Top of Mind: Jim Gordon, Extended Version

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.