October 21, 2003

New Wind Blowing at Cornell

Print More

Mitchell Jacobs, law ’74, gave a presentation yesterday on his work in creating Cape Wind off the coast of Massachusetts. Cape Wind will be the first offshore windfarm in the U.S. The lecture was sponsored by Cornell University Renewable Energy Society (CURES). Jacobs was introduced by Abigail Krich ’04, the group’s vice president and a Sun columnist.

Krich explained that Jacobs has made great strides in renewable energy, especially in wind energy. In 1980, Jacobs and a few friends began opening independent power facilities in New England, eventually operating a total of seven.

“We knew nothing about power,” Jacob said. He was trained as a tax lawyer and his partner was in the movie industry. However, they succeeded in showing that independent plants could be built and run cheaper and cleaner than utilities facilities.

In the late 1990s, however, gas prices began rising dramatically and Jacobs and his partners were not willing to stick with gas energy. “We had one shot to get out of this business, and we took it,” he said.

After selling the seven plants, Jacobs wanted to turn to renewable energy.

In explaining the decision to start a wind farm, he sited global warming and climate change; air and water pollution, which is causing “tremendous pressure on states to cap emissions;” and high energy prices, which are continuing to rise in New England due to a lack of transportation for gas and other fuels.

After choosing the coast of Massachusetts as the location of the project and an extensive study of the Nantucket Sound area, which is ideal because it is sheltered from the open ocean, Jacobs found one area large enough for a windfarm, named Horseshoe Shoal. Horseshoe Shoal is large enough for 130 3.6 megawatt wind turbines, spaced in a grid about one-half by one-third of a mile apart. “This was the most expensive real estate in the world,” Jacobs estimated, “but we had no other choice.”

Cape Wind will produce 400 MW of energy. By comparison, other plants usually produce around 250 MW, and large nuclear plants can produce as much as 1,000 MW. Once the windfarm is constructed, the electricity produced will be collected by the Electric Service Platform, or main service station, and run by cable into the city of Yarmouth. Here, it will be run under the streets to the Barnstable Substation.

Jacobs explained that the air quality improvements and decreases in emissions will be substantial. Dirtier gas, coal, and oil power plants will be used less once the windfarm is in operation, leading to decreases of thousands of tons of sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions, which cause acid rain and smog, respectively, as well as over a million tons of carbon dioxide.

The Preliminary Environmental Impact Assessment for the windfarm has taken two years. As part of it, to make sure that the wind farm would have no affect on birds, an aviation radar center was built on a barge to make sure that the area was not in birds’ flight paths, and the amounts of energy in the wind was carefully recorded. Jacobs said that Cape Wind’s website, www.capewind.org, actually shows this data on current wind energy available.

Potential criticisms of the project have included the resources needed in terms of maintenance. Jacobs explained that the windfarm is based on a “twenty-year scale;” gas turbines, in comparison, need replacement parts every five to six years.

The windfarm may be open as early as 2006. The hardest part of the process, Jacobs said, is the permitting, because there are not yet any laws regarding such a project, he explained. “Fortunately, we have had good luck in the courts, and we just received a favorable ruling from Judge Tauro of the District Court in Boston, another Cornell Law alumni.” Still, there is some public opposition to the visibility of windfarms.

Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), for one, is a “rabid opponent,” Jacobs said, as are several other very wealthy landowners in the area.

Jacobs sees three main groups of opposition. One is mainly concerned “about the fish and the birds,” but Cape Wind Associates have won over most of the mainstream environmental groups with their two years of studies. A second group is concerned about the legal process, especially since this will be private development on public land. Jacobs countered this by explaining that Cape Wind Associates are using their own money and are in compliance with all existing rules. The last group of opponents are people who will actually see the wind farm and don’t want to. The majority of this group has said that Cape Wind is a “wonderful project,” but to please “move it to somewhere else.”

“We have mitigated the visual impact, moving the windfarm as far offshore as possible,” Jacobs said, “but we can’t change the fact that it is still visible.”

According to Jacobs, the windfarm would create employment and an ecotourism venue. Most importantly, it would “reduce overall electricity costs to New England consumers,” and Jacobs was not humble in expressing his belief that this is the “most important project in the energy world today.”

The Cape Wind Associates are currently working hard to gain public support for their project. In an independent poll, they found that 60 percent of people on the Cape favor the project, and feel that those who do not are mostly scared because it would be something new that they have never seen before. There is also the feeling that the Cape is “theirs,” and resentment to a proposal to tamper with it.

Jacobs is optimistic because he has found in other projects that “opposition declines over time.”

“The problem with wind power begins and ends with visuals,” he stressed. He is counting on people becoming accustomed to the wind farm over time. Personally, in working to create Cape Wind, Jacobs said that he learned much more about politics and about the ocean than he ever thought he would.

Jacobs and his partners are expecting an 18 percent rate of return on equity, based on the huge scale of the project, in which $12 million dollars have already been invested. However, he added, “there are many small wind projects as well, and everyone can get involved. If people like us can make money [from wind power], you’ll see others picking it up as well.”

Krich was also pleased to announce “exciting news” on the Cornell front: the University is planning a study to look into putting up a small windfarm here.

Archived article by Lauryn Slotnick