Thursday, September 23, 2010

Wind power discussions settle few questions

After hearing two versions of the wind farm story, some Niagara County legislators still aren’t sure they’re for or against one in Lake Ontario.

Back-to-back presentations by Brad Jones, an opponent of corporate/industrial wind farming, and Sharon Laudisi, business development manager for New York Power Authority, seemed to raise more questions than they answered Tuesday about the effects of an offshore wind farm between Youngstown and Wilson.

Either presenter offered lots of opinion and speculation, but little hard data, to bolster their views of a wind farm helping or hurting the local economy.

Both billed as “experts” on the topic, Jones and Laudisi disagreed about virtually everything, from likely job creation to the likelihood of host community benefits for affected municipalities to the wisdom of wind power, generally.

Jones is supervisor of the Yates County town of Italy, which got sued by Ecogen LLC (now Pattern Energy) last year after it denied the company a permit to construct a 19-turbine wind farm. Since Jones took office this past January, his town board repealed zoning incentives for wind-farm developers and effectively outlawed wind farms throughout the town.

Laudisi speaks for NYPA, which last year put out a call for proposals to develop a 40- to 160-turbine wind farm in particular areas of either Lake Erie or Lake Ontario, the latter between Youngstown and Wilson. Five proposals are under review now, according to the agency.

The experts were invited to address the Legislature ahead of a special committee’s recommendation whether the body should be for or against a local, offshore wind farm. The Legislature previously went on the record encouraging the possibility, but this past summer, opposition erupted in the Youngstown area, especially.

Where supporters saw a wind farm generating jobs and economic development in the county, opponents see it hurting tourism and driving down lakeside property values. Legislators Clyde Burmaster of Ransomville, David Godfrey of Wilson and John Syracuse of Newfane now want the body to declare an offshore wind farm is not welcome here.

The special committee’s charge, basically, is to weigh the pros and cons of offshore wind-farming. To that end, it’s seeking answers to four broad questions: What are the effects of a wind farm on the economy, environment, electric customers and the lakeside communities that would be faced with the farm?

The cases for and against wind power

Based on his research of existing onshore wind projects, Brad Jones claims host

communities almost always lose more than they receive for tolerating the massive turbines. Local job creation and new business startup would be insignificant, he speculated. Turbine construction and maintenance would be boat-based and the employees “imported, because their skills are specialized,” he said; spin-off development seems unlikely, given that supply chains usually are proprietary and materials are imported.

There would be no host community “benefits” from an offshore developer — such as payments in lieu of property tax or power discounts — because Lake Ontario is not a taxing jurisdiction, Jones said.

Meanwhile, turbines would litter the lake horizon and, assuming a certain area around them is “protected,” would disrupt fishing and boating, he said. Studies of wind farms’’ effects on wildlife, including birds and bats, are “flawed” or nonexistent, he added.

Wind power is a politically correct — and economically disastrous — energy alternative, Jones claimed. Construction and maintenance are wildly expensive, less power is generated at a higher cost and it’s going forward only because of “extremely generous government incentives,” he said.

The more rational investment would be in upgrading existing power transmission infrastructure, which is known to be inefficient, and making a deal to land hydropower from Quebec, where hydro plants currently are shut down for a lack of demand, Jones said.

Laudisi spins a different story.

NYPA is pursuing wind power to help meet the state’s mandate for more power to come from renewable sources, she said; its approach is not to invest in only one type, such as hydropower, but “a little bit of everything.” Wind power will always be a secondary source, she added; it’s being developed to supplement, not replace, primary sources such as coal and gas. Canada and other states in the Great Lakes basin, including Ohio and Michigan, are already developing Great Lakes Offshore Wind , or GLOW, projects, meaning New York is behind.

Development of a GLOW farm in Western New York would generate about 500 construction jobs and 80 permanent jobs, Laudisi said — although she was careful not to promise jobs for residents of host communities. NYPA’s Request For Proposals “requests” local labor be used but does not require it, she said. The agency views the project as offering employment and specialty job training to recession-racked New York state residents, not just Western New Yorkers.

