Young Kennedy Breaks with Family Over Cape Wind

Profile in Courage

Joseph Kennedy III, the youngest political hopeful of the storied Kennedy clan, has announced his support for the nation’s first offshore wind project in a courageous move signaling a generational break with his elders.

Despite its potential to create jobs and provide clean energy, as well as approval through state and federal channels, the project has faced years of opposition from wealthy families, such as the Kennedys, and the fishing industry.

The late Senator Ted Kennedy and his nephew, the prominent environmental lawyer Robert Kennedy Jr., have been some of Cape Wind’s fiercest opponents.

But Joseph Kennedy, a candidate for the congressional seat being vacated by retiring Representative Barney Frank, recently told local press that he would take a different path and support Cape Wind, saying it would double the state’s supply of alternative energy, reduce dependence on oil imports, and create jobs.

“Offshore wind is one of the resources Massachusetts is blessed with,” the 31-year-old attorney said. “Energy in the United States can be cleaner, cheaper, and domestically produced, but only if we are willing to make hard choices, to make significant investments in new energy technologies and industries, and to enact smart policies that harness market forces and American ingenuity on both sides of the meter and the pump.”

Cape Wind would install 130 wind turbines in the Nantucket Sound roughly five miles from shore and produce an average of 174 megawatts, enough to meet 75 percent of the average electricity demand for Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket, according to project developer Energy Management Inc, which recently inked a 15-year power purchase agreement with Boston utility NStar. Maximum output from the 440-foot turbines would be 454 megawatts. As many as 1,000 construction jobs would be created to build the wind farm, with 50 long-term jobs to maintain it.

The symbolic value of the young Kennedy’s endorsement has not been lost on Cape Wind advocates.

Mark Rodgers, a spokesman for Cape Wind, called Joseph Kennedy’s stance on the project “courageous.”

“It wasn’t an easy thing for him to do. And he encountered some resistance with some family members, so it makes it all the more noteworthy and courageous for him to do it,” Rodgers told the Breakthrough Institute.

Robert Kennedy, who has made the case against Cape Wind for years, told the Cape Cod Times that he had tried and failed to sway his nephew on the issue.

"I tried to convince him not to do it, but he made up his own mind about it," he said. "He's very committed to green energy." Robert Kennedy said he would still work vigorously to support his nephew’s congressional campaign. "It doesn't affect my support for him," he said. "I think he's an extraordinary person and I'm going to campaign hard for him."

Robert Kennedy had argued that the project would threaten the natural beauty of Nantucket Sound, disrupt wildlife, and hurt the shipping and fishing industries. His claims have withstood neither the experience of offshore wind farms in Europe nor studies of Cape Wind’s potential impact, however, leaving little more than an aesthetic preference that has proven untenable when compared with the tradeoffs required for the clean energy transition.

“It is difficult to imagine an environmental movement that cannot even stomach windmills in Nantucket Sound engaging meaningfully in a politics that might help China meet its energy needs in ecologically sound ways,” write Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger in their 2007 book Break Through. “It will certainly require siting windmills in all sorts of places that people such as Bobby Kennedy Jr. might not like.”

Now, the Kennedys -- inseparable from the mantle of generational change that John F. Kenney symbolized -- may be looking to a new standard bearer.

“His [Joseph Kennedy’s] action is in line with the hopes and aspirations of a younger generation in Massachusetts that know that we can’t just give lip service to this, we need to take action now,” Rodgers said.

Polling has shown that those under 30 are the most likely to back Cape Wind, while people of retirement age are those most opposed to the project, he added.

“Our strongest support is among the youth... They understand that, first of all, leadership begins at home. So if you’re going to advocate a policy nationally or globally, you need to do so statewide.”

A greater sense of “urgency” about investing in clean energy and creating jobs in the region also played into youth support, Rodgers said.

And Cape Wind itself is just the beginning. Not only will there be more shallow water wind farms, there will also be deep water wind, as well as wave and tidal energy, Rodgers says.

In a time when economic and ecological transformations call for the creation of new landscapes, new economies, new ways of consumption, and even new identities, the development of clean energy from New England’s coastal resources, in combination with a rich maritime tradition, workers with transferable skills, deep water ports, and world class centers of oceanographic science and engineering, could make a sound foundation for a robust coastal economy.

But we may need more profiles in courage to get there.