Top of Mind: Jim Gordon, Extended Version

By James Burnett | Boston Magazine |

Boston editor James Burnett: Let’s back all the way up. Why energy in general, as a field, before you got into what you’re doing now?

JG: I was going to BU’s School of Public Communications for a degree in broadcast and film, and actually had visions of becoming the next Stephen Spielberg. My last year at BU, I worked at Warner Communications Corporation, which was bringing cable television into the urban areas around Boston. …So I got involved in marketing cable. I got interested in technologies and how you’re able to bring in new technology to market.

The oil embargo occurred in 1973 and 1974, and I was sitting in a two-block-long gas line waiting to fill up my gas tank. I saw the dislocation that the embargo caused in terms of social disruptions, economic disruptions, and I felt that energy was going to be a very important issue going forward. And I had an entrepreneurial streak in me, and I decided to get into the energy business. So 35 years ago I founded a company called Energy Management and started doing energy-conservation projects. And over a period of time…we evolved from doing energy-conservation projects to developing independent power projects. That’s how I got into the energy business.

JB: Why this, then, as a second act? There would have been easier projects to take on. You could have retired.

Basically, we were one of the companies that pioneered the development of electric gas-fired energy development projects in New England. And that created significant benefits for the public in terms of cleaner energy, cost effectiveness, additional reliability, and we saw the electric portfolio go from zero electric gas generation to now 40 percent of New England’s power comes from natural gas-fired generation. We got into that technology sector to help diversify the portfolio, and there were a lot of natural gas-fired power plants built.

Around 2000, then, it was really time to think about the next direction of energy development in New England. …And we started to look at renewable energy because there was really hardly any renewable energy here back then. We had some hydro plants and some biomass plants, but we looked at wind. People in New England have always thought that they are at the end of the energy pipeline because we have no indigenous oil, coal, or natural gas resources. But we’re blessed with a tremendous wind resource in this region, and most of that wind lies offshore. So we felt that wind power in terms of how the technology had evolved—I mean we had been looking at it since the early ’80s, and the biggest wind turbine put out about 50 kilowatts. And over the ensuing two decades, there was a significant leap in reliability, cost effectiveness, and the production output of wind power.

…So basically we explored all over New England for a year to find the optimal site to locate a wind farm. And New England is very densely populated, and we do not have large land available. But, frankly, the wind resources are more powerful and more consistent offshore. So we located this very shallow shoal in Nantucket Sound called Horseshoe Shoal that was away from the shipping lanes, away from the ferry routes, out of the air-flight paths. It was extremely shallow, so it’s an area that most boaters avoid. And it had a reasonable proximity to transmit the electricity on cables to the grid. And it was blessed with some of the best wind resources on the East Coast.

Having lived in the town that is closest to where the Cape Wind project is—you know my family still owns a home in South Yarmouth—I was aware there hadn’t been a new electrical-generating facility built on the Cape and Islands since the 1960s. That was a plant that has the capacity to burn 300 million gallons annually of heavy imported oil. The electric demand in that region was growing rapidly; the wind resources were there.

Did you anticipate all the resistance it would face?

JG: There’s always going to be some opposition. What we’ve done is gone out in the community; we’ve conducted forums in schools and in civic organizations. We’ve talked to proponents, opponents, and stakeholders. We did a lot of education, trying to educate people: "Look, here’s what this project is all about; here’s why we think it’s a good idea. But you know, we’re going to go through this very comprehensive and rigorous permitting process where 17 federal and state agencies are going to scrutinize every aspect of this project. At the end of the day, if the benefits of this project don’t outweigh the impacts, the projects will not go forward. Let’s keep an open mind."

Most of the folks on the Cape and Islands entered the dialogue in that spirit. They saw that the project had possibilities and they wanted to see whether it would successfully pass through the regulatory process. Yet there was another group that basically before the ink was dry on the proposal created an opposition group. Over the ensuing years, they would spend millions of dollars trying to block this project.

…The most overriding environmental threat to the Cape and Islands is climate change. We’re talking about a low-lying community. We’re already seeing the impacts of climate change, rising sea levels, more intense and frequent hurricanes and storms, warming ocean temperatures that will impact fish species, acidification of Nantucket Sound. …There’s a sad irony here that the "not in my backyard crowd" is fighting a project that is actually going to help mitigate some of these threats.

