TOWNSHIP OF CLINTON, N.Y. – While Vermonters fight over proposals for a few wind farms, the largest concentration of wind turbines in the eastern United States has begun to rise just 60 miles from Burlington.
White, needle-like towers spike the scrubby landscape along U.S. 11 as it parallels the Canadian border through this sparsely populated stretch of farm country northwest of Plattsburgh.
Huge trucks inched along local roads late last month, delivering turbine blades like giants’ pinwheels and generator housings the size of mini-buses. In half-cut cornfields, cranes and crews assembled towers taller than the Statue of Liberty.
Noble Environmental Power, a Connecticut company, plans to turn on the power from its 120-turbine project in Clinton and neighboring Ellenburg this winter. A second developer, Texas-based Horizon Energy, is awaiting permits to erect 109 turbines next summer in the two towns.
Add in Noble’s plans for 154 wind towers in three nearby towns, and this stretch of northern New York is expected to host nearly 400 wind turbines.
Together, the projects will have a capacity of 629 megawatts – nearly as much as Vermont Yankee’s 650 megawatts – although wind turbines operate on average at about one-third of that capacity.
For Vermonters, this development across Lake Champlain means the chance to take a Sunday drive and see for themselves what a modern wind turbine looks like.
Visitors will hear no resolution to the debate over wind energy’s benefits and costs that’s going on back home. Although Clinton and Ellenburg have embraced wind development, the turbines have their fierce opponents as well as enthusiastic supporters.
“This is the greatest thing that’s happened to this town in 25 years,” said Norbert Kanzler, a retired Army lieutenant colonel whose Clinton home has a view of the turbines in every direction.
Amy Filion’s Clinton home also sits amid the turbines.
“It breaks my heart. I’ve lived here all my life because I love the country – and this isn’t the country anymore,” she said.
A ‘little Siberia’ of wind
Noble Environmental and Horizon Energy say there’s a simple reason for the intense development in this small area of northern New York.
“The wind is good up here,” said Charles Turlinski, manager of Marble River Wind Farm, the Horizon project.
Unlike Vermont, where maps locate the greatest wind resource on mountaintops, Clinton and Ellenburg sit on a plateau about 1,000 feet above sea level. Nevertheless, the wind whistles around, especially in winter.
On a New York map of wind speed measured 200 feet above the ground, the two towns are colored pink (wind speeds sufficient to generate power) amid a sea of green (lower wind speeds).
That’s because the prevailing west wind accelerates as the countryside rises from the plains of the St. Lawrence Valley, Noble project manager Dan Boyd explained. The wall of the Adirondacks to the south helps, too, forcing the wind to bend north, accelerating as it goes.
“My father called it little Siberia up here,” said Ellenburg farmer Jim Normandy, whose family has leased easements for four turbines. “Look at the trees, they all bend to the left. The only thing that’s straight is the wind towers.”
Along with a steady wind, developers also found accessible transmission lines to carry their power and two communities ready to welcome them.
“Who knew one day the wind would have such a positive impact on us,” Clinton Town Supervisor Michael Filion said at the June groundbreaking for the Noble project.
Residents describe two towns with too many abandoned farms, too few jobs and few economic opportunities. Many jobholders commute to work as guards at the half dozen New York state prisons in the area.
Each of the wind projects employs hundreds of workers during construction, makes annual easement payments to landowners, and pays millions of dollars into town, county and school coffers.
In 2006-07, Noble’s payments to the town of Clinton (population, 727) totaled $596,000 and to Ellenburg (population, 1,812), $443,000.
Clinton, where the concentration of towers is greatest, will be able to dramatically reduce – and possibly eliminate – town taxes once the Noble and Horizon projects are completed, according to Adore Kurtz, executive director of the Clinton County Industrial Development Agency.
She estimated that more than half of Clinton’s property owners have negotiated easements for towers on their property. Neither Noble nor property owners have disclosed the monetary terms of those easements. Horizon has said its leases for 109 turbines will pay landowners about $1.2 million a year.
“It brings in some much-needed cash flow,” Kurtz said. “For farmers, it means they can keep farming without being completely dependent on commodity prices.”
A landscape transformed
As a westbound traveler approaches the wind farm on U.S. 11, white towers poke up from behind a treeline to the south. They are startling, because wind towers resemble nothing else in the otherwise pastoral view. The impact is lessened because much of their nearly 400-foot height is screened by the trees.
It’s not until travelers crisscross the two towns on back roads that jaws begin to drop.
Towers are scattered across the landscape. Around each corner new towers appear, on the right, on the left, ahead and behind. They look like an alien army out of a “Star Wars” movie – but whether they are things of beauty or ugliness depends on the individual viewer.
It is difficult to compare the Clinton-Ellenburg wind farms with proposals on the table in Vermont.
First, the scale is greatly different. The largest Vermont proposal calls for no more than 30 towers, a tiny fraction of the development in Clinton-Ellenburg.
Second, the physical landscapes differ. Wind towers in Vermont would be more prominent, because every proposal puts towers on mountains or high ridgelines. On the other hand, their perceived size would be diminished because they would be viewed mostly from a distance.
In Clinton, wind towers are part of the neighborhood. Store owner Dick Decosse said he watched construction of one tower from his bedroom window.
Decosse said he’s heard a range of reactions to the turbines as he stands behind the counter of Dick’s Country Store on U.S. 11 (“Groceries, Gasoline, Guns, Guitars,” reads the sign outside).
“Some people say, ‘They’re not so big,’” he said. “Others say, ‘They’re bigger than I thought they’d be. Some people, usually the ladies, say they’re beautiful, majestic.”
‘I’m going to move’
Construction has not softened the passionate opposition of some residents. (Noble says its surveys show support of more than 80 percent of residents.)
Amy Filion, her husband, Gilles, and their friend Cindy Leclair stood on the Filions’ lawn one sunny afternoon in late October. A light breeze was blowing. More than 50 turbines marched across the horizon.
“I’m going to move from here. It’s just a matter of time,” said Gilles Filion as he looked out at the changed view.
Amy Filion’s eyes fill with tears when she starts to discuss the turbines. She worries about the noise they believe the turbines will make once they start turning. She worries that town ordinances requiring 1,000 feet between wind towers and homes will make it impossible for them to build a cabin near the back of their property.
Leclair said her son, a soldier serving in Iraq, has been told he cannot build a new home in the location he wants on land he owns in Chateaugay. The home would be too close to a planned tower, she said she was told.
Asked what advice they would give Vermont communities considering wind development, Amy Filion was brief.
“Come here and see the destruction that’s happened. Do you want that in your town?” she said.
A few miles away, Kanzler, the retired military man, was asked the same question. He was equally succinct in his advice: “Quit being stupid! Wind is free and it’s renewable. You’re stupid if you don’t use it.”
By Candace Page
Free Press Staff Writer
Published 4 November 2007
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