At the risk of appearing as if we’ve taken sides in a reliably contentious island issue, we’re publishing yet another story on island-based energy development. This time the location is the Nantucket-Martha’s Vineyard-Block Island area in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, where Cape Wind Associates wants to locate a mega-project, and where the three island communities are working on ways to achieve greater energy independence.

Peter Brace’s story in this month’s Working Waterfront is instructive because it highlights the sort of conflict that seems naturally to occur when someone proposes a big energy development near anyone. Suggest an oil- or coal-fired power plant or a transmission line, an LNG port or an oil refinery, a nuclear power facility with its associated spent fuel, a wind farm, a hydroelectric dam, a tidal power project — nearly always, the neighbors become exercised. Yet these same neighbors (and all of us) still want our electricity, our transportation fuels, all the convenience associated with modern energy use. Sure, we talk a good game about conservation (and perhaps $4 gasoline will finally prompt us to do something about it), but nine times out of ten we go right on doing what we’ve always done. Worse, we have a tendency to regard the energy facility that’s out of our line of sight — Hydro Quebec’s massive dams come to mind — as preferable to the one we can see. We Americans are great at exporting our problems, whether we’re buying tropical timber instead of Western old-growth trees, or purchasing megawatts from Canada so we don’t have to burn oil or coal at home.

Cape Wind (the big project) and the ideas being floated on Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard and Block Island (the smaller, community-based projects) are good examples of the collisions that will occur as we start getting serious about generating electricity here at home. Someone’s going to see these projects if they’re built. Some natural system, some business, someone’s occupation — is going to be affected by them. In the end we will have to choose between an energy source we can see, be it Cape Wind or something on a smaller scale, be it a wind turbine in someone’s back yard or a tidal turbine — and continuing to rely on energy from unstable places at prohibitive prices, the burning of which usually pollutes the air and always depletes the planet’s non-renewable resources.

Conserving energy is always the best thing to do; short of that, the next best thing is to generate it ourselves, at some location in full view. q