Rick Holmes: Wind power is in our future

Rick Holmes

A mighty wind is gathering behind wind power, and this time it's not all hot air.

T. Boone Pickens and Al Gore are singing in harmony the praises of wind energy. Investors around the world are casting their money to the wind. Windmills are popping up in backyards and industrial parks. A long-disputed wind farm on Nantucket Sound is finally coming into view.

"Enough wind power blows through the Midwest corridor every day to meet 100 percent of U.S. electricity demand," Gore says. He is challenging the nation to create a new infrastructure to get that energy from the windy plains to the homes where it's needed. In 10 years, we ought to be able to get all our electric generation from wind, solar and other renewable sources.

That vision is already taking shape in the heart of the oil patch. This month the Texas Public Utilities Commission authorized spending $4.9 billion on a thousand miles of transmission lines to bring wind energy to the nation's power grid.

Pickens, a billionaire oil man and hedge fund manager, plans to pump power into those lines. In Sweetwater, Texas, he's building the largest wind farm in the world. It will generate 4,000 megawatts, the equivalent of 2.5 nuclear power plants.

Pickens has always wielded political power as well as the kind that comes from windmills and oil rigs. He has bankrolled Republican politicians for decades, and was one of the chief backers of the Swift boat attacks on John Kerry in 2004. But on energy, he has switched sides, investing $58 million in a media campaign pushing the "Pickens Plan," which would use wind power to produce the nation's electricity and natural gas to fuel our cars.

Pickens told a Senate committee last week that alternative energy is a national security issue. The U.S. is spending $700 billion a year on foreign oil, he said, which is four times what we spend on the Iraq war.

"We are paying for the war against ourselves, and we have got to stop it, some way, somehow," he said.

The oil-driller's mentality still reigns at the White House, though, where the two oil men in charge treat renewable energy as more threat than promise. Senate Republicans just blocked a bill that would have extended $23 billion in tax credits for renewable energy projects.

"This administration belongs to energy and gas," Kerry said in Framingham last week.

But the winds of change continue to blow.

Here in New England the winds aren't as strong and constant as those that blow across West Texas, but modern windmills are churning here as well. In Hull, a pair of wind turbines at a school and a landfill produce enough power for 1,000 homes and the town's traffic lights. The town-owned electric company, which charges rates a third lower than neighboring communities, is looking at putting two more wind turbines offshore. Staples wants to add a wind turbine to its corporate headquarters overlooking the Mass. Pike in Framingham. Monks are planning to harness the wind to support their abbey atop one of the Worcester hills.

The best wind in New England blows offshore. Even on a sultry summer day, steady breezes could keep wind turbines spinning on the continental shelf. But for eight years, a proposal by Cape Wind to build 130 wind turbines in Nantucket has been stalled by neighbors and politics.

Alternative energy is fine, wealthy and not-so-wealthy residents on the Cape, Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard have argued, but tourism powers their economy and the view of the pristine North Atlantic is a main attraction. They've had some powerful supporters: Doug Yearley, a director of Marathon Oil, helped bankroll the opposition. Ted Kennedy, perhaps the nation's most powerful yachtsman, threw up obstacles in Washington.

Their tactics have cost Cape Wind's Jim Gordon a fortune, but the political tide has turned. Deval Patrick, who supports the project, replaced Cape Wind opponent Mitt Romney in the governor's office, and the state environmental hurdles have been cleared. This month, a judge shot down a suit by opponents challenging state approval of Cape Wind's transmission line.

Kennedy's best argument against Cape Wind was that there are no regulations governing the construction of power plants on federal land miles offshore. Why should a private company be able to take a public asset without some kind of permitting process, he asked.

The wheels of government turn slowly, but they turn. Congress passed a law in 2005 authorizing a process for developing offshore renewable energy - not just wind, but wave and solar power. This month the federal Minerals Management Service announced rules for permitting offshore energy production, which should take effect by the end of the year.

That should clear the way for Cape Wind, and for lots more. A dozen or more projects are in the works for federal waters, Business Week reports, with nearly as many planned in state waters.

Technology is improving, with companies now working on turbines that can work in deeper water, built on platforms developed for oil rigs. The latest wind farm off the coast of Massachusetts would be so far offshore it will spoil nobody's back porch view, built on floating platforms.

All this activity is fueled by money, not altruism, and the rising cost of oil is fanning the flames. Worldwide, investment in wind energy topped $50 billion last year, more money than was invested in any non-fossil fuel technology, including solar, hydro and nuclear power.

That investment is going to pay off with cleaner, safer power for everyone. About 1 percent of America's electrical power comes from wind today, but the federal Energy Department estimates that will rise to 20 percent by 2030.

That power doesn't have to travel through the Straits of Hormuz. It won't pad the bank accounts of petro-dictators in the Middle East. It doesn't require anyone to knock the top off mountains in Appalachia or suffer from black lung disease. And it doesn't pump carbon into the air that threatens ancient glaciers and our grandchildren's quality of life.

It's nothing but a clean, fresh breeze, and it grows stronger by the day.

Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. ( He can be reached at