This cultural shift toward renewable energy and sustainable building, even the shift toward aggressively entering the words into speech, is still dew-fresh in the minds of many New Yorkers. Global warming is probably mostly accepted, if not internalized, by the sane, but it is out of scale with human thought, especially the kind of day-to-day functioning that requires a level of mundanity in coping with life’s inevitabilities and machinations. It is easy to understand why the incessant, often unnecessary, use of our automobiles for convenience contributes to decline of the human living environment. We can see and smell the smoke. We pay for the gas; our legs cramp under the strain of highway driving. And, ultimately, we drive on those disconnecting, noisy roads with no real reward, and it makes it easier to vilify the vehicle and its place in our lives.
We get warmth from the other machines. And, we get television programs, and video games, and cold milk, and cell-phone calls, and the Internet, and music, and movies, and spinning toothbrushes, warm food, warm blankets, cold beer and Christmas lights.
We plug pennies into the wall all day.
And so, people with a mind toward preserving an environment hospitable to human life pushed the state and federal governments to, at the very least, begin, here in the year 2006, to gently encourage the development of so-known “renewable” and “sustainable” energy sources. These words, as they appear in common usage, and now in public relations campaigns, are almost rendered meaningless. Renewable, by definition, is a promise of regeneration, as if the taking of the resource creates a vacuum in which more is produced. As renewable almost always refers to the sun and wind, it seems “unlimited” might be more fitting. Or, at least, “only as limited as man’s capability to render an efficient method of transfer.” And, for sustainable, it is a euphemism that has encapsulated everything from gas-charged windows (windows being, whatever the ridiculous cost, the greatest compromise in energy-efficiency in any building) to car-sharing programs, which might well print giant magnets for the sides of the vehicles that read, “Hey, We’re Trying.”
But, the inexact nature of these trend words is illustrative of the state of confusion, and in a better light, the experimentation that will mark energy exploration, policy and consumption in the immediate future. Anyone reading hard late into the night, churning up Peak Oil pages, or Cheney’s energy policy, or any other Armageddon of Suburbia writing, is scared to hell and ready to ride a bike, or carpool, or find something green to support and plaster to the bumper sticker of their car, sitting in traffic on Route 13, bound for Wegmans, and Wal-Mart, burning a little oil, riding on under-inflated, rubber tires.
John Rancich seems an odd man for this moment. He is a developer – mostly of housing, and some commercial properties. He is not previously identified with any energy-saving projects, political movements or protests. He knows, and chuckles a little in saying it (there is no “admitting,” the implicit being that he is not nearly shy about his views), he is more conservative than most people who will soon be joining him in this effort to build a windfarm – a community collective windfarm, ideally – in the Town of Enfield. And, he knows the direction of this project is as pliant as the contemporary use and definitions of the words that will be used to sell it to the people who may benefit most.
But, he is determined, and views himself from the top down as an entrepreneur prepared to create a model of community power that would directly compete with massive energy conglomerates.
It starts, of course, with the wind.
Rancich says he initially came up with the idea to power his own home with a smaller turbine on his property in Enfield. But, in consulting wind maps of the county commissioned by Cornell, Rancich found that sustained winds of about 16 to 16.5 mph (about 1.5 mph greater than what he found at his location) were possible on Buck Hill and Connecticut Hill in Enfield, nearby his property. He also discovered that an existing 115 kv power transmission line is located “going right across the land” on Connecticut Hill, making the transmission of power a practical proposition. Rancich applied to the town to put up a “Met” tower on Connecticut Hill, which went up a few weeks ago; an independent contractor will collect data for a year. “Hopefully,” he says. “We’ll find there is sustained wind of about 16.5 mph.”
Then comes the windmills. And the substation. And, if Rancich’s vision is completed, the town’s first collective energy conglomerate, owned by, and operated for, the citizens of Enfield.
