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Taxing turbines: County residents shouldn’t subsidize industrial wind projects

The annual fall conference of the Alliance for Clean Energy (ACE) in Albany last month convened large-scale renewable energy developers who have suddenly been recoiling from focused local opposition to their projects – especially those that will utilize industrial wind turbines.

Until the last several months, wind turbine developers have been following the Article X process hoping to gain state approval of their construction plans. Their efforts fit neatly with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s goal of powering 50 percent of New York state’s energy with renewable sources by 2030. But recently, serious issues emerged that question the impact of industrial wind turbines on the radar images required to safely manage air operations at Fort Drum, Niagara and the new Utica-to-Syracuse drone corridor.

New York military bases are not alone. Texas, Oklahoma and North Carolina, among other states, are discovering the flicker from turbine blades twirling 600 feet in the atmosphere are creating football-shaped dead spots on radar screens in air traffic control towers such as at Wheeler-Sack Airfield on Fort Drum. Those dead spots make it a challenge for air traffic controllers to safely manage helicopters and planes engaged in training on the base.

The tempo of opposition focused on military training safety and the environment have overwhelmed the “not in my back yard” chorus. As articulate opposition mounts, wind developers are suddenly worried about the time the Article X proceedings are taking.

Their federal tax subsidies may be in jeopardy if the approval process lags. Wind developers do not want to hear about the technological challenges their turbines impose upon military training.

Paul Agresta, general counsel of the Public Service Commission, was a featured speaker at the ACE conference. Some of his comments, as reported by Politico, warned the audience: “Care must be given by Article X applicants to avoid, and we as regulators must ensure against, giving in to the attitude of the pure entrepreneur. The pure entrepreneur only cares about closing the deal, its deal, today’s deal, by hook or by crook, by trickery or intimidation close a deal, cash out, move on. That’s a dangerous attitude, which if taken too far will kill the Article X process.”

At the conference, some whining developers even suggested that New York state should intervene legislatively or via rulemaking to take away the legal right of local government to set local tax rates and decide whether to allow industrial wind projects tax abatement. Mr. Agresta showed no sympathy for such an action.

Jefferson County has led the way in setting local policy on tax abatement for alternative-energy projects. The legislature has clearly said no payment-in-lieu-of-taxes deals without uniform full value taxation. Oswego County is in the process of adopting the same policy. St. Lawrence County is considering the policy.

But unfortunately, Lewis County’s leaders are unanimous that they are not willing to jeopardize any projects and they all endorse PILOTs, even if the industrial wind project negatively impacts the largest employer in the north country. Thus, they have no common ground with their neighboring counties.

Intervention of the state in the ability of local government to set tax rates would be the ultimate unfunded mandate. Such a state requirement would force local taxpayers to hand over a third financial windfall to developers who already receive federal and state payoffs. And for that gift to the privileged developer, the taxpayer would only see in return wind turbines dotting the landscape, the potential loss of Fort Drum – which is the economic life blood of the region – and a tiny handful of permanent jobs.

Jefferson County has apparently stuck a needle into the aspirations of the developers with its tax policy. That courage should never be allowed to be negated by the state. Thankfully, the chief lawyer for the PSC seems to agree.