With strong encouragement from Albany and Washington in the form of tax incentives and direct monetary subsidies, windmill farms and proposals to build many more are proliferating across the state.
Wind-generated electricity appears on the surface to provide a clean alternative to the current methods of generation, burning coal, hydropower, and nuclear. Although there are many important issues that must be resolved, such as effects on bird migration, impacts on endangered species, “flicker” effects and increases in noise levels, the overriding public issue is the dramatic change in a region’s appearance and character when windmills are built and operating.
Individual reactions to the appearance of windmills are many and contradictory. Some describe them as “majestic” or “signs of progress” while others refer to them as “monstrosities” or “blights on the landscape.”
In 2005, I retired from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission after a 32-year career licensing and regulating nuclear power facilities. My longtime vacation home on Chaumont Bay became my permanent residence, far from my former home in the densely populated, noisy Washington, D.C., area. As ambitious plans for placing hundreds of wind generators in the North Country were unfolding late last year, I decided that I needed to know more about this developing technology. In particular, I wanted to be certain that the negative effects on the North Country associated with the presence of many wind generators would be balanced with a major benefit to society. This is what I learned:
Windmills stand about 275 feet tall with the blades extending another 150 feet, creating a total vertical reach of about 425 feet. Each windmill will stand about as tall as one of the MONY towers, with the blades adding another 150 feet. Windmills will be visible for tens of miles in flat country, dramatically altering the landscape. As required by the FAA, about half of the windmills will have a red light on the top. These lights must all flash simultaneously, profoundly affecting the night skies.
It is this vision that is causing much concern. How this image will affect seasonal property owners and recreational visitors will determine the economic fate of a large part of upstate. If the effect is negative, it will be too late to remedy once the windmills are built and operating.
Will windmills provide energy that would justify the sacrifice of a region’s identity and uniqueness and possibly its economic base? For example, the St. Lawrence Wind Farm in Cape Vincent plans to install about 96 windmills along a two-mile-by-nine-mile swath paralleling the St. Lawrence River. The planned capability is about 136 million watts. The energy output depends on the wind speeds throughout the year. Lower wind speeds produce less output while high winds and no wind produce no electricity. The facility’s windmills will produce energy sporadically at about 30 percent of the design value over a year.
By comparison, the Oswego nuclear plants occupy a 900-acre site and have a combined output capability of about 2,600 million watts, with production independent of weather conditions. The St. Lawrence Wind Farm’s output represents less than two percent of the output of that complex. Typical large coal-burning facilities have an output capability of about 1,000 million watts. The wind farm would represent about four percent of the output capability of a large coal-burning facility.
There will be no reduction in our dependence on foreign oil since only about three percent of our electricity nationwide is generated by burning oil (there is no significant oil-burning generation in upstate). There will be no reduction in the number of existing generating facilities, since windmills will only displace the power produced by peaking units (which typically burn clean natural gas). Peaking units will have to remain on standby for periods when the windmills aren’t producing and other peak needs.
Energy generated upstate goes to millions of households as well as industries. If only 400,000 homes reduced their electrical consumption by not using just one 100-watt light bulb, the total energy output of the St. Lawrence Wind Farm would not be needed.
So how do wind farms make money? In addition to selling electricity, windmill companies benefit from major incentives in the form of tax relief. Both the federal and state governments provide tax breaks that significantly reduce, if not eliminate, corporate income taxes. Under the state’s payment in lieu of taxes program, property tax payments from windmill companies are expected to be about 15 percent to 20 percent of the amount that would be paid if the assessment was at full value. New York will also collect a surcharge on all consumers’ electricity bills and will give the money to windmill operators for generating electricity.
It should be noted that state ratepayers are already charged the highest electric rates in the nation. The surcharge makes these rates even higher. All of these tax incentives and the outright give-away of consumers’ money to windmill operators explain why there is so much interest in building wind farms in New York. Like all successful investors, they are here to make money. One company spokesperson stated that the targeted rate of return for the investors is 25 percent plus, annually. Interestingly, the windmill companies proposing to build in New York are primarily European-owned. Consequently, the profits will leave the area.
What are some of the benefits associated with the wind farms? The property tax payments, although at a reduced rate, will enhance the treasury of local municipalities. The potential downside is the reduction in value of recreational properties due to the presence of windmills. Industrial zoning is not compatible with recreational areas. Any reduction in the value of a region for recreation will reduce property tax and other income from visitors, offsetting at least some of the increases associated with the windmills.
Will jobs be created? There are certainly many construction jobs during the building phase of windmill farms. However, not only are those jobs temporary but, according to St. Lawrence Wind Farm documents, most of the construction workers for that farm will come from the Buffalo area. Only one low-paying permanent job will be created upon completion of the project. Other wind farm projects would likely follow the same pattern.
The critical question facing state and local decision-makers is: Are wind farms that produce miniscule, sporadic amounts of electricity and increase the cost of electricity worth their profound visual impacts and potential economic disruption? Would it be better for the state to use surcharge money to fund improved control technologies on existing facilities? Should there be an incentive for conservation? Why despoil thousands of acres of scenic areas for a technology that is incapable of meeting anything except a negligible fraction of our needs? Will everyone still “Love NY” if it’s covered by windmills?
Frank J. Congel
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