Dear Ms. —— :
A friend told me recently that you have written stories about the potential for building “wind farms” in your area of New York and that you are likely to be writing more. I certainly would encourage you to do so and I’d urge you to do all you can to get facts about wind energy into the hands of citizens in your area.
Based on several years’ study of wind energy issues, I have several suggestions that I hope you will find useful to you as you work to expand your – and your readers’ – knowledge of the subject:
1. Beware of biased information. Recognize that the wind industry and other wind advocates have, for more than a decade, greatly overstated the energy, environmental and economic benefits of wind energy and greatly understated the adverse environmental, ecological, economic, scenic and property value impacts. (Be especially conscious of biased information on web sites of wind turbine and component manufacturers, “wind farm” developers and owners, wind energy lobbyists, and government organizations that promote wind energy on behalf of the industry (e.g., US Dept of Energy, National Renewable Energy “Laboratory” (NREL) and NYSERDA.)
2. Seek out facts. Be aware that, during the past 2-3 years – largely due to the efforts of citizen-led groups around the US and other countries – many facts about wind energy have been uncovered. These facts are gradually finding their way into the media but have not yet caught up with the misinformation from the wind industry and other advocates. The premier web site providing this information is www.wind-watch.org. This site also provides links to dozens of other sites created by citizens in the US and other countries (e.g., UK, Germany, Spain, Australia) that have experience with existing or proposed “wind farms.”
3. Recognize the deficiencies in NY’s “wind farm” review and approval processes. Recent developments in NY have made it very clear that officials of local governments, county economic development agencies, and your state government are not well equipped to protect the interests of citizens, taxpayers and electric customers when “wind farms” are proposed. State and local officials are no match for aggressive wind farm developers and industry lobbyists with seemingly unlimited financial resources. Actual economic and job benefits, for example, are far less than claimed by the wind industry and by officials of town and county boards and agencies, state environmental agencies, NYSERDA, and the state public service Commission (NYS PSC) who have granted approvals and subsidies for “wind farms.”
4. Be aware of the steps that are taken by aggressive “wind farm” developers when pursuing permits and approvals from local government officials. Developers incur significant costs in securing approvals (at least by most local standards), but these costs will be tiny compared to the value of the tax breaks, subsidies and revenue if a “wind farm” is approved.
- One of the first steps taken by a “wind farm” developer is gaining approval to install a tower for instruments to measure wind speeds and conditions. Since these are relatively unobtrusive (compared to 40 story wind turbines), obtaining local approvals often quite easy – and may be obtained without local citizens’ awareness.
- If they have not already done so, developers will then begin “courting” (1) landowners who might be willing to lease land where wind turbines can be sited, and (2) officials from local planning or zoning agencies and town boards who can be induced to play a leading role in advocating approval of permits needed by the “wind farm” developer. In some cases, local officials who become outspoken advocates for wind energy (or their family members or close friends) own land where developers want to build wind turbines – thus creating a de facto conflict of interest situation).
- A variety of techniques may be used when “wooing” landowners, local government officials, and “economic development” advocates. These often include but are not limited to: (1) “wining and dining” officials at developer expense, (2) providing expense-paid trips to visit a “wind farm” or attend one or more conferences organized by the wind industry or other “renewable” energy advocates, (3) providing lots of information explaining and extolling the developer’s objectives
- Community “informational” meetings may be arranged by the developer – or possibly by local officials at the behest of the developer. Often, these meetings will include only the developer’s or their advocates’ point of view. Citizens with questions or opposing views may not yet be organized or, if organized, may not be allowed to make presentations.
- The developers often hire “consultants” (often called “experts”) who provide the kind of information and views that the developer wishes to have presented. (A number of consultants are readily available for this purpose and can be counted on to speak favorably about proposed projects. Some derive significant income for their efforts.)
- The developer probably will open a local office with one or more people readily available to provide information supporting the developer’s point of view, issue press releases and grant interviews. (Some developers apparently buy ads in local newspapers or buy other printing services with the hope of gaining the “good will” or support from editors or publishers of local papers.
