Blowin' in the Wind
In light of the proposed wind farm in the Town of Madison, I went looking for information not promulgated by industry. All over the country, people who live near wind farms are decidedly unhappy with the results. Concerned Citizens of Cattaraugus County (southwestern NY), a nonprofit corporation formed in 1991, researches and distributes factual information about environmental risks to rural communities. Their information is exhaustive, and I share some of it here so you can begin to understand the politics, ramifications, and reality of living near a wind farm.
Existing wind farms in New York actually drive up the cost of electricity. When the wind stops blowing, and the turbines aren’t generating, a backup source of generation kicks in, typically from a coal or gas-fired plant.
Because electricity must be used instantaneously, grid operators are constantly balancing load to meet supply and demand, which means conventional power plants must keep running to provide electricity when there’s no wind. When some electricity generators go down, the grid operator must call others up.
Wind farms often need to be ordered by the grid operator to stop operating to avoid an unmanageable surge on the grid, which can surge from zero to 2,000 MW and back, imposing additional costs on electric ratepayers.
NY’s wind farms don’t operate "in line with load demand." Electricity load demand is highest in the summer and during daytime, but wind turbines operate the least during those times, with peak operations occurring in the winter and at night.
NY law requires the grid operator to accept wind energy interconnections and manage the on-again off-again nature of wind energy. Grid operators have expressed concern that transmission systems will be unable to manage the surge and decline of wind-generated electricity, leading to more frequent local power outages.
Grid operators also say revving power plants up and down to accommodate wind energy means more emissions, so the actual emissions reduction rates from wind are far less than what industry claims.
New York's Public Service Commission issued an order requiring new wind farms to prove their electricity will not just displace hydroelectric power, other wind power on the grid, or low-emissions gas-fired power plants. In order to avoid the order, most new wind farms are being designed for just under 80 MW of capacity, the trigger for PSC jurisdiction.
Wind farms require a large project area, often a substantial portion of the land area of a rural town. Each wind farm requires multiple turbines, and each turbine requires an access road that can accommodate a 500-ton crane to construct the turbine, as well as the clearing of many acres around each turbine and the installation of miles of transmission lines.
Wind farms change drainage patterns and diminish water quality by silting up creeks, ponds, and wetlands. Crossing the countryside with access roads and transmission lines can fragment habitat and divert wildlife populations away from the area.
Operation of wind turbines kills birds and bats. In 2007, 50 windmills on the Tug Hill Plateau in northern New York killed 123 birds and 326 bats in five months.
It is common for industrial wind farms to be sold within two years of obtaining all required approvals. NY's largest wind farm, the Maple Ridge Wind Farm in Lewis County with 195 turbines on the Tug Hill Plateau, has been sold twice since operations began in 2005 and is now owned by the Spanish energy giant Iberdrola. This is because public money is the source of most wind farm revenue, exceeding the combined cost of the purchase and installation of the plant's wind turbines and the electricity it sells. These public subsidies are transferable, and selling subsidy rights to corporations with high tax liability is how wind farms are financed.
Wind farms rely on federal and state income tax credits for the cost of purchasing and installing a wind power plant, exemptions from local property taxes and state sales taxes, and a 5-year depreciation on equipment. The federal 5-year depreciation tax credit typically pays for the full cost of constructing a wind farm. Wind farms cannot survive on electricity sales alone, even after getting a tax credit for the full cost of construction and being excused from local taxes. Unless disallowed by local law, wind power plants are exempt from local property and sales taxes for the first 15 years of operation.
Tax credits also include the federal Production Tax Credit (PTC), which pays wind companies 2.1 cents per kw generated for a ten-year period. The 2009 Stimulus Bill allows wind farm operators to choose between the PTC and a U.S. Treasury check (our tax dollars) for 30% of the cost of the project. So dependent is the wind industry on the PTC that each time it was not renewed, in 1999, 2001, and 2003, new installations declined 93, 73 and 77 percent, respectively.
NYS law requires regional utilities to pay renewable energy sources connected to the grid, which adds to ratepayers’ bills. In addition, NYS Energy Research & Development Authority (NYSERDA) provides about $175 million per year in grants from money it collects from ratepayers, called the System Benefits Charge. NYSERDA also collects a surcharge imposed on household utility payments for NY's Renewable Portfolio Standard and passes the money on to wind projects. Economic Development Zone benefits for wind farms translate to millions of dollars lost in state revenues.
Instead of competing with other generators of electricity on the open market, wind farms are guaranteed the wholesale price for the electricity they generate, whether it's needed or not, and it is ratepayers, not the wind development companies, who pay the added costs on the electric grid management system.
The current status of NYS regulations for wind farms encourages wind energy developers to exploit rural towns on whose shoulders land use regulation falls.
Wind farms diminish property values, offsetting gains to the host town by decreasing its property tax base. Realtors in towns where wind farms have been installed report a decline in property values on properties within sight of the turbines because of the visual and noise impacts. In some communities the wind company has had to buy homes of complaining homeowners and sell them at fire sale prices, which is cheaper than a nuisance lawsuit. Local laws allowing setbacks less than a mile set the stage for divisive litigation because landowners who don't sign an easement agreement can still sue the company for allowing a nuisance.
According to residents living near Hardscrabble Wind Farm in Fairfield, NY, agreements between landowners and the wind company forbid disclosure of any information by the landowner and if that covenant is breached, landowners will be sued. The agreements convey all air rights to the company, which means landowners cannot build anything on their land. Many agreements also convey mineral rights to the wind company, which could then be sold to other companies, including gas companies. PILOT (payments in lieu of taxes) money offsets local taxes, so when the PILOT payments stop, taxes must be suddenly increased to compensate.
Noise and visual impacts of wind turbines produce health problems, including sleep disorders, nausea, dizziness, depression, and the effects of low frequency sound on the body (vibroacoustic disease or "wind turbine syndrome") – problems that do not exist if turbines are located at a safe distance from homes. NYS Department of Environmental Conservation issued a noise impacts guide that states increased sound levels of 6 decibels will cause community complaints and an increase of 20 decibels is "intolerable." The existing background sound level in most rural areas is about 25 dB(A). Operating wind farms have been measured causing sustained sound levels in excess of 70 dB(A) well over 1,000 feet away. Fairfield residents characterize the noise as being like a jet plane taking off or a train nearing a station.
In western New York, wind companies are asking for local laws establishing setbacks of 1,000 feet or less. Local landowners are asked to sign easement agreements that preclude any complaint by the landowner for droning noise, loss of hunting resources, intrusive "shadow flicker" caused when the blades catch the sun, and damages from wind turbines leaking oil or throwing ice hundreds of feet at high velocity. At the same time, these companies are telling town and planning boards that wind turbines are quiet and safe.
Once again, it’s business as usual: corporations win; local residents are nothing more than collateral damage.
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