BARNSTABLE — The scene at Barnstable High School on a recent Monday night felt like a homecoming rally — all anxious energy, cheers, and hugs. A crush of bodies flooded the hallway as revelers greeted friends and handed out fliers to people pouring into the auditorium.
Except these weren’t high schoolers filling the corridor. This was a public meeting for Barnstable residents to discuss a developer’s plans to lay transmission cables from offshore wind projects under their beaches. For the most part, these residents were opposed, and they were demanding to be heard.
Chuck Tuttle, one of four locals who prompted the event by getting more than 500 residents to petition the Town Council, surveyed the turnout and pumped his fist, thrilled at what he saw. A gray-haired woman wearing a bright-blue jacket that matched her eyes gently laid her hand on Tuttle’s arm. “Do you think we have a shot at stopping this?” she asked him as the crowd churned past.
“I do,” he said, smiling and watching the continued flow of arrivals.
Far from the regulatory offices where decisions are made and the executive boardrooms where plans are laid, advocates and clean-energy experts say the growing wave of opposition in Barnstable and other communities on the front lines of the offshore wind revolution represent a potential threat to the clean-energy and climate goals that rely on the rapid growth of an industry that’s new to the United States.
The offshore wind industry has long been considered the cornerstone of the region’s plans to address climate change by transitioning off fossil fuels. But growing public opposition, combined with economic challenges facing the industry, are dampening the prospects for what was not long ago considered a promising clean-energy solution.
In Barnstable, the main issue isn’t the turbines themselves. It’s that two major offshore wind projects being developed by the company, Avangrid, called Commonwealth Wind and Park City Wind, are planning to bring power ashore via local beaches. These high-powered cables would be buried roughly 50 feet below Barnstable’s shoreline — under Dowses Beach and Craigville Beach — before winding through cement encasements under residential neighborhoods to connect to the regional grid.
Some fear the cables could cause health risks from electromagnetic fields, cause fires or ecological disasters, and result in major disturbances to the area as roads are ripped up during construction of the new projects.
“What about health? What about our future and our families?” Centerville resident Shelly Sterling asked at the Barnstable open meeting. Those questions were echoed by others in the crowd of several hundred, along with worries that the plans to run high-voltage cables through residential areas in Barnstable are turning residents there into guinea pigs. Offshore wind projects elsewhere in the world, they say, bring the power to shore at industrial or commercial locations, not residential ones.
But Avangrid has said bringing power to an industrial port in Somerset wasn’t an option; other offshore wind developers have the rights to the capacity there. Moreover, that location would require longer transmission lines, meaning greater cost to ratepayers, and the cables would have to traverse ecologically sensitive areas to get to Somerset.
Clean-energy opponents have openly sought to capitalize on worries like these to block the advancement of offshore wind. David Stevenson, a former Trump adviser and a director at a libertarian think tank called the Caesar Rodney Institute, has said onshore landings are “the achilles heel of these projects.” The institute is part of the State Policy Network, a group of far-right think tanks and nonprofits that fight climate-related legislation. Stevenson has worked to delay or derail offshore wind projects up and down the East Coast, including through his support of an unsuccessful lawsuit, now under appeal, to stop Avangrid’s Vineyard Wind project, the nation’s first industrial-scale wind farm, which is being installed off Massachusetts’ coast.
Meanwhile, economic factors like supply-chain disruptions and higher interest rates, are also helping boost opponents of offshore wind.
In New Jersey late last month the world’s largest offshore wind company, Ørsted, abandoned plans to build two offshore wind projects, citing economic factors. Those cancellations came amid a torrent of opposition, largely focused on perceived risks that offshore wind poses to whales. Although leading experts on whales have said that offshore wind plans do not appear to threaten the whales, the message has stuck: Public support for offshore wind in New Jersey fell from 80 percent in 2019 to 50 percent in 2023, according a recent poll by Stockton University.
“It’s been kind of shocking for me how asleep at the switch the developers and the advocates have been in anticipating, understanding, and responding to the opposition movement that’s sprung up against offshore wind,” said J. Timmons Roberts, an environmental studies professor and director of the Climate and Development Lab at Brown University.
The situation in Barnstable also raises thorny questions that are likely to crop up more and more as the nation transitions to clean energy: What rights does a community have to say no to a clean-energy project? And how should that right be balanced against the greater needs of the state, region, and country to transition off fossil fuels?
Since earlier this year, both Commonwealth Wind and Park City Wind, which would land their cables in Barnstable, have been on hold due to economic factors. But the high-voltage cables of the Vineyard Wind project have already been connected underneath Covell’s Beach in Barnstable, though they are not yet delivering power.
At the beach, there’s no real trace of the Vineyard Wind cables, save for an additional manhole in the beach’s parking lot. On a recent evening, as the sun dipped low and clouds on the horizon turned peachy orange, tourists walking the beach said they had no idea that high-powered cables were running below them.
In Barnstable, representatives from the developer Avangrid have been trying to combat residents’ fears about its wind project. The company has been making monthly visits and bringing in health experts to answer residents’ questions.
After the Barnstable High School event, Ken Kimmell, Avangrid’s vice president for offshore wind development, said Barnstable would not be a guinea pig for running high voltage lines through a residential neighborhood. “There are underground power lines all over the country, including throughout metropolitan Boston, that carry the same voltages that we’re talking about from these offshore wind facilities,” he said.
Nor would this be the first beach landing for underground cables, despite what many locals on Cape Cod argued. In France, two offshore wind projects — the Saint-Nazaire Offshore Wind Project and the Saint-Brieuc Offshore Wind Farm — land cables at beaches in residential areas similar to Barnstable.
On the website for Commonwealth Wind, Avangrid writes that the magnetic field at ground level from the buried cables is “a small fraction of what occurs from overhead power lines, and far smaller than the earth’s natural magnetic field.”
Ultimately, those health concerns — as well as other worries raised by the community — will be reviewed by the state’s Energy Facilities Siting Board. And that’s another thing that angers many in Barnstable. The decision about where the cables will land was made by the developers with approval from the state, not the town.
In 2022, Barnstable did, however, sign an agreement for Avangrid to pay a $16 million host community fee related to the Park City Wind project. The company also agreed to limit construction at and near the beach to non-summer months and pledged to take extra steps to protect the ground water.
But with the project now on hold, that agreement is too. Now Barnstable has to decide whether it will move forward with those agreements or try to petition the state to have Avangrid find a new place to land its cables.
In October, the Barnstable Town Council voted to postpone signing off on easements related to the Park City Wind project until there is more clarity on the project’s status. The council also decided to stop negotiating for another agreement related to the Commonwealth Wind project.
Some residents say these agreements are worth entering into; after all, the town has no clear legal path to stopping the project. Its best bet, they say, is to take advantage of what Avangrid is offering. And while just a handful of supporters of the wind project landings spoke out at the open meeting, offshore wind and climate advocates on the Cape say there’s a larger, silent majority that supports the projects.
But then there’s this.
This year, due to a quirk of Barnstable’s code of governance, every single town councilor was up for re-election. Paul Cusack, a councilor who has been a vocal supporter for the wind projects due to the benefits the community could reap through host agreements, was unseated.
His opponent, John Crow, whose election signs dotted lawns alongside signs opposing the cable landings, beat him nearly two to one.