NORTH RIVER – Julia West subscribes more to an IMBY than a NIMBY (not in my backyard) philosophy, at least when it comes to wind turbines.
West has been trying for about three years to put her own personal wind turbine in her backyard, but she has run into some surprising obstacles and last month put up the only structure she has been able to erect so far – a wind-monitoring tower.
Back in 2005, West began contemplating putting up a wind turbine to provide her family with a renewable source of power.
“My reasons are because I live in a seemingly incredibly windy place – almost annoyingly so,” West said. “And I’m very interested in alternative energy, so it seemed good for me to do my part in this way.”
What she wasn’t expecting were the lengths she’d be required to go to get approval from the Adirondack Park Agency.
“I started in the spring of 2005. I’d been thinking about it all winter,” West said. “It was an amazingly long and involved process – absurdly so, because I was required to go through the same process one has to go through to put up a commercial tower.
“I felt like I was writing a dissertation,” she said. “The very first thing I had to do was approach the New York state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation to prove that if I dug a power line out to the tower, I wouldn’t hit any historic things.”
West also had to determine how visible the windmill would be from points near her property.
“I had to fly balloons from everywhere – from all public lands within five miles,” she said. “I had to make a list of all local property owners to see if there was any opposition to the project.”
“And every time I submitted something, they needed something different, something more,” she said. “And then, when I was finally done, I had to do it all over again with an Adirondack Park Agency representative who brought the APA’s own balloon.”
The balloons were floated as high as West’s windmill and its extended blades will reach – 111 feet into the air.
The balloon tests showed the structure would be nearly invisible, as required by the APA’s towers policy, and West’s application was approved in July 2006.
Dealing with the APA
The APA’s policy governing the approval of new telecommunications towers and other tall structures in the Adirondack Park was adopted in February 2002.
“As you’ll see in the background criteria for this policy, it was driven by the popularity of telecommunications in the early ’90s,” said APA spokesman Keith McKeever. “It applies to structures taller than 40 feet, and regardless of whether they’re residential or industrial projects, this policy will be applied.
“This policy is to protect the Adirondack viewscape.”
The towers document, available at www.apa.state.ny.us, mandates that structures taller than 40 feet be substantially invisible from surrounding lands.
A personal wind turbine project approved for a Clinton County resident in July 2007 met the “invisible” requirement, just as West’s project did, McKeever said.
“Both sites were in an area that wasn’t skylighted, and neither were in the middle of fields or on a mountain,” McKeever said. “They had vegetation and topography, like mountains and ridge lines, to shield the turbines from view.”
With the go-ahead from the APA, West prepared to put the turbine up – only to hit a snag.
“The New York state Energy Research and Development Authority offers an incentive program for wind projects,” West said. “The whole reason I put this monitoring tower up is they denied me that program.”
After West got the APA permit, the state authority pulled the grant she’d been expecting.
“I couldn’t afford the turbine without it,” she said.
With the help of the NYSERDA program, West would have paid only $25,000 of the $50,000 she planned to spend to have her windmill installed.
But the authority decided her property wasn’t windy enough.
Historical weather data (www.windexplorer.com/NewYork/NewYork.htm) show her area is less windy than she thought.
“The published data for her site is less than 10 miles per hour for annual average wind speed,” said Ray Hull, a spokesman for the authority. “That’s where we have the lower end of our cutoff for funding.
“She would have been looking at (grant money) somewhere in the neighborhood of $26,000. That’s no small change.” Hull said. “And before we go spending ratepayers’ money – your money and mine – on these things, they have to be proven.”
A charge on utility bills helps fund the NYSERDA program West was interested in, Hull said.
Now, West hopes to convince the authority to reconsider by collecting her own wind speed data with her newly erected tower.
“The tower is up, it’s a neat data logger. I have it set at 30-second increments,” West said. “It measures the highest wind within each 30-second interval.
“If I can prove that I do have the wind, getting NYSERDA’s help shouldn’t be a problem. I’m going forward since I’ve already put so much effort into it.”
All the effort she’s put in, however, has made her wonder if the system is counter-productive to larger goals of conservation statewide.
“From what I understand, our state government is very pro-alternative energy. I’m happy about that,” West said. “But if they’re going to encourage people to get involved and take responsibility, then having a lengthy, costly procedure works the other way.
“I think it needs to be cost-effective; it’s daunting. I do know other people have been turned away because of APA procedure. I don’t think these turbines should be treated the same as cell towers.”
Park agency officials take the view that, regardless of purpose, a wind turbine is a structure taller than 40 feet.
And the towers policy is meant to support the overall purpose of the APA, which, according to the Adirondack Park Agency Act, is to “insure optimum overall conservation, protection, preservation, development and use of the unique scenic, aesthetic, wildlife, recreational, open space, historic, ecological and nature resources of the Adirondack Park.”
Beautiful views have an economic effect, McKeever argues.
“It’s not just a pretty landscape; it’s a pretty landscape that supports many different economies,” he said. “We have strong second-home construction, for instance.
“A lot of people make their livings as carpenters and electricians, building homes for people coming here for our open space.”
Some people argue the issues raised by West’s efforts are important not only locally but in a wider context.
“Big changes, on a global scale, are urgently needed in regards to how we generate and use energy,” said Jim McAndrew, vice president of strategic projects for the Barton Group, which is working on its own, larger-scale windmill project in North Creek. “It’s all too easy for us as individuals to excuse ourselves from any personal action or sacrifice toward bringing about that change by telling ourselves that any effort we’d make would be too little to matter in the global picture.
“But it’s also obvious that there is no one action or method that can bring about the needed changes. Only by the combined effect of a great multitude of small actions will there be any significant progress toward solving our global-scale problems.”
By Erin DeMuth Judd
21 February 2008