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Unpublished Paper
Historic Preservation and Offshore Wind Energy: Lessons Learned from the Cape Wind Saga
  • Dominic Spinelli

The development of renewable sources of energy is vital to the future of the United States. Most significantly, the use of renewable energy sources will reduce dependency on fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas. Cutting down on the use of fossil fuels will decrease greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution, ultimately improving air quality. One major untapped renewable energy source in the United States is offshore wind energy. The wind resources off the coasts of the United States contain more potential energy than the total amount of current installed electric capacity in the entire country. A study conducted by the United States Department of Energy concluded that offshore wind farms can generate enough electricity to power the entire United States. Many other countries including Denmark, Netherlands, United Kingdom and Sweden have successfully utilized offshore wind energy. Yet for a number of reasons, including poor economics, an uncertain regulatory framework, a lengthy review process and local opposition, the United States is years away from developing similar offshore projects.

In the early 2000’s, it appeared that offshore wind energy was on the horizon for the United States. In November 2001, private developers proposed the construction of America’s first offshore wind farm known as the Cape Wind Project (“Cape Wind”), a project that has the potential to generate enough energy to meet three quarters of Cape Cod’s electricity needs, significantly reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and create 1,000 jobs. However, many groups have fought tirelessly to prevent the construction of Cape Wind due to its potential adverse impact on the environment, fishing, navigation, tourism, historic views and submerged cultural artifacts. On April 28, 2010, nearly a decade after its proposal, Cape Wind received federal approval to go forward with the project. However, legal challenges to the decision are likely in the future.

One of the biggest obstacles for Cape Wind and for future offshore projects is the National Historic Preservation Act (“NHPA”). Since the enactment of NHPA in 1966, the United States has been dedicated to protecting places of historic and cultural significance. In more recent years, a movement to promote low-carbon energy through offshore renewable energy projects has grabbed the nation’s attention. While in many cases the interests of historic preservation and renewable energy go hand in hand, recently these interests have collided. Specifically, historic preservation laws have stalled the development of offshore wind farms critical to America’s future.

The Cape Wind story illustrates the growing wedge between historic preservation and offshore wind energy, where the designation of Nantucket Sound on the National Register of Historic Places has been a major hurdle to the development of the project. Cape Wind has been deemed a test case for the future of the offshore wind energy industry. The major concern going forward is that the Cape Wind saga will discourage future developers from pursing similar offshore projects due to the lengthy review process and potential conflicts that may arise with submerged cultural artifacts and historic views. While Cape Wind has faced a number of legal, statutory and regulatory hurdles, the scope of this Note is limited to Cape Wind and the NHPA.

Using the Cape Wind controversy as a case study, this Note discusses the conflict between offshore wind projects and historic preservation. Specifically, this Note argues that the NHPA review process hinders and even discourages the development of offshore wind projects. United States Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar noted of the Cape Wind application: “[t]he worst thing we can do for the country is to be in a state of indecision, and this application has been in a state of indecision for a very long time.” Salazar’s statement regarding the Cape Wind controversy illustrates the federal government’s pressing need to reform the current process for the review and construction of offshore wind farms.

This Note will illustrate lessons learned from the decade long Cape Wind saga. Further, it will provide solutions to the growing tension between historic preservation and offshore wind energy to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future. Part II provides a general overview of Cape Wind, as well as arguments in favor of and in opposition to Cape Wind’s permit application. Part III then discusses the current permitting process for offshore wind farms in the United States. Part IV then discusses in detail Cape Wind and the NHPA review process. Part V proposes reform measures to the current NHPA review process for offshore wind projects, specifically an expedited NHPA review process. This Note concludes by arguing that such reforms to the NHPA review process will resolve tensions between renewable energy and historic preservation, and more importantly help the United States more efficiently implement offshore wind projects. It is important for the federal government to learn from the Cape Wind saga and take measures to prevent such conflicts from happening in the future.

Publication Date
Spring 2010
Citation Information
Dominic Spinelli. "Historic Preservation and Offshore Wind Energy: Lessons Learned from the Cape Wind Saga" (2010)
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