Wind energy producers are about to find out if ridges surrounding Bethlehem’s reservoir are breezy enough to generate hundreds of thousands of dollars from green energy.
Bethlehem City Council gave its consent for Iberdrola Renewables to start testing the wind near Penn Forest, about 15 miles south of the famed Kittatinny Ridge flyway.
While some birders are cautious about the prospect of locating 350-foot high turbines in a mature forest, city officials say the location is away from the more environmentally sensitive areas in its 23,000-acre watershed in Carbon and Monroe counties.
And, if the wind is strong enough, the Bethlehem Authority – the financial arm of the city’s water business and owners of the watershed – could make as much a $400,000 a year from the agreement with Iberdrola. That’s based on having as many as 30 operating turbines, selling $80 per megawatt, officials say.
That kind of cash won’t be coming any time soon. The agreement, which council approved 6-0 Tuesday, gives Iberdrola a decade to test the wind and go through the state and federal licensing process.
“We’re not the first to do this. It’s by no means an experiment,” Councilman David DiGiacinto said. “I have confidence that the people who are doing this thing will take the time and give consideration to the environmental impacts this would have.”
Iberdrola spokesman Paul Copleman said the company has avian protection policies that address the development and impacts to wildlife.
“We take these issues very seriously and look closely at them whether it’s required or note,” he said. “The state of Pennsylvania takes them seriously.”
He noted the company’s studied bat deaths its southwestern Pennsylvania wind farm. The company also experimented with black boxes believed to chase bats away.
But some bird advocates aren’t as worried about the turbine blades chopping up birds and bats as they are about habitat fragmentation. Peter Saenger, an ornithologist at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, said he opposes the project because it would fragment a mature forest, which is home to a diverse wildlife.
“What happens to that [forest] when they run a road across the ridge – which is what they’ll do to get to the turbines,” Saenger said. “They’re not just taking down trees in for the turbines; they’ll ruin 300-yard wide sections of mature forest in an area highly populated with rattlesnakes and areas where birds nest.”
City Councilwoman Karen Dolan said the project would be a benefit to the environment overall.
“I’m in favor of sustainable energy,” she said. “I’m in favor of taking action in any reasonable way we can to reduce our dependence of fossil fuels, and I like the terms of this agreement.”
Steve Repasch, authority executive director, said it’s unclear exactly how much money can be made or any of all. He said the deal isn’t as lucrative a when the authority first broached the idea.
The authority in 2011 received estimates that the business could bring it between $13.8 and $14.6 million over 25 years.
Since then, Repasch natural gas prices lowered, which made wind energy less profitable.
“But, it’s still a good venture,” Repasch said.
While the deal would allow Iberdrola up to 10 years to study the area and obtain licenses and permits for the turbines, Repasch said he would likely know which direction the city was heading within five years. The agreement calls for Iberdrola to pay $10,000 a year during the permitting and studying phases and $100,000 a year by the fifth year. The agreement calls for a 25-year lease and an option to renew it for another 26 years.
Repasch said the project would be consistent with its land management plan.
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