Study: Deeply held values fuel debate over offshore wind power
Wind farms are nothing new to some parts of the United States, where tall, white wind turbines with their giant propellers tower over the landscape, generating electricity with every sweep of their blades.
Now these windmills may be coming to an ocean near you, but not without significant public debate and navigation of a "hodgepodge" of regulations, according to recent University of Delaware research.
Willett Kempton and Jeremy Firestone, in the Marine Policy Program at the UD College of Marine Studies, have been examining public reaction to the Cape Cod Wind Project, the first proposed offshore wind farm in the United States. While prior surveys show public opinion is divided over the project, Kempton and Firestone's research has uncovered some of the reasons -- deeply held values and beliefs about the ocean that will continue to fuel the debate, as coastal states grapple with the pros and cons of installing windmills in the sea.
The policy scientists' study, "The Offshore Wind Power Debate: Views from Cape Cod," recently was published in the journal Coastal Management. The article is co-authored by graduate students Jonathan Lilley, Tracy Rouleau and Phillip Whitaker.
The Cape Cod Wind Project, proposed in 2001 for Nantucket Sound, just outside Massachusetts state waters, would include the installation of 130 wind turbines, each 40 stories tall, that collectively would generate enough electricity for most of Cape Cod. These wind turbines would cover a 24-square-mile area of seafloor within view of the shoreline.
To better understand public opposition to, and support for, offshore wind development, Kempton, Firestone, and their graduate students intensively interviewed 24 Cape Cod residents, made on-site observations, and reviewed local press coverage of the proposed project, as well as reviewed the results of three public surveys.
"In terms of the opposition, the most emotionally felt argument, and we suspect the most motivating one against the project, is that it would intrude on a very special place and the creatures that live there," Kempton said. "Similar findings have been made about the importance of the landscape in land-based wind projects," he notes. "Our data suggest that these feelings also relate to the seascape. There appears to be something special about the ocean, a feeling that for many people underpins their opposition to the project."
Some arguments pro and con were based on incomplete information. Kempton said that some interviewees questioned the motives for building wind farms in the ocean versus on land, believing that it was a way for a developer to save money on land purchases. In fact, it is more expensive to build at sea, but the wind is stronger there. Others opposed the project because they felt it was being built in "their territory"; many supporters and opponents expected an opportunity to vote on it. In fact, the project would be in federal waters and local hearings are required, but no votes will be taken.
Those in favor of the offshore wind power project pointed to the non-polluting benefits of wind power compared to coal-burning and nuclear power plants. Some mentioned successful wind-energy projects in other countries, particularly in Europe. Other supporters felt that the project would increase U.S. energy independence and security.
"At the time of our interviews in late 2003, U.S. soldiers were engaged in Iraq, and the destruction of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, was still on people's minds," Kempton noted. "Many informants saw those current events as related to oil and oil security and thus to the wind proposal even though we did not ask about these topics at all."
In analyzing public opinion about the Cape Cod Wind Project, the UD policy scientists identified several issues that they feel are missing from the current debate and merit discussion.
"Several basic value questions and trade-offs underlie this debate," Kempton said. "There's the value of protecting the ocean and keeping it free from human intrusion, the value of cleaner air and less human infirmity and mortality, and the value of traditions like sailing and fishing in New England. There's the issue of whether there is a right to a local seascape that residents assumed would be there forever, and the trade-off between proceeding now with an imperfect process to start a clean industry versus first establishing proper procedures and regulations for it.
"Even more globally," Kempton noted, "the public needs to decide whether Cape Cod is willing to absorb the negatives of wind development now in order to set an example for mitigating climate change, a potentially far larger threat but one they can't solve alone. We suggest that the debate would have a better chance for true engagement, perhaps even resolution, if these values and missing issues were aired and debated more explicitly."
In a related study, written by Firestone and Kempton, with graduate students Andrew Krueger and Christen Loper, the authors pointed out the need for a new legal and policy framework for dealing with offshore wind developments and other new ocean uses. Their research was published in the current issue of the Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy and almost simultaneously reprinted in the Environmental Law Reporter.
"Currently in the United States, any attempt to develop new uses of the ocean such as wave energy, tidal energy, aquaculture, and others requires the government to spin together a hodgepodge of laws that were enacted prior to the development of these technologies and applications," Firestone said.
"While public debate over offshore wind power is likely to be centered on environmental and aesthetic issues, the government's present offshore framework places the decision in the hands of the Army Corps of Engineers, which is a regulatory agency whose primary focus is navigation and national security, thus mismatching public concerns with regulatory priorities," he added.
Firestone says that a restructuring of ocean agencies at the federal level is critically needed in order to effectively deal with the policy issues associated with new economic uses of the ocean.
"Congress should consider consolidating the current two 'masters of the sea,? the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Minerals Management Service, either into an agency within an existing cabinet department or into a new cabinet-level Department of the Oceans," he said.
"With the recent policy attention the ocean has garnered in the past two years due to the release of reports by the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy and the Pew Oceans Commission, a policy window has opened," Firestone noted. "In order to fulfill the promise of offshore development while protecting the marine environment, it's imperative that Congress devise an offshore regulatory regime that provides for the sustainable use, conservation, protection, and management of the marine environment in a transparent and equitable fashion."
Kempton, with Richard Garvine, Maxwell P. and Mildred H. Harrington Professor of Physical Ocean Science and Engineering, Firestone, and other faculty at the University of Delaware have begun offering an advanced graduate seminar, "Offshore Wind Power: Science, Engineering, and Policy," believed to be the first of its kind in the country.
The scientists also have established a Web site on offshore wind power, with links to their recent research articles, wind maps, and other resources, at http://www.ocean.udel.edu/windpower.
This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2005 issue of Environmental Protection.