Cohocton Wind Watch: Wind power: look beyond money
Cohocton Wind Watch is a community citizen organization dedicated to preserve the public safety, property values, economic viability, environmental integrity and quality of life in Cohocton, NY and in surrounding townships. Neighbors committed to public service in order to achieve a reasonable vision for a Finger Lakes region worthy of future generations.

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Saturday, September 19, 2009

Wind power: look beyond money

Whither wind? As the nation staggers toward replacing fossil fuels with alternative energy sources, the north country has become a favored spot for companies looking to develop wind farms. The largest wind farm in the Northeast is up and running in Lewis County, and new projects are proposed in Hounsfield, Cape Vincent, Lyme, Clayton, Orleans and Hammond. Each of those communities is struggling with how to embrace — or not — the 400-foot towers and the transmission lines to carry the power.

The range of reactions is enlightening. The Maple Ridge project was embraced with enthusiasm by the communities on top of the Tug Hill Plateau, where before windmills, the chief enterprises were snowmobile trails, taverns and dying farms. That project has pumped about $8 million a year combined into town, school and county coffers, providing some tax relief and many capital improvements in towns that were far from flush with cash.

Many other municipal leaders now see the Maple Ridge model as potential for an infusion of fresh money into town bank accounts. In Cape Vincent, a significant opposition to wind power has gained no traction with a Town Council and a Planning Board that have unabashedly embraced a project for the town.

In Clayton, where the Town Council appeared to be leaning in the same direction, a citizens committee charged with developing recommended wind farm regulations came back with strong controls on setbacks and noise that town Supervisor Justin Taylor has acknowledged may end any prospect of a wind project in the town. Orleans and Lyme officials seem to be leaning in the same direction, while Hammond's reaction has been much more like Cape Vincent's.

The hallmark of the issue in each town has been the level of discord it has engendered. The Wind Power Ethics Group in Cape Vincent has been the subject of scorn, anger and ridicule by residents who view wind power as saving the town. Needless to say, the anti-wind group sees it as ruining the town's unique site, where Lake Ontario joins the St. Lawrence River, the gateway to the Thousand Islands. The Hammond battle appears to be forming along the same lines.

What is not being addressed in any of these debates is the larger question of what position wind power will take in the national energy production cycle. Because wind power technology has been around for a long time, it is at an advanced stage of development, and it is cheaper than solar power. Thus, it achieved a quick popularity with people seeking a quick alternative to coal and oil.

However, wind power has its own drawbacks. For one, except in off-shore installations, it is intermittent. And it is unpredictably intermittent — the loss of sufficient wind to generate electricity cannot be controlled by system operators. Hence, wind power will always need backup power to step in when the wind dies. And to date, that has been provided primarily by coal-fired plants — our worst choice, given the greenhouse gases it produces.

This flaw creates a false sense of accomplishment for environmentalists — yes, the wind is infinitely renewable and produces no pollution. But at least at this point in its technological development, it is a gallingly unreliable source of electricity that requires standby power to keep a sufficient number of electrons rolling across the thirsty electrical grid.

There is also the issue of cost. Wind power is economically feasible only with significant, multilayered government subsidies. Without the federal tax credit for such facilities, which reduces costs by several cents per kilowatt and allows the power to be competitive, few wind projects would be proposed. And no wind-power projects in New York state are being proposed without significant tax concessions — from Maple Ridge, where Empire Zone status funded by state taxpayers has kept the ball in the air to date, to payment-in-lieu-of-tax agreements being sought by every other wind developer. This spreads the costs of making money to taxpayers everywhere.

Hovering over the deeply divided parties is the Wolfe Island Wind Project, an 86-tower development in Ontario that looms, either wistfully or forebodingly, over the Cape Vincent, Lyme and Clayton combatants. That project is visible on Dry Hill Road in Rodman, 30 miles away, especially at night, when the array of 86 intermittent red lights casts an eerie slash of blinking light on the distant horizon.

Yet the issue here boils down to money. Some people want to make money off the wind farms, and some want to preserve and protect their property values.

And this creates perhaps the most subtle and difficult-to-address question: are those opposed to wind farms because of their fear they will despoil what is unquestionably one of the most beautiful regions in the Northeast carrying the torch for everyone because it is in the state's — and arguably the nation's — interest to protect such an important natural resource? Would the nation be happy if a nuclear power plant was proposed for Crater Lake, for example, or if a hydropower project was proposed for the Grand Canyon? I doubt it.

The north country may be the finest example of the good and the bad of wind power development. On the one hand, Maple Ridge appears to be an exemplary project that meets nearly everyone's needs and harms very few. On the other, the river project proposals may carry too great a cost for the entire region, with very few benefiting and many harmed. And once the towers are up, they are up for a long, long time. This is not a decision that should be rushed. And because the ramifications are so widespread, it is one that should be considered in the broader sense, and not fueled only by money.


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