September 27, 2011

Answers about commercial wind farms could come from downstate

By VALERIE MYERS, Erie Times-News, 27 September 2011

North East Borough Council is gauging which way the wind blows on a proposal to build a commercial wind farm in North East Township.

Council may lease borough-owned land for the project, but only if taxpayers understand the issues involved and approve, Borough Manager Bob Brayman said.

Texas-based Pioneer Green Energy is measuring the wind and leasing land in North East Township, where it plans to build a 7,000-acre wind farm along wine-country ridges.

Up to 70 giant turbines would harness wind to generate electricity for sale into the eastern power grid.

So far, the public doesn’t have enough information to support or oppose the project, Brayman said. “There are a lot of questions that need to be answered.”

Some of the answers could come from downstate, where utility-scale developments have been harnessing wind since 2001.

In Somerset County, which is home to the most wind turbines in Pennsylvania, government and business leaders and large property owners generally support wind energy development and its economic windfalls. Environmentalists, surprisingly, are split on whether the wind developments are a boon to the environment, or a blight.

Economics: windfall or downdraft?

The commercial wind industry is an economic blessing in Somerset County, Commissioners Jim Marker and John Vatavuk said.

In Somerset County, located on a high plateau in the Allegheny Mountains, 181 commercial wind turbines are already operational. An additional 150 are planned.

Property owners collect about $5,000 annually for each turbine on their land through lease agreements with the wind energy companies. And it’s not uncommon for farmers, especially, to have dozens of turbines on their property, Vatavuk said.

Energy companies additionally are doing business in the community, Marker said, hiring local engineering firms and surveyors, hiring companies to clear land, and buying local stone and concrete.

“One local concrete manufacturer is sending 80 trucks a day in there during construction. That works out to $80,000 a day coming in,” Marker said.

Energy company employees are also spending money at local hotels, restaurants and stores, commissioners said. Between 20 and 30 permanent jobs have been created to monitor operations and maintenance, Marker said.

“It’s been said, as a rule of thumb, that 30 to 35 percent of the cost of these projects goes into the local economy,” Marker said. “With one $400 million project being developed here now for 70 new turbines, at 30 percent, that’s $120 million injected into the local economy from one development.”

The industry also provides some additional tax revenues in Somerset County. Local schools and municipalities share about $1,100 in additional annual tax revenues per turbine, Marker said – or $199,100 for the 181 windmills now operating and $364,100 annually when 150 more turbines go online.

“The schools get most of that, and it can add up,” Marker said.

Opponents of wind energy development say that, in the long run, turbines take more dollars away from the economy than they bring in.

A $650 million alternative energy program enacted by the state Legislature in 2008 to support alternative energy technology and projects offers incentives and grants for wind and geothermal energy development.

Environment: green or brown

Environmentalists generally support wind energy as clean and green.

Jan Jarrett, president of the Harrisburg-based environmental group PennFuture, a leading advocate for wind energy, described wind energy as renewable, pollution-free and producing no hazardous wastes during a state Senate committee hearing on offshore wind energy development in Erie during spring.

Wind energy, Jarrett said, reduces dependence on electricity generated by coal-fired plants that emit harmful carbon.

“Pennsylvania had the highest number of estimated deaths caused by coal plant air pollution of any state in the nation,” Jarrett said. “Wind energy has no air pollution and is a carbon-free source of energy.”

A state law adopted in 2004 requiring the development of alternative energy sources has fueled the rapid growth of wind energy development in Pennsylvania. Wind farms currently located in the state generate enough electricity to power more than 218,416 homes – or about 12 percent of Pennsylvania households – according to PennFuture figures.

But that’s come at a cost to people, wildlife and habitats, other environmentalists say.

People living near commercial wind developments in Somerset County have complained about noise, vibration and strobe-like shadows from turbines more than 200 feet tall with blades turning 230 feet in diameter.

“Noise, especially, has been a big issue in this area,” said Laura Jackson, of Bedford County. Jackson, a retired environmental science teacher, leads Save Our Allegheny Ridges, or S.O.A.R., a group lobbying against further wind farm development in southern Pennsylvania.

Wind energy companies and an amendment to the Somerset County subdivision ordinance are addressing those concerns, County Commissioner Marker said.

