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Lessons for Sheffield: Experiences with UPC/First Wind and Clipper in Cohocton, New York  

Author:  | Aesthetics, Economics, Environment, New York, Noise, Pennsylvania, Property values, Vermont

The names are the same. UPC. First Wind. Clipper Liberty. Josh Bagnato. Lawrence Mott.

Residents of Cohocton, New York are living with it. Residents of Sheffield and Sutton, Vermont are still trying to stop it. Why? A recent visit to UPC/First Wind’s utility scale wind project in Cohocton NY provides this cautionary tale for Vermonters.

UPC Wind, as it was known at the time, began development of utility scale wind projects in Cohocton NY and Sheffield VT at about the same time. The Cohocton project took three years to build, and has been in operation since 2008. The Sheffield project was permitted by Vermont regulators in 2007. In 2009, the Vermont Supreme Court upheld its Certificate of Public Good. Now the project’s stormwater construction permit is under appeal to Environmental Court. UPC Wind changed its name to First Wind in 2008.

Both projects use or plan to use 2.5 MW Liberty turbines made by California-based Clipper Windpower, which has a manufacturing plant in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

On my first visit to Cohocton outside project building in April 2009, 15 of the 50 turbine says CLIPPER were not working. A year later, one turbine was not working.

Vermonters have a lot of questions about wind companies and utility scale wind turbines. The questions have been asked numerous times at public forums. Some of the answers are available in Cohocton. Here is what I learned on my recent trip to Cohocton and two “big wind” turbine sites in Pennsylvania:

Are tourists coming to see the Cohocton turbines? I saw no evidence that the turbines are a tourist attraction.

Is there a visitors center for tourists? There is no visitors center, no office in town, no sign anywhere identifying whose project it is, not even at the entrance to the project’s maintenance building. The only signage was the word “Clipper” on one of the mailboxes and a faded “Firstwind” sign unreadable from the road on a post next to a parking place in front of the building. The public face of the Bear Creek, PA wind project was similar, a dented mailbox and uninviting signs.

How many jobs are there? Cohocton residents say there are about 5 local employees for the 50 turbines. This matches what an Iberdrola employee told me at Locust Ridge, Pennsylvania: there are 6-7 local employees for 63 turbines, or about 1 job for every 10 turbines. Besides temporary construction and routine maintenance jobs, local residents do not seem to be employed by these projects, which require specialized workers.

Has the project been a boon to the economy? I saw no evidence of economic vitality in Cohocton. To the contrary, in the areas where turbines are located, I talked to people who are abandoning homes or hoping to sell out to First Wind.

How much money has the town gotten? What was it used for? Residents told me that it is generally known that the Town of Cohocton has received more than $1 million in payments from First Wind or one of its LLC subsidiaries. However, according to the Cohocton residents with whom I spoke, there has been no public accounting of the money, or what it was used for.

It may be that some people in town know exactly what the money has been used for, but the wind project has divided the community in a manner similar to what we are seeing happen in Lowell, VT, where wind supporters are aligned with town government and those who oppose the project are now “outsiders”.

How much money has the school district received? Similarly, residents I spoke with cited a lack of transparency regarding payments to the school district. They say a recent report on the school district budget does not contain an accounting of income from First Wind or its subsidiary LLCs.

Have the leaseholders been paid? Leaseholders have received the minimum payment amount, about $2400 per year.

Was it the amount promised? According to two landowners I talked to in 2009 who had signed leases, leaseholders expected payments of at least $5000 per turbine per year, a combination of the minimum payment plus an amount based on the electricity produced.

Has the project impacted the area real estate market? Are houses selling? According to residents, there have been no home sales in the areas around wind turbines in Cohocton in two years.

Are realtors taking listings of houses near turbines? No. Residents told me that realtors refuse to list properties near wind turbines in Cohocton. As I drove around all the roads where the turbines are located in May, I did not see any “For Sale” signs.

