Gone with the wind

The rich may be moaning about wind turbines ruining their coastal views on Cape Cod, but in Delaware, citizens are ardently battling politicians -- and the coal industry -- to build the nation's largest offshore wind park.

Published March 28, 2007 12:23PM (EDT)

Peter Mandelstam says he can power 130,000 Delaware homes without adding to the greenhouse gas emissions dangerously heating our planet. His proposed 600-megawatt offshore wind park -- the biggest such project yet unveiled in the United States -- could supply that power over 20 years cheaper than coal or gas, he vows.

The tireless founder of Bluewater Wind, a wind energy developer, Mandelstam has been right before, having built a wind farm in Montana that provides power to more than 45,000 homes. And Delaware is no Cape Cod, where an offshore wind plan has stalled amid bitter controversy for the past six years. Polls show that offshore wind is overwhelmingly popular in this state, graded F for air pollution by the American Lung Association, whose coastal residents aren't griping about their ocean views being ruined.

Yet Mandelstam still faces a gale force in persuading Delaware officials, lashed to coal and gas industries, to go along with his plan. "The chief obstacle is the newness of offshore wind," he says enthusiastically. "It's not new in the world, but it's new in this country. So my challenge is simply to educate people."

Delaware offers offshore wind the first ever chance to compete directly with fossil fuels, and it's a relatively fair competition at that. Normally new energy sources must go head to head with fossil fuel plants already in operation, putting the new developer -- who has to find a way to pass construction costs on to consumers -- at a tremendous disadvantage.

But Delaware lawmakers last year declared they needed a brand-new source of power. Deregulation had led to a 59 percent power rate increase, and they wanted to make sure that wouldn't happen again so soon. So last April, Delaware's legislators called for competitive bids for a new, long-term contract with the state's utility, Delmarva. Four state agencies are expected by June 15 to choose between Mandelstam's wind-turbine project and competing bids from coal and gas.

"This is the front line on climate change," says Willett Kempton, an associate professor of marine policy at the University of Delaware and an ardent lobbyist for renewable energy. "This is one thing we can do right now, at large scale, with no CO2 emissions, and at about the same cost as dirty power."

Indeed, offshore wind could take us to a new energy future, free of carbon dioxide, or CO2 greenhouse gas emissions, faster than any other power source, say industry experts. Bye-bye, Saudi Arabia. So long, global-warming paralysis.

In the United States, wind represents less than 1 percent of all electric power generation, but that's still enough to power 2.9 million homes. The industry is growing fast -- wind-power production shot up 160 percent between 2000 and 2005, rising 27 percent just last year. For the past two years, wind has been the second-largest source of new power, after natural gas.

Today the most promising, and least known, source of wind power is that generated by offshore wind turbines. A newly released study by Stanford and University of Delaware researchers, including Kempton, says mid-Atlantic offshore wind could power the entire Eastern Seaboard, including transportation, with enough extra energy to meet a 50 percent growth in demand. Rapid advances in energy storage put this dream tantalizingly within reach.

So far, however, most U.S. politicians just aren't reaching -- in contrast with Europe, which already has 15 years of offshore wind experience and is racing to further exploit it. In Washington, Congress continues to bicker over greenhouse-gas laws with policy changes so incremental as to be all but useless -- leaving wind evangelists like Mandelstam, combining missionary and monetary motives, as the country's best hope to reach a crucial tipping point.

Yet Mandelstam faces daunting opponents in Delaware. Last June, six months before power-plant bids were officially due, Gov. Ruth Ann Minner and NRG Energy, based in New Jersey, released a joint statement announcing NRG would "move forward" with a "state of the art" 630-megawatt coal plant for approximately $1.5 billion. The plant would use "clean coal" technology, also known as IGCC, or integrated gasification combined cycle, which converts coal to gas before burning it. "I heard the NRG guys were already lighting up their cigars at that point," Kempton says.

Minner, a Democrat, is on record as being convinced that human-caused carbon emissions are contributing to climate change. Under her leadership, Delaware in 2005 joined a multistate effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. What makes her embrace of "clean coal" rather odd is that her own administration calculates that the IGCC plant would emit 475 tons an hour of carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas.

Two other factors make it less odd. First, NRG already owns a coal plant on southern Delaware's Indian River -- a facility, dating back to the 1950s, that is one of the state's leading sources of pollution, belching acid-rain-causing sulfur dioxide and mercury emissions. NRG has been fighting state regulators' recent orders to clean it up, but as part of the deal with Minner, it has promised to patch things up and close the oldest part of the plant. Nor, most likely, did it hurt that NRG's lobbyist, Mike Houghton, has been a major fundraiser for Minner and other state Democrats -- so major that he was given a special award at the party's annual dinner last year.

Minner, by the way, appoints the heads of three of the four commissions that will be making the energy decision. Her press department and chief of staff declined or ignored repeated requests for an interview. Houghton also declined comment, other than to say he saw no conflict in his dual role.

