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The Great Wind Debate

But I was sitting at my kitchen table in North Buffalo, far from the wind farms of the Southern Tier, and such distance makes for simple, black-and-white comprehension. There are places in Western New York where wind energy isn’t so clear a choice. Places with names like Perry, Sheldon and Arkwright, rural towns perched atop the high glacial ridges to the east and south of the city, whose landscapes might soon be dominated by hundreds of towering, 400-foot windmills. As wind companies eye their windswept fields and make overtures to local town boards, divisions run deeper and deeper between citizens who disagree on the merits of wind farm development in their backyards. In such locales, the gray areas of wind development come into sharp focus.

Last fall I received a brochure in the mail with my monthly electric bill informing me that I could opt to buy “green” energy for a small premium from a company called Green Mountain Energy. Rather than getting my electricity from natural gas, nuclear, coal and oil resources, which account for 81 percent of New York’s energy supply, my $50 each month would go toward buying electricity from renewable resources, a 50/50 split between wind power and hydroelectric. For about $4 each month, I could clear my enviro-conscience, and avoid contributing 1,500 pounds of carbon dioxide into the air.

Needless to say, I signed on the dotted line. What particularly impressed me and excited my imagination was wind power, which I hardly realized was being produced in New York. I wanted to support that, so it was an easy sell to me.

But I was sitting at my kitchen table in North Buffalo, far from the wind farms of the Southern Tier, and such distance makes for simple, black-and-white comprehension. There are places in Western New York where wind energy isn’t so clear a choice. Places with names like Perry, Sheldon and Arkwright, rural towns perched atop the high glacial ridges to the east and south of the city, whose... more [truncated due to possible copyright]  

Last fall I received a brochure in the mail with my monthly electric bill informing me that I could opt to buy “green” energy for a small premium from a company called Green Mountain Energy. Rather than getting my electricity from natural gas, nuclear, coal and oil resources, which account for 81 percent of New York’s energy supply, my $50 each month would go toward buying electricity from renewable resources, a 50/50 split between wind power and hydroelectric. For about $4 each month, I could clear my enviro-conscience, and avoid contributing 1,500 pounds of carbon dioxide into the air.

Needless to say, I signed on the dotted line. What particularly impressed me and excited my imagination was wind power, which I hardly realized was being produced in New York. I wanted to support that, so it was an easy sell to me.

But I was sitting at my kitchen table in North Buffalo, far from the wind farms of the Southern Tier, and such distance makes for simple, black-and-white comprehension. There are places in Western New York where wind energy isn’t so clear a choice. Places with names like Perry, Sheldon and Arkwright, rural towns perched atop the high glacial ridges to the east and south of the city, whose landscapes might soon be dominated by hundreds of towering, 400-foot windmills. As wind companies eye their windswept fields and make overtures to local town boards, divisions run deeper and deeper between citizens who disagree on the merits of wind farm development in their backyards. In such locales, the gray areas of wind development come into sharp focus.

There is a “wind rush” on in New York State. Until four months ago, there were only three wind installations in the state, creating a combined 47 megawatts of power. In January, though, Horizon Wind Energy and PPM Energy completed the first phase of their wind farm at Maple Ridge, instantly quintupling the state’s wind power capacity. The Maple Ridge farm consists of 120 turbines generating 198 megawatts at full capacity. And that’s just scratching the surface of what’s to come. There are currently more than 50 wind farms proposed across the state, totaling more than 5,500 megawatts of production capability. Fourteen of those proposed are within the eight counties of Western New York, most of them in Wyoming County. All said, there are more than a thousand turbines planned for Western New York, which will generate 1,755 megawatts of power. And that’s only counting the ones that have reached a stage where they can apply for okays from New York’s independent system operator.

This “wind rush” has been brought on chiefly by escalating concerns over global warming, government tax structures and subsidies that encourage development and an increasing awareness of finite supplies of fossil fuels.