If you look at any major infrastructure project in Massachusetts or New England, it’s not uncommon to have opposition to it, whether you’re developing a football stadium or an art museum on Memorial Drive. We have an active democracy and citizen participation. The important thing is, if you look at the project now, independent public opinion polls show that 86 percent of Massachusetts citizens want Cape Wind built.

JB: Has this process taken longer than expected? For nine years, it’s been going on.

Yes, it’s been longer than expected. But we believed in our hearts that this project was in the right place, at the right time…not only because it’s going to establish Massachusetts as a worldwide leader in offshore renewable energy, but also because it can inspire other communities to look at their offshore wind resources and develop them. And that’s already happening: Rhode Island, New Jersey, Delaware, the Carolinas.

…The Department of Energy and the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative have validated that there is over 900,000 megawatts of offshore wind resources blowing within five to 50 miles of our coast. To put that into perspective, the total installed electric generation capacity in the United States is about 950,000 megawatts. I’m not sitting here trying to tell you that offshore wind is going to replace all the electric generation capacity in the United States, but it can become a significant component of our energy future….

JB: This business opportunity that you saw—when you were talking about being in the gas lines—sometimes it sounds driven by environmentalism, but at other times by energy security, too?

JG: When I started in this business, the United States was importing 28 percent of its energy. We went through these two embargoes, and we recognized that there’s a cartel of foreign energy producers that in effect can have a significant impact on our economy and our national security, so what drove me to get into this business was I felt that it was important to move to greater energy independence. I’m sad to say that now we’re importing over 60 percent of our energy from foreign suppliers.

…We wind up in a precarious situation. Just a year ago the price of oil was $145 per barrel. We find ourselves in an economic crisis and, yes, it was credit markets and a housing bubble, but also when the cost of gasoline is $4.50, and it costs $3.50 for a gallon of heating oil, that has a very negative impact on our economy as well.

When we flick the light switch on, is that going to trigger a mountaintop in Appalachia to blow up? Is that going to trigger a barge moving from a Saudi Arabian port here or liquefied natural gas from Nigeria? We take for granted where our energy comes from, and I firmly believe that if we can locally harvest sustainable energy sources then we’re going to improve the health, the prosperity, and the environment of our communities.

JB: Did you go into the energy business with a thick skin, or has being in the business given you one?

I grew up in a middle-class household. My dad owned a couple of corner grocery stores in the Allston-Brighton area, and since I was 12, I would go after school or on weekends and work at my father’s grocery store. It was a very interesting community—it was blue-collar, it was loaded with college students, and in the ’60s and ’70s era, it was a great education. You learn how to deal with people.

…The thick skin comes from the fact that even though some of the criticism is leveled at me personally, I don’t take it personally. I understand there are people who have a fear of the unknown; I understand there is a resistance to change; I understand people may lash out in different areas, if they’re concerned about their property values or a change in the landscape. No matter how unfounded the fear may be or the criticism leveled at me may be, I just don’t take it personally.

JB: With noteworthy political opponents like Senator Edward Kennedy, did you ever have the opportunity to make your case, one-on-one?

I have a lot of respect for Senator Kennedy—I did have a meeting with him. It was a very amicable meeting. …I’m just hoping he will look at the record and recognize that Massachusetts wants a renewable-energy future and that our citizens want a better future for their children. Certainly, I’m hoping he will at some point embrace this project

I’m grateful to Governor Patrick and [Energy and Environmental Affairs] Secretary Ian Bowles, who…have outlined very ambitious goals of getting 2,000 megawatts of electricity from wind in Massachusetts, and have realized that most of that will come from offshore wind. The legislature has been very supportive of this project.

You’re a businessman. If you were drawing up a pie chart, how much of Cape Wind is about business opportunity, and how much is about ushering in a bigger change?

JG: That’s a fair question. When you’ve worked as long as we have on this project, and you’ve overcome the obstacles that we have, you cannot be driven by just business principles. …I say in large part, of course, we want this project to be successful. If it isn’t, we’re not going to attract the [financial resources] we need. But I’ve made my career developing cleaner and more efficient energy projects in New England. I didn’t parachute in from another land—we’re a Massachusetts company that has been working in this field for 35 years, and we’re very excited about the direction of our energy future.

