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Touted as “America’s first offshore wind project,” Cape Wind became one of America’s most high-profile and most controversial wind-energy projects. Fourteen years in the making, estimated at $2.6 billion for 130 turbines, covering 25 square miles in Nantucket Sound off the coast of Massachusetts, the Cape Wind project has yet to install one turbine—let alone produce any electricity. Now, it may be “dead in the water.”
On January 6, the two power companies, National Grid and Northeast Utilities, that had agreed to purchase most of the electricity Cape Wind was to generate, terminated their contracts with the developers due to missed milestones. Under the terms of the contracts, Cape Wind had to secure financing and give notices to proceed to its suppliers to start work by December 31, 2014. Neither happened and both companies filed to cancel power purchase agreements. “The project is in cardiac arrest,” according to Amy Grace, a wind-industry analyst with Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
Cape Wind has faced stiff opposition since it was first proposed in 2001. Senator Edward Kennedy’s efforts, and those of his wealthy friends, to fight Cape Wind have been the most publicized, but Native Americans, fishermen, and local communities have also battled the industrialization of Nantucket Sound. The town of Barnstable has been particularly active in the fight. The Cape Cod Times reports that Charles McLaughlin, Barnstable’s assistant town attorney, said: “The town’s concerns include the possibility that a collision between a boat and the large electric service platform the project requires could spill thousands of gallons of oil into the sound.”
Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick (D) positioned Cape Wind as the centerpiece of his renewable energy goals and invested significant political capital backing the proposal—including tying the NStar power purchase agreement to approval of the NStar and Northeast Utilities merger (given the unfavorable terms of the agreements, the companies may have been looking for any exit ramp). Yet, Ian Bowles, Patrick’s first energy and environment chief who, according to the Boston Globe, “helped shepherd the offshore project,” acknowledges that the loss of the power purchase agreements “may have spelled the end for Cape Wind.”
The announcement came two days before Patrick left office. While he claims: “We’ve done everything as a state government to get them over the regulatory lines,” Patrick concedes it is now “up to the market.” According to the Cape Cod Times, the former governor doesn’t know “if the project could survive without the contracts in place.”
Even the Department of Energy (DOE), which seems to indiscriminately throw money at any politically favored green-energy project, was tepid in its support for Cape Wind. DOE’s loan guarantees generally average about 60 percent of the project’s costs, but the $150 million offered to Cape Wind made up a mere 6 percent—and that, only after the project received commitments for about half of its financing. In most cases, the government guarantee comes before the private financing and signals a go-ahead for investors.
While both supporters and detractors believe the project is in jeopardy, environmentalists and Cape Wind Associates LLC have not yet waved the white flag. According to Kit Kennedy, director of the energy and transportation program at the Natural Resources research : “Cape Wind may be down, but it is not out.” The Boston Globe reports that Cape Wind’s president, James Gordon, believes the perpetual litigation “triggered a clause in the contracts that allows for more latitude in Cape Wind’s ability to meet the deadlines.” However, after the company already spent $50 to $70 million on the project, the fact that Gordon opted not to pay the utilities the mere $2 million needed for a six-month extension signals that he doesn’t have confidence that they can continue.
Additionally, the political winds have shifted. While Governor Patrick championed Cape Wind, Massachusetts’ new governor, Charlie Baker (R) is on record as being staunchly opposed to it—even calling it Patrick’s “personal pet project.” While campaigning, Baker “dropped his opposition to Cape Wind” because he believed it was a “done deal.” Now that the deal may well be undone, Baker says he “will not try to influence the outcome of the legal process surrounding the Cape Wind project.”
The cancellation of the contracts is “a near fatal blow” to Cape Wind according to Audra Parker, president of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, a Cape Cod based group which has led the fight against cape wind.
Wind energy’s future faces problems beyond Massachusetts.
While Massachusetts’ utility companies filed to cancel power purchase agreements, two Minnesota wind farms, operating as Minwind Companies, were filed for bankruptcy because the eleven turbines needed extensive repairs and the 360 farmers and landowners who invested in the projects can’t afford the maintenance. Minwind CEO Mark Willers explained: “Minwind Companies have enjoyed relative prosperity in recent years, but the April ice storm last year took a toll on equipment—and on the budget.” At a December 17 meeting, he told shareholders: “We were 200 to 300 percent over budget to make those repairs.”
Minwind’s nine separate limited-liability companies allowed investors to take advantage of federal wind-energy credits, USDA grants, and the now-discontinued state assistance program for small wind projects. The Star Tribune reports: “The owners stand to lose their investment, and the wind farms eventually may have to shut down.”
On the national level, the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) has continued to lobby for a retroactive extension of the Production Tax Credit (PTC) for wind energy that expired at the end of 2013. Disappointing AWEA, the lame-duck Congress did approve a ninth extension—but just through the end of 2014. AWEA’s CEO Tim Kiernan groused: “Unfortunately, the extension to the end of 2014 will only allow minimal new wind development and it will have expired again by the time the new Congress convenes.” In response to the “bare-minimum extension,” Luke Lewandowsi, Make Consulting research manager, said it “casts doubt on the willingness or ability of Congress to revisit the PTC in 2015.”
Adding insult to industrial wind’s injury, wind turbine installation placed number three in the list of 10 dying U.S. industries—following only computer and recordable media manufacturing.
All of this news doesn’t bode well for the wind energy business, but for ratepayers and those who believe in the free market and who believe that government shouldn’t pick winners and losers, current wind conditions are a breath of fresh air. Governments, both state and federal, have given wind energy every advantage, to quote Governor Patrick: “It’s now up to the market”—and even Warren Buffet admits the tax credits are the only reason to build wind farms.