As it turns out, the wind-power shell game has nabbed its first municipal victim, in a big way.
The Madison Wind Farm, town of Madison, county of Madison (kind of a trend here), has told town and county officials that come Jan. 1, when its 15-year payment-in-lieu-of-tax agreement expires, it simply won’t be able to pay any more than it has over the past 15 years. That princely sum? A paltry $60,000 a year split between the school district and the town. The county generously agreed to forgo any payments, figuring it would get its reward when the PILOT was done.
Well, in a way it will. There is a very good chance Madison County will end up owning seven aging, obsolete wind towers that developers have made very good money on at taxpayers’ expense. If that happens, the county, yet to see a dime, might be the first decommissioners of an old wind farm in this state. I am guessing it is ill equipped to do that.
There are wind farms in California that have reached this end stage of their lives, and most of them are sitting silently in the desert, blades permanently stilled, nacelles rusting and choked with sand and towers aged out of use. Nobody is taking them down probably because, like Madison County, some slicked-back corporate con man skinned local officials right out of their shorts with promises of revenue and green power.
Revenue went to the developers, much of it in the form of production tax credits and property tax exemptions, and green power at less than 30 percent of the nameplate rating went out when the wind was blowing hard enough (while coal, gas and nuclear plants were forced to keep their turbines spinning because wind, you know, isn’t steady). It was a good deal for some, but for the people it was the Big Con.
Now, next up in New York to reach that magic old age of 20 will be Maple Ridge Wind Farm in Lewis County. That is no Madison Wind Farm. Maple Ridge is the granddaddy of the eastern half of the country, with more than a hundred windmills scattered across the Tug Hill plateau, their towers and blades visible from the town of Rutland to well below Martinsburg. And these are the short towers; the new towers are about twice as tall.
Liz Swearingen, Lewis County’s savvy county manager, understands the ramifications. Through the Maple Ridge PILOT, the municipalities, Lowville Academy and Central School, and the county have realized big payouts over the 15 or so years of the PILOT so far, and those payments will continue until 2021. She acknowledges, however, that no one knows what will happen then.
Technology has passed Maple Ridge by just as it has every wind farm built in the early part of this century. Bigger, more efficient, more reliable wind mills allow developers to generate more power with less wind and to achieve a larger percentage of their nameplate power.
And still, these wind farms are simply not viable without massive subsidies, including a singular commitment from local taxpayers. For towns and counties and school districts, these projects are all gamble and no payout.
The only reason Maple Ridge hasn’t pinched Lewis County is that its PILOT is subsidized by an old program through Empire State Development that allowed businesses in the now defunct Empire Zones to pay local taxes and be reimbursed by the state. That long-gone program won’t help anyone anymore, so what will happen with Maple Ridge after all the Monopoly money is gone is anyone’s guess.
Ms. Swearingen said that Lewis County has a strong decommissioning agreement in place with the owners of Maple Ridge. But these owners are not the ones who signed the document, and no one ever went broke being skeptical about agreements with wind developers. It may be difficult for Lewis County to impose an agreement on a giant corporation headquartered in Spain.
Lewis County is at least aware of the risks it faces. Ms. Swearingen is working hard to tighten the county’s budget so that it relies less on fund balance to save the tax levy, which may give it the wherewithal to weather any storm the end of Maple Ridge’s PILOT kicks up. End of life is never pretty, and it is particularly ugly for wind farms.
Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.