December 22, 2019
New York

Wind farm fights roil upstate communities

In upstate NY, the fight over new wind farms is tearing apart towns | By Jeff Platsky | Gannett | Dec 21, 2019 |

In normally neighborly small upstate New York communities, the debate is turning ugly.

Voices are raised, arguments are heated and neighbor is often pitted against neighbor.

What’s riling up the populace?

The prospect of hundreds of wind farms rising from the hillsides in areas where industrialization is usually shunned.

Across upstate New York, wind turbines, some as tall as a 65-story building from base to top of blade tip, will rise along the hillsides of these predominantly rural locales.

The buildout will assist New York in achieving its ambitious goal of 70% of the state’s electric generation from renewable sources by 2030, and 100 percent by 2040.

The ultimate objective: an 85% reduction in carbon emissions from electric generation within the next 20 years.

But the push for more renewable energy has encountered considerable headwinds from opponents who claim upstate’s scenic beauty is being sacrificed for downstate energy needs.

Aesthetics is just one of a several issues opponents have raised to fight what they deem as blights on the landscape.

Some residents are waging vigorous fights opposing turbines, saying the structures sited in the shadow of their homes will depress property values, one of a host of other concerns. And they’re claiming some victories.

In Niagara and Orleans counties, a project calling for 47 turbines was shelved earlier this year in the face of mounting community pressure from residents who questioned benefits and impacts of the multi-million dollar project.

The Town of Sanford in eastern Broome County adopted more restrictive land use codes in mid December meant to stall a 124-megawatt, 27 turbine project. Six other wind projects across the state that were on the drawing board are stalled or shelved.

“(Wind farms) contribute to the degradation of a pristine area,” Dan Sauders of Addison, Steuben County, said.

Advances make upstate NY attractive for wind farms

Ten years ago, wind power development was mostly a dream across the vast upstate landscape. The renewable source had a minor footprint in the state.

Unlike Texas or Iowa, land-based wind speeds in New York had long been considered marginal for development. But as wind technology advances, and the towers rise in height allowing turbine blades to catch more wind, the renewable alternative has generated renewed interest.

“New York is not the best, but better than a lot of better than a lot of places,” said Ann Reynolds, executive director of the Albany-based Alliance for Clean Energy New York. “We do have a wind resource that is worth investing in.”

Also pushing development are generous state and federal incentives that make industrial wind power profitable in a region that has some of the highest electric rates in the nation.

New York’s aggressive push for green power alternatives has attracted commercial interests.

Now, in places where dairy farms once dominated, wind turbines are expected to rise, bringing with it thousands of dollars in annual lease payments – amounts are said to be proprietary by project sponsors – to rural landowners hosting the vertical structures.

Early disclosure documents placed location fees at up to $30,000 annually.

Industrial wind installations are proposed from Clinton County in New York’s North Country to Catskills, and across the heart of upstate New York and through the Tug Hill plateau,

The state recently authorized four wind farms generating 476 megawatts of electricity – one megawatt generates approximately enough juice to power 750 homes – with eight more projects now undergoing regulatory review.

Steuben County at the epicenter

If all are approved, more than 1,000 wind turbines would be added to upstate New York over the next several years.

The turbines would produce more than 2,400 megawatts of carbon neutral electric generation capacity – powering up to 1.8 million homes on the state’s power grid – and doubling wind energy capacity in New York.

Add to that another two wind projects planned off Long Island’s southern shore, with an estimated output of 1,700 megawatts, and New York could have enough wind turbine capacity to accommodate 12% of the state’s peak summer demand.

Steuben County in the Southern Tier appears to be the epicenter for wind development.

Two wind installations already exist, and another two projects have been approved by New York regulators. One additional one has also erected.

The county skirts the northern Pennsylvania border with a population 96,000 now has 200 towers that are in development or planned across 210,000 acres.

Expected capacity for the three wind farms up and running is 635 megawatts – enough to power an estimated 475,000 homes.

To the west, a wind farm is in development covering parts of Allegany, Cattaraugus and Wyoming counties. It aims to generate 340 megawatts across 30,000 acres, powering 134,000 homes.

To the east, Houston-based Calpine recently received the go-ahead from the Town of Guilfordto invest an estimated $200 million in a 21-turbine wind farm in the Chenango County community about 30 miles northeast of Binghamton. State approval of the project is pending.

Ironically, the energy projects, particularly the ones in Sanford and Steuben County, are located in what was to be ground zero for natural gas drilling, the heart of New York’s portion of the Marcellus Shale.

But New York banned hydraulic fracturing in 2014, and now the land is being used for renewable energy.

A wide difference of opinion on wind farms

But reminiscent of the battles over natural gas that led up to the drilling prohibition, energy development is coming with a level of controversy.

It is a fight that is producing a nasty clash pitting neighbor against neighbor in usually friendly environs.

“We have people who think (wind turbines) majestic,” said George Seneck, the Guilford supervisor who guided the municipality through the three-year long wind power installation review process.

“We have people here who think it’s horrible.”

Discord among supporters and opponents is often bitter.

“I have a couple of neighbors that turn the other way,” said Seneck, who, in November, beat back a challenge from an insurgent candidate seeking to derail the wind project.

Even as a write-in, Dan Harrington, a candidate from the wind farm resistance movement – going by the “Save Guilford” handle – collected 42% of the 725 votes cast in his challenge to Seneck, a testament to the division in this 62-square-mile community with nary a stoplight.

The fight in Guilford is being repeated wherever industrial wind installations are proposed.

Town board meetings that usually attract a handful of residents are turning contentious and inimical.

Police presence is common at wind power meetings as a precaution against flaring tempers blowing up into something much more.