Rancich’s plan is to build between eight and twelve full-sized turbines, at about 260 feet, each producing about 2.5 megawatts of electricity at operating capacity, supplying about 20 megawatts of power. “That’s enough to power 250 to 300 average homes,” he says. Rancich says he (or whatever investors, including the town, he can attract) would sell the electricity to NYSEG via the transmission line and substation (which would have to built as part of the project) on Connecticut Hill.
The size of the hill limits the number of turbines that can be placed, as structures must not only have room to operate, but also be free from the “dirty air” created by other turbines in the space. The turbines would face west about 90 percent of the time, Rancich says, but can adjust orientation with the use of internal motors, matching the direction of the wind. Turbines rotate on the axis to do this, and also can pitch out the blades as wind changes speed. As the wind quickens, flattened blades pitch back, much like an airplance propeller, and accommodate the increased force and revolutions. Rancich says the turbines stop turning when the wind reaches 50 mph. “You don’t want them turning in gale-forces wind,” he says.
And while physical plans can only be taken so far without proper permitting and money, Rancich says he has a variety of financial options he plans to pursue.
The undertaking is of no small significance; just getting the crane to the site costs about $100,000. “It comes on 37 tractor trailers,” Rancich says. “So you’ve got to set up more than one windmill to make it worthwhile.” And, getting the windmills can be another problem.
“You can’t get windmills,” he says. “You’d be amazed. GE, the primary U.S. manufacturer, does not have the capability to mass produce turbines. The facilities don’t exist. It’s actually easier for them to make a smaller order, in this case, than for one of the larger farms of 200 or 300 windmills. Europe is so far ahead in this regard, but they have 50 years experience. .
Rancich also says the regulation process provides obstacles to a relatively small developer, such as himself. “The process is designed for a much larger entity than mine,” he says. And that’s part of the reason he says he may need investment assistance.
“I want the town to participate, but I don’t know exactly how. I’d really like to find out if there can be a PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) arrangement made with the town and county to guarantee that any money I put into this initially will go directly to the town,” he says. “I’d like to avoid a giant tax bill, but right now I don’t how to avoid that.”
He says he also envisions a plan in which he makes direct payments to the town on a yearly basis, but eventually, and gradually transfers ownership of the turbines to the community.
Private funding also is a possibility, with Rancich exploring the idea of involving investors, who might be able to capitalize on tax breaks that do nothing for exempt municipalities. “I don’t know at this point,” he says. “But I want to be out front, and in the public with this. I want the town to have the first chance to get involved. And I want people to be informed.”
To that end, Rancich is mastering his sales pitch. “This is a global challenge to save the Ozone and reduce emissions,” he says. “There are no environmental drawbacks to this. And there are numerous potential financial incentives.”
Rancich likes the example of the telephone pole. “Can you imagine the first time somebody said, ‘We’re going to cut down trees and put up a bunch of poles?'”
He hears the word “viewshed” in response to his turbines. He hears about bird kills, and noise, and the visual effect upon drivers. But, he says, they are all endemic of one thing, “Not in My Backyard.”
Viewshed is a common criticism of proposed wind power, as well as a small, but mounting movement against what some view as “Big Wind” (a proposed Vermont windfarm, and another near Cooperstown, stirred a lengthy public debate about “outsiders” capitalizing on a local resource, and local land, to generate profits and spoil the countryside). “That’s why I want to involve the town,” he says. “I don’t prefer that some big investor come in and buy it.”
And the problem with finding scientific evidence against wind power is that most arguments are framed as commentary, and often supported by evidence such as the statement that the presence of wind energy may actually give “people license to use more energy” (according to Country Guardian, a British organization dedicated to opposing windfarms).
It really does come down to aesthetics, as the identifiable bird kill counts are miniscule in comparison to automobile kills, transmission lines kills and window kills. And, in this regard, Rancich thinks his perspective is salient, considering the present energy environment, which will necessitate the construction of more coal-burning plants in the near future.
“Somebody’s got to look at a smokestack.”
Ithaca College physics professor Beth Ellen Clark Joseph’s entry into the renewable energy movement, with a focus on wind, in some ways parallels the entry of the movement itself into the public mind. She is an accomplished astronomer, having worked for NASA and the National Science Foundation, as well as on spacecraft at Cornell. After reading a deluge of scientific information regarding the warming of the human environment, she became “conscience” of energy.
