Oct 16, 2017 — In exchange for annual payments potentially worth millions, Avangrid Renewables wants to install wind turbines in two small, North Country towns. But not everybody is celebrating.
In fact, fights have broken out between neighbors and local officials in Hopkinton and Parishville, in northern St. Lawrence County. Anywhere there’s a proposed wind project in the North Country, conflict seems to follow, but look abroad and you'll find examples of a very different way to develop wind power.
"Who raised you people?"
On a hot night in late August, dozens of people and one local police officer crowded into Hopkinton’s town hall for a public meeting about Avangrid Renewables' proposal to build the 100-megawatt North Ridge Wind farm. It didn’t take long for things to get personal.
Accusations of bullying began to fly between board members and activists who are against large-scale wind farms. With a raised voice, one activist said he felt the project was being pushed ahead. "What’s going on here? What is this? Who are your mothers? Who raised you people?"
David Murphy has been monitoring this situation in Hopkinton and Parishville for months now. He’s an environmental scientist at St. Lawrence University. Murphy’s studied wind power all over the world, and he said it’s not always controversial.
"I was just in Denmark teaching a course," Murphy said. "Denmark has wind turbines everywhere throughout the country." From rural villages to industrial neighborhoods to offshore developments, wind power has kind of become Denmark's calling card over the past 40 years.
In Denmark, people are "the basis of all of it"
Danish wind experts say that most of the turbines were not installed by large companies like Avangrid Renewables, but rather, by regular people. "This local entrepreneurship, where people get together and tried to make this happen, was the basis of all of it," said Kristian Jakobsen, chairman of the Danish Wind Turbine Owners Association.
Jakobsen said people started banding together back in the 1970s, forming wind cooperatives. A bunch of people would chip in for turbines, and they’d wind up with cheaper power than what they could get from coal.
Fast forward to today, Jakobsen said, and some big companies are building wind farms in Denmark, but local people still reap some of the benefit. If a wind farm goes up near your neighborhood in Denmark, you automatically get the option to buy shares in it.
Jakobsen said that’s made so-called industrial wind a lot easier to live with. "It is so easy to draw the card of fear: if they come here, your life will be hell," Jakobsen said. "The only way is to give them a bit of the incentive up front."
Is wind development "opaque" in NYS?
In short, that’s how Denmark does it: people can either invest in a big wind farm or go and get turbines themselves. But in the North Country, most towns wait until a wind developer approaches them, and the flow of information between the company and the community may be stilted.
"Nobody understands how much money [the company] is actually planning to make," David Murphy said. "They have no idea how much money they’re actually entitled to since it’s their land." Murphy's theory is that the controversy surrounding wind farms is spurred by the development process, more than anything else. "So it’s not the fact that a wind company wants to come in and make money I think that’s the problem. It’s that it’s clouded, it’s opaque."
Small towns also may find themselves out of their depth: Denmark has national standards for "setbacks" - the minimum distance between a wind tower and a residence - and the amount of noise a turbine can make. There's no such law at the federal level in the United States and no statewide regulation in New York. Individual towns have had to write their own laws to regulate setbacks and noise.
I asked Hans Soerensen, a Danish engineer who’s helped get projects built all over his country, what he thinks of that system.
Lauren Rosenthal: There’s no national standard, and there's no hard and fast rule, I guess, about how far a turbine has to be from a residence - a house.
Hans Soerensen: Okay. Oh, that’s not good. [laughs]
LR: Why do you say that?
HS: Well, because that’s a simple – the simple rules you need. I mean, if you don’t have that kind of standard rules, people can, of course, fear everything!
Without solid rules and solid information, people get scared, Soerensen said, and from there, resistance can build.
In search of "the right answers"
Take Hopkinton and Parishville: It’s been six years since Avangrid Renewables started drawing up plans for a wind farm there. In September, a spokesman said the company had leased out land from about 40 property owners. But Avangrid is still working out a multimillion-dollar payment package, called a payment of lieu of taxes, with the local government.
In theory, that money could pay for schools and bring down property taxes. But that’s a lot different than having local people literally invested in the project, with the sense of ownership that may entail.
Parishville town supervisor Rod Votra told me last spring he just didn’t know if a wind farm would benefit his community or not. "You know, we haven’t dealt with a project of this magnitude in our small towns before," Votra said. "People worry that you’re not getting the right answers and you’re not getting the right help."
There’s a lot riding on these wind farms. New York State is trying to get half its power from renewable resources by 2030, and wind is going to play a big role in that.
New York’s renewable energy agency, NYSERDA, declined to make any officials available for an interview for this story. But in a statement, the agency said New York’s energy siting board has the ability to “consider specific local and community needs and issues” when it’s deciding whether to approve a wind farm or not.