A commercial wind farm that’s been on the back burner in St. Lawrence County appears to be moving forward. This month, residents of Hopkinton and Parishville got their first look at a mockup of the North Ridge Wind Farm.
The 100-megawatt project would put as many as 10 turbines in Parishville and 30 in Hopkinton. Construction is tentatively scheduled to start in 2019. While many local people have gotten on board – even leasing out their land to the developer, Avangrid Renewables – others are crying foul.
It’s a story that’s played out time and again here in the North Country. But this time may be different, thanks to a new law that puts the state’s power needs first.
“This is causing fight or flight”
A freak winter rainstorm drenched the region the same night that Avangrid Renewables hosted its open house at Hopkinton town hall. People nibbled free cookies, gazing at pictures of wind towers superimposed near Hopkinton’s main highway.
Local artist Janice Pease said it looked worse than she imagined: “This is causing fight or flight with a lot of people.”
Pease was one of about a dozen protestors standing out in the rain, holding signs that read, “No Wind Turbines.” They told me they’re part of a new anti-wind group, called Concerned Citizens for Rural Preservation. Their list of concerns include negative health impacts from things like “shadow flicker” and low-frequency sound.
“For my husband and I, we will move,” Pease said. “It’s unfortunate because all the income that we have – and we’re low income – has gone into our home. So we are standing up against losing everything.”
“Out of our hands”
There’s been a lot of talk like this in Hopkinton and Parishville since last summer. Avangrid Renewables started signing leases with landowners six years ago; now, they’ve come back to the region to finish up. There have been more public meetings about the North Ridge Wind Farm, like the open house in Hopkinton, and there’s been a lot more criticism from people like Janice Pease.
Normally, Parishville town supervisor Rod Votra said he’d know exactly how to handle it.
“It would have been so easy to put it out to all your residents and say okay, ‘We’re going to vote on this, do we want a wind farm, don’t we want a wind farm,’ and when that answer came back, be able to run with it,” Votra said. “But unfortunately, the state’s taken that power out of our hands.”
Power as a statewide need
This is the new wrinkle in the story we’re used to hearing about wind energy in the North Country.
It used to be that communities could order a moratorium, put wind projects on hold or try to ban them altogether. But in 2011, the legislature approved a new rule that gives state officials the final say over where it’s okay to put a large-scale wind farm instead of local government.
The rule is called Article 10. Anne Reynolds, with the Alliance for Clean Energy, said it was a pretty big change from the status quo. “Most other things in New York State are decided at the local level through home rule. [Like] if you’re siting a Walmart or a Target distribution center or a factory,” Reynolds said. “But the idea behind Article 10 is that electricity is a statewide need.”
Specifically, the state wants more electricity from renewable sources. That’s supposed to make up half of New York’s energy mix by 2030 – and according to Article 10, local government is not allowed to get in the way of wind development by passing rules that are “unreasonably burdensome” for developers. “That isn’t particularly straightforward,” Reynolds said. We don’t know exactly what that means. And no power plant has gone all the way through the Article 10 [permitting] process yet.”
The first wind plant scheduled for review under this framework is coming up later this year, Reynolds said, and so far, it’s pretty popular.
Ask and ye might receive
So, what happens with a project that isn’t so popular? Do local voices have any say in what goes on in their backyard?
Karl Rábago, executive director of the Energy and Climate Center at Pace Law School, said the answer is simple: “Wind farms and solar farms don’t go where they’re not loved, in the end. It’s not worth it to a developer.”
Rábago knows of what he speaks: He used to build wind farms back in the mid- to late-2000s and had to walk away from projects that communities refused to welcome. Even if they’re opposed, Rábago said local people can still have their say by negotiating with the developers. That means figuring out what it would take to get on board with a project, whether it’s more money or a change in location for a wind tower, and asking for that.
“I think it’s important for local communities to try to be supportive but also, like I say, open and direct about what is needed to make sure that we really do have a rising tide that lifts all boats,” Rábago said.
What a wind farm can deliver
Back in Hopkinton, at the open house, Avangrid communications manager Paul Copleman spent two hours working the room. “I think folks are interested in the types of investment that these projects can mean in their communities, what that can do for schools, for municipal governments, for farmers in terms of the long-term value these projects can deliver,” Copleman said.
The North Ridge Wind Farm is projected to generate about $38 million in local revenues over the next 30 years. That includes direct payments to local government, which would have to be split between two towns and the county. Some locals say it’s not worth the trade-offs.
Copleman said that feedback is all part of the process of deciding what to build, and where. “There are a lot of variables that go into this,” he said. “Ultimately, the site has to be a good match with the wind resource, our ability to plug into the wind energy grid, community support and interest in having a project in their community.”
For now, Avangrid Renewables is moving ahead. Copleman said they’re planning more studies, more visits to Hopkinton and Parishville, and more public meetings later in the year.
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