First Off-Shore Wind Power in U.S. Finally Gets Go-Ahead -- Catching up with the EU     Print Email

Like EU, Washington Opts for Action, not Treaties

After years of national and local debate, Washington has approved the country’s first off-shore wind farm – an important step for the U.S. in catching up with developments in Europe.

Approved by U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, the Cape Wind project -- 130 wind towers each 440 feet tall -- will occupy a 25-square-mile section of Nantucket Sound in Massachusetts. It promises to provide 75 percent of the electricity required by the nearest part of the coast — the equivalent of the output of a medium-size coal-fired plant.

The move comes at a time when climate-change and energy policies are in flux in the U.S. and Europe after the failure of the Copenhagen summit to produce consensus on how best to collectively fight greenhouse gases. Increasingly, countries on both sides of the Atlantic seem to be refocusing their efforts on pragmatic projects rather than pressing for new binding global agreements. The wind move in the U.S. also comes at a moment of heightened American concern about air pollution from carbon-based energy, recently ratcheted up by the oil spill-disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Only recently, President Obama took the controversial decision to authorize more off-shore drilling – a move that was actually designed to placate opposition Republicans and get them on board for a climate-change bill to curb carbon emissions.

In any event, that legislation now seems impossible this year because of a new confrontation on Capitol Hill over an apparently unrelated issue -- immigration. This running sore in American politics was suddenly reopened last month when Arizona State announced a new crack-down on illegal immigrants. That move prompted the Democrats in Congress to announce a sudden push for immigration reform. That plan was denounced as populist electioneering in an election by the Republican opposition and they promptly put an end to bipartisan cooperation on cap-and-trade legislation to curb carbon emissions.

That plan was already in trouble because it threatens so many Democrats in “swing seats” during elections in November. Many of them, particularly in farm states, are reluctant to pursue emissions caps.

Given the context, the wind plan came as a political “wind fall” for President Obama as a step toward a less carbon-intensive economy. The U.S. has lagged behind Europe in developing wind power: Germany, for example, opened its first offshore wind facility this week but already has about 21,000 onshore wind turbines that cover between 6 to 7 percent of the country’s power requirements. Britain has 245 onshore windfarms and like Germany, has looked to its waters as a renewable energy frontier since the early 1990s.

Most growth in the U.S. wind energy industry, however, has occurred inland – in states with the greatest onshore wind capacity like North Dakota, Texas, and Kansas -- and the dozens of new U.S. wind energy projects now under construction are also on land.

The expansion of windpower, especially in offshore areas where winds blow more steadily, is a striking example of how the U.S. and some EU countries are moving to implement pragmatic domestic solutions to producing energy without exacerbating climate change.

At the same time, EU governments seem to be abandoning climate change treaties and legislation as overriding national priorities. In March, French president Nicolas Sarkozy axed a much-vaunted plan for a carbon tax.

In Germany, Der Spiegel reports this week that German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been moving away from her goal of a binding agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and is beginning to focus strictly on domestic issues. As recently as December, Merkel was defending global mandatory target values but when it became clear that countries like China and India would not submit to such targets, she took a different route. “The country’s climate policy was an attempt to play a leadership role, but others didn’t follow suit…after having dreamt of achieving the great objective, now it’s time for realpolitik,” Der Speigel reports.

At the same time, the EU’s flagship climate program, the Emissions Trading System (ETS), took a major hit this week when British tax authorities arrested 25 people after raiding homes and offices – including Deutsche Bank and Germany’s leading energy company RWE -- across Europe as part of a crackdown on carbon-trading fraud.

Pressure to stamp out suspected fraudulent activity on the ETS has increased in recent months. The so-called “carousel fraud” -- also called “missing-trader fraud” -- involves bogus traders buying pollution permits in the emissions trading scheme in one EU member state without paying VAT. They sell them on in another country with VAT added, but pocket the difference, rather than pay the VAT to the relevant tax authorities. With the profit made, the trader goes missing and the money never arrives in government coffers.

According to Europol, the European criminal intelligence agency, ETS fraud had resulted in five billion euro in lost revenues. The police probe -- high-lighting the opportunities for graft in a big cap-and-trade system -- seems likely to be another objection raised by critics of this approach in Washington of this approach pioneered by the EU. European advocates contend that there was bound to be a period of working out problems with any innovative system of this sort.

Meanwhile, the American step toward wind off the coast of Cape Cod marks a new era in energy production in the United States, but the long-running struggle over the development of this project up how divisive such a “clean energy” initiative can be.

For one thing, it was won despite intense opposition from powerful Democrats, most notably from the Kennedy’s -- whose family home overlooks Nantucket Sound -- who reacted to the towers plan with “Not in My Backyard.” Barely visible from the Hyannis Port compound, the late Senator Ted Kennedy argued until his death in 2009, that the project was a “giveaway to a private developer” while his successor, Republican Senator Scott Brown said that the plans were misguided and would hinder tourism and boating in the area.

Supporters, however, say the $1 billion project would provide a clean, renewable source of energy that would provide hundreds of construction jobs, decrease the region’s reliance on largely-imported fossil fuels and lower emissions of greenhouse gases.

Sarah Geraghty