CAPE WIND, the controversial Nantucket Sound wind farm given up for dead last year when it lost a lucrative pair of utility contracts, is trying to mount a comeback.
Jim Gordon, the energy executive who has already invested $100 million in the 15-year-old project, asked the state’s Energy Facilities Siting Board earlier this week to grant him a two-year extension on a permit to run an underwater power line in state waters between the wind farm and Cape Cod. If he can land that extension, resolve a few other minor issues, and then close out three remaining court challenges, Gordon believes his controversial wind farm has a shot at rising from the dead.
“We think Cape Wind is the right project at the right time,” he said. “It’s just taken us longer.”
Few share Gordon’s optimism, although no one is willing to say so on the record. His critics say Cape Wind is out of date and out of sync with the times, and faces an uphill battle in the courts and on Beacon Hill. William Koch, the billionaire Osterville homeowner who has funded countless court challenges to the project over the years, is not going away. And Gordon’s patron saint, Deval Patrick, is gone from the governor’s office, replaced by Charlie Baker, who has never been a fan of Cape Wind.
Yet Gordon has a plan. The Massachusetts House is mulling an omnibus energy bill that is expected to contain a set-aside for offshore wind power contracts. The contracts are unlikely to be as lucrative as the power purchase agreements he once had with the state’s two leading utilities. And this time around he will face stiff competition for the contracts from some of the biggest players in the offshore wind business. But Gordon doesn’t seem to mind; he says he’s itching to compete.
“All of us should compete,” he said. “When we started this effort, there was no competition.”
Cape Wind was once the darling of the environmental movement, a symbol of the nation’s willingness to tackle climate change. But the project ran into resistance from Cape Cod property owners who didn’t want their ocean views spoiled by whirling turbines and business executives who balked at the high price of the electricity. Koch helped bankroll a group called the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, which sued Cape Wind at every turn. The Obama administration granted Gordon the permits he needed for his wind farm and Patrick’s administration authorized two utility contracts for the purchase of 75 percent of Cape Wind’s power output at prices well above market rates. Baker called the contracts a “sweetheart deal” in his 2010 race against Patrick.
Cape Wind foundered when Gordon was unable to find a buyer for the project’s remaining power output or put together the financing to begin construction. Early last year, National Grid and Eversource terminated their power purchase contracts with Cape Wind, citing Gordon’s inability to meet construction milestones. Gordon blamed his problems on the “serial litigation” engineered by Koch, which he said was beyond his control. He insisted the utility contracts were still valid, but took no action to enforce them. Cape Wind quickly faded from public view.
Gordon, who originally made his mark in the energy business building natural gas power plants, said he spent the last year developing more than $1 billion worth of renewable projects – solar deals in Avon and Dartmouth and biomass plants in Florida and Texas. Now that Beacon Hill is preparing for a wide-ranging energy debate, Gordon sees an opportunity to get Cape Wind back on track.
Baker wants the state to purchase hydroelectricity from Canada, many in the Senate want to buttress the solar industry, and House leaders are pushing for a set-aside for offshore wind, basically a requirement that the state’s utilities purchase a certain amount of power generated by offshore wind turbines. The expectation has been that the three offshore wind companies that leased ocean tracts from the federal government far off Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard would compete for the contracts, but now Gordon wants in as well.
As he awaits Beacon Hill’s energy debate, Gordon is trying to get his project back on track. He already has won an extension of his federal wind farm lease and an extension of his interconnection agreement with ISO-New England, the regional power grid operator. Next month comes oral arguments on an appeal in Washington, DC, filed by the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound. Two other cases are pending before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and a federal district court.
Another challenge for Cape Wind is that its permits are all for a project that gained most of its approvals more than five years ago. Offshore wind technology has changed a lot over that time period. Cape Wind, for example, plans to use 3.6 megawatt turbines, while most projects today are using turbines that are 6 megawatts and more.
“It’s old technology, which is not going to be as cost effective,” said Audra Parker, president of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound.
But Gordon said his turbine size remains the industry standard, and he says his project will face lower construction costs because it is located closer to shore in much shallower waters. Moreover, Gordon said, the cost of turbines and raw materials is falling, and legislation circulating on Beacon Hill calls for 25-year power contracts rather than the 15-year contracts he originally negotiated. All of these factors should lower his costs and make it easier to arrange financing, he said.
“Cape Wind is confident that its pricing would be highly competitive with other potential offshore projects,” the company said in a filing with the Energy Facilities Siting Board.
Perhaps Cape Wind’s biggest challenge is the political baggage it carries as the much-hyped wind farm that failed to deliver. The $113 million New Bedford marine terminal, built to be a staging area for Cape Wind, is a concrete example of the project’s failed promise.
Because of all of the political baggage, the groups pushing for offshore wind legislation want nothing to do with Cape Wind. OffShore WindMA, an association of offshore wind interests that includes the three companies that have leased ocean tracts, doesn’t want Cape Wind as a member. Rep. Patricia Haddad, the architect of the offshore wind legislation, says at almost every turn that her bill isn’t about Cape Wind.
Then there is the problem of Baker. He has never been a fan of Cape Wind, but most of his objections were based on the high-priced contracts the company received from the state’s utilities. With those gone, his objections may abate.
But Baker’s Energy Facilities Siting Board doesn’t appear eager to move Cape Wind’s permit renewal request along quickly, despite appeals from environmental groups such as the Audubon Society and the Conservation Law Foundation and Jon Mitchell, the mayor of New Bedford. Mitchell, in a letter, urged the board to grant the permit extension because nothing has changed since the board’s original approval. “The competitive bidding process for power purchase agreements is the more appropriate forum to decide the fate of the project,” he wrote.
At a multiday hearing on whether a permit for an underwater power cable should be renewed, members of the Energy Facilities Siting Board peppered Cape Wind officials with questions about the project’s financing and its past problems. At every turn, Gordon’s lawyer objected, telling the board members that they were seeking information irrelevant to the permit renewal request.
“The question here goes to prudence and diligence on the part of Cape Wind in managing this project,” said Andrew Greene, director of the board.
Sitting in the front row, Gordon clenched his jaw as he listened to the questioning. But he said nothing – and waited.