ALBANY – An ambitious plan for what was to be the nation’s first freshwater wind farm with as many as 150 large turbines in Lake Erie off Buffalo’s shoreline is being halted, a state lawmaker with firsthand knowledge said Thursday.
Less than two years after the New York Power Authority unveiled its wind turbine plan as a major generator of green energy and jobs in Western New York, the authority is quietly shelving the project.
“I have every expectation and am assuming at this time that the Power Authority is not moving forward with this very expensive project,” said State Sen. George Maziarz, R-Newfane, chairman of the Senate Energy Committee.
Word of the impending retreat for the Lake Erie Project occurred on the same day that the Power Authority, the Long Island Power Authority and Consolidated Edison announced they have applied for a permit from the federal government to construct a large wind farm off Long Island.
It also came a day after the State Thruway Authority told The Buffalo News it will build five midsized wind turbines on land it owns along the Thruway south of Buffalo.
The lake project, which the Power Authority said would cost upwards of $1 billion to build, was let out to bidders in December 2009 with a mandate to locate the turbines in Lake Erie and/or Lake Ontario.
Lake Erie – somewhere off Erie and Chautauqua county shorelines – was favored because of its shallower depth and advantages for staging construction equipment at Buffalo’s port.
High price tag The plan then was backed by some Western New York environmental groups but opposed by some local politicians and lakefront communities concerned about the shoreline views being disrupted and other possible problems.
The project called for generation of 120 megawatts to 500 megawatts of electricity from as many as 150 giant turbines atop towers within six miles of the shoreline. The program would have resulted in far fewer turbines being built as part of a process to allay concerns over, some sources said.
Maziarz said he has heard from authority officials that the local project’s high price tag was not cost-effective and that some localities expressed worries about the visual aspects of wind farms on the horizon.
The lawmaker was not critical of the authority and said shelving the project will not be a blow to the region’s economy.
“I think the Power Authority is looking at other investments in Western New York that are going to pay off; I think, bigger dividends than this,” Maziarz said. He declined to elaborate.
“I’ve had no indication from the authority that they are moving ahead with this project whatsoever,” said Maziarz, who is in regular contact with authority Chairman John Dyson.
Asked about the claims by Maziarz, as well as from other sources speaking on condition of anonymity, an authority spokeswoman, Connie Cullen, said, “This is a matter that is still under review by NYPA.” She declined to elaborate.
The authority received five bids for the project back in May 2010. But interest in the plan appears to have ceased at about the same time Richard Kessell, the former president of the Power Authority and one of the project’s biggest cheerleaders, in July announced he was leaving the authority.
Sources involved in the Lake Erie wind project, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the downstate ocean plan will take longer for construction to begin because of additional federal permits required.
The authority has said its Great Lakes project would have built between 40 and 166 turbines spread out over an area up to 42 square miles.
The authority’s documents envisioned picking a bidder to develop the sites by this summer, with construction to begin in 2014. In return for development rights, the authority proposed that it would guarantee purchase of all future energy produced by the turbines, which would then interconnect with transmitting facilities owned by the authority and other utilities, including National Grid.
An executive of a firm bidding for the Great Lakes project voiced concern that the state is focusing on the ocean wind project off Long Island.
“We hope Gov. [Andrew M.] Cuomo and NYPA are not contemplating trading its Great Lakes initiative in favor of this new project,” said Chris Wissemann, managing director of Freshwater Wind.
Not surprised Wissemann said the Great Lakes project is better poised to create jobs and clean energy sooner than the ocean plan, which he said could take 10 years for various approval processes to complete.
Carol E. Murphy, executive director of the Alliance for Clean Energy New York, whose members include energy firms, said the Power Authority has been putting more effort into developing its ocean project.
Murphy said wind conditions are good in both the Great Lakes and ocean areas being considered for development. But, given high electricity prices in the New York City area, growing demand for energy and Cuomo’s call to shut down the Indian Point nuclear plant in Westchester County, Murphy said she is not surprised the authority is focused on boosting downstate energy production.
“For NYPA, most of it came down to cost,” Maziarz said in characterizing what he called the authority’s lost interest in the project.
“I know they’re working on other projects in the area. [Authority Chairman John] Dyson and I are meeting regularly, and these projects will create a lot more jobs than this one,” the Republican, who has close ties to the Democratic governor, said Thursday.
The Great Lakes project is expected to be discussed when the authority board meets Sept. 27.