As oil prices once again inch steadily upward with the outlook for the overall economy, talk of renewable energies are once again on the lips of American taxpayers and lawmakers. On Long Island, much of that talk is focusing on wind-generated energy. The Long Island Power Authority announced last week that it is partnering with Consolidated Edison in a proposal to erect up to 100 wind turbines—each 450 feet tall—capable of powering more than 250,000 households for a year, in the ocean off the Rockaways.
While it’s unlikely that similar proposals would pop up on the East End anytime soon, nearly every East End municipality is looking at how smaller—much smaller—wind turbines could be encouraged to generate energy and ease the local draw on the electric grid.
Despite having some of the highest potential for wind generated energy in the Northeast and relatively relaxed restrictions on their construction, the East End currently has but a scattered few wind-driven power generation turbines. There’s one in East Hampton Town, none in Southampton or Shelter Island, one planned in Riverhead and one in Southold Town. One that had been built at the former Southampton College campus was taken down two years ago.
Officials from East End towns and villages and Suffolk County have been meeting in recent months to work on the development of a uniform wind turbine code that would simplify the rules guiding the construction of wind turbines, with an eye toward encouraging their use where possible.
“East Hampton has the best wind conditions in the state, and it’s an asset we’re being NIMBY’d out of,” Town Councilman Dominick Stanzione said last week of the public’s opposition to wind power generation. “We haven’t even been planning for it, not to mention building it. It’s time to come to terms with the energy choices we’re making.”
As technology advances bring down the cost of wind turbines, most East End towns are at least acknowledging that something needs to be done to prepare for turbine applications, if not to encourage them. Riverhead and Southold towns both adopted new wind turbine codes in the last two years. An advisory committee in Southampton Town has been working on drafts of a new code since early last year and East Hampton Town Board members and planning officials are working on their own code updates in the wake of a turbine application last summer that raised many concerns.
Codes deal primarily with the physical details of erecting a wind turbine: minimum lot size requirements, heights and fall lines for safety assurances, and non-glare paint finishes to ease the visual impact.
Some western towns have limited wind turbines by their energy generating capabilities, capping them at 10 kilowatts or as much as 100 kilowatts, towers that would rarely be more than 150-feet tall and often only barely above the treeline. Neither Southampton or East Hampton have yet placed any caps on the size of a turbine other than that they must be on a property sufficiently large enough that if they fell over, they would remain within its perimeter. Both towns have discussed placing minimum limits on the size of the lots eligible for hosting turbines. Southampton Town Code currently requires a minimum lot size of 1 acre, but there has been talk of reducing the minimum to a half-acre to make way for turbines that conceivably be mounted on the roofs of private homes in the future.
“Rooftop units aren’t economically feasible right now, but in a few years from now they might be,” Southampton Town Chief Building Inspector Michael Benincasa said. “So why write a code that doesn’t account for that possibility? A few years ago, I put [solar] panels on my house and last year LIPA sent me a check for $49 because I produced more energy than I used. This kind of thing is our future, there’s no way around it.”
The real hang-up when it comes to seeing wind turbines sprout on the East End, however, is more likely to be the less black-and-white issues of aesthetics, quality-of-life concerns and effects on wildlife.
“The problem is that wind energy is not as unobtrusive as other kinds of renewable energy like solar or geothermal,” said David Calone, a member of the Suffolk County Planning Commission who is spearheading the effort to develop a uniform wind turbine code on the East End. “It has a bigger aesthetic impact, so you always have to be balancing that aspect of community benefit. But it also has the potential for much greater energy generation than any other method.”
East Hampton is the most recent local municipality to deal with the myriad concerns posed by a wind turbine proposal from a land owner. The application by farmer Stephen Mahoney to build a wind turbine on his land off Long Lane—which the town ultimately approved—drew a host of complaints and support from residents who alternated between decrying it as a scar on the cherished vistas of the East End and praising it as beautiful sign of needed progress.
“The spectrum was an amalgam of strange bedfellows of residents who thought it was a visual nuisance to eco-progressives who felt it was a work of art,” Mr. Stanzione recalled of the July hearings. “The question we’re facing, or will be facing, is does putting a windmill in a vista destroy it? Some see it as a symbol of creativity and common sense and others say, ‘Oh my god, you’ve destroyed perfection.’ We want to be ecologically progressive but also be custodians of our natural assets.”
Mr. Mahoney’s turbine, 120 feet high with 23 foot diameter blades, generates about 10 kilowatts of power, enough to cut more than $2,000 a year off his energy bills. A 100-kilowatt turbine on a farm in Laurel has blades 65 feet in diameter and is 150 feet tall, the largest on Long Island.
According to Michael Deering, the vice president of environmental affairs for LIPA, a 10 kilowatt generator like Mr. Mahoneys can be expected to produce about 13,000 kilowatt hours of energy per year, enough to power a larger-than-average home, saving a property owner about $2,700 per year in energy costs. A 100-kilowatt turbine could chop energy costs for a larger commercial operation, like a winery or large farm, by more than $25,000 per year.
Concerns about birds being struck and killed by turbine blades have also been a major sticking point in consideration of turbine placement around the country—and are sure to be on the East End as well.
Mr. Benincasa said that members of Southampton’s wind energy committee were unable to find any information that indicated that the sort of small units likely to be constructed here pose a particular risk to birds, the way larger turbines in West Coast wind farms have.
Such giant megawatt-producing turbines that are a common sight on the horizon of some Midwestern states and most Eurpean countries will not dot the East End’s skyline any time soon.
While there are no restrictions in any local codes that would prevent someone with sufficient land—at least 12 acres would be needed to host a 450-foot-tall turbine and allow it to fall within the property line in any direction—from erecting the biggest wind turbines, codes currently do require that the power generated remain on the host property, precluding anyone from selling or renting excess energy. Given that restriction, the cost of the machines themselves—typically between $30,000 and $50,000 for a 10kw turbine and up to $500,000 for 100kw turbine—are what has slowed the move to wind turbines.
But a handful of factors is expected to shift the equation in favor of wind generation: declining costs of the machines through technological advances, rising oil prices, and anticipated increases in federal tax and grant incentives for clean energy technology. LIPA currently offers rebates and tax credits of $3.50 per watt for the construction of a wind turbine. And the official stance in most municipalities on the East End is that more turbines like Mr. Mahoney’s, or a little bigger, would be a good thing.
“We want to develop wind energy,” Mr. Calone said. “Wind can be a tremendous and important asset to the East End.”
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