A small wind farm in a liberal community near Ithaca had lined up financing, secured an agreement from Cornell University to buy its power and gained support from a number of local residents.
But more than 11 years after the first wind observation tower went up in Enfield, construction has yet to begin on the 16-megawatt project.
The town board tabled discussion in September on the seven-turbine Black Oaks Wind Farm, delaying final approval and asking for additional information. The project has become a divisive topic in the community, with concerns about health effects, noise and the distance of the turbines from homes.
The experience of the Black Oaks Wind Farm, which would be the first community-funded wind project in the state, illustrates the challenges facing Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan to move the state to 50 percent renewable electricity by 2030.
To achieve that goal, the equivalent of 15,000 megawatts of new wind energy or 25,000 megawatts of solar would be needed, according to the New York Independent System Operator. Those resources would need to exceed traditional fossil fuel generators because of the dependence on intermittent resources.
While the state has not set specific goals for the types of renewable energy to meet that mandate, thousands of wind turbines would be needed to achieve Cuomo’s vision, with many of those located in upstate New York, where land is available and the wind is plentiful.
Even anti-fracking activists, who successfully mobilized “Not In My Back Yard” opposition to hydraulic fracturing New York, acknowledge local opposition to solar and wind projects is problematic.
“There’s far too much resistance across New York State, from the very same people who said ‘no shale gas in my backyard’ are now saying no solar panels and no wind in my backyard. You can’t have it both ways,” said Tony Ingraffea, a Cornell University researcher who is concerned about the slow pace of renewable energy development in New York, at a press conference in December. “Suck it up and be courageous.”
The surge in local opposition to the project outside Ithaca has been a startling turn of events for Marguerite Wells, a local resident spearheading the Black Oaks project. She raised $3 million from members of the surrounding communities, neighbors, friends and family. Landowners agreed to lease land for the turbines and Wells reassured neighbors about 425-foot turbines spinning in their backyards.
In September 2015, it looked like construction would move forward in a matter of days.
Then, one landowner backed out. Wells said a new location for a turbine and the substation was found but opposition began to build after a new resident found out about the project.
“They’ve gotten all these people terrified,” Wells said. “There is no impact to real estate values, there is no impact to people. … They got this NIMBY thing going. We can’t get anything approved.”
The project has gone back to a plan that already received most local approvals, but more questions have been raised by some town board members.
Jude Lemke, the vice president of tax for Corning, Inc., purchased an old bed-and-breakfast in Enfield in the summer of 2015. She has since become one of the leading opponents of the project.
At least three of the turbines will be visible from her property. Lemke has concerns about noise and wants turbines to be located farther from non-participating property. Lemke declined an interview request.
“What we want are setbacks that are safe for the Town of Enfield, and if that kills the project I can’t do anything about that,” Lemke said during a public hearing last year, according to the Ithaca Journal.
Much of Lemke’s property will be within an industry-recommended 900-foot range for ice-throw risk, which she wrote in an open letter means she’ll be unable to develop that land. The developer should be required to compensate her and other residents, she wrote in an open letter.
More than 100 residents close to the proposed project signed a petition calling for increased setbacks.
The project locates turbines about 1,000 feet from any occupied building and 225 feet from the property lines of non-participating landowners.
The concerns of residents have resonated with some local officials who previously voted to move the project forward. Michael Carpenter, a member of Enfield’s town board, said people in Enfield don’t oppose renewable energy but have concerns about the proximity to their homes.
“If a wind farm is going to damage these people – I’m going to say no, don’t put that in my backyard,” he said. “Let’s put [the wind turbines] in the right place, let’s put a lot of them wherever that is so we can reach that 50 percent by 2030.”
For the wind project’s investors, delays risk the project’s chances of completion. Wells said German-based BayWa Renewable Energy is willing to build the $40 million project but that the company’s involvement can’t be finalized until full local approvals come through.
Critics have pointed to an outside company’s potential investment as evidence that the project is not truly community-funded. Wells said a corporate developer taking over the project is the only way to get it finished.
Ann Rider, the town supervisor, said she plans to bring forward the remaining items the board needs to consider but that members have asked for additional information.
Wells said she’s worried the town will continue to drag out approvals until the project dies. She said her disillusionment with community wind is part of what led her to work for Apex Clean Energy, a large wind developer with several utility-scale projects in various stages across New York.
“I don’t see a path forward with community wind because it’s too easy to kill,” Wells said. “As a little community project you can drag on and on.”
Plans for the wind farm are on the agenda for the Enfield town board’s meeting scheduled for Wednesday night.
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