Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Empire Wind pulls the plug on Benton

Benton, N.Y. — Benton Town Supervisor Bob Clark received an unexpected telephone call on Tuesday, July 6. The caller was Keith Pittman, president and C.E.O. of Empire State Wind Energy, who told Clark his company had decided installing wind turbines in Benton would not be a profitable situation.

Clark said he was quite surprised by the company pull-out. Empire State Wind had been courting the town with proposals since 2007.

In October of 2007 the town board signed a host community agreement to support a project if it was compatible.

The agreement set an upper limit of 25 wind turbines and called for 75 percent of the project’s annual net revenue to be paid to the town. Payments were to be made in addition to any property taxation or negotiated PILOTS (payments in lieu of taxes).

The 15-year agreement also was to include an option for Benton to purchase the power generation project after 10 years.

Clark says after thinking about the conversation he tried to call Pittman back at the company office in Oneida and only got a recorded message. The company’s website is no longer in operation, and there was no reponse to a phone call from The Chronicle-Express at press time.

Empire Wind Energy was founded by billionaire B. Thomas Golisano and Pittman, who was a former Massena Electric Department superintendent. Golisano is the founder of Paychex and owner of the Buffalo Sabres.

It was announced on July 6 that ESWE would not continue to pursue a project planned in Alfred. Golisano is an Alfred State alumni and a friend of college president John Anderson. The college had supported placing 8-10 turbines on the campus.

According to a report in The Hornell Evening Tribune, Anderson said, “The primary reason for the decision was driven by the decline in wholesale electricity prices - a decline that began some 18 months ago and gives no indication at this time of rebounding.”

The Alfred area had been working towards the project for two years. Like Benton, the local governments had time but little money invested.

Clark said by agreement, ESWE had reimbursed Benton for legal fees involved. Time spent on meetings for the proposal, is another matter. Benton Town Board members and others traveled to Fenner and Cohocton in search of answers to questions and to get a sense of the visual and noise affect wind turbines have on a community.

Benton planning and zoning boards met to formulate laws to deal with wind turbines. Even after the final draft was presented, changes were made. In December 2009 a height limit was set at 408 feet.

While surrounding towns and counties faced some strong opposition to wind turbines, the Town of Benton met with little or no opposition. Informational meetings were held and attended by many residents, most showing positive interest in the green energy source. Members of the Mennonite community showed strong interest.

In the few years ESWE has been in business, Pittman and Golisano have approached many upstate towns and counties about wind projects.

In 2007 Golisano told a crowd of 200 in Albion that the company formed in mid-2006 would give more money to host towns and an option for ownership. Pittman proposed a potential for upwards of $125,000 a year profit for each turbine.

In Somerset, the town board (Niagara County) rejected a proposed host community agreement in 2008.

A report in New York Wind Power Education Project Bulletin dated March 2008 stated: “Empire advertises itself as a company devoted to building only those wind projects that will benefit the host community in its entirety. Golisano previously criticized wind projects that he claimed would benefit only a few local lease holders, and his company promises to give the largest possible share of benefits to the host community.” Somerset Supervisor Richard Meyers said Empire had offered the town three times the amount of other wind developers. However, several board members were suspicious. Town Attorney Robert Robertson asked, ‘Why would a company want to do that?’”

Minutes from the Somerset Town board meeting on May 13, 2008 include a rejection of the town Host Community Agreement in its entirety with no counter proposal. Supervisor Meyers said Pittman stated investors wanted to know why the agreement was changed since they have signed with other towns.

To the north in the towns of Huron, Wolcott , Butler, Sodus, Rose and Galen, similar agreements have fallen by the wayside recently.

What about the future of wind energy in Benton?

Clark says nothing is planned down the road. Another company, Global Wind Harvest has a windtest tower on Lovejoy Road, but Clark has not heard from that company lately. In September 2007

Dan Albano, project manager for GWH cautioned board members that Golisano should develop the project first, then go to the town. “Empire gets people excited, then pulls out,” Albano said at the time.

“The town board is not against wind turbines, we need to look at priorities, “Clark said.

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