As construction and round-the-clock maintenance will be boat-based, Laudisi suggested there’s “a distinct possibility” boat captains, engineers and public relations specialists are among the skilled workers who’d be hired locally. Also, NYPA previously held a series of “Get Listed” events for businesses wanting more information about the industry’s needs; with some retooling, local manufacturers could get in the supply game, she said. In Europe, where commercial wind-farming has been in progress a few decades, turbine parts typically are manufactured near the farms, she added.

As for host community benefits for the municipalities affected by a GLOW farm — such as, perhaps, cheaper electricity for residents — Laudisi said that’s a possible topic for negotiation by the municipalities, the developer and NYPA. The agency will not require developers to enter host community agreements, but it will “encourage” them to make nice with affected communities, she said.

The GLOW proposal calls for use of underground cables, not new overhead lines, to transmit wind power from turbines to a substation on shore, according to Laudisi.

The cost-effectiveness of wind power compared with current sources is hard to predict, Laudisi said. The cost per kilowatt hour will depend on variables including distance between the farm and an onshore substation, as well as availability of Department of Energy subsidies, she said. Jones predicted a 24-cent increase in the cost of a kilowatt hour, while NYPA says current estimates range from 19 cents to 40 cents per wind-generated kwh.

Lawmakers leery of NYPA

To legislators’ questions about the impact higher-cost power would have on locals’ electric bills, Laudisi said NYPA’s view is the “average” impact would be negligible. If a kilowatt hour costs 3 cents here, 21 cents in Long Island and 26 cents in New York City, she said, the statewide average is 15 cents per kwh — making the 19-cent wind-generated kwh “not so bad.”

People are willing to pay a premium for green power, she asserted. The increased cost, spread among all NYPA customers, might be a dollar more per month per customer, she added.

Laudisi declined to say whether any of the five proposals being reviewed by NYPA now involves offshore Lake Ontario. Several times during her presentation, however, she seemed to drop hints that it won’t be preferred by developers because of physical issues. It’s a deeper lake than Erie, making turbines more costly to build. In Lake Ontario offshore Niagara County, the setback of a wind farm would be only 2 miles, not 3 to 4 as in Erie locations; Jones earlier noted the likelihood of turbine operation being audible onshore from 2 miles away but not 4. Also, Laudisi said, if there is not an existing substation between Youngstown and Wilson, the developer would have to build one.

Legislators came away from the talks with conflicting views. Some, like Tony Nemi, I-Lockport, and Vincent Sandonato, R-Niagara Falls, see GLOW’s potential to spark new local enterprise and say they’re not yet convinced the negatives would outweigh the benefits; Nemi said he’s thinking particularly about the host community benefits the county could wrest from the developer of a Lake Ontario project. “It’d be nice to make locally generated power work for us, instead of downstate, for a change,” he said.

Other lawmakers said Laudisi was too short on specifics about GLOW’s possible impacts on Niagara County. Her vagueness reminded them that Niagara ought to be leery of whatever NYPA’s selling.

“Based on the past relationships that this county has had with NYPA, I have a lot of reservations; a lot of information was not given that should be. ... It just doesn’t feel right,” said Dan Sklarski, D-Niagara. “More importantly, I think about the people who live (lakeside); they bought land and built out there for a reason, the view, and they’ve been willing to pay the price for it, in their home prices and their property taxes. Without question, the value of their homes would be affected (by a wind farm). They’re opposed and I agree with them.”

John Ceretto, R-Lewiston, said Laudisi’s emphasis on the statewide benefits of wind power raised a red flag for him. It’s another case of “downstate” exploiting Niagara, he suggested.

Paul Wojtaszek, R-North Tonawanda, said Laudisi’s words made him think Niagara County/Lake Ontario was added to the GLOW map of potential sites as an afterthought only. NYPA is “trying to appear as though they’re treating us equally, but as (Laudisi) got more into her presentation, she made it pretty clear (Lake Ontario) isn’t an optimum site for developers.”

Majority Leader Rick Updegrove, R-Lockport, said NYPA officials did not answer questions of impact well enough Tuesday but he’s giving the agency the benefit of the doubt, for now.

“There were a lot of good questions raised from the opposition; I’m not sure the NYPA representatives had time to answer them all (during a Legislature meeting). We will keep asking; and we will give the power authority the opportunity to answer,” he said. “I have some reservations, but I remain open-minded.”

No comments: