BOSTON — It’s been a very long journey for Cape Wind, and now it comes down to this: an obscure government panel, meeting in a makeshift hearing room above South Station in Boston.
Three commissioners from the Department of Public Utilities will decide whether or not Cape Wind goes forward. It’s a huge decision, worth billions of dollars to the developers of Cape Wind. But for much of the last three weeks the questions and expert testimony have been virtually indecipherable.
Buried in the dense technical jargon is a simple question: Is the $2 billion plan to build 130 wind turbines in Nantucket Sound a good deal for the state?
“It is a good deal for Massachusetts electric consumers,” said Jim Gordon, Cape Wind’s president, “because the cost of the wind is stable. It will never go up. As the economy recovers, fossil fuel prices will increase, so Cape Wind will become an increasingly better bargain.”
Not so, say the opponents, like Audra Parker, president and CEO of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound. For years, the alliance has bitterly opposed Cape Wind on environmental grounds. Now, Parker argues the state should block the project because of cost.
“If this decision is made purely on the facts, it is very clear it’s not cost effective, and should be denied,” she said.
At issue is a proposed contract allowing the utility company, National Grid, to purchase power form Cape Wind. National Grid would pay about twice as much for the electricity as it does for power from traditional sources. The contract also allows for annual increases, which would push the cost of Cape Wind power even higher in years to come. Parker says National Grid customers would get stuck with the bill.
“So basically, you’re looking at about two-and-a-half times market rates and about double other green projects like land-based wind. This is basically a transfer of wealth from Massachusetts ratepayers to a private developer,” Parker said.
Robert Rio agrees. He’s a senior vice president with Associated Industries of Massachusetts, which represents about 6,000 companies across the state — many of which, he says, would be crippled by higher electric rates if the Cape Wind contract is approved.
“That combined with all the other increases we’re seeing in health care, and in energy in general, could put some over the top. We fear that some of those companies would actually leave Massachusetts,” Rio said.
In fact, the opponents say Cape Wind could bankrupt the entire state of Massachusetts.
“For the last 10 years the opponents of this project have put out misleading, fear-mongering propaganda. The real story here is that Cape Wind represents a path to a cleaner energy future,” Gordon said.
But opponents say the real story is that Cape Wind is a sweetheart deal for one private developer pushed aggressively by Gov. Deval Patrick, who appointed the utility commissioners now deciding whether or not to approve the project.
These days, the argument comes up frequently in the governor’s race. Republican candidate Charlie Baker, speaking at a recent debate, said, “Cape Wind is the wrong project in the wrong place for the wrong price.”
“We’re talking about a $2 billion project, $600 million in taxpayer money, $800 million in ratepayer money, on a project that may or may not represent the future with regard to where energy is going. Cape Wind, folks, is a big bet, ” Baker said.
But Patrick says the more dangerous bet is counting on oil and gas prices to stay at the current recession-level lows.
“Which is the mistake we have made in this country for 30 years. And I think we have to be serious about it and stop running away from everything because it’s new,” Patrick said.
Supporters of Cape Wind don’t deny that the power will cost more, because building offshore turbines in deep water is expensive. But National Grid officials say it will add just $1.20 to the average monthly bill. And Susan Reid, an attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation which supports Cape Wind, says that’s a small price to pay for clean energy.
“What opponents are failing to take into account is the extraordinary costs, both economic and environmentally, of our ongoing reliance on fossil fuel resources,” Reid said. “And that actually, the net economic and environmental benefits of projects like Cape Wind are very real.”
Cape Wind won federal approval several months ago. And with the Patrick administration firmly behind it, approval does appear likely. A final decision from the Department of Public Utilities is expected in November.