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Bethlehem council eyes wind farm proposal

Bethlehem City Council on Monday backed a plan to start testing the mountain ridges surrounding its water supply to determine whether it’s breezy enough there to get into the wind business, a venture that could net the city’s water agency nearly $500,000 a year.

The proposal includes a $50,000 annual licensing fee during the testing phase and a $10,000-per-megawatt fee – likely $432,000 a year – when construction on the wind turbines begins. Once running, the Bethlehem Authority would get whatever is higher: the per megawatt fee or 4 percent of the gross profit.

Over 25 years, that would amount to between $13.8 million and $14.6 million, according to a developer’s estimates.

Councilwoman Karen Dolan applauded the deal not only for profit but also for the impact green energy production would have in reducing the need for dirtier energy.

“This is a well thought-out idea. I know it will take a long time, but I’m really excited about the future,” Dolan said.

If council signs off on the plan, Call Mountain Wind – a joint venture between Delsea Energy of New Jersey and the nonprofit Citizens Energy Corp. of Boston – would begin this year installing equipment to determine the windiest spots along Call Mountain, Pohopoco Mountain and Stoney Ridge in Penn Forest Township, Carbon County.

Testing could take one to two years.

“What we do know is that there is wind up there,” said Robert Sherwin, a consultant for Call Mountain Wind. “What we don’t know is where it’s at and how much.”

There are several “pinch points” that could derail the deal if it’s signed. In addition to measuring the wind, the project would need to get local permits, environmental approval and financing.

The wind farm would include an estimated 27 turbines, likely standing 350 feet from ground to blade tip, that would produce 43.2 megawatts. That would power approximately 16,000 houses. The energy would be sold to the highest bidder.

Company officials said the information on the wind will be public so that the community – schools and environmental groups – will be able to download the information and study it.

“We see this not only as enhancing the environment and saving natural resources but also as a wonderful environmental education moment,” Bradley Campbell of Call Mountain Wind said.

Dave McGuire of the Sierra Club of the Lehigh Valley said he supports the concept. The rub, he said, is making sure it’s sited properly.

“Beware,” he told council. “At some point you will find, with the proximity to Kittatinny Ridge, a major flyway for raptors, you will get scrutiny.”

The proposed farm is not near the Long Pond part of the watershed, which is prized for its ecological diversity because of its rare groupings of plants and animals.

The venture would help the authority pay off a roughly $9 million a year payment on a $100 million debt load, which ballooned in 1998 when it borrowed $65 million to replace the Penn Forest Dam. Since then, the debt has contributed to three rate hikes.