August 26, 2010
New York

Will Rensselaerville ban turbines? Fenner offers perspective

By Zach Simeone, The Altamont Enterprise, 26 August 2010

RENSSELAERVILLE – Nearly two years after Shell WindEnergy scrapped its plan to line the crest of the Helderbergs with turbines, the first Hilltown is poised to vote on legislation that would ban large-scale wind development.

At a hearing earlier this month, a handful of people, some from a group that is skeptical about wind energy, spoke for the ordinance and against siting industrial turbines.

The town board was unable to vote on the law at its regular August meeting since the Albany County Planning Board had not yet given its feedback on the proposed ordinance that would ban large-scale wind development in town.

A special meeting has been scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 31, at 7 p.m. to further discuss, and possibly vote on, the proposed industrial wind law.

At the Aug. 10 public hearing, reference was made several times to the wind farm in the town of Fenner, N.Y., and what Rensselaerville might learn from Fenner’s experience with wind power. Russell Cary, supervisor of Fenner, spoke with The Enterprise this week about the genesis and history of the town’s 20-turbine project.

Noel Abbott, who chaired the Rensselaerville Wind Power Committee through its work over the past year and a half, addressed the crowd at the top of last week’s public hearing.

“We came to a clear conclusion over time,” Abbott said, “and that conclusion is that wind power – and we’re calling it industrial wind power – is incompatible with the town of Rensselaerville’s comprehensive plan. And we’ve looked at a number of different issues…And if you actually look at the report, you’ll see the different areas that are detailed out.”

The 60-page report by the wind study committee, which includes all of its research on large-scale wind projects, can be downloaded from the town’s website, or obtained at Town Hall.

In summary

Upon completing its work, the wind study committee summarized its findings and rationale for recommending the prohibition of industrial wind power in Rensselaerville with eight bullet points:

— Bringing industrial wind power to Rensselaerville would be “out of alignment” with the town’s comprehensive plan, and this alone is sufficient justification for barring the large turbines;

— There are significant health, environmental, and safety concerns associated with large-scale wind development;

— Albany County’s wind speeds are not consistently high enough to make industrial wind power a viable option for energy production;

— Residents’ property values may decrease;

— Income to the town would be minimal, while the costs to the quality of life would be disproportionately high, as would the amount of time spent by the town’s governmental bodies throughout the process;

— Once the large turbines are installed, it may be difficult or impossible to remove them, as industrial wind leases and easements often give developers long-term control of the property on which the turbines are situated;

— Some towns have lost control of their ability to independently negotiate with wind developers; and

— While the town could develop zoning that would restrict industrial wind development to a particular area, it would be easier for a developer to challenge a zoning restriction than a complete prohibition.

Jeffrey Gordon, a spokesman for the New York State Energy Research and development authority, sought to address the points in this summary for The Enterprise.

“It’s difficult because the points they make are somewhat general,” Gordon said. “A lot of these points are things that would be negotiated with the developer, particularly income to the town, zoning ordinances, as far as property values…Some of these developments are very close to residences; some are very far away. So, I can’t really speak to the particulars of this proposal because it hasn’t been negotiated yet. This would all be included in the negotiation process.”

He went on, “As far as some of the health and safety concerns, I can say there have been some advances in wind technology with blade fabrication, with gearboxes that help reduce the noise, reducing weight, increasing output. There’re new materials they are using to accommodate higher humidity.”

For example

The town of Fenner had one of the first wind farms in the state. It has 19 windmills, over 1,700 acres. Each windmill is 329 feet tall, from the ground to the top of the blade. The process began in 1998, just after Labor Day, and the town spent three years negotiating with Bill Moore from Atlantic Renewable Energy.

The first tower went up in 2001.

“The first windmill will always stick in my mind,” said Supervisor Cary of Fenner. “On September 11, 2001, one of the planes that went into the towers had an executive from the wind company on it. A few days later, the first cell went up,” he said, referring to the piece of the windmill that holds the blades, and is affixed at the top of the actual tower. The rest of the windmills, Cary said, went up within a few months.

“I call it our community wind farm, because they go right through the community, through farmland,” said Cary. “We followed what was going on in the Netherlands and Germany, making the project part of the community, having it be part of the lifestyle we had, without changing it.”

The time taken to design the Fenner project, and the developer’s working with the town, differs from the tactic used by Shell WindEnergy in 2008, when the company approached landowners in Albany County and offered to pay them to place windmills on their properties, and did so without the town governments knowing.

“The developer worked very hard to get well known in the community,” Cary said of Atlantic. “They went to every planning board meeting, every town board meeting; it took them more than a year to get the variance to put the measuring tower up. He was persistent, and he answered everyone’s questions,” Cary said of Moore from Atlantic.

One step in the project was the balloon test.

“You can’t get around the visual impact,” Cary said of the massive turbines. “So, they actually put up balloons that were 15 feet long, and 5 feet in diameter, floated them up to the heights of windmills, then they literally went out there 20 or 30 miles and took, I understand, over 500 pictures. Then, they used the computers and put windmills in to show what the windmills would look like.”

Part of the ongoing debate surrounding wind farms is their effect on property values and taxes in the encompassing municipality. According to Cary, property taxes in Fenner have decreased since the turbines went up.