Emotions run high as many opponents say a way of life is being threatened by wind farm incursions, all promoted by companies and state politicians without stakes in the community.

At public sessions in the Town of Sanford, supporters were shouted down when residents voiced support of 27-turbine installation that will be clearly visible from Route 17.

“We don’t need this here. We don’t want this here,” said John Sharkey, a retired Corning executive.

“Don’t destroy this community and say it has to be here. It could go to downstate location. If you get the benefits, you should have the cost.”

Jerry Hedman, 67, lives next to an existing 50-megawatt wind farm in Howard, Steuben County.

A cabin at the edge of his 600-acre parcel is now unusable, he said, estimating it sits within 1,000 feet of a turbine measuring more than 500 feet high

“It’s just like a laundromat – thud, thud, thud,” he said. “That part of my land is worthless.”

Upstate vs. Downstate in wind farm fight

Nearly 90% of upstate’s power needs are generated from zero emission sources – hydropower from the Niagara River and St. Lawrence power projects owned and operated the New York Power Authority.

The opposite is true for downstate – 70% of its electricity is generated by fossil fuel plants,based on statistics from the New York Independent System Operator, which is responsible for operating the state’s electric grid.

“Western New York is being used for the wind agenda,” said Donna Marmushak of Tuscarora, Steuben County.

Attracting upstate communities to wind power development is the lure of new and increased tax revenues that will give town officials some breathing room while facing a 2% annual state tax cap.

In Guilford, the estimated collections from the 21-tower installation could be as much as $400,000, Seneck said.

With an annual budget of slightly more than $900,000, the infusion of cash could provide much needed relief from future needs, such as new trucks for the highway department.

Landowners, closed out of gas drilling leases and royalties in the Southern Tier, find the annual rent payments from clean energy are nearly as lucrative.

But there’s a catch.

Only a small number of owners – those who have hilltop acreage – are sought out by developers as opposed to a wide swath of property that was eyed by natural gas companies before the state’s fracking ban.

“Is this my first choice? Gas is my first choice,” said Rick Williams a 57-year-old landowner with a lease agreement with the wind developer in Sanford, near Deposit. Broome County.

“It’s not right that someone with a postage stamp (size lot) should dictate what goes on around here. If this project goes through it will be like building 160 new homes in Sanford. People are looking a gift horse in the mouth.”

But other taxpayers, those not leasing, ask if the cash benefits are worth the intangible costs.

“The environmental cost of renewable energy is being pushed on impoverished communities,” Sharkey, the wind-farm opponent, said. “You have these people desperate for money.”

Wind farm payments a draw to NY towns

Counties, school districts and local municipalities are encouraged to enter into payment-in-lieu of taxes agreements, which give project sponsors, who are already receiving government incentives, another layer of tax breaks.

While supporters say the incentives are necessary to encourage zero emission electric generation, naysayers argue the project should be able to stand on their own economically.

“If this is in fact already a burden, they should have to pay the full tax load,” said state Sen. Fred Akshar, R-Binghamton, who has been hearing from both sides in Sanford.

Literature from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority promotes the positive economic impacts to communities hosting renewable energy projects.

“All phases of wind development bring increased economic activity to the local area,” reads the authority’s “Guide for Local Decision Makers.”

In each of the local hearings, trade laborers voice support for the projects, saying the tens of millions spent in building each of the wind generating installations will employ more than 100 union members.

For instance, the 291-megawatt Canisteo wind project expects to need 200 tradespeople during the length of construction.

But after the project is done, management will largely be done from off-site centers, some out of state. On-site just a handful will be get jobs over the longer term.

Do local communities get a break on electric bills for hosting wind power? No.

All power produced will flow into the state’s electric grid and be distributed where it is needed, making it indistinguishable from power produced by other forms of electric generation.

A Public Service Commission economist suggested earlier this year that the rush into renewables may actually increase rates for users statewide.

“The over-market costs of a wind facility, and renewable generation in general, mean that such a facility requires a subsidy to operate in the market, ” the economist Caitlyn Edmundson said in July 2019 testimony delivered during a wind farm regulatory review.

Those subsidies are generated through revenues from electric users, she said.

“The construction and operation of renewable generation leads to an increase in the retail price of electricity and ultimately the ratepayers’ bills,” Edmundson said.

NY, not locals have final say over wind farm

Another issue that is causing dissension in communities is that the fate of wind farms generally rests with the state.

Ultimately, the final say on all wind project larger than 20 megawatts is left to New York Siting Board.

And that board is made up of five Cuomo appointees and one representative of each municipalities affected by the respective wind project under consideration.

Each project weathers the Article 10 process, a multi-step review designed to address concerns while at the same time trying to expedite evaluation.

It’s a lengthy review. From initial filing with the Public Service Commission to getting a license from the siting board takes more than three years.

The concern, some local leaders said, is that Cuomo has set the state’s energy goals and now has control over the panel that makes the decisions to implement those goals.

So a common view among opponents is wondering whether the cards are already stacked in favor of wind farm approval even if prevailing community attitudes are squarely against.

“The governor controls them, and the governor has set forth a very aggressive agenda,” Senator Akshar said.

Even with the aggressive renewable expansion in the state, New York’s grid operator warns against too much of a reliance on wind and solar for electric generation.

It requires three times the amount of wind capacity to produce the same amount of hydropower, according to the New York Independent System Operator.

Approved or rejected, the wounds within the communities now debating the wind farm are unlikely to heal anytime soon, residents said.

“It will never be the way it used to be,” said Joanne McGibney, a real estate agent in Deposit and outspoken opponent of the Town of Sanford installation.

“Small towns shouldn’t be like this.”

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