You can see physical evidence of the wind debate if you drive through the small towns of Wyoming County, as I did on a recent trip to visit the 10-turbine Wethersfield installation. Rolling south on Route 98 through Varysburg, bright yellow signs sprang up like flowers in front of houses. “NO WIND TURBINES,” they said in black, block lettering. Just as frequent, though, were green signs declaring, “Yes to Clean Energy.” As often as not, neighboring lawns bore opposing signs. The same was true in Johnsonburg. Everyone in the county was wearing his heart on his sleeve. Leaving Johnsonburg, I could only imagine the rifts developing there.

Wind “farms” should be explained. While most people have seen photographs of the sleek, spindly wind turbines that are currently the standard, it’s not easy to imagine what a wind development really looks like and how it comes to be there. The current industry standard for a wind turbine, and the type that’s most commonly planned for Western New York, is a 1.5-1.65 megawatt model. Though sizes vary, a turbine from base to blade tip is typically about 400 feet tall. (As a point of reference, Buffalo’s city hall is 378 feet tall.) The rotors appear to move slowly, revolving perhaps a dozen times a minute, but really the tips are moving at almost 200 miles per hour. When there isn’t enough wind to turn its rotor, the head of a turbine, or nacelle, rotates in an effort to “seek out” the wind. When it finds a strong enough wind, the nacelle stops rotating and the rotors begin to turn.

Because these huge structures need a powerful wind to turn their rotors, wind developers generally look for places with average wind speeds above 13 miles per hour, measured at an altitude of 50 meters. Western New York, with its prevailing winds whipping off Lake Erie, is ideally situated. The best winds are found offshore and the second best on high ridges. Turbines are generally built in clusters, and a wind farm might comprise several clusters spread across the ridges of a town. In the Town of Sheldon, for example, Invenergy Wind LLC is looking to build an 88-turbine wind farm that will be made up of 11 clusters of turbines spread over 22 square miles.

Turbines are placed on land that is leased by the developer or where a landowner has granted the developer easements to build. In exchange, the developer pays annual rent to the landowner on a per-turbine basis. The per-turbine rent is usually several thousand dollars, though it depends on the size of the turbine (and thus the amount of energy generated). Besides being a rental payment on the land, that money is, in essence, compensation for having to deal with any visual or audio impacts caused by the giant structures.

This is where the majority of the conflicts between neighbors arise. On one hand you have the landowners who stand to benefit from a wind farm, often to the tune of thousands of dollars. The landowners can hardly be blamed for signing on with the wind companies, because, as often as not, the money the rental payments are what save the family farm. On the other hand you have people like Dick Pac, who feel slighted, because they’re constantly looking at and hearing the turbines, but they receive no benefits, monetary or otherwise.


Living with wind

When I first met Dick Pac, he was standing in a waist-deep hole next to his front porch. I had arrived unannounced, pulling off the country lane and into his driveway. Before I had strode halfway to him, pen and notepad in hand, he opened his mouth to speak. “Let me guess, you want to know what I think about them nice things there,” he said, gesturing broadly to the 10 windmills that dominate the ridge in front of his house. “Take ’em with ya.”

Then he turned and started toward a side porch. “I gotta sit down, come on. Seventy-two is too old to be digging holes in the ground.”

Pac has ruddy features and is good humored. When he talks, his eyes scan over his land and he holds his hands folded in his lap. “As far as the technology,” he says, “I’m all for it. It’s a good way of producing electric. But they don’t have to put ’em in somebody’s front yard, like these ones.” The Wethersfield wind farm was built one year after Pac and his wife moved into their house. “We bought this place because it was quiet.”

Now he’s afraid he can’t sell it. In fact, a realtor told Pac he wasn’t even interested in trying to sell it for him. He mentions the “strobe effect,” which happens for an hour or so each morning, as the sun rises behind the turbines. The sunlight passes through the turning rotors before falling on Pac’s house. Also, he says that when the turbines are operating at peak capacity, he can hear them from the back of his property—a mile and a quarter away.

“I’m not knocking ’em,” he says, finally. “Like I said, I’m all for the way of producing, but at least give the people something,” a phrase he repeats. When Pac refers to “the people,” he means it in a broad, community sense. He suggests cheaper electricity for the whole township, or lower property taxes.

