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Harnessing the wind; Renewable energy company looks to make mark on Niagara County  

The Niagara River’s steady current is a massive source of electricity.

If things work out, the wind that blows above it could be a similar resource.

Empire State Wind Energy and the City of Niagara Falls are having preliminary discussions on the subject of wind mills in the city, at a time when alternative energy sources are becoming a fixture in the national consciousness.

“Certainly, this has been and continues to be nationwide and in New York (state) a growing industry,” said Robert Berger, a University at Buffalo Law School professor and member of the Wind Action Group, which strives to educate the Western New York public on the subject of wind energy.

It’s been nearly three weeks since Keith Pitman, president and CEO of Empire State Wind Energy, came back to the City Council to once again gauge its interest in his company. Pitman made a similar presentation in fall 2007.

Pitman, whose company is based in Oneida and is backed by Buffalo Sabres owner Tom Golisano, mentioned several possible locations.

One of them, the former industrial sites near Buffalo Avenue and 24th Street, especially interested Council Chairman Sam Fruscione.

But are there visibility concerns given its nearness to the river?

“It’ll be a heck of a lot better looking than the run-down old factories and abandoned buildings,” Fruscione said. “We’re looking to make sure they’re placed in an old industrial section that can no longer be used for anything else. Any of our brownfields would be great. But nothing near the Falls.”

All five council members have signed a letter sent on June 17 to Empire State indicating their desire and commitment to work with the company. “We would be interested in a project that is compatible to our area’s natural wind resource,” the letter read.

The issue is now in the hands of Pitman and Falls Mayor Paul Dyster to negotiate a deal. Pitman is on vacation and could not be reached for comment, according to a receptionist who answered the company’s work phone number. He did not return several voice messages left on his cell phone.

Dyster is remaining neutral on the subject of wind energy for now, saying city residents should be responsible for deciding whether the traditional advantages of commercial wind power – cheap electricity or a cut of the profits back into the pockets of the city or residents —outweighs issues like how they look, how they sound and the possible damage done to unsuspecting birds and their flight patterns.

But those issues have been almost nonexistent is Somerset, where the Town Board and Empire State have been negotiating a Host Community Agreement for more than a year.

“The community as a whole was overwhelming in support of wind power,” Town Supervisor Richard Meyers said.

The Town Board is set to vote on the proposed agreement Tuesday (it rejected an earlier agreement) and Meyers is hopeful.

Under the agreement, the company would work out deals with individual property owners to build wind mills on their land. A payment-in-lieu of taxes has been worked out between the town, the Somerset School District and Niagara County.

The company will sell the electricity generated into the state’s grid and the town will receive a cut of the profits, starting at 60 percent the first four years and rising to 75 percent in 11 years, if the agreement is passed.

Companies such as Empire State cannot make a profit without the federal government’s subsidy program because they’re essentially building power plants run by wind instead of coal, Meyers said. Empire State is offering the same basic package (altered slightly with negotiations in Somerset) to municipalities and saying “take it or leave it.”

“I think Empire’s got a great opportunity for towns,” Meyers said. “I wish we could have jumped on it a little sooner.”

Multiple studies have shown that wind in Western New York is most readily available off the shores of the lakes Erie and Ontario. But Niagara Falls has potential as well, Dyster said.

He said the city should establish a local ordinance to regulate how it deals with developers and also, when it’s ready, issue a public request for proposals to open the competition up to all potential wind companies.

“This is something new coming along where we have the opportunity to have strong public input from the very beginning,” Dyster said. “It’s important to do that.”

By Dan Miner

Niagara Gazette

6 July 2008

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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