Sierra Magazine

Lay of the Land

Blowing Hot and Cold

Are some places too beautiful for wind power?

On Cape Cod this spring, wind-power politics were played out, appropriately enough, on the air. A television ad by Greenpeace USA featured oil-soaked ducks, fiery tanker wrecks, and spewing industrial towers set to menacing music. "Why have this," asks the narrator, "when we could have this?" Segue to white-clad engineers assembling wind turbines to upbeat rock ’n’ roll. Sleek windmill blades turn slowly in a peach-colored ocean sunset: "Clean, Safe, Reliable Wind Power."

But in another ad, sponsored by a coalition of local communities and fishing and tourism groups called Save Our Sound, Walter Cronkite warns of a private wind-power developer’s plan to build an "industrial energy complex" across 24 square miles of public water visible from Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, and Cape Cod. "Our national treasures should be off-limits to industrialization," he says.

Wind power is one of the world’s fastest-growing energy sources, but some of the prime spots for its development are in the scenic shallows of the Atlantic coast. In this case, a company called Cape Wind wants to erect 130 towering turbines as close as five miles from the famous wisps of land that have come to define the natural beauty of New England. The turbines would generate roughly 170 pollution-free megawatts–enough to power three-quarters of Cape Cod–but they’d also alter the ocean views and yachting experience of some of the wealthiest people in the country, among them Cronkite and the Kennedy family.

"I’m pro-wind power," says Isaac Rosen of Save Our Sound. "The question is, how do you responsibly site power plants, particularly when dealing with the private use of a public resource?"

All agree that Congress should establish standards for offshore windmills, much as it has done with offshore oil wells. Yet, argues Seth Kaplan of the Conservation Law Foundation, "the need to get off our chairs and take some action on greenhouse gases is so intense that we have to make use of the tools we have available." The Cape Wind site is one of only three on the Atlantic coast that are both shallow and windy enough; the turbines will be small on the horizon as seen from shore, and their lights shielded. "Aesthetics are important," Kaplan says, "but we can’t lose sight of the bigger picture." –Margaret Knox

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