The Town of Orangeville held a public hearing on May 7, 2009, to obtain the views of its citizens and taxpayers regarding a proposed industrial-scale wind farm. There are a number of important issues that need to be considered fully, including issues of scale and equity, big business vs. landowner, mismatch between promises and reality, energy supply vs. energy efficiency, migration patterns of birds, and many more.
In the heat of current discussions, it might be easy to lose sight of a bigger picture. Reflect for a moment on our grandparents and the struggles they probably had in developing farms and businesses in Wyoming County. Some own land that has been in the family for generations. If you travel to Germany, England, Scotland or Wales, you can see why this beautiful area in Orangeville looked like home to our immigrant forefathers. What is being proposed will change all of that.
If I could have found a job in Western New York when I finished college, I most certainly would not have been in the right place at the right time to hear first-hand stories regarding wind energy -- stories that eventually would play out in Western New York in places like Orangeville. So in addition to the insights and thoughtful comments of colleagues and fellow taxpayers, I can offer several snapshots that provide some extra insight into the current situation facing many townships in Western New York.
The first snapshot comes from a meeting in Washington, D.C., at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) during a formal review of the Administration's budget for fiscal year 1996. The Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (Office of Utility Technologies) proposed increases in the amount of research and development (R&D) funding for large utility-scale wind turbines. Concerned about public acceptance, the OMB budget examiner asked DOE management and the Wind Program why funding should be granted ... particularly if it resulted in large machines that nobody wanted. Where did the DOE imagine that such giant machines would be sited? The answer was that the large machines were intended for remote, relatively unpopulated parts of the Upper Midwest and offshore. The big machines would be designed to harness the substantial wind resources of the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Texas, etc. So, our taxes helped develop large wind turbines, but they were not intended for around here. It's just highly profitable to stick them here using the roads and transmission lines that we have already paid for.
The second snapshot comes from a similar meeting where funding was requested for the Pacific Northwest National Laboratories to update the National Wind Energy Resource Map. Some in the room joked that the funding was unnecessary. All that one had to do to find good sites for wind turbines was to look around for economically-depressed rural places with prisons. The view was that if such a rural population would accept a prison, then there should be no problem siting wind turbines.
I was offended -- in part, because I feared that there was an element of truth in this simplistic insight.
So the future of Orangeville seems to boil down to a classic choice: Do we choose to be small cogs in someone else's big machine? Or: Do we choose to exercise some leadership and independence?
Thinking about the people who came before us and thinking about the generations yet to come: Should we take the first offer that comes our way? Do we possess the independence to put our interests before those of big business? Can we honestly say that the Sheldon or Cohocton landscapes are enhanced? ... That the many power transmission lines in Bliss are things of beauty?
Somewhere between the two extremes -- mindless cheerleading for Big Business on the one hand and dogmatic resistance on the other -- must be some reasonable middle ground.
One of the best proposals I have heard so far is that the Town of Orangeville consider creating a municipal utility to harvest and manage its own wind resources. This would allow for much greater revenues; a more equitable distribution of wealth; selecting fewer, smaller, reasonably-sized turbines; exercising more care in site selection; and more control over the entire operation.
The Town of Orangeville could produce as much or more wealth than is currently being proposed from far fewer turbines. Rather than littering the skyline with equipment that would produce wealth for those outside investors living elsewhere, fewer turbines could produce equal or greater wealth for local residents.
This could mean that every Town of Orangeville property owner could benefit by: 1) a reduction in town taxes, 2) an elimination of town taxes or 3) a share of wind revenue based on tax assessment -- depending upon the size and number of turbines deployed. This would allow the revenue stream from a small number of turbines to be enjoyed by all Orangeville property owners, not just by a select few. And it would solve a big problem: The developer suggests that their payments to the Town might eliminate taxes but, they have no authority to deliver on that promise. The Town has the authority, but so far at least, is not willing to make this a binding legal commitment with the taxpayers. Also, the tax assessment and tax levying machinery is already in place to help make this work.
Democracy works best when all voices are heard. The best sort of representative government considers all points of view and acts in ways that produce the greatest common good for the greatest number of citizens. The recent public hearing is a step on the path to good governance. This and other hearings should be viewed as opportunities to explore options, and not just as necessary legal hurdles that must be overcome.
It's time to think a bit more creatively about our future. The wind resource in Western New York has been here since the last ice age. We should not be railroaded into accepting a less-than-optimal outcome.
David Bassett has worked for the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Civil Aeronautics Board. He was the first director of the Erie County Energy Office in Buffalo during the late 1970s. His background includes mechanical engineering at Purdue University and meteorology at Cornell.