In April 2006, a small group of concerned citizens in the small, picturesque Catskills town of Bovina formed an organization called the Alliance for Bovina. The group had three co-directors and only a few dozen members, yet still managed to turn away a proposed commercial wind farm that would have installed massive wind turbines and generated millions of dollars.
In October of 2003, in Waymart, Pa., a landowning couple entered into an agreement with a commercial wind developer, receiving nearly a quarter million dollars to allow the operation of wind turbines on their property.
Depending on your perspective, one of these is a horror story and the other is an example of practical living in a world increasingly searching for alternative energy sources.
Besides Bovina, residents of another Delaware County town, Andes, banded together last April to turn away a massive wind energy project.
In Bovina, the Town Board ultimately rejected the wind proposal because of strong community opposition to the project. Tom Craveiro, codirector of the Alliancefor Bovina, said in a statement that the town was determined to “preserve the scenic, rural and agricultural character” of Bovina.
Preservation of local character is often the most common sentiment among those who oppose wind power. It is a rather cut-and-dried argument: Amid the majestic beauty and grandeur of the Catskills, who would want to spoil the view with industrial wind turbines up to 350 feet high?
The answer is complicated. On one hand, commercial turbines are typically built a good distance from homes, often out of sight and earshot. They have become quieter as the technology has improved. They provide a step in the right direction in response to global warming, because they don’t pollute.
On the other hand, industrial wind turbines are eyesores that invade the scenery. And while they are quieter than ever, those who live near them say they are noisy machines that create a mind-numbing, grinding noise when the wind is whipping. Additionally, they create a “flicker effect” when the sun shines through the spinning blades, making them oversized strobe lights.
The complaint that perhaps comes up most often is that the mighty spinning blade of an industrial turbine can kill large numbers of birds each year. However, people often overlook the fact that house cats, glass windows and electric wires kill more birds in a year than wind turbines could in a decade.
A more realistic environmental detriment is the number of bats killed by the turbines annually. While people aren’t as sympathetic toward bats, the truth is they serve an extremely important environmental role. Bats are vital to keeping down insect populations and also serve to spread seeds.
The loss of birds is a detriment to the environment for many of the same reasons, including minimizing insect populations. The difference is that birds reproduce on a much more proficient scale than bats. Typically, a female bat will only produce one bat cub a year. At that rate, the population would see a steep decline in only a short period. Scientists are still trying to identify what it is that draws bats to the turbines. The educated guess is that they are searching for nesting sites.
Regardless of whether people understand the intricacies of the environmental and aesthetic issues, they are still loathe to endorse the idea of a wind farm in their backyards.
Even so, New York state is making it ideal for wind farm developers to build here. Compared to other states, New York provides generous incentives and tax rebates for those investing in renewable energy sources. This applies to homeowners as well as development agencies. Increasingly, residential wind turbines are becoming more popular, but they do not cause the same issues as large-scale commercial turbines.
A residential turbine rarely extends beyond 100 feet in height and the technology has advanced to the point where they make little to no noise. Companies like PacWind Inc., based in California, have created turbines that they say are not a detriment to bats or birds. These turbines don’t typically stand 450-feet high, however.
Unfortunately for towns that don’t want 450-foot commercial turbines, the federal government has provided tax subsidies and rebates that have proved too tempting for developers.
In April 2006, an ad hoc coalition of local community groups concerned with commercial wind farms from upstate New York spoke to the Assembly Committee on Energy and the Subcommittee on Renewable Energy. According to the coalition, before handing out these rebates so generously, the state and federal government needs to consider “population density, background noise, cultural and historic resources,” and needs to find a way to “maximize efficiency while minimizing impacts.”
Unfortunately for citizens, they are often unaware that a wind farm is even being proposed in their town until the process is well along.
“Typically, a wind factory representative will prospect a small town, informally approach the Town Board with its plan, and then quietly canvas the area, asking people on the ridge tops to sign leases, further pledging them to secrecy,” the coalition said. “In almost every case, they manage to sign up a member or two of the local governing body, thereby ensuring friendly votes. … Local officials, seduced by vague promises of substantial revenue, too quickly ally themselves with the developers. In most cases, the majority of landowners and residents are unaware of the projects until quite some time has gone by.”
As far as Ulster County officials are concerned, there has been no mention of commercial wind coming to the Shawangunk Ridge in recent years. If and when the companies come knocking, will the sleepy hamlets of the Hudson Valley have the restraint, wherewithal and gall to turn them away?
If it were up to the Alliance for Bovina and the aforementioned coalition that spoke before the Assembly Committee on Energy, there would be a statewide moratorium on commercial wind energy. According to the coalition, there are simply too many issues unbeknownst to these small towns, as well as too little regulation from the state.
For instance, the only environmental studies being conducted on the effects of wind farms comes from the wind developers themselves. Town officials who see a quick and easy way to infuse capital into their local economies often accept the findings of environmental studies from the developers.
In fairness, many public officials have more reticent when it comes to an invasion of cellular telephone towers. But many do not. Since the state has made little effort to implement restrictions on wind farms, it is up to the little man, critics say.
“Developers and investment bankers study demographics as well as wind patterns,” said the coalition. “If there is a common thread that holds together those of us who are before you today, it is our recognition that we are among the vulnerable.”
By Robert M. Miraldi, Freeman staff
23 September 2007