A state board on Tuesday issued a tentative decision denying the extension of permits that would allow Cape Wind to build an electricity transmission line to connect its proposed offshore wind farm to land, further complicating the beleaguered project's already grim prospects.
Members of the Energy Facilities Siting Board will meet next week to finalize a decision on whether or not to renew nine state and local permits the board initially granted as a so-called “super permit” to the offshore wind energy developer in 2009. The permits allowed Cape Wind to construct a transmission line through state-owned territory in Nantucket Sound and Hyannis Harbor and across multiple Cape towns.
Cape Wind had initially requested a two-year extension of the permits to May 1, 2017, which is unreasonable because it would not be enough time for Cape Wind to overcome the obstacles the project faces, according to the siting board's tentative decision.
“At this time, Cape Wind needs a lengthy, almost open-ended extension period,” siting board presiding officer James Buckley wrote in the 26-page document. “An open-ended extension obviously would be unreasonbable. Any extension of the magnitude needed here, especially in light of the minimal investigation and review by Cape Wind for this proceeding, likewise would be unreasonable.”
The decision would be yet another major setback for the project, which has faced stiff opposition since it was first proposed in 2001. Last year, it suffered a major blow when Eversource Energy and National Grid canceled contracts to buy power from the 130-turbine wind farm.
If upheld, the siting board's decision will seriously hurt the project, but may not kill it completely, said Barnstable Assistant Town Attorney Charles McLaughlin, who has participated in various lawsuits for the town in opposition to the project. Both the town and the project's primary opposition, the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, argued against the extension of the permits for the transmission line.
Cape Wind still holds a federal lease for 46 square miles in Nantucket Sound where the proposed turbines would be built. But the status of that lease is being challenged in the U.S. Court of Appeals on grounds that federal agencies involved in approving the lease violated laws such as the U.S. Endangered Species Act, said Audra Parker, president and CEO of the alliance.
“It is a very significant setback to Cape Wind if the decision is finalized,” she said about the siting board's findings. “But it’s not over until Cape Wind no longer holds that long-term lease.”
Cape Wind Vice President Dennis Duffy said the company would not comment until a decision was finalized.
“Cape Wind will respond to the staff position, but reserve further comment until the board meets next week,” he said.
Once finalized, Cape Wind could appeal the board’s decision, but if the company loses, it would have to start the permitting process over again in order to build the transmission line, which is essential to the project, McLaughlin said. Without it, the company wouldn’t be able to get the electricity generated to customers on shore.
“We’re very happy to say that this project is nearing the end of its life,” he said.
Those who oppose the project fear environmental risks they say would stem from the construction and operation of the wind farm, including oil spills and threats to endangered bird species and marine life, McLaughlin said. Construction of the transmission line between the turbine and the mainland would require plowing up the seafloor and could endanger eel grass, which is home to many fish species, he said.
Since Cape Wind was first proposed wind energy technology has advanced to be more efficient and environmentally friendly, he said.
“The technologies for deeper water wind towers has improved dramatically, and the size of these wind turbines has more than doubled,” he said.
McLaughlin said he hoped another wind project could be pursued further offshore. The federal government in January 2015 auctioned leases for about 350,000 acres south of Martha's Vineyard for wind energy projects.
“We’re gratified that this project, hopefully, will be moved,” McLaughlin said. “The Cape Wind folks have been extremely committed to producing renewable energy and leading this fight nationally, and I congratulate them for that.”