“If the people were getting something out of it, I wouldn’t be so…” and he trails off.

He says, she says

The main difference between wind proponents and wind adversaries is the level at which they are addressing wind. Proponents of wind power tend to talk about global warming, national energy policies and planetary health. Adversaries lean toward local issues, like having to listen to and look at turbines, the number of birds they kill and possible localized health problems resulting from the turbines. Some things I’ve heard recently from the pro-wind set:

Bill Nowak, Wind Action Group, over coffee: “Obviously there are a lot of positives, and we focus on those. They include things like lessening dependence on foreign sources of energy; the economics of wind, which is a very important thing going into the future; and obviously global warming is huge in all of this, it’s kind of an overwhelming phenomenon that we’re going to be facing in the 21st century.

“It’s really about the eye of the beholder. People talk about these being industrial, and industrial to me is a loaded term. It means big—yes, wind turbines are big. It means ugly—I don’t think they’re ugly, I think they’re very nicely designed and very good looking. It means dirty—they’re not dirty. It means noisy—they’re not particularly noisy. We look at these things, and what are we looking for? Are we looking for a clean energy future that actually works, or are we looking to protect a trophy home?

“It’s all about hope for me. You know, we’re facing a situation…Christian Aid, who does aid work in Africa, predicts that 182 million people in Africa are going to die as a result of global warming over the next century between droughts and famine.”

Tom Drennen, environmental studies professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, at a recent wind debate: “As many as 30,000 people a year die because of our fossil fuel electricity generation. Thirty thousand people—I’m not talking birds, I’m talking people.”

Tom Hagner, Ecogen LLC, at the same debate: “From my perspective a long-term view is really where we’re coming from with the wind farm development. With the global warming issue, I think the evidence is just overwhelming. I support conservation of fossil fuels, but you can’t conserve something you’ve already depleted.”

What I’ve heard from the anti-wind set:

Peggy O’Sean, founder of Save Western New York, over the phone: “The health problems are the main concern for me. Right now there are four doctors worldwide who have all noticed similar symptoms in people who live near wind farms. Within a mile or so, people have come down with symptoms of low-frequency noise exposure. These are headaches, migraines a lot of time. When they lay down in bed at night, a lot of them say they can feel the vibrations and they lose sleep.

“Naturally it’s going to cause problems of aesthetics in rural areas. There are a lot of campgrounds around here. People come here because it’s rural, and this is going to lose the campgrounds business.

“The main thing is that people are being exposed to a lot of wind industry advertisements, and this is what their knowledge is based on. Unless you go searching for information and independent studies yourself, you won’t know the problems involved, because this stuff just doesn’t get printed in local newspapers.”

Art Giacalone, a lawyer advising various townships on wind farm development, over the phone: “There are physicians and scientists who are raising the potential health impacts, and most of the communities are ignoring these issues when they do their SEQRA [State Environmental Quality Review Act] review.

“I guess my biggest concern is people suggesting that we’re going to be reducing our dependence on foreign oil by putting up wind turbines. There is such a miniscule amount of foreign oil that’s being used to generate electricity that it’s absolute nonsense to suggest that there’s any connection between the two.”


Conflicting interests

A big problem in the small towns that both the anti-wind and pro-wind movements can agree to, is conflict of interest. In many cases, a voting member of the local government has a vested interest in the success of wind development. For instance, one of the five Sheldon town board members has a contract with Invenergy to build turbines on his land. The town attorney reportedly says that he can vote on any motion or resolution that relates to wind farms, as long as it isn’t specifically approving his project; that includes voting on the environmental impact study for the entire project, etc. A second board member has an immediate family member who has contracted with the company, and she, too, is allowed to vote on the wind farm.

In the Town of Stafford in Genesee County, both the town supervisor and at least one member of the five-member town board have been offered contracts by a wind developer to put turbines on their land. They won’t say whether they’ve signed those contracts or not, but they’re still “objectively” voting on the wind farm that is being considered there.

“How can they objectively make a decision as to whether or not to have this in their community when they are potentially going to be reaping thousands and thousands of dollars per year in benefits by allowing it on their property?” one source asked, exasperated.