- Land owners who show an interest in “hosting” wind turbines will be presented with proposed contracts or rental agreements – often with explicit prohibitions against disclosure of their terms. (Such prohibitions, in effect, preclude landowners from working together to share costs of having contracts reviewed by competent contract lawyers or financial analysts, and to strengthen their bargaining positions.
- If neighboring property owners begin to voice opposition (usually because of concerns about noise and other adverse impacts, or because of potential loss of property value), those who are in close proximity may be offered payments (relatively small compared to payments for hosting a turbine) in return for giving up their right to object to having a turbine located near them. Such contracts or “easements” signed by neighbors may prevent them from opposing the projects in any way (lest they subject themselves to legal action by the developer) even when they learn that they have not been given all the facts about the adverse impacts of a “wind farm.”
- Developers work hard to prevent local government officials or school boards from acting to override an exemption from property taxes provided in NY state law for “wind farm” equipment. The usual technique is a “generous” offer by the “wind farm” developer to provide the local government, school district, historical organization, fire department, etc. with a “payment in lieu of taxes” or PILOT. The total value of the proffered “PILOT” is likely to be significantly less than value of the foregone property taxes that would otherwise be paid during the life of the project. However, “wind farm” developers have found that PILOTS are extremely attractive to sitting, elected local government officials – particularly if the PILOT pays for a visible new facility (e.g., community center, park or fire truck) or will permit a temporary cut in residents’ property taxes.
- Meanwhile, in NY, wind industry lobbyists are undoubtedly hard at work in convincing members of the State Senate and Assembly to pass pending legislation that would override local government home rule on matters affecting “wind farms.” Legislation pending in the NY legislature would authorize a state siting board to override local government requirements that precludes a developer from building “wind farms.” (This is the infamous “title X.”) This pending legislation ostensibly would provide some measure of local input in that two of the 7 members of the siting board would be local citizens (municipal or town level). The other 5 members would be from State government agencies (NYS PSC, DEC, DOH, NYSERDA and Economic Development). At least two of these agencies (PSC and NYSERDA) have already demonstrated a strong bias in favor of wind energy facilities. Clearly, officials in Albany – far from the areas that would be affected – would be in control of key decisions.
- Misinformation, some perhaps deliberate, is often present in communities faced with proposed “wind farms.” For example, many residents in one NY community apparently were led to believe that they would receive free electricity once a proposed “wind farm” was built nearby. While a desire to escape from NY’s extraordinarily high electricity prices (second only to Hawaii ) and taxes is understandable, “wind farm” developers do not provide free electricity.
5. Limited understanding in Albany of the true costs and benefits of wind energy. The “energy plan” announced on April 19, 2007, by NY State officials demonstrated (a) a strong bias in favor of “wind farm” developers, (b) a lack of understanding of the limited value of electricity from wind turbines, and (c) a gross overestimation of the potential economic and job benefits. These matters are discussed in some detail in the attached paper, “A Critical Evaluation of New York Energy Plans Announced by Governor Spitzer, NYSERDA and the NYS PSC,” June 12, 2007.
6. Recent approvals of proposed “wind farms” illustrate five of the important deficiencies in the New York ‘s existing review and approval system for “wind farms”:
- State and local officials promoting and approving “wind farms” seem not to understand that the huge machines (400+ feet or 35-40+ stories) produce very little electricity – which electricity is low in true value because it is intermittent, volatile, unreliable and most likely to be produced at night and in cold weather – not on hot weekday late afternoons in July and August when electricity is most needed and highest in value.
- Officials, especially in Albany, seem to have no appreciation for the impact of huge machines on scenic areas, on people living nearby, or on neighboring property values. The sweep of turbine blades is larger than the length and wing span of a 747 aircraft standing on end. Night lighting on the turbines will have to comply with FAA requirements to warn off aircraft. The location of such large facilities in scenic areas and/or within a few hundred feet of private homes seems to be without precedent. The height reached by turbine blades is far taller than transmission line towers and they will command much more attention because of their moving blades which are likely to be turning even, at times, when no electricity is being produced. They are twice the height of the capitol building in Albany and much taller than the Statue of Liberty.
