In the end, the head winds were just too strong for the huge Great Lakes offshore wind farm. The project, likely to cost upward of $1 billion, was too expensive in an economy still struggling to rebound from the recession.
Its electricity, while green, would simply cost too much, likely three to five times the current market rates.
Its public support was lukewarm, at best, with county legislatures across Western New York lining up to oppose the project.
And its biggest backer, New York Power Authority President Richard Kessel, left his job earlier this month, leaving his pet project without a real master.
Is it any wonder the New York Power Authority is on the verge of pulling the plug on the project?
“I’m pleased they decided to abandon it,” says Tom Marks, the Derby fisherman who is the New York director for the Great Lakes Sport Fishing Council and one of the project’s outspoken opponents. “But I am fearful that they may decide to go ahead with it at some time in the future.”
To be sure, the massive wind farm had its merits. The 150 to 170 wind turbines lining a stretch of Lake Erie from Chautauqua County to Buffalo could have generated about 500 megawatts of clean energy, enough to supply about 130,000 homes. It would have reduced pollution by reducing the state’s reliance on power plants that run on fossil fuels, like coal and natural gas.
The project’s supporters even hoped the wind farm would spin off an entire side industry for the region, making it a center for manufacturing many of the 8,000-odd components that go into each wind turbine.
“I don’t know why it’s not being carried out. It’s a great idea,” says Robert M. Ciesielski, the chairman of the Sierra Club’s Niagara Group.
But at what cost? Ciesielski thinks the project’s shaky
economics ultimately proved its undoing. With natural gas supplies bursting at the seams because of the explosion in drilling in the Marcellus Shale, wholesale power prices across New York have dropped dramatically since the recession began.
The average wholesale cost of power
generated in New York last year was less than 6 cents per kilowatt hour, and last week, the average wholesale price in Western New York was under 4 cents, according to the New York Independent System Operator, which runs the state’s power grid.
“It’s a low-cost time. That’s what’s knocking renewables out,” Ciesielski says. “But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be building these projects.” After all, there’s no guarantee that fossil fuel prices won’t shoot up again, narrowing the price gap.
Still, those head winds have battered the wind energy industry across the country. The capacity of new wind projects that came on line last year nationwide was just a little more than half as much as was installed in 2009. Installations have picked up through the first half of this year, but the pace still is way below the pre-recession levels, according to the American Wind Energy Association.
In New York, where projects with a capacity of about 7,000 megawatts are on the drawing board, only 74 megawatts of new capacity have come on line this year, with another 55 million megawatts under construction, the group says. New York ranks 11th nationwide for the total capacity of its existing wind farms, which generated about 2 percent of the state’s electricity last year.
Without Kessel, the offshore wind farm’s leading advocate, to shepherd it through the Power Authority, the project quickly lost momentum, just like a spinning turbine when the wind suddenly turns calm.
“He was the main driver of this idea,” Ciesielski says. “With him gone, there’s really nobody to push it.”
And there were plenty of forces pushing against the project. The Erie County Legislature passed a resolution against the wind farm. So did legislators from Niagara and Chautauqua counties. In fact, at least seven of the nine counties lining the shores of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario went on record against the project. That kind of opposition is hard to ignore.
Still, Brian Smith, the communications and program director for Citizens Campaign for the Environment in Buffalo, thinks the wind farm had plenty of public support. He blames the project’s demise on a lack of political leadership, especially from Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
“This really comes down to a lack of leadership from the governor,” Smith says. “Whether Richie [Kessel] was there or not, if this project was going to move forward, we needed the support of the governor.”
Smith hopes the Power Authority will change its mind. “We can’t afford not to invest in new opportunities in renewable energy. It’s not an issue of cost. It’s an issue of political will.”
For the moment, most of the political will for wind energy seems to be blowing downstate, where the need for new electricity generation is far greater than it is upstate. The news that the Power Authority was backing away from its grand plan for the Great Lakes came on the same day that NYPA, the Long Island Power Authority and Consolidated Edison announced that they had applied for permits to build a massive wind farm off Long Island with a capacity of 350 to 700 megawatts.
“It’s an interesting coincidence, isn’t it?” Smith says. “We can’t pit upstate versus downstate. We need the jobs and the clean energy upstate, just as much as they do downstate.”
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