Are property values affected? There have been no sales, so there is no way to evaluate the project’s impact on property values. However, while driving around this year, I asked our local tour guide about each house. Who lives there, what’s their position on the turbines, are they bothered, etc.? The answers painted a sobering picture. Leaseholders cannot talk because their agreements contain gag orders. Some of the nicer homes next to leaseholders are empty, or rented to the few First Wind employees who maintain the project. Next to leaseholders are homeowners who hate the turbines. I got the impression of a town and landscape taken over by a technology and a corporation. One homeowner I talked to asked to speak “off the record” because of an upcoming meeting with First Wind to discuss buying the property due to noise and vibration issues.

What about the noise? Noise is a problem for many Cohocton residents, even a mile away. Clipper turbines are noisy, not just the usual “thump, thump, thump” but also they make mechanical noises. A resident describes them: “Many strange noises, when the nacelles are moving there is a moaning noise. We also get metal on metal screeching noise and every so often a loud thunder type noise comes out! There is the usual generator noise we hear all the time.”

Can people who live near the turbines sleep? Some people living in homes near turbines report serious problems with sleep deprivation. Hal Graham is a leaseholder who favored the project initially and has spoken on videos posted on YouTube about the problems he is having with the turbines near his home. He regrets having signed a lease, and says that UPC/First Wind promised there would be no noise. Other Cohocton residents brought up the same point when discussing the turbines, saying sadly, “they promised no noise.”

Do houses vibrate? Yes, people report that their homes affected by vibrations. First Wind is negotiating to buy out some people.

Do the Clipper wind turbines used by UPS/First Wind have any design or structural problems? Yes. A blog contains postings by former and current Clipper employees about the failed design of the Clipper Liberty turbines (www.topix.com/forum/energy/wind-energy/TPJF1TPVC4K7KU286). Here is a typical post by a former worker:

The Clipper Gear Box is a Quantum Drive it has 4 generators instead of just one, which means the gearbox is much larger and contains more gears and ratios, timing is essential and very hard to achieve, what happens is the gears end up getting chewed up fairly quick, plus the vibration from this unit has and does cause major oil leaks. Clippers blades come from Brazil as does their base, hub and gearbox castings. The blades are broke by the time they reach the port of Houston, part of the cause is Clippers design, so they only get partial warranty, so they are really eating allot of expense on repairs and warranty, with issues they just can’t clear up. The product is old school, the reason nobody uses this design would be for all these reasons.

These are the same turbines that First Wind is planning to use in Sheffield.

The Clipper employee blog includes postings by current employees who claim Clipper is resolving the blade and gearbox issues, and attributes those problems to start-up growing pains. Former employees seem skeptical that the design flaws can be or have been fixed. United Technologies Corp. (UTC) recently purchased a major interest in Clipper Windpower, bringing gearbox and blade expertise to the company, but it remains to be seen if UTC can fix the flawed design.

Since the Cohocton project came online in 2008, the blades have been taken down and repaired and put back up.

Are blade failures unique to Clipper turbines? No. On the same trip, I visited Iberdrola’s Locust Ridge project north of Mahanoy City in Pennsylvania which uses Gamesa 2 MW turbines. I witnessed a turbine blade being delivered and learned from the driver that it came from Texas (even though Gamesa has a manufacturing plant in Pennsylvania). In all, five blades were being replaced on the Gamesa turbines, which went into service in 2009.

The Iberdrola worker said that turbine blades come with a two year warranty, and it costs more for a longer warranty.

A recent report projects operation and maintenance costs for wind turbines are likely to “spiral” as warranties expire.

Do turbines leak oil? Yes. I saw oil coming from the nacelles in Cohocton. The Clipper former employee blog says:

The turbines do have an oil heating element that enables them to operate in cold climates. If the oil is leaking out of the turbine nacelle that means that a major failure has occurred. The turbines have splash decks to catch oil, If the oil is overflowing these . . . nuff said.

According to data on file with Vermont’s PSB, each Clipper Liberty turbine gearbox contains 110 gallons of hydraulic and lubricating oil. 500 gallons of mineral oil are used in each turbine’s transformer.

How much dynamite was used to build the roads? In Cohocton, none. Unlike Vermont, the landscape is rolling hills where it is easy to drive heavy equipment onto farm fields.