There’s another company, First Wind, that has been through the regulatory process and has worked to get projects going onshore. Seems to me that, from a business perceptive, you could have picked easier places to pursue a wind farm than [between the Cape and Islands].

If you look at the East Coast and you realize how densely populated the land is, the major component of wind power is going to come from offshore wind. And as the technology advances incrementally, we’ll be able to go farther offshore. But somebody had to step up.

The Europeans have been doing this since the early ’90s. The United Kingdom is expecting to get 30 percent of their energy from offshore wind—they just announced a 630-megawatt project off the Thames estuary. There are offshore wind farms operating in Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Italy—we’re falling way behind, yet we have some of the largest offshore wind resources in the world.
…It’s an interesting thing. With oil, coal, and natural gas, you can truck, pipe, or barge it. Because of that reason, historically, power facilities have been located in lower socioeconomic areas, in poorer neighborhoods without the necessary political influence. So there’s really an environmental justice issue here. My point is unlike with oil, and coal, and natural gas—which you can barge, truck, or pipe— with wind, you can’t do that. You have to locate the facility where the wind is….

During the Revolutionary War, the British embargoed salt, something General Washington desperately needed for medicine, for the horses, to salt cod. The Continental Congress put out a penny-a-bushel incentive for the colonists to make salt here. People on the Cape and Islands responded—they had the salty sea and wind, and soon windmills dotted the landscape. They made salt and aided the war effort. In the 1800s, folks from New Bedford, Nantucket, and Cape Cod lit the lamps of the world for industrial machinery. They created energy from whales—they perfected the art, and soon they were managing whaling fleets as far as the Pacific Ocean. In World War II, we took these deep-water ports and made ships to fight fascism. We have the marine and cultural heritage and history. We’ve responded to urgent challenges all throughout our history. What better place to locate America’s first offshore wind farm than in federal waters off the coast of Massachusetts?

JB: Let’s assume that you get the final go-ahead (the record of decision). The financing is tough in this economy—is this something you think about?

JG: We are well aware of the financial climate. We believe that the credit markets are going to come back. We’re highly confident that we’re going to be able to successfully finance and build this project. And obviously there are significant policy objectives that are helping to move renewable energy projects into the grid….

JB: And if this doesn’t pass? Do you think about that?

JG: Of course, we’ve invested a lot of our careers and significant years in this project and significant amounts of resources. A lot of money—many many many many many many many many many many many many many millions of dollars.

But when I visit Cape Cod and look out on the horizon now, I see these small specks on the horizon. I can just see them gracefully spinning, quietly.

JB: So, in your mind’s eye, this is going to happen?

JG: Yes.

You mentioned you spend some time not always working. What do you do?

JG: I like to play tennis. I like to hit the gym a few times a week. Most of all I enjoy spending time with my children. I have two daughters (ages three and six), and I have a 21-year-old son. My wife and kids give me great satisfaction. I go to a lot of films—I’ve been going to a lot of children’s films lately. I just like to relax when I get the chance.

I’m sure that doesn’t happen too often.

JG: I think I’m able to balance my life pretty well.

Because that would be the risk with something this big, for it to become all-consuming.

That’s something I’ve tried to guard against. There are moments when you’re pulled into the thick of things. The pace of the development…there’s a lot of waiting for things: responses and reports. So it comes in fits and starts and stops.

I use words like "thick skin" and "determination." But I guess patience has also been a requirement?

Patience has been a major requirement. We’ve crawled and walked. We’ve evolved over 35 years. …But I think we literally are inches from the goal line.

JB: How do you plan to celebrate if you cross that goal line?

I think a lot of people will celebrate once this project is up and running. Even those opponents that have invested a lot in opposing this project, I think once they see that a lot of their concerns and fears haven’t materialized, even they will embrace and be proud of it.

JB: So you won’t be popping champagne when you receive the final word from Washington?

Oh, we’ll do some of that. But I think the celebration will be walking out on the beach that my dad used to take me to and just looking out on the horizon and hoping that it’s a clear day so I can see it in the first place. That will be just an incredible moment, an indescribable moment.

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