Cape Wind president forged career in energy innovations

Reprinted with permission from the Vineyard Gazette, Copyright 2005.

By Ian Fein, May 13, 2005

Cape Wind president Jim Gordon has spent his entire 30-year career working in the field of energy in New England. So he's not surprised that his latest proposal - to build the nation's first offshore wind farm in Nantucket Sound - has sparked such controversy in the region.

But that doesn't mean that after three and a half years of fierce opposition, the attacks have not taken their toll.

"This does get to us. We're human just like you," said a thin and athletic Mr. Gordon, his hair graying around the edges.  "We've been in this industry, so we understand what we face. But if there aren't people out here like us, you wouldn't be turning on your computers or your lights."

Mr. Gordon visited the Island last month and sat down for an interview with the Gazette during what is a relatively quiet period for project.

Parties on both sides of the wind farm proposal are waiting to hear from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the lead permitting authority for the Cape Wind project, which is still reviewing the nearly 5,000 public comments it received this winter about its draft environmental impact statement, which was widely favorable to Cape Wind. The Army Corps will then decide whether to require additional studies for the final review. Mr. Gordon said he does not know how long the final review will take.

"I hope it's a matter of months," he said.

And if it turns out to be years?

"Then we'll grow old together," he replied.

Cape Wind did get a gust of good news this week, when the Massachusetts Energy Facilities Siting Board voted 5-2 to approve the construction of two underwater transmission cables that would link the 130 wind turbines on Horseshoe Shoal to a switching station in Barnstable. The state agency reviewed the project for almost three years and had previously delayed a vote on the permit last fall.

Mr. Gordon said he was pleased with where Cape Wind was in the permitting process, but noted that every day that passes adds cost to the construction and delays the benefits the project would create for the region. He said he and some of the other senior management of the company have already invested about $20 million of their own money, and that the estimated overall project cost has now exceeded $750 million.

"We're not going to put a number on it, but it's going up - everything's going up," Mr. Gordon said.  "The unfortunate thing is there are opponents with a strategy of delaying this project, which is not only harmful to us as a company - and it is harmful - but it's also harmful to the citizens of the Cape and Islands."

A Boston native who still lives on Beacon Hill and owns a home in South Yarmouth, Mr. Gordon said that he is a dedicated citizen of the region and is committed to providing clean energy sources for people in New England.

Mr. Gordon was just 22 years old when the second Arab oil embargo 30 years ago created long lines outside gas stations and economic instability in the region. The graduate of Boston University was selling cable television subscriptions in the outskirts of Boston at the time, and he saw opportunity in the crisis.

"I just felt at the time that energy was a very important issue going forward, and I guess I had an entrepreneurial streak in me," he recalled.  "So I decided to start an energy company."

Mr. Gordon invested $3,000 in savings to create Energy Management Inc., which is the developer of the Cape Wind project.

The company marketed energy efficient products for ten years before switching to energy production. Energy Management developed one of the first natural gas facilities in New England, and over the next decade Mr. Gordon spearheaded the construction of six other natural gas and biomass plants in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine.

He said that his energy projects always attracted opposition, but usually won over detractors in the end.

"Google me. Look at my reputation," he said.  "Have we lived up to our promises? We have."

In 1999 Energy Management sold its production plants and shifted its focus to renewable energies. Mr. Gordon said he looked at other technologies such as solar, voltaic and wave power before deciding that wind turbines were the most cost effective and ready for prime time.

He then explored possible wind farm locations throughout New England, including mountains in northern Maine and hills in western Massachusetts, before selecting Nantucket Sound as the prime site.

"The Cape and Islands have the fastest growing populations in New England and are facing an increasing energy demand along with unique environmental challenges," Mr. Gordon said.  "In no way do I represent that Cape Wind will solve all the problems, but it will make a significant contribution and create a model for the nation's energy future."

Mr. Gordon said that the negative reaction of some residents to his project has not affected his enjoyment of the area, because he believes it will ultimately make the Cape and Islands a better place.

"It's not a popularity contest, although some people would like to make it that way. We understand that we won't get 100 per cent of people in favor; it doesn't happen in a major infrastructure project," he said.  "But I'm encouraged because in my travels, month after month, I honestly believe that public support for the project is growing. We have made people think about their energy and environmental decision, and with time some of the red herrings have disappeared."

Mr. Gordon said he believed that most of the opposition to the project is rooted in the aesthetics, and that many people do not know what the wind farm would actually look like.

"It's going to be like sailing masts on the horizon," he said.  "I think offshore wind farms are beautiful. I find them inspiring - especially when you consider what they're doing. They are a symbol of hope, and of the future."

Reprinted with permission from the Vineyard Gazette, Copyright 2005.