The massive oil slick spreading over the Gulf of Mexico reminds America once again of the hazards inherent in the country’s fossil fuel addiction. The oil rig disaster also makes some new developments up north seem especially refreshing. The U.S. Department of the Interior has finally blessed an unprecedented renewable-energy project off the mid-Atantic coast. Known as Cape Wind, it would be the first ever offshore wind farm in the United States.
The prospect of churning windmills in the sea has whipped up a storm of controversy, but the Nantucket Sound project seems poised to finally go forward after nine years of regulatory review. (It does still need appproval from the Federal Aviation Administration.) Clean-energy advocates around the country are watching to see if the project and the incipient wind-energy market deliver on their promises of eco-friendly power and green jobs for the local workforce.
International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers 103, the leading union in the coalition supporting the project, is betting high on Cape Wind:
“With Mr. Salazar giving the permit for Cape Wind,” IBEW representative Marty Aikens told In These Times, “this is the new revolution of offshore renewable energy that the I.B.E.W. members will be working on from Maine to North Carolina and from Washington to California.”
Anticipating career-track employment opportunities for local union members, Aikens added, “This is the new American technology job that the I.B.E.W. has been training its Members for the last eight years… We expect to see hundreds of Local 103 I.B.E.W. members working on this project and thousands on the others that will be coming on line.”
Advocates say that while wind currently makes up a tiny siver of the overall energy supply, it will be a crucial ingredient in building a sustainable energy mix to replace oil’s dominance.
The U.S. wind-energy industry has grown significantly over the years and provides about 85,000 domestic jobs, though much of the manufacturing of turbines takes place on other shores. Cape Wind may add momentum to other similar proposed wind farms in Maryland, Delaware, Texas, the Great Lakes and other areas.
A 2008 study published by the Apollo Alliance, Workforce Alliance and Center on Wisconsin Strategy outlines prospects for green jobs in the wind sector and concludes that the amount of wind blowing across the country could provide vast amounts of electricity, but states had not yet provided the policy framework to harness this potential. Some midwest states were rich in swift wind speeds, for instance, but had failed to capitalize on those resources.
There is a simple explanation for the disparity between wind speeds and wind projects: state policy. Market-creation policies such as renewable portfolio standards and feed-in tariffs [when the government sets the price for energy purchased by utilities] provide certainty for companies looking to move into particular states… These sorts of government programs have been critical to wind power expansion across the globe…
The report assessed wind power as a source of jobs:
If the country can muster the $62 billion investment required to expand wind capacity by 125,000 MW over the next 10 years — the amount needed to stabilize U.S. carbon emissions — the wind energy sector could create nearly 400,000 domestic manufacturing jobs. And the top 20 states that stand to benefit are some of the most populous, and hardest hit by recent manufacturing job loss. California and Texas lead the list, followed by the Great Lakes states: New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin.”
In Massachussetts, Cape Wind was gridlocked for years as residents, businesses, lawmakers, labor and environmental activists sparred over the proposed project. The public debate has been portrayed as a clash between pro-renewable evangelists and high-brow NIMBY-ites, who think the turbines would be a blight on the local environment. But the real story is more complicated.
There are legitimate concerns about the cost-effectiveness of the project. Moreover, conservationists say the siting of turbines, even if several miles off the Cape Cod coastline, could damage wildlife and threaten historical properties and Native American cultural sites.
On the pro-wind side, some of Cape Wind’s major backers represent high-profile green business interests, showing that despite the grassroots appeal of clean energy, the growth of the industry will be fueled by corporations – raising questions of job quality and labor equity, which unions will have to take on in the rush for green gold.
On balance, though, Washington’s approval of the Cape Wind plan suggests that the project’s renewable-energy potential still dwarfs the aesthetic and archeological footprints.
Ben Carmichael at OnEarth writes,
would Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard or Maine’s rocky coast be the summer tourist destinations they are if they were dotted with nuclear plants, both functioning and decommissioned? Off shore wind famers – barely visible and glimmering in the sun – are hardly disruptive in comparison to conventional sources of power.
“After all, no one’s ever complained about the impacts from an offshore wind spill,” quipped David Helvarg of the Blue Frontier Campaign on HuffingtonPost.
Amid all the hype over green jobs, the road to energy sustainability will be paved with plenty of bad investments and boondoggles. But breaking the gridlock on Cape Wind at least broadens the realm of possibility as the country moves toward a cleaner, more diverse grid.
Communities seeking alternatives to big oil won’t always agree on solutions, but for now, it’s clear that a few eyesores dotting the Nantucket horizon would be a much fairer sight than the oily sheen now creeping toward the Louisiana shoreline.
Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.