One of Wethersfield’s past town supervisors is also said to have profited from the construction of the wind farm that was built there in 2001.

Even a casual observer can see the problems with such conflicts.


Black and white

When I went in search of the Wethersfield wind farm, I didn’t use a map or directions to find the turbines. I was told that they were visible for 16 miles or more. And they were. From atop a ridge, I spotted them almost 15 miles before I finally reached them. On each crest, I saw where they were in relation to me, and guessed at the best places to turn. Fifteen minutes later I pulled up beside the turbines, which ran in a north-south line along a ridge, and the air was completely still. A conversation drifted to my ears from a couple of people walking a woodrow 200 yards away from me.

When the wind finally came, the rotors slowly kicked into motion—two here, three there—until seven of the 10 were active. The sound wasn’t particularly loud—sort of like a high-altitude jet plane, only pulsing. I didn’t find them to be ugly, but they were so huge and foreign to me that I couldn’t easily reconcile them with the rural setting, either.

A minute or two later, a couple pulled up on a Harley Davidson. “I don’t know why people complain about them,” the man said, shaking his head.

“There’s no noise,” the woman replied.

They dutifully snapped some photographs and got back on their motorcycle. Just before zooming off, the man said, in a resolute tone, “Well, I’d rather have windmills on mountaintops than soldiers in the Middle East.”


Agree to agree

There are several basic points that both sides of the wind debate do agree on. Wind development, if conducted properly, is a good idea. It’s a part of the solution to global warming and our dependency on exhaustible fossil fuels, though not a big part. Even with wind power tripling in the US in recent years, it still only accounts for 0.4 percent of the nation’s electricity generation. Both proponents and adversaries also agree that the placement of wind farms is paramount in the debate. Currently there are very few government regulations regarding wind siting—in fact, none that are enforceable. In the end, it comes down to whatever deal a developer strikes with a local township.

Both sides agree that regulations should be passed to keep wind farms from being placed in major bird migration flyways. Perhaps the most important point that both sides agree on is that municipal wind farms, or community-owned wind farms, if the resources are available, are an intelligent solution to the problems of both groups.

“I personally think that if we’re going to have wind turbines, the towns should own them,” says O’Shea.


“Green” energy

And that’s the problem, as well as the biggest factor that separates American wind development from European wind strategy—we’re using the corporate model. The people don’t own them, a private company does. In Europe, where wind has been successful, 80 percent of wind development is community wind. In the US, there’s almost none.

Recently, the state and federal governments have created incentives galore for wind development, from tax breaks to construction subsidies to guaranteed markets. Here in New York, a provision of the real property tax exempted wind developers from paying any taxes that came as a result of improvements to the land for 15 years.

“Basically,” Giacalone says, “if you had a vacant field, the added value of the property with the wind facilities on it—and since these turbines often cost $1.2 million apiece, it would be a huge increase—could not be taxed.” Local taxing agencies, including counties, towns and school districts, have the option to opt out of the tax exemption, though few realize it. Many of those who do will accept a payment in lieux of taxes (PILOT) that is equal to a negotiated percentage of the applicable taxes.

That tax provision expired January 1, but several bills have since been introduced into the state legislature to extend that provision.

The New York State Energy Resources Development Agency (NYSERDA) guarantees they’ll buy the electricity produced by any wind farm in the state, so there are no worries about demand for wind power.

Also, the state and federal governments offer million of dollars in subsidies for constructing wind farms. The upshot of all of this is that corporations have been lining up to build wind farms.

By some estimates, these incentives mean that a typical 100-megawatt wind farm—67 1.5-megawatt turbines—can make profits in the tens of millions for each of its first five years. It’s no surprise, then, that some of the nation’s biggest names are getting in on the game: JP Morgan, Berkshire-Hathaway, Goldman-Sachs, General Electric.

“When they talk about wind power being green,” says Giacalone, “the ‘green’ is the American dollar as opposed to any ensured improvement of the environment.”

He continues, “NYSERDA guarantees purchasing the power here. So we’re going to subsidize you building the equipment, we’re going to not tax the land and we guarantee a market, ’cause we’re going to buy it. So as long as you have the up front capital to start it, you’re pretty safe at that point.”

