COMMENTARY: A Mighty Wind: The News They Don’t Want to Hear

Robert Whitcomb of the Providence Journal, co-author of Cape Wind.

It’s not easy being green, moans Kermit the Frog. Poor li"l fella. Your heart aches for him, singing in his plaintive old voice.

Turns out, it’s not easy being a "green" journalist, either. That is, if you report on something as controversial as the Cape Wind offshore project slated for Nantucket Sound.

Six years ago, energy entrepreneur Jim Gordon proposed what would have been the nation’s first offshore wind farm, a 170-turbine extravaganza that most definitely made Cape Cod folk sit up and take notice.

"Ambitious" is a word that substantially understates Gordon’s character. He loves technology, loves being on the cutting edge, and particularly loves doing what others say can’t be done. With a cool $250 million or so in his pocket after having sold a stable of natural gas generation projects, he needed to do something, and he wasn’t likely to pick a same-old, same-old to keep himself busy.

For the first four years of this struggle, it sure appeared that Gordon had met his match. The people who live on Nantucket Sound sail in the summertime.

They sail there. Get it?

To date, Gordon and company have spent roughly $30 million trying to get the project built. Shoreline residents have spent at least $18 million trying to drive him away. (It’s impossible to get a complete figure, as they hide many of their expenditures, as they do most of their donors.)

When reporting on this subject and when researching the just-released Cape Wind: Money, Celebrity, Class, Politics and the Battle for Our Energy Future on Nantucket Sound (PublicAffairs), I often felt like one of the ancient Greeks, watching the gods on Mount Olympus hurl lightning bolts at each other while we mortals shivered down below. And I’m not just being metaphorical.

Pretty early on in my task I learned that displeasing the gods—at least the opposing gods—could be bad for my health. At several meetings, angry men approached me with curled fists which appeared to be directed at my nose. "Sit down bitch!" was yelled at me when I stood in one public meeting to ask a question.

I displeased an economist who had received a large amount of money from one project opponent and who subsequently released a study claiming that Cape Wind would reduce Cape Cod property values by a whopping $1.3 billion. (Yes, it was billion — with a "b".) When I wrote that the man’s research was absurd, I received an anonymous threatening phone call.

"Is this Wendy Williams?" asked an ominous male voice.

"Why, yes, it is," I answered.

The voice promised a lawsuit before the caller slammed down the phone.

My economist friend may be educated (he seems to have a Ph.D.) but he wasn’t up on current technology. My call waiting showed the phone number from which the call had been made. It turned out to have been made from the phone system of a Boston university. I called the school and made quite clear my thoughts about threatening phone calls—especially those made anonymously.

A few days later, a lawyer’s letter arrived. It said I owed the economist $17,000. It never explained exactly how the economist had settled on precisely that figure.

Thinking someone might answer that question for me, I sent the letter to our local news website. Cape Cod Today scanned the pages into the system and put them up on the website. Never heard from those guys again.

But I did get several other threatening phone calls from men. And as the book’s research progressed, the clenched fists in my face became more common.

When Cape Wind was released in early May, I prepared for the expected onslaught of clenched fists, threatening phone calls and legal letters. What occurred was an unexpected silence. It seemed that the opposition decided to play ostrich. That was the public strategy, at least.

Behind the scenes, opposition leaders were busy sending around e-mails with slanderous accusations, accusing me of taking money from Jim Gordon (not true, of course), claiming the book was "self-published" (the publisher, PublicAffairs, is well-known and quite well-respected) and so on and so forth.

Recently though, the veil of "secrecy" on Cape Cod seems to have broken. People are more open to talking about the facts of the project, rather than repeating the hogwash and mishegas put out by project opponents.

Even the Cape Cod Times, which has been unrelentingly hostile to Cape Wind, has admitted that the book exists. (It’s kind of hard not to. After all, it’s received five mentions in the New York Times, including a listing as an "Editor’s Choice" in the Sunday New York Times Book Review.)

When our book was first released, our bookstore-manager friends tell us that people tried to buy the book on the "QT," as though it were Lady Chatterley’s Lover. We were charmed that some thought we had written a pornographic book about Cape Cod.

Now, six weeks after the release date, our manager-friends tell us, people are bolder. They walk in right off the street, buy the book in broad daylight, and carry it off to read on the beach, where all the public can see the title.

And this is exactly what we intended to do: Entertain readers for the summer season.

Cape Cod freelance journalist (and local rabble-rouser) Wendy Williams.

WENDY WILLIAMS, a freelance journalist based on Cape Cod, is co-author (with Robert Whitcomb of the Providence Journal) of Cape Wind: Money, Celebrity, Class, Politics and the Battle for Our Energy Future on Nantucket Sound.

CONTACTS:Cape Wind (the book)

Cape Wind (the project)

Cape Wind (the opposition)

PROLOGUE (Excerpted from Cape Wind: Money, Celebrity, Class, Politics and the Battle for Our Energy Future on Nantucket Sound)

A "Public" Meeting

Democracy! Bah! When I hear thatI reach for my feather boa!—Allen Ginsberg

December 6, 2004

Martha’s Vineyard Island, Massachusetts

David McCullough’s face contorted with anger. "It’s outrageous!" he yelled. He sounded like anyone but the mellow, well-measured man of letters who narrated tales of American history on national television. Indeed, the popular author sounded quite overwrought.

Nantucket Sound, he shouted, is "hallowed ground." He had uttered that phrase before, as the narrator of Ken Burns’s famous Civil War documentary aired on public television. This time, however, he was sounding his own battle cry, crowing his promotion to general in the seaside civil war, a war that had become an internationally watched conflict over the future of energy and of Americ

a’s air, coasts, and oceans.