Minner isn't alone in paving the way for coal. Also in June, Delaware's two U.S. senators, Joe Biden and Tom Carper -- both Democrats, and Rep. Mike Castle, a Republican, wrote to the U.S. Department of Energy to support federal tax breaks for the proposed new coal plant.

Like Minner, all three pols are on record as concerned about climate change. But it took Kempton -- who bristles with impatience over what he calls "a lack of policy response wildly out of sync with what scientists are saying" -- to do something to make climate change an issue in the state's choice of power. Last summer, he and his university colleague, Jeremy Firestone, took the unusual step of personally calling offshore wind developers to invite them to compete.

Among a half dozen entrepreneurs they called, Mandelstam alone took up the challenge, rushing to prepare his bid in time for the December deadline. He's been "educating" ever since.

On a recent afternoon, Mandelstam is gamely lugging the largest briefcase I've ever seen -- a 2-by-3-foot carrier enclosing $60,000 worth of photographic simulations he'd commissioned to prove what little impact his turbines would have on the view from Delaware's Rehoboth Beach. "Look at this!" he urges, spreading the enormous layouts on a coffee table. "On a clear day, with the sun directly on them, they're less than half the size of your thumbnail. Does this destroy the beach experience?"

A heart-on-his-sleeve vegetarian who dresses like Gordon Gekko, Mandelstam, 45, came to Delaware from New Jersey anticipating view-related hostility, which he says has been a leading bugaboo of wind power. Not far away, in Cape Cod, aesthetics have all but defeated another bold wind-warrior, Jim Gordon, CEO of Cape Wind. Gordon has sunk six years and $25 million of investors' funds into a 130-windmill project that still has no permit but plenty of opposition from such distinguished local property owners as Sen. Edward Kennedy.

The Web site of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, formed specifically to thwart Gordon's project, stresses the potential view impingement, while also emphasizing that "newness" problem -- arguing the Cape Wind project could turn a treasured seashore into an "industrial experiment." Contacted recently, Gordon characterized the Nantucket alliance as a "small group of very wealthy waterfront homeowners who've spent millions of dollars fueling a campaign of fear mongering and misinformation."

In Delaware, however, residents seem less concerned about their views than by the quality of their air and by scientists' predictions that one-third of their state could be under water if Greenland melts. More than 90 percent of respondents in a University of Delaware opinion survey, said they preferred offshore wind to fossil fuels, even if they'd have to pay more.

"We've never had an alternative until now," says Nancy Feichtl, a retired school principal particularly outraged by the steady climb of "ozone alert" days and the number of kids with asthma in her district. The daughter of a former manager of the Indian River coal plant, Feichtl herself suffers from asthma, as does her sister. Her only brother died of the same illness.

In January, Feichtl and a half dozen other wind advocates meet over coffee and muffins at the home of Bill and Kit Zak, founders of a local group called Citizens for Clean Power. The Zaks live just a 10-minute drive from the Indian River plant. Kempton has driven down from Wilmington to join them.

The group reflects Delaware's changing demographics, which provides hope for Mandelstam's bid. Besides Feichtl, the attendees include a doctor, a lawyer, an accountant and a former EPA regulator, most of them in their 60s. They are particularly health-conscious: Three of the women are cancer survivors. They are also fighting mad. In the Zaks' driveway, parked cars sport bumper stickers saying, "What Would Jesus Bomb?" and "What This Country Needs Is a Buddhist President."

Southern Delaware has long been known as "lower, slower Delaware," an epithet quickly becoming outmoded by a flood of well-educated retired immigrants from nearby urban hubs like New Jersey and Washington, D.C. They came for the more relaxed lifestyle, lower cost-of-living and access to popular beaches, but few were warned by their real estate agents about the scourge of lower Delaware, the Indian River coal plant. A number of them now devote their newly expanded leisure time to civic activism. The Zaks' group and others help keep pressure on state regulators, who finally last year cracked down on the coal plant's pollution.

The group at the muffin meeting divvy up responsibilities, pledging to target local legislators and civic groups who might influence Minner or the commissions. Kempton says he'll call the Unitarians and the League of Women Voters. Bill Zak scribbles a note reminding himself to contact the American Lung Association and the AARP. Everyone attending promises to write a letter to Delaware newspapers and to show up at public hearings. "We could wear those little beanies with propellers!" someone suggests.

The beanie demonstration has yet to take place, but the popular sentiment in favor of wind has clearly helped level Delaware's playing field. The state agencies that had been geared up to make a decision in February took the contract off the fast track, postponing it until June. Meanwhile, NRG, under siege, has been forced to clarify its stance on greenhouse gas emissions.

In January, NRG was running newspaper ads promising to "capture" its CO2 pollution -- leaving unanswered the obvious question of what it would do with that pollution thereafter. In weeks since, an answer has gradually emerged. Ray Long, NRG's regional president, tells me the company could capture 65 percent of those emissions and plans to sequester, or store, them in underground saline aquifers.

"We've been working with a national geology company to help us look at the geology around the Indian River plant," Long says. He declines to provide the name of the company, but says it assures NRG that sequestration is possible.