Richard Pac agrees. “The guys that put them up don’t want to pay for them. They want the people to pay for them. No expenses. They want to erect them, get their government subsidy money and take off.”

Community wind farms, though often smaller than corporate wind farms, could eliminate many of the problems that wind power adversaries have with the industry. No longer is it a situation where a select few are receiving all the benefits. The entire community has a stake in the success or failure of the wind farm. Though the town would still probably have to rent land from landowners, everyone could reap the farm’s profits. The community could agree to more strict siting standards, keeping the turbines farther from homes. That, in turn, would help mitigate some of the visual, aural and potential health impacts of the turbines. (I say “potential,” because, as any wind activist will tell you, there are no proven health problems associated with wind turbines.) The outside pressure to develop would be gone, though there would need to be a private element, since wind farm development requires a lot of expertise.

O’Shea thinks it’s very feasible. “We can get the same kind of financing and the same tax benefits that [wind companies are] going to get from it, except in this case the money would stay here for it and actually benefit all the people in Wethersfield. The lenders know that you’re going to get that tax money every year.”

Nowak also sees hope for the community model. “There are ways of structuring wind energy in a way that you more locally centralize the benefits. There could be cooperatives, there could be municipal systems.” Nowak looks hopefully to Ontario’s system of standard offer contracts (SOCs), which are similar to NYSERDA’s guarantee to buy wind energy. Ontario offers a good price for wind energy to anyone who builds it, specifically targeting individual farmers, collectives of farmers and municipalities who own and operate wind turbines.

Tom Golisano recently made waves at a wind farm meeting in Arkport by announcing to the gathered audience that public authorities should lead efforts to develop wind farms in New York. He said he met with state officials, and they are considering ways to help towns set up their own wind farm corporations. He also reportedly committed $10 million to help the Town of Perry develop it’s own wind farm, asking only for his money back with interest. It’s unclear at this point whether Golisano is sincere in his efforts, since he previously spearheaded opposition to wind projects. “It’s an interesting point he’s raising,” says Nowak. “Whether he’s raising it to slow down and block the wind turbines or he’s sincere, I’d love to meet with the man and find out.”


Foresight and initiative

In the event that the state doesn’t suddenly create initiatives to help town’s develop their own wind farms, there are other important steps that municipalities can take to protect themselves in the event that they are approached by a wind company. NYSERDA provides guidelines to help communities through these processes. Here are some of them, stated simply:

Comprehensive plan—Make one. Without it, you can’t enact zoning laws. See below.

Zoning laws—A big mistake many small towns make is that they have no zoning laws. Without them, they can’t control development when it comes. It’s more or less in the hands of individual landowners who may be more interested in personal gain than the greater good.

Opt out of property tax exemptions—If the real property tax exemption provision is extended, understand that any local taxing agency can opt out of the exemption. Get your dues from the wind company. Or, if you accept PILOT, don’t settle for a low percentage.

Finally, remove those with conflicts from votes—It doesn’t matter whether you want a wind farm or not, nobody who will benefit monetarily from one should be allowed to vote on it.

“I think the ideal model is for a town be proactive and negotiate so, as a town or as a group of farmers that own land, the next door neighbor gets something as well as the person that’s actually renting the land,” says Bill Nowak, summing it up. “But that takes some foresight and some initiative.”


Will it sell?

Back at the wind farm, as I sit in the car taking notes, an SUV pulls up, and three white-haired men pile out like a rambunctious pack of first-graders. They’ve got binoculars around their necks and cameras in hand. They stop for a photo op and furtively look around before hobbling past the no trespassing sign and up to the base of the closest turbine. Sizing it up, each has his picture taken with the outsized tower, and they talk excitedly on the short walk back. Before he gets into the car, I catch one man’s eye. “So what do you think?” I ask him.

“I don’t know,” he says. “You think it will sell?”


Source: http://artvoice.com/issues/...

MAY 25 2006
https://www.windaction.org/posts/5491-the-great-wind-debate
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