Much of upstate New York, from north of Albany to Buffalo, from the Catskills to the Adirondacks, is in danger of being transformed beyond recognition by industrial wind
parks, scores of turbines as much as 400 feet tall, as tall as forty-story buildings, marching along ridgelines. Some fifty are in various stages of planning and even execution. Yet the public – upstate as well as downstate – is remarkably uninformed about this precipitate change in the country and quality of life.
All of this is being done in the name of clean energy and saving the planet. But it is not clear that wind power, which may have a role to play, is such a panacea in the battle against global warming that the wind-power juggernaut should be allowed to run roughshod, unchecked, over some of our loveliest land. What are needed are statewide siting guidelines that take other environmental factors, including visual impacts, into consideration.
One upstate project seventy miles west of Albany just north of U.S. Route 20 is the Jordanville Wind Power Project proposed by Community Energy, a subsidiary of a huge Spanish conglomerate, Iberdrola. The project straddles the towns of Warren and Stark. Sixty-eight turbines are proposed near the top of a ridge where they will be visible far across the Mohawk Valley to the north, and to the south down the length of Otsego Lake, the centerpiece of the Glimmerglass National Historic District. There are six eligible or listed national historic districts in the area, comprising some 40,000 acres, not to mention many others in the Mohawk Valley.
Tucked in the rolling hills near Jordanville are the golden domes of the Holy Trinity Monastery, the spiritual center of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. The Monastery hierarchy published a letter in a nearby newspaper, “The Freeman’s Journal” of Cooperstown, saying, “The visual impact of forty-story-high turbines with their whirling blades would make what had been a beautiful and tranquil landscape rightly conducive to spiritual exercise, a monstrous zone of industrial blight with red lights scarring the night sky.” A spokesman has said if the turbines go in, the Monastery may have to leave.
To the south, the northern end of Otsego Lake is only four miles away. The view from the lakefront in Cooperstown, at the southern end of the nine-mile Lake, is one of the classic views in upstate New York, conserved much the way it was in the nineteenth century. On axis with the Lake, the row of turbines on the horizon, visible day and night – especially at night, when their lights would make the clouds glow – would be like a rip in the center of a great landscape painting (the Lake, through a passage in “The Pioneers,” was very likely an inspiration to the Hudson River School of landscape artists); it would be the first crack in a beautifully conserved vase. Otsego Lake is the Glimmerglass of James Fenimore Cooper’s “Leatherstocking Tales”; they are a major source of American ideas of nature, conservation, and the environment. (Cooper was an ancestor of mine, so you can see I am not a happy camper.) Otsego Lake is the Walden Pond of New York State; indeed, the first of these novels, “The Pioneers,” was written in 1823, a generation before Thoreau wrote Walden. Thoreau seems to have been steeped in Cooper. In the first volume of a new biography of Cooper (“James Fenimore Cooper: The Early Years,” by Wayne Franklin, just published by the Yale University Press), Franklin describes a passage in “The Pioneers” set on the Lake, as “the defining moment, the beginning point, of an American environmental conscience.” Cooper developed these ideas from childhood on the shores of Lake Otsego. Best not to mess with it.
The effects nearer the turbines can be even more devastating. The towers loom all around; their blades, 150-feet long, cause the sunlight to flicker; the nacelles – the hub of the blades, at tower-top 262 feet above the ground – make a high pitched whine. Real estate values, certainly for second homes and retirement homes, but also primary homes, would in all likelihood plummet, dropping the local tax base. The carnage among birds and bats (which help control the mosquito population) is considerable – no one knows for sure how considerable, for no wind company has adequately assessed the problem. The Jordanville project would be built partially atop a karst geological strata, an unstable soluble layer of limestone riddled with cracks, fissures, and caverns. At the very least, it could affect local wells and fish hatcheries; springs in this area are the furthest source not only of Otsego Lake but of the Susquehanna River that starts there.
One way or another, this transformation is happening all across the state. Of course, the sacrifice of much of upstate New York in the name of saving the planet would be admirable and noble if it was clear that wind power would play a major role in combating global warming. The National Academy of Science released a study on May 3 that cast doubt on the efficacy of wind power.
Wind is an iffy resource. It blows hard enough to generate electricity maybe thirty percent of the time, usually less. When wind-power companies talk of a project supplying electricity to (say) sixty thousand homes, which is what the Jordanville Wind Power Project claims, those homes are dark and powerless seventy percent of the time. Or they would be, if it wasn’t for the fact that conventional power sources take over when the wind drops. The conventional generators have to be kept on line even when the wind is blowing so that they can kick in instantly when the doldrums come. Instead of powering sixty thousand houses, Jordanville would power less than a third of that – say, eighteen thousand houses; because of the need to keep conventional power sources on line, some experts say the number would be substantially less than that. Whatever the case, in the trade-offs between wind power and other environmental considerations, the less wind contributes to reducing global warming, the more important other environmental factors – including visual impact – become.
So why then are we destroying large tracts of upstate New York in the name of an uncertain energy source? The force that keeps the wind-power juggernaut hurtling down the track and over our communities is government funding and protection. The power grid has to buy this not-so-effective (and grid-disrupting) energy up front, at a higher cost than conventional energy, providing the wind companies with a guaranteed market with top prices and raising electrical bills. There are government subsidies and tax credits and depreciation allowances. The Spitzer Administration is increasing these subsidies. Most wind companies admit that if it weren’t for the government support, they wouldn’t be in business.
The Spitzer Administration has introduced before the State Legislature wording for Article X of the Clean Economic Power Act that would fast-track approval for industrial wind parks by short-cutting the approval process, in particular by expediting the State Environmental Quality Review Act, the cornerstone of the state’s environmental laws. SEQRA for a quarter of a century has placed the responsibility for determining whether a project conforms to the environmental law in the hands of the local town or municipality. The process is not perfect but it has worked reasonably well when local officials make sure a “hard look” is given to environmental impacts and appropriate mitigation. Now, with wind projects, local Town Boards reviewing highly complex Environmental Impact Statements in the SEQRAReview Process are sometimes swamped, in over their heads. The environmental yardsticks in SEQRA, though, are tougher than those being proposed for Article X, which would put the permitting of wind projects in the hands of a State-appointed panel largely appointed by the Governor.
Strengthening the siting provisions in Article X so that they are as tough as the provisions in SEQRA, and maybe even tougher, is an important step. Moreover, there are three bills currently before the State Senate: one by Senator James Alesi, which would establish a moratorium for 18 months on “the siting and permitting of wind generating facilities” while all the issues are considered, including the effects of a project on its neighboring communities. Two other bills have been proposed by Senator James Seward, one that would impose a three-year moratorium on wind projects in a corridor surrounding a fifty-mile stretch of Route 20 (including Jordanville and Otsego Lake) while siting guidelines are established, and another bill that would give the State Commissioner of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation a veto on approving turbine siting. All these bills are worth supporting.
Wind has a role to play, but perhaps not as strong a one as other clean energy sources, especially those which provide not erratic but constant energy. The most promising may include safer nuclear energy and cleaner coal (carbon capture and burial). The big danger is that wind will distract our attention and financial resources from better solutions for saving our planet. Wind power may be something of a red herring hidden inside a pork barrel.
By Henry S. F. Cooper
President, Otsego 2000