That's taking a big leap of faith -- and expecting Delaware to leap along. As Long acknowledges, the technology to sequester CO2 from a large power plant is still in the works and has yet to be tested anywhere. "This is all cutting-edge, essentially the wave of the future," he says.

The greenhouse-gas issue, worrisome as it is, has been less damaging to NRG's "clean coal" bid than, surprisingly, simple economics. In February, a state-hired consultant (one more product of Delaware's belatedly democratic process) rated the offshore wind plan as less expensive than "clean coal."

The new cost-competitiveness of wind power is in fact a landmark development, and one that knocks down a major barrier. It is the result of improved technology, a double-digit growth rate for the wind industry, and the rising costs of coal and other fossil fuels.

In Delaware, Mandelstam plans to use 200 giant 3-megawatt wind turbines, with 160-foot long blades. The larger the turbine, the more power it generates, bringing down average costs. Furthermore, he points out, once the turbines are built, wind power won't depend on a commodity, like coal, that has recently jumped up in price.

Mandelstam and other renewable-energy leaders also make the point that costs of fossil fuels are bound to rise as the new Democratic congressional majority pushes for the regulation of greenhouse gases. A price on greenhouse gas emissions -- in the form of a carbon tax or other regulatory measure -- would more truly reflect the health and cleanup costs that have been long subsidized by society.

"What we have to offer is stable price power with no hidden cost, every hour for 20 years," Mandelstam says. "If people look at that, they'll see it's a sensationally terrific deal, strictly on a business basis."

So what about the birds? While the toll on birds flying into turbines has long been a grisly problem for wind buffs, it hasn't influenced Delaware's debate for some good reasons. A lot has changed since wind's first huge bird-related fiasco: California's ill-conceived Altamont Pass wind farm. Built in 1982 as one of the first U.S. commercial wind plants, its turbines were placed along a major raptor migration corridor, in the heart of the highest concentration of golden eagles in America. A report by the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity says the project has killed as many as 1,300 birds of prey each year.

Three things have happened in the past quarter-century, however. Strict avian-impact studies are now required for wind development. Wind technologies have become less lethal, with slower-moving blades and warning systems. And perhaps most important, as predictions of global-warming risks have become steadily more alarming, bird lovers are getting a grip. Last winter even the National Audubon Society went on record as supporting wind. Its president, John Flicker, pointed out that while bird kills by windmills may be grisly, the toll is far lower than that exacted by coal power, via air and water pollution and climate change, which are hastening the extinction of entire species.

In the end, as Mandelstam predicted, the "newness" of offshore wind may be the biggest hurdle here in Delaware. "You may not want to be the last state to put up a coal plant, but you don't necessarily want to be the first state to put up an offshore wind plant," state representative Joe Booth told me at a public meeting.

NRG has capitalized on this apprehension, running ads characterizing wind power as "intermittent," raising the fear that Delawareans could be left in the dark. That simply isn't warranted, explains Joe Kerecman, a vice president of PJM, the world's largest electricity market, stretching from New Jersey to parts of Illinois. Kerecman says introducing offshore wind wouldn't lead to any unreliability in power supplies. "We've got the power to handle it," he says. At times of intermittency, Delmarva, the utility, would simply buy power from the grid.

Moreover, as Mandelstam points out, offshore wind is significantly more constant than onshore wind. He said he could provide power 87 percent of the time, which he maintained was similar to a coal plant, which must close periodically due to maintenance and other technical issues.

If governments finally commit to ramping up this resource, it wouldn't be a hard fix to guarantee even more reliability, according to Mark Z. Jacobson, director of Stanford University's Atmosphere/Energy Program, who says turbines could be sited to complement each other. "With this huge resource offshore, it's just stupid to build new fossil power plants anymore in this region," Jacobson says.

Kempton isn't making any predictions of how things will shake out in June. He says wind's toughest competitor at this point may be "no bid": a decision to do nothing and simply buy more power from PJM. If the wind boosters prevail, however, and offshore wind gets its first foothold in Delaware, that big contract could help the entire industry ramp up, sending signals all the way to China that offshore wind is a good bet.

Mandelstam remains optimistic. In the post- "Inconvenient Truth" era, public opinion is demanding stronger action on global warming. More than a dozen states have set mandatory requirements for renewable energy. And in the wake of Cape Wind's pioneering plan, offshore projects are now being proposed not just in Delaware but also in Long Island and Texas. "I take the long view," he says. "Eventually renewables -- biofuels, wind, geothermal -- will provide all the power on the U.S. grid."

Mandelstam is also diplomatic. His experience in Delaware, he says, has shown that "democracy works. Fairness and competition work. It has just taken a lot of focus and effort this time."

By Katherine Ellison

Katherine Ellison is a Pulitzer Prize–winning former foreign correspondent and the author of seven books, including "The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes You Smarter" and "Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention." She lives in northern California.

MORE FROM Katherine Ellison

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Energy Environment Global Warming