“It’s just like any industry coming into town; it picks up part of the load,” Cary said. “It’s a very compatible type of industry for a rural community, if it’s handled right. There’s always positives and negatives, but it’s been handled as positively as can be, and if people keep learning what they can learn and keep improving it, like anything else, it gets better.”

He went on to say that he has seen no negative effect on property values, another common topic of discussion surrounding wind power, and there have been other benefits as well, Cary said.

For example, with the towers’ complex grounding systems, the turbines are essentially massive lightning rods that make it less likely for a home, person, or animal to get struck. Further benefits came from payments in lieu of taxes, or PILOT agreements.

“It’s actually made a lot more work for the town,” Cary went on, mentioning a negative effect the windmills have had on Fenner. “We have roads open that we never had open before. But the PILOTs bought us equipment that we can use on those roads, and to be used on other roads. We have better services than we’ve ever had. They plow the roads a lot quicker, and they do a better job throughout the town.”

There were originally 20 windmills in Fenner, but one toppled over last December. The town and energy company are still trying to figure out how it collapsed, but the towers were built a distance from homes just in case one were to fall.

The turbines were shut down for months, but are slowly being brought back on, one by one, and there is no sign of structural deficiency in the remaining towers so far, Cary said. As of Monday, seven of the 19 remaining turbines were active.

Despite the incident, Cary sees the town’s wind project as a success, and hopes the remaining turbines will come back online in the near future.

Information gathered on why the turbine fell is available at the Fenner Renewable Energy Education (FREE) Center, an organization spawned from the town’s wind project.

“I think people need to make up there own minds, and there are a lot of places that shouldn’t have it, just like anything else,” Cary said. “We did our job, and we did it right. It was no accident that it’s a positive site.”

The public speaks

On Aug. 10, the Rensselaerville town board held a public hearing on the proposed law that would ban industrial-scale wind projects in town. But the committee’s 60 page report, which is included in the law by reference, had been made public only days before the hearing.

“My first concern,” said Vernon Husek, a Rensselaerville resident, “is that, this is a very complicated issue…Clearly a lot of time was spent by the committee, but not much time has been allowed for the citizens to review what the committee has prepared.” Husek, who has been active in the preservation of farmland in town, was the first to take the floor during the public hearing.

“When you incorporate their report by reference, that essentially makes it, as I understand it, part of the law,” he said.

Husek went on to say that he thinks the report places too much emphasis on the potential drawbacks of large-scale wind, and not enough on the advantages. He made reference to the wind farm in Fenner, New York, and reports of the town’s property taxes decreasing.

“That’s because you assess the windmills, and that assessment causes money to be raised from those assessments, which means the town operates in part from those assessments, reducing what everybody else has to pay,” Husek told the board.

Husek also told the board that it was foolish to ban the potential for having this kind of renewable energy in town.

Dawn Jordan, a Berne resident who has been researching wind power as part of Helderberg Community Watch, took the floor next.

Fenner, Jordan said, should not be compared to Rensselaerville.

“It does not look like here; it does not look like Berne; it is a different topographical area; it is a different demographic area; you really can’t compare the two,” she said. “What people should realize is that Fenner is a unique situation that will never happen again…The situation with Fenner is they were able to negotiate their own deal.”

Jordan went on to point out that NYSERDA’s wind energy toolkit lists counties in upstate New York that have “potentially developable wind resources.” Albany County is not listed.

“If you really want to know what a potential wind facility would look like in your town, go to Tug Hill,” Jordan said. “You can look in 270 degrees and see nothing but wind turbines. Because that’s the kind of facility that’s going to be sited these days.”

Her husband, Ron Jordan, echoed her concerns, and supports the committee’s recommendations, as does Timothy Lippert, a member of the Berne Planning Board.

“It’s my understanding, as we’re researching the same issues in Berne, that wind facilities are exempt from assessment for at least 15 years,” Lippert told the board. “So there’s no revenue.”

Lippert spoke of developers’ putting gag orders on the landowners with whom they dealt, barring them from discussing the windmills on their properties, or they risk losing their payments.

Don Airey, a resident of the town of Blenheim and a co-director of Schoharie Valley Watch, has been researching wind power since 1999, and shared his views with the room as well.

“Typically how a PILOT agreement is worked out is, number one, the board of education is going to get a big piece of that money; that’s typically how it’s done,” Airey told the audience. “Then the county [industrial development agency] gets their shot at it, and the third entity on this list is going to be the town that’s hosting this facility, and I think that’s wrong. Typically, towns get 30 percent or less,” said Airey.

He went on to say that, based on his research, old wind turbines are seldom re-engineered into working condition.

“When they’re done, they’re done,” he said. “They depreciate down to zero; they may be sold off to another company; but the bottom line is; they’re going to be, literally, your problem, because you’re going to have to get rid of them.”

He went on, “We’ve had wind companies actually say, ‘We’re not going to pay a bond up front for decommissioning, and here’s why: The town is going to make money at the end of the life cycle of the units, because you’re going to get the scrap value of the turbines.’ So, they’re attaching a present-day scrap value of steel, 20 years out.”

But, echoing the wind study committee, Airey said that the most important consideration is whether or not such a project is in line with the town’s comprehensive plan, despite a town’s desire for lower taxes.

“It’s a vision; it’s a hope; it’s a dream; and I’m all for lowing taxes,” said Airey. “But I don’t see wind turbines being that solution, that answer. And if it is, I’d like you all to consider, it’s at a very, very, very high cost.”

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