's also some opposition from fisherman, some Indian tribes, and some locals who live on the islands. But Whitcomb says the bulk of the money for the fight against the Cape Wind Project comes from the rich and powerful.

Right now, those groups are challenging environmental reviews and permits in the Massachusetts Supreme Court. All these legal challenges - all these permitting hoops - put a damper on big projects.

Roger Whitcomb says we used to be a people who thought big. But that's changed.

"It's very difficult to do anything in the United States anymore. We're way behind everybody else. This isn't a can-do country anymore. There's been a huge change. This is not where things are done."

Energy developers are watching how the Cape Wind Project plays out. It could clear the way for more big wind farms off the coasts of places such as New York, Maryland, and Michigan.

And despite all the legal and political barriers, it looks like the country is closer than ever to seeing its first ever offshore wind farm built.

There's a lot of popular support for the project in the region.

Ken Salazar heads up the Department of Interior. He told us this past spring he expects projects like Cape Wind will go forward.

"You know I expect that it will happen during the first term of the Obama Administration. I think that there is huge potential for wind energy off the shores of especially the Atlantic because of the shallowness of those waters."

Siting big wind farms is a new kind of battle in this country. In some cases - like the Cape Wind project - energy development is moving closer to the wealthy.

Ian Bowles is the Secretary of the Energy and Environmental Affairs Department for the State of Massachusetts:

"Many of the dirty fossil plants of a generation ago were sited in cities and many times in environmental justice areas where there's lower income residents. And I think today, you've got in many ways you have more wealthy set of opponents of wind power that is going to relieve the people who live in cities of some of the clean air burdens from siting decisions made a generation ago."

That means some wind farms can change the game. They move power plants from the backyards of the poor, and into the views of the rich and powerful.

For The Environment Report, I'm Mark Brush.

Copyright 2009. The Regents of the University Of Michigan. Used with permission.

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