Here’s a sentence I bet you thought you wouldn’t read today: A solar energy company is suing the Department of Interior in an effort to stop the country’s first major offshore wind farm. Last week, Allco Energy filed a lawsuit in Boston federal court accusing the DOI of improperly greenlighting the Vineyard Wind project—and illustrating the strange twists and turns NIMBYism is starting to take as the energy transition ramps up.
The owner of Allco is Thomas Melone, a New York-based tax lawyer turned renewable energy entrepreneur. Melone, it seems, is a big fan of lawsuits. As Vermont Public Radio reported earlier this year, Melone has duked it out in court with parties who tried to stand in his way of building solar projects in the states where he does business, filing at least 10 appeals with Vermont’s Supreme Court. (According to VPR, he has also sued the state of Connecticut four times over its solar subsidy programs, gone toe-to-toe with National Grid in Massachusetts, and sued someone who criticized him and his solar project on social media for defamation.) Two attorneys who have gone against Melone and Vermont’s Department of Public Service, a frequent target of his, described his tactics to VPR as “scorched earth;” another lawyer said he “give[s] renewable energy in Vermont a bad name.”
Melone’s company has often used the urgency of the climate crisis as justification for its aggressive tactics. A 2015 brief filed with the Vermont Public Service Board in support of a petition for public good for Chelsea Solar, an Allco-owned project, claimed that the “unsubstantiated and private” concerns of a citizen opposed to the project “pale in comparison to the benefits provided by the Project, and the urgent need for action on climate change.” Meanwhile, a petition filed by Allco with Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection in February begins with a long list of how climate change is impacting the state. Allco’s website has numerous mentions of climate change, and its mission page describes “collapsing glaciers in Antarctica” and references to federal research on climate change.
“I just wanted to do something that was worthwhile, from a social perspective,” Melone told VPR of his renewable energy projects. “And greenhouse gases, you know, are destroying the planet.”
That all makes Allco’s latest suit a head-scratcher: Why would a renewable energy company take aim at a renewable energy project? The suit makes 18 claims about how the Vineyard Wind project approval has violated the National Environmental Policy Act, including claiming that the project would destroy the fishing industry in the area and that offshore wind turbines would topple over in a Category 5 hurricane and spill oil into the ocean.
Sanjay Arwade, a professor of civil engineering and associate director of the Wind Energy Center at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, wrote in an email that wind industry standards passed in 2019 require turbines to withstand hurricane conditions that occur once every 500 years—standards that were “explicitly intended to account for hurricane exposure of US offshore wind.”
Arwade said some of his own research has suggested that the probability of turbines collapsing in a hurricane is analogous to the failure probabilities of building and bridge collapses.
“[S]uch failures are very very rare,” he said. “No system can (or should) be designed to have a probability of failure of zero, but as of now I am aware of no reputable research or analysis that indicates that the risk of hurricanes to offshore wind is unacceptable by current societal norms.”
Michael Gerrard, the founder and faculty director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, said he’s reviewed the “many thousands of pages” of the environmental impact statement for Vineyard Wind. “It’s not as if Vineyard Wind just checked some boxes—they did exhaustive studies on potential environmental impacts,” he said.
Gerrard said that lawsuits like the one Allco filed are a “common avenue” for people who, for whatever reason, don’t want to see renewable energy projects being built. “People who don’t want wind or solar projects nearby frequently sue,” he said. “It has become a problem for the tremendous growth of renewable energy that we need to meet our climate goals.”
I reached out to Melone to ask how he squared his company’s stated commitment to fighting climate change with the fact that he’s lashing out at an industry that will be crucial to building out the region’s renewable energy capacity and transitioning us off fossil fuels.
“Allco realizes that the energy sector must decarbonize as quickly as possible,” he wrote back to me. “We can do that by lifting up all people. Ending the livelihoods and way of life of generations of fishermen and women, and quickening the extinction of marine species is the wrong and unnecessary path. Putting renewable energy on land creates more American jobs, does not put commercial fisheries out-of-business, is more secure and does not come with all the environmental risks of offshore wind.”
He wrote that the Vineyard Wind project would introduce “14 million gallons of oil and other contaminants at sea” and that the turbines were at risk of strong hurricanes.
Vineyard Wind, through a spokesperson, declined to comment on the pending litigation. However, the spokesperson said that the company had engaged extensively with the fishing industry in planning the project.
Opposition to renewable energy projects runs the gamut from locals raising serious issues about how a project is being constructed to fights over who decides about permits to industries like fishing raising concerns about how they’ll be affected to overblown pseudoscientific safety fears to classic NIMBYism from rich people concerned about views from their properties. The Sabin Center itself has recorded numerous instances of these issues.
Buried deep in the Allco lawsuit is a clue to what might be going on in this case: Malone “lives part-time” in Edgartown, Massachusetts, a town on Martha’s Vineyard off of which the Vineyard Wind project will be located. An Edgartown zip code tends to come with a serious price. The average property values for the quaint seaside village are just more than $1 million. Melone has invested in the town, too: in 2003, he bought a nearly 50,000-square-foot (4,645-square-meter) plot of land in Edgartown to build a ballet school, inspired by his middle daughter, a ballet dancer. (He still sits on the organization’s board.)
This isn’t Melone’s first try tilting at proposed Vineyard windmills. He also filed a complaint against the Cape Wind offshore project in the early 2010s, claiming in one appeal that the proposed wind farm has a “well-documented and specific and substantial alteration of the direct viewscape from Melone’s property” and that he was worried about his property values going down. He also was, according to the appeal, worried about oil leaks from the wind turbines washing onto his property.
Cape Wind is probably one of the most famous examples of how NIMBYism can derail a renewable energy project. The big project was first proposed in 2002 and was intended to be the launching point for the American offshore wind industry. The project was ultimately dropped in 2015 following years of lawsuits and opposition—most infamously from a strange coalition of rich bedfellows including one of the Koch brothers and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, who both had compounds on Cape Cod. (Melone’s own suit against the project was unsuccessful.)
Gerrard called Cape Wind a “poster child for how things can go wrong,” and pointed out that some opposition to the new wave of big offshore projects like Vineyard Wind seem to be from the “same neck of the woods” as the Cape Wind opposition. (The Sabin Center is currently representing a project under attack from wealthy residents in East Hampton.)
“Some of these opposition groups are very well-funded, sometimes by rich neighbors, sometimes by dark money groups—we just don’t know,” Gerrard said.
As we get deeper into the energy transition, more and more local fights over where renewable energy infrastructure gets built are sure to ensue—and more and more detractors on both ends of the spectrum will come to light. When it comes to renewables, it may be people with deep pockets and strong wills who end up screwing us all over—and just because a business claims to care about climate change doesn’t mean it doesn’t also have a separate agenda.