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Wind farm holds promise for areas, but at what cost?

Timothy M. Ryan, whose company runs the Steel Winds wind farm in Lackawanna, sees the push for a huge offshore wind energy complex in Lake Erie as a golden opportunity for the Buffalo Niagara region.

The project, likely to cost upward of $1 billion if built, would give the region a significant source of nonpolluting and renewable electricity and could provide the head start needed to turn the area into a center for manufacturing the 8,000-plus components per wind turbine.

“This is potentially a big opportunity for Western New York,” says Ryan, the president of Apex Offshore Wind in Erie, Pa., which is one of five companies that have submitted proposals to build an offshore wind farm in the waters off lakes Erie and Ontario.

Apex’s proposal would put upward of 167 wind turbines about two miles off the Lake Erie coast along an area that stretches from Chautauqua County to Buffalo, with a total generating capacity of 500 megawatts, or enough electricity to supply about 130,000 homes.

“Once you build the thing, it’s free power forever,” Ryan says.

But if the project, backed by a New York Power Authority pledge to buy its power for 20 years, is going to happen, supporters will have to convince skeptics like Elizabeth O’Donnell, whose home is on the lakefront in Hamburg.

She’s not supposed to move rocks in front of her home during spawning season, for fear that it would stir up contaminants in the sediment that could harm the fish. And she’s worried that building the foundations for dozens upon dozens of wind turbines will stir up God-knows-what kind of nasty chemicals that settled on the lake bottom during the region’s industrial heyday.

“I’m afraid that the lake area is an experiment that could go bad,” O’Donnell says.

Others worry about the visual impact. Some wonder why the wind farm couldn’t be built on land, maybe even on a brown-field.

NYPA officials say those environmental concerns will all be fleshed out during the extensive studies that will take place over a two-year period after the authority picks a developer, or developers, early next year.

Sharon Laudisi, the power authority’s business development manager, touts the project’s economic potential, citing the 500 construction jobs it could create and the 80 permanent jobs that would be needed to run the farm and its related operations once its turbines start spinning. The power authority and the region’s business groups are pushing local companies to start gearing up for the potential production and service work that the wind farm could bring to the area.

But it’s also expensive. Depending on the project’s scope and costs, its electricity could cost three to five times more than current market rates. National Grid in January agreed to pay a whopping 24 cents per kilowatt hour for electricity generated from the controversial Cape Winds project off Cape Cod. The average cost of power generated in New York last year was less than 5 cents per kilowatt hour.

“The power is noncompetitive,” says Tom Marks, a Derby angler who is the New York director for the Great Lakes Sport Fishing Council. “It’s going to cost us a pretty penny to have wind power in New York. That comes out of your pocket and mine.”

And that could create some stiff head winds for the project.