Benefiting from impressively-close access on all sides of the controversy — and a Hellerian ear for the absurd — CAPE SPIN! AN AMERICAN POWER STRUGGLE recounts the saga of development review around the nation’s first-ever off-shore wind-farm. In 2001, the Cape Wind (a for-profit energy company) announced plans to construct 130 wind turbines on a 24 square-mile patch of Nantucket Sound known as Horseshoe Shoal, in the federal waters between Cape Cod, Nantucket, and Martha’s Vineyard. The idea immediately sparked both excitement and controversy, with powerful players lining up both for and against the idea, not always along the lines one might expect. (One of the most charming moments in the film come when Robert Kennedy Jr. is scheduled to debate the project with Greenpeace: “Who’s on which side?,” asks an organizer.)
More than ten years later, the project has still not resulted in a single watt of energy — or even a shovel in the sea-bed — but it has given us a great planning story to reflect on, learn from, and at times, laugh about.
The film takes the viewer on a roller-coaster of planning, politicking, protesting, PR, pontification, and protracted permitting. As the years drag on, the debate degenerates into a frustrating, surreal mockery of the rational planning process, with changing stories, conflicting studies, flying allegations, and conflicts of interest all around. The participants are all portrayed with as much empathy as the film-makers can muster, but no one comes off looking very good (with two possible exceptions: the beleaguered environmental officials, charged with the thankless task of preparing endless drafts of impact statements; and — strangely — a charming lobbyist, who only adds to the carnival-of-the-bizarre by playing against type and coming across as an honest and straight-forward fellow).
Importantly, although the film explores the specific details of wind turbines, environmental review, and the dilemmas of energy sustainability, the relevance of the story extends far beyond these particulars: the film serves as a condemnation of the entire American way of governance, which has devolved into an toxic cocktail of politics, money, and power, destroying any post-Enlightenment hopes we once had of a building a better world through science, planning, and participation – which of course begs the question, “Whither democracy now?”