On this late-fall evening, as the sky spit a chilly mixture of snow and sleet, McCullough’s big voice filled the high school auditorium lobby on Martha’s Vineyard, an island favored by movie stars, politicians, the international jet set, authors, and other glitterati.

He continued his mini oration, "This is a preservation issue. It’s not an environmental issue."

McCullough, surrounded by a small circle of admirers, had just walked out of the first of a group of four public hearings called by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regarding a proposal to build a large electrical-generation project in the middle of a body of water known as Nantucket Sound. Cape Wind Associates, a limited liability company, wanted to place a vast field of wind turbines out in the salt water. The turbines would, said the developers, produce enough clean electricity to satisfy a considerable proportion of Cape Cod’s needs. Indeed, on rare occasions, the project would supply all the necessary electricity, obviating the consumption of fossil fuels.

Over the three years the battle had raged, McCullough’s opposition to the project had become common knowledge around Cape Cod and the wealthy islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, in part because of a highly emotional radio advertisement he had recorded that excoriated the project.

Rarely, however, did McCullough appear at public meetings about the wind farm. Indeed, like so many of the beautiful people engineering the public show of fury over Cape Wind, the television star and author preferred controlled, closed-door situations. Tonight, though, after refusing a request for a formal interview, he sputtered on.

"This is visual pollution," he complained. He was unable to stop talking. As he and his entourage departed the building, the sentences trailed after him, like leaves blowing in a high wind.

* * *

Cape Wind, the brain child of a small group of innovative energy developers, first made headlines in the summer of 2001, only weeks before September 11. The first adamant public opposition surfaced less than a month after the World Trade Center disaster. Cape Wind president Jim Gordon, a fiercely driven and ardently independent man who had made millions during his thirty-year career as an energy entrepreneur, had initially proposed erecting 170 towering wind turbines five miles off the Cape’s southern coast. During the course of the battle, as offshore wind technology improved, the number of turbines had dropped to 130, but the output of the individual turbines had grown considerably, from 2.8 to 3.6 megawatts each. The project’s resultant "nameplate capacity" would have been 468 megawatts, quite large for a wind farm. The project’s typical output, however, would have been rather less, since wind turbines only rarely operate at full capacity.

Because Nantucket Sound’s winds often blow best when electricity is needed most, during the frigid wintertime when fossil-fuel costs are high or on hot summer days when Cape Cod’s many 7,000-square-foot shoreline homes have their air conditioners pumping hard, an ocean-based wind farm seemed to Gordon an obvious solution to New England’s power-generation dilemma. Lacking indigenous fossil fuels, the region suffered extremely high electricity prices. Moreover, much of the region’s electrical generation was aged, inefficient, and consequently highly polluting.

Because New England’s coastal regions are already so overdeveloped, little space remained for land-based wind projects. Building offshore seemed an obvious solution to the crisis. Nevertheless, Gordon, a wildcatter, had shocked the region by proposing the massive project. Although offshore wind had a successful 10-year history in Europe, the projects to date had been relatively small-scale. Nothing this ambitious had been built, although several proposed projects far exceeded the size suggested for Nantucket Sound.

Gordon was undeterred. Ebullient and confident, he believed his project would pay off financially while also cutting down on fossil-fuel emissions. From Gordon’s point of view, the region would be trading a small area of the ocean, used mostly for recreational sailing and saltwater fishing, for cleaner air and a leadership role in clean-energy innovation.

Cape Cod’s powerful elite saw things differently. To them, Gordon and his team were interlopers. The same winds that had enticed Gordon to gamble his millions had, as early as the nineteenth century, enticed large flocks of the wealthy to nest along the Cape’s hitherto rather neglected southern shoreline. By the time Cape Wind made headlines, the area of Cape Cod, Nantucket, and Martha’s Vineyard had become a devil’s triangle of entrenched, often inherited, wealth. Those seashore homeowners had come to see Nantucket Sound as their very own playground.

* * *

Few Americans will ever literally see Nantucket Sound. Most of its beaches are intentionally closed to the public, who are instead directed further toward Cape Cod’s eastern end, to the national seashore that overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. Still, many Americans have "seen" Nantucket Sound on television. These are the waters enjoyed by Jack and Jackie Kennedy, who sailed out from the summer capital of their brief Camelot—Hyannisport. The carefully orchestrated, nationally broadcast images showing the romantic young couple sailing their elegant little boat across the glittering waves brought about the end of "quaint" Cape Cod. Already drowning in money, the southern shoreline, now made famous by the Kennedy family, was swamped by a storm-surge of development.

Today, much of Cape Cod is a highly commercial, Disneyesque version of what was once a very lovely seaside area. Along the south shore and on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, colonies of the rich and the hyper-rich flourish as never before—not just multimillion-dollar folk, but really rich people—such as Jack Welch, once leader of General Electric; Paul Fireman of Reebok; Douglas Yearley, longtime chairman of Phelps Dodge mining and board member of Marathon Oil Corporation; and William Koch, inheritor of money from Koch Industries, a massive, privately held energy company heavily into fossil fuels. Like Fidelity’s Abigail Johnson, ranked America’s 12th richest person in 2005 by Forbes magazine, some represent financial money. Some, like Koch, come from purely industrial wealth. Many, like the Mellons and the DuPonts and the Kennedys, have been there for decades. During the summer, Nantucket Sound can be a busy crossroads—except on Horseshoe Shoal, where Gordon wanted to put his wind farm. There, with only a few feet of water at low tide, it’s too shallow for most yachts.