Somerset’s subdivision ordinance prohibits placing turbines within a distance equal to five times the turbine height from any residential or commercial structure, unless the property owner wants it, Marker said.

The ordinance also addresses other issues, including directional placement, Marker said.

“One of the problems of east-west placement is that, when the sun comes up in the morning or sets at night, I get a strobe or shadow effect if I’m down sunlight of there, so to speak,” Marker said.

Wind energy companies have also addressed complaints from property owners, Marker said.

“We had a homeowner who said a turbine was giving her headaches because of the constant shadows revolving around her home. The wind company actually purchased her home,” Marker said.

There are few complaints about turbines today, Marker said.

“The issues that were raised in the beginning have gone away. There are still NIMBY (not in my backyard) people who don’t want these things close, but I haven’t heard anything really negative in some years,” he said.

Other environmental concerns are the effects of noise, vibration and shadow on wildlife habitats and the number of birds and bats killed when they fly into the blades.

“When you put turbines up on these long, north-south mountain ridges, they’re directly affecting the migration route of bald eagles and a lot of songbirds,” Jackson said.

“Wind companies have made a token attempt to do impact studies and have found dead birds,” Jackson said.

“But they’re not actually doing a good scientific study. We know turbines kill birds and kill thousands and thousands of bats.”

Wind turbines already operational in Pennsylvania killed more than 10,000 bats in 2010, according to the Pennsylvania Game Commission. And that could cost farmers who benefit from the creatures’ appetites for bugs that otherwise could damage their crops.

“These kinds of issues will be huge in your area, especially because it is in the pathway of birds migrating north and south over Lake Erie,” Jackson said.

Potential bird kills already are a large issue locally, especially in the discussion of building wind farms offshore in Lake Erie, Kim Van Fleet, a wildlife biologist for Audubon Pennsylvania, said in Erie this spring.

Lake Erie and the Erie shoreline are part of the Atlantic Flyway, a kind of aerial superhighway for thousands of migratory birds each spring and fall, Van Fleet said.

“A major concern of Audubon is that bird and bat kills have been documented to varying degrees at each and every industrial scale wind facility in Pennsylvania,” Van Fleet said.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission estimates that each wind turbine kills an average of 24 bats and four birds each year, said William Capouillez, director of the commission’s Bureau of Wildlife Habitat Management.

The effect on the large and varied bird populations that migrate across the lake could be much larger, Van Fleet said.

Windmills: love them or hate them

Giant wind turbines used to generate electricity in southern Pennsylvania are described as “awesome” or “hideous,” depending on who’s describing them.

“Some people think they’re beautiful, some people think they’re ugly,” Jackson, of S.O.A.R., said. “They are marvels of technology, there’s no doubt about it. They are also very prominent on the landscape and can ruin that historical sense of place.”

A wind development proposed in the Dutch Corners area north of Bedford would overshadow a valley below that has been declared a rural historical area by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Jackson said. Residents applying to list the valley on the National Register of Historic Places oppose industrial turbines that would be very visible above the rural valley, she said.

Some people also fear that the turbines will take a toll on tourism, the Laurel Highlands’ second-biggest industry, Jackson said. “They are a huge presence in areas that are otherwise unspoiled,” she said. “I personally see them as a degradation of our historical landscape.”

Local proposal still in the wind

Those kinds of aesthetic, environmental, health and economic issues will have to be debated locally before the public can make an informed decision on whether commercial wind farms are a good idea here, North East’s Brayman said.

“We just don’t know enough about this,” Brayman said.

The debate in North East could become moot, depending on which way the wind blows – and how often and how strong – as Pioneer Green Energy tests the winds there for the next year or two.

Other wind energy companies have tested the wind in North East and dropped development proposals, North East Township Supervisor Dennis Culver said during summer.

Pioneer Green Energy will monitor the wind for at least a year before making any decision on the viability of locating a wind farm in North East Township, company President Adam Cohen said.

“We need at least four seasons of data, and ideally more than that, before we start making a decision on the project,” Cohen said.

The company is continuing to sign agreements with property owners interested in leasing land for wind turbines and is working on a presentation for North East Borough to answer questions about the proposed project, Cohen said.

“Like any landowner, they have questions and concerns that we need to address and that we will address,” Cohen said. “We want the public to understand what this project is all about.”

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