In Lempster NH, where Iberdrola erected twelve 2 MW Gamesa turbines, one million pounds of explosives were used for the road construction and preparation of turbine sites, according to the landowner. The terrain in Lempster is nowhere near as rugged as sites proposed for Vermont, including Sheffield.

Were roads damaged during construction? Did First Wind pay promptly to fix damage to roads? During construction, residents described the destruction to Cohocton area roads as horrible. The Town discussed suing First Wind to get the roads fixed after First Wind did not keep agreements.

Are there any other problems? Local workers have disclosed to Cohocton residents that they are concerned about the possibility of concrete base failures. Cohocton residents are seeing a lot of dirt dumped at the base of one turbine, where workers say the turbine was built on a wet spot and no matter how much dirt they pour into it, water keeps surfacing.

Are the turbines making a difference to New York’s electricity needs, and are they contributing to reducing greenhouse gas emissions? Residents question whether the turbines are actually generating electricity that is going into the grid, especially after the leaseholders received only minimum payments with no additional payment for electricity generation.

If there are problems, is the company quick to respond? Not according to the people I talked to. Complaints about noise, sleeplessness, and house vibrations have been ignored or ridiculed for more than a year. Anybody who wants to sell out to First Wind must sign a gag order.

Can residents hold the company accountable for problems? The people who live in Cohocton that I talked to feel they are now living in a town under a corporation’s control, where nobody is responding to the problems residents are living with.

What about the view? Wind turbines dominate the view in Cohocton. They are prominently visible from most roads and homes.

Will it be any different in Sheffield?

—Annette Smith, Executive Director, Vermonters for a Clean Environment, 2010 Mid-year Report

Click here for original, with more links and photos.

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Message from the Director, Vermonters for a Clean Environment

Wind and water and how Vermont communities interact with these natural resources have been the focus of VCE’s work for the last six months. We hiked to the tops of mountains, visited relevant places in three states, and engaged in vibrant conversations with elected officials, state agency staff, and citizens throughout Vermont who are dealing with corporate or government decisions that seriously affect Vermonters’ lives.

As oil flows into the Gulf of Mexico, we are especially reminded of the important role VCE plays in assisting Vermonters in gaining accurate facts from which they can make informed decisions. I grew up on the Gulf coast, spending most weekends, summers and sunset walks on Siesta Key in Sarasota, Florida. Watching what is happening is painful beyond words. But calls for building wind turbines on Vermont’s mountains in response to BP’s flowing oil indicate a panic reaction not grounded in a factual understanding of the options Vermont has for meeting our energy needs.

After a year of research, I am convinced that we do not have to degrade and destroy the biologically diverse and important habitats on top of Vermont’s mountains , which contain vernal pools, wetlands and headwaters, or sacrifice our iconic mountain landscapes in order to reduce and eliminate the use of fossil fuels in Vermont. I have made choices resulting in a dramatically lower carbon footprint than the average household. The solution that has worked for me can work for Vermont. By utilizing solar energy on buildings and already-built landscapes or unproductive farmland combined with electric vehicles, zero emissions are possible. The price of solar is declining, photovoltaic panels are more efficient, solar electricity is a better match for our electricity needs than wind electricity, and it feels good to get electricity from the sun. More solar installers are working in Vermont, so if you haven’t called one, now is the time to get an evaluation. And at the same time, see how much you can save on heating by getting an energy audit. After insulating the ceiling, I recently installed solar hot water for heating my office and household water use, and it works well. Look for LED light bulbs which use less electricity than CFLs and last longer, with no mercury.

Vermont can meet our electricity needs with a diversity of in-state renewable energy sources and through purchases from regional resources. Technology and security concerns are trending towards a future with locally generated electricity less dependent on the big grid. Renewable energy advocates in Vermont have been championing big wind that Vermonters fight against, to the detriment of solar technologies that work better and Vermonters accept more readily. Let’s focus on what works!

Thank you for your continuing support.

Annette Smith

This article is the work of the author(s) indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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