“I decided to create a gen. ed. class at Ithaca dealing with energy issues,” she says. “It’s called ‘Power: Energy Options for a Global Society.'” She likes the name, she says, and acknowledges that, at least initially, a gen. ed. class must essentially be sold to students. “Word of mouth,” she says, “is how a class grows.” And, while she also acknowledged that among today’s students there is a group interested in energy concerns, she said awareness of such issues is limited among the general student body. “It’s interesting,” she says, “to me; energy reliance and energy production is generally viewed by most with a sort of blissful ignorance.” She cites an example for students, “When I went to college, I brought two things to plug in, a lamp and a fridge, there was a computer lab down the hall,” she says. “Now, students bring between 20 and 30 plug-in items. It is a cultural shift.”
Clark Joseph says as she gathered material for “Power,” she became more interested in wind energies, and eventually became what she described as an environmental “activist” on its behalf. Initially, with the limiting of coal burning (she describes coal, after asking for permission to borrow some salient political terms, as “an environmental terrorist upon which we must invoke the nuclear option” – although she’s careful to point out the unfortunate literal turn of the metaphor, as she is not a proponent of nuclear power, per se) in mind, she explored nuclear power, often thought to be the only truly realistic substitute on scale for coal- and oil-burning generation.
“But the more I researched, the more I found I couldn’t support nuclear power,” she says. “You can make it a rosy picture, but at present, waste – hot, radioactive waste – is stored on-site at facilities, in swimming pools. Fifty years, and we haven’t yet found a solution for waste disposal. That’s why I eventually became attracted to wind power. I wanted to put my efforts as an activist toward something I could support wholly.”
She says she recognizes, especially after gaining an appreciation for what she says is the “scale of the problem,” that wind power’s unfortunate failing as a primary energy source is its lack of reliability. “This is an effort in coordination with others,” she says. “We need to pursue renewable sources, solar in tandem with wind; although I do recognize there will still be a need for nuclear, and likely coal plants; I think we need to do anything we can to limit the introduction of new coal facilities. Anything the wind can do to help … .” To that end Rancich says he also recognizes the practical shortcomings, but views the project as something of a test case in early mitigation, and financial exploration. “We should be able to make the money back, ideally, over a relatively brief period of time,” he says. “And, whatever percentage of energy we’re dumping into the grid, that’s less coal being burned.”
Clark Joseph, who also is a member of the Tompkins Renewable Energy Alliance, says TREA and other concerned groups will be watching the progress of Rancich’s proposal very closely.
“What’s interesting, and encouraging about what John is trying to do,” she says, “is that he wants it to eventually be owned by the community. The potential for this to become a community project is so promising to me (and, she’s careful to remind that she does not represent Ithaca College in any of these TREA-related pursuits).”
Steve Nicholson, chair of the Energy Management Council of Tompkins County, as well as a member of Sustainable Tompkins and TREA, says a group he is part of in the Town of Caroline also will be monitoring the project closely, as it has similar aspirations. Energy Independent Caroline, he says, hopes to put up two to three turbines, although likely not of utility-scale. “There are basically three viable hills in Caroline, and none is a site that a wind developer would be interested in,” he says. And while the town hasn’t decided on a financial model, Nicholson says the project would most likely be entirely publicly owned from the outset, although possible private investment might be likely down the line. “We’d really like to have something in place where residents can be shareholders …” he says. “But there are other options we’ll have to look at.” He also says one concern, and drawback of present windfarm arrangements, is that landowners get lease payments but not profit-sharing from wind energy created on their properties. “That’s why we’re pursuing a plan for something completely community owned. It’s pretty much the community’s resource anyway.”
Nicholson says Energy Independent Caroline is supportive of Rancich’s proposal, and has a more direct interest than just solidarity. “It can help our project if it goes well,” he says. “And also, it’s very difficult to get that crane up here. And if it’s here for that project … .”
By: Bryan Chambala
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