Because of their adverse scenic impact and likely adverse impact on neighbors’ quality of life and property values, they involve considerations quite different from other electric generating plants. Once the true scenic and property value impacts are recognized, some new standards probably will have to be developed to protect citizens and the public interest from the adverse impacts – even if the turbines are located on privately owned land. Governments have found it “appropriate” in the past to regulate some structures on private lands for scenic purposes (e.g., bill boards) and government action to prevent “nuisance” impacts on neighbors has a long history.
- As indicated earlier, local and state government officials have grossly overestimated the potential economic and job impacts of “wind farms.” (Again, the attached paper describes some of the errors.)
- While preservation of “home rule” is necessary to protect the interests of local citizens who are most directly affected, some of the apparent adverse impact of “wind farms” that warrant detailed consideration are beyond the capability of local government officials to evaluate effectively and objectively (e.g., impacts on birds and bats, other wildlife, and their habitat).
- Citizens who may be adversely affected by “wind farms” do not have a fair chance to defend their interests. They are easily overwhelmed by the resources available to “wind farm” developers and are often ill-equipped to deal with local government officials who are predisposed to approve “wind farm” permits..
7. “Wind farms” produce winners and losers.
- The BIG winners, of course, are the wind farm owners who gain the extraordinary federal and state tax breaks and subsidies that are now available to them, in addition to the revenue from the sale of electricity that is produced.
- Small “winners” are the land owners who receive payments for “hosting” wind turbines.
- The BIG “losers” include (1) neighboring property owners, (2) ordinary taxpayers who must pick up the income and property tax burden escaped by “wind farm” owners, (3) electric customers who pay the higher cost of electricity from wind energy, (4) electric customers who pay the “fee” that NYS PSC has added to monthly electric bills to raise the revenue used by NYSERDA to provide subsidies to “wind farm” owners (see attached paper), and (e) those who appreciate the beautiful scenic areas of NY that will be impaired for perhaps 20 years or more by the huge wind turbines.
8. Recognize that “wind farm” owners are unlikely to have long term interest in the welfare of the areas where “wind farms” are built – or of the people who live there. Technically, nearly all “wind farms” are owned by single asset Limited Liability Companies (LLCs), which are subsidiaries or affiliates of much larger organizations (usually large energy or financial corporations) that can make use of the extensive federal and state tax shelters that are available to “wind farm” owners.
Most of the companies that are proposing or building “wind farms” in NY are headquartered elsewhere; i.e., in other states or in foreign countries. The tax breaks and subsidy money – as well as the profits flow to those companies and are unlikely to benefit the people of New York.
Once projects are in operation, there is little incentive for these absentee owners to be responsive to citizens in the area where projects are built. In fact, once all the tax breaks and subsidies have been captured (i.e., 6 tax years for accelerated depreciation and 10 years for Production Tax Credits and NYSERDA subsidies), owners have a reduced incentive to maintain production from the turbines.
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As you do your research and investigation for the articles you write, I’d urge you to be especially wary of local government officials who are favorably disposed toward proposed “wind farms” before they, their fellow officials, and their constituents have had a clear opportunity to learn all the facts that should be taken into account. Such early decisions may be a sign of (a) inadequate preparation, (b) potential conflict of interest, and/or (c) lack of ability to evaluate critically the information presented to them by “wind farm” developers and lobbyists.
Hopefully, you have good state and local laws covering (a) conflict of interest, (b) open meetings of local government officials, and (c) “freedom of information” that require that officials fully disclose all contacts with “wind farm” developers, lobbyists, and other advocates, and all information received during such contacts.
I hope you will find the above information and the attached paper useful as you continue to learn and write about wind energy in New York.
Glenn R. Schleede (former Western New Yorker)
18220 Turnberry Drive
Round Hill, VA 20141-2574