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Communities Blow Back at Wind Farm Development

By Rebecca Kessler

Wind turbines on Wolfe Island, just offshore of Cape Vincent, NY. Credit: Rebecca Kessler.

The view across the St. Lawrence River from Cape Vincent, New York, takes in dozens of white wind turbines towering above the green and otherwise bucolic profile of Wolfe Island, Ontario, less than two miles away. Eighty-six 415-foot-tall windmills began spinning there in 2009, making it one of the Great Lakes’ first big wind farms. That’s just the kind of scene some in Cape Vincent are trying to bring to their home shores — even as others work fervently to prevent it.

The situation in Cape Vincent demonstrates some of the potential roadblocks to expanding wind power, which is a growing source of renewable energy in the United States and around the world. According to a recent report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, global electric generation from wind power grew by 30 percent between 2008 and 2009. And the U.S. Department of Energy found that supplying 20 percent of domestic electricity from wind by 2030 could cut annual US electricity sector emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, by 825 million metric tons, offsetting the need to construct some new coal-fired power plants.

As the wind industry continues to expand, the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions while adding more electric generating capacity may increasingly conflict with objections from those who would have to live with the wind turbines on a daily basis.

Many Cape Vincent residents tell of relationships battered or broken over wind power.

“It pits neighbor against neighbor. Even worse, family member against family member,” says John Byrne, a businessman and RV park owner running for town council on an anti-wind platform. “It’s been very, very tough on the community.”

Drawn by abundant lake breezes and economic incentives for renewable energy, developers have flocked to the Great Lakes in recent years. But many proposals have run into strong local resistance. That, along with a flagging economy, has slowed development of wind energy just as the industry is finding its footing in the continent’s shifting energy economy, experts say. Where supporters see in turbines a clean, green, homegrown cash crop ready to buoy deflated economies, opponents see a major threat to wildlife, quality of life, and property values.

Cape Vincent, with a year-round population around 3,000 that has been known to triple during the summer, sits on the eastern edge of Lake Ontario, where the St. Lawrence River branches off and the picturesque Thousand Islands begin. The town’s sluggish economy relies largely on tourism and a medium-security state correctional facility. Old-timers bemoan a steady loss of jobs, people, and businesses over the years.

Talk of wind farms in Cape Vincent began about six years ago. Two commercial projects totaling nearly 120 turbines are now in the works; together they will be capable of generating 183 megawatts of electricity. One of the projects is by the Spanish company Acciona, the other by BP Wind Energy. Both companies have leased land and are plodding through the permitting process. The power generated from the turbines would be sold into the wholesale electricity market. Some would likely be used locally and some elsewhere, but it would not directly affect local electricity prices.

Supporters eye opportunities for economic growth

Long-time residents and farmers tend to support the projects, citing economic development from green energy as Cape Vincent’s ticket to the future. Acciona recently released an economic impact report stating that over twenty years, its project would provide more than $20 million in payments to leaseholders plus more than $20 million to the towns of Cape Vincent and Lyme, Jefferson County, and local school districts. It also promised the creation of 150 temporary jobs, and between six and ten permanent jobs, among other economic benefits.

Turbines like the one on this farm, above, can bring families extra income. In the case of the Cape Vincent project, four turbines can bring in as much as $30,000 a year. Credit: Jetta Girl/Flickr.

It’s a matter of survival, says dairy farmer Paul Mason. With his two sons, Mason leased Acciona space on the 450-acre farm where he was born. Four turbines together should bring the family farm around $30,000 each year. Mason says the extra income would keep the farm solvent if milk prices fall back to where they were two years ago, given escalating fuel costs in recent years. He also sees wind money that would enter public coffers as a way to save the local elementary school from budgetary extinction. That, he worries, would trigger a further decline in Cape Vincent’s population and viability.

“I have nine grandchildren and I thought this would be great for them. Maybe they’d have a future here,” says Mason.

Opponents of the wind farms — often newcomers to town, comfortable retirees, or summer residents — see things very differently. A major issue is how close to homes turbines should be built. If the turbines are set far enough back from homes to satisfy opponents’ concerns about potential health effects and noise disturbance, the companies may not be left with enough turbines to keep their projects economically viable, according to Cape Vincent town supervisor Urban Hirschey.

How well founded noise concerns are is subject to debate. A 2009 literature review commissioned by the American Wind Energy Association and the Canadian Wind Energy Association, both industry trade groups, concluded that: “There is no reason to believe… that the sounds from wind turbines could plausibly have direct adverse health consequences.” However, the review also acknowledged that some people do find wind turbine noise annoying or stressful, which can lead to problems such as sleep disturbance. The issue is clearly subjective, as several studies have documented.

For instance, a 2007 survey of people living near wind turbines in the Netherlands found that residents who could see turbines from their homes or who had negative attitudes toward the turbines’ appearance tended to find them more annoying. Tellingly, people who earned money off the turbines were far less likely to be perturbed by their sound.

