New York has some of America’s most ambitious climate goals. By 2030, the state is supposed to be deriving 70 percent of its electricity from renewables and have 100 percent carbon-free power by 2040. But renewable-energy projects are facing stiff opposition from rural New York communities that don’t want wind and solar projects in their neighborhoods.
The raging land-use battles in New York over renewable-energy siting aren’t just about property rights and home rule, they are also about geography and class. New York is becoming a wind-energy plantation for New England. Furthermore, some of the state’s poorest counties are being targeted by some of the biggest wind projects.
The rural opposition has been so strong that earlier this year, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo added a provision, known as Article 23, to the state budget that effectively strips local communities of their ability to stop big renewable-energy projects from being built in their jurisdictions. In response, several communities, including Cambria, Yates, and Somerset, passed resolutions declaring themselves “sanctuary towns” against the encroachment of large-scale renewable projects. In addition, Niagara and Orleans counties passed resolutions opposing Article 23.
John Riggi, who was elected to the Yates Town Council in 2016 on an anti-wind-energy platform, told me Cuomo has launched a “thinly veiled eminent domain process… this is about property taking, with the state doing the bidding of the wind and solar companies.”
New Englanders like the idea of wind energy they just don’t want any wind turbines in New England. So they are putting them in New York.
For proof of that, consider the 126-megawatt Cassadaga Wind Project, now being built in Chautauqua County, New York’s westernmost county. The project includes 37 turbines, each standing about 500 feet high, spread over 40,000 acres (62 square miles). The project is owned by Innogy, a subsidiary of the Essen, German-based utility E.On.
The Cassadaga project was approved by the New York Public Service Commission in 2018 with only a passing mention of the fact that the electricity it produces will not be credited to New York’s renewable-energy goals. Instead, it will be counted toward the goals set by Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. According to the American Wind Energy Association, no wind projects are being built in any of those three states. Nor are any being built in New Hampshire, or Vermont, the home state of all-renewable-energy advocate and US senator, Bernie Sanders.
In an email, a spokesperson for Innogy confirmed that the buyer of the power to be produced by Cassadaga “is a group of seven New England utilities procured through the New England Clean Energy request for proposals” in 2016. How will the juice from New York get to New England? It won’t. Instead, the Innogy spokesperson told me that the energy produced by the turbines at Cassadaga “will be used to serve local energy requirements in areas surrounding the project. Export to areas outside New York would require dedicated point-to-point transmission lines.”
Nevertheless, thanks to the magic of renewable-energy credits, New England utilities will get to claim the wind energy that’s being produced in Chautauqua County, as their own. The Innogy spokesperson said the utilities, “can purchase the energy generated from Cassadaga Wind without having a direct point-to-point transmission connection.”
When completed, the Cassadaga project will increase the amount of renewable energy that is being generated in New York but that will be credited to New England. My review of data published by the Department of Energy and the New England Power Pool found that of the nearly 4 million megawatt-hours of wind energy produced in New York in 2018, the state exported 1.2 million megawatt-hours, or 30 percent, to New England. When the Cassadaga wind project begins operating, it will likely add another 364,000 megawatt-hours per year in renewable-energy credits to that export total.
The politics of renewable energy can be seen as left versus right. But when it comes to siting large renewable-energy projects, the divide is increasingly about rich versus poor. “Wind developers don’t target the tony communities, like near Hillary Clinton’s house in Chappaqua, or Westchester County,” says Joni Riggle, a resident of Chautauqua County, who opposes the Cassadaga project. “The people who live in those places have the financial clout to fight Big Wind.”
Gary Abraham, a Great Valley-based lawyer who represents several citizens’ groups that are fighting large-scale renewable projects told me that “siting wind-energy projects is like siting landfills. Nobody wants them.” That’s why they are being built in places like Chautauqua County, which has a median household income of $44,304.
For comparison, the median household income in New York state is $67,844. In Westchester, it’s $94,811. The U.S. median household income is $61,937, or about 40% higher than the median in Chautauqua County.
Last year, about 100 Chautauqua County residents filed a lawsuit against the owners of the recently completed Arkwright Wind Power Project. They are claiming that noise from the 78-megawatt facility, which is owned by the Portuguese company EDP Renewables, is disturbing their sleep. They are also claiming it has reduced the value of their homes.
One of the biggest pending wind projects proposed for New York is the Alle-Catt Wind Farm. First proposed in 2015, Alle-Catt is being developed by Chicago-based Invenergy, which wants to put 117 wind turbines with a total of 340 megawatts of generation capacity in Allegany, Cattaraugus, and Wyoming counties. Those three are among the poorest counties in New York.
Opposition to the project has been stout, particularly in the towns of Freedom and Farmersville. Last November, opponents of the Alle-Catt project won control of the town boards in Freedom and Farmersville, and those boards have passed measures aimed at fending off the giant wind project. In February, a subsidiary of Invenergy sued the Freedom Town Board after it voted to invalidate a local wind law.
The Alle-Catt project will also have major impacts on wildlife. On May 26, Jonathan Townsend, the manager of the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History, located in Jamestown, published an oped in the Orlean Times Herald, in which he pointed out that the Alle-Catt project will be built near several bat roosting sites. Townsend said the new wind project is “projected to kill between 26,000-39,500 bats” including rare species like the northern long-eared bat.
For another example of how wind companies target low-income counties, look at Apex Clean Energy’s efforts to build the Lighthouse Wind project in Niagara and Orleans Counties. Local opposition to that project has been fierce and the battle over the 200-megawatt project has been raging for four years. Niagara County has a median household income of $51,656. Orleans County’s median household income is $49,223.
Back in Chautauqua County, Joni Riggle, a 65-year-old retired nurse, lives with her husband in a modest house on a rural road north of Sinclairville. Three turbines are slated to be built across the street from their home, the closest one will be 2,200 feet away. Over the past four years, Riggle has become something of an expert on New York’s electric grid and the politics of renewable energy. Wind-energy companies target places like Chautauqua County because, she said, “they know we are vulnerable.”