Less than 10 percent of respondents in the Dutch study reported feeling “rather” or “very” annoyed by turbine noise below 40 decibels indoors, whereas 16 percent did at levels between 40 and 45 decibels. In Cape Vincent, Acciona has planned to construct its turbines to limit the additional noise at homes to under 42 decibels, while BP currently uses a 50-decibel maximum — though opponents say these are not sufficiently restrictive. (For comparison, ordinary conversation is about 70 decibels, and noise in a quiet office is about 50 decibels.)

Another major sticking point in Cape Vincent is whether the turbines would harm property values. A 2009 Energy Department study of home prices near 24 wind projects in nine states found no statistically significant evidence that this is true. On the other hand, a Clarkson University study, accepted for publication at the journal Land Economics, suggests declines in property values near new turbines in two out of three northern New York counties studied, but increases in the third county.

The town of Cape Vincent commissioned its own study predicting that the two proposed wind farms will hit property values hard, whereas the local pro-wind group Voters for Wind conducted an informal survey and came to the opposite conclusion.

Martin Heintzelman, the Clarkson study’s lead author, says the scientific literature on the subject is still very young, adding, “No one has the final word yet.”

While turbines are responsible for some bird deaths, experts say strategic placement is key to avoiding major bird flight paths. Credit: Changhua Coast Conservation Action/Flickr.

To a lesser degree, Cape Vincent’s wind opponents also express concern for how the turbines may affect local birds and bats,including several state-listed species and one federally endangered species. A 2007 National Research Council report calculated that existing wind farms were responsible for just three out of every 100,000 human-caused bird deaths in 2003. (That’s no more than 37,000 deaths per year, compared with between 97 million and 976 million due to building collisions.) Of course, the numbers will rise as more turbines are built. For now though, most experts agree that careful siting is key to determining how harmful turbines will be.

Yet eastern Lake Ontario is a very important migratory corridor, and bird and bat fatalities from the turbines on nearby Wolfe Island are troublingly high, possibly foretelling similar problems should Cape Vincent’s projects go forward, according to William Evans and Gerald Smith, independent ornithologists based in Ithaca and Barnes Corners, New York, respectively. The pair conducted bird surveys in Cape Vincent at the request of the local Wind Power Ethics Group, which was formed to combat the developments. (The group paid them an amount equivalent to gas money, they say.) Their work convinced them that the wind developers’ environmental impact statements underestimate the projects’ likely impact.

Evans and Smith worry that while bird and bat deaths at Cape Vincent or any other single project may not be high enough to have population-wide repercussions, there is no coordinated planning to ensure that as turbines sprout throughout eastern Lake Ontario, they do not take a serious cumulative toll. 

Dispute heads to the courts, Albany

In Cape Vincent, however, the debate now goes way beyond the turbines’ impacts. The Wind Power Ethics Group filed a lawsuit claiming the town planning board improperly approved Acciona’s final environmental impact statement. (The suit is pending appeal.) Opponents have vociferously accused several town officials of standing to gain from turbine leases while trying to steamroll the projects through and squelching public debate. Three of the targeted officials, all members of the town planning board including the board chair, resigned abruptly early this month, one of them citing personal attacks from wind opponents.

And last summer the state attorney general’s office opened an investigation into possible official misconduct.  

Now, says Hester Chase, a dairy farmer who moved to Cape Vincent a decade ago, the debate is as much about “the loss of civil liberties, the loss of the autonomy of the community” as it is about the windmills.

The projects also face a moratorium on wind development in neighboring Lyme, where some facilities would be located, and they must still secure town, state, and federal permits. Nevertheless, Acciona and BP officials have said they remain committed to moving forward. Tim Conboy, Acciona’s project manager, concedes that the process is taking longer than expected. But so are other New York wind installations, he says, adding:

Developing wind projects is a long, messy, complex process.

Just how many wind farms are met with significant community resistance is unknown. But across the nation, opposition groups have multiplied in the past five years as wind energy projects have grown, says Roopali Phadke, a political geographer at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. Other proposed wind farms near Cape Vincent and across the lake in Ontario are under similar fire. In fact, New York state — which has three new wind farms under construction, twenty permitted or under active review, and numerous others proposed — seems to have more anti-wind groups than anywhere else in the country, according to research Phadke published this month in the journal Antipode.

Opposition has certainly slowed projects down and contributed to the notion that the region is a difficult place to pursue wind power developments, says Carol Murphy, executive director of the Alliance for Clean Energy New York, an advocacy group. Wind foes are often well organized and vocal, creating the impression that there’s less public backing than really exists, she says. In fact, the town of Cape Vincent recently commissioned a survey of residents showing that 47 percent of respondents favor wind farms, and 41 percent oppose them.

“We shouldn’t just let a few people who don’t want to look at them make the decisions for all of us,” says Murphy, who chalks up a good deal of the opposition to “not in my back yard”— or “NIMBY”— objections.

Yet all resistance cannot be dismissed as selfishness, Phadke says. Concerns about whether large wind installations will disrupt the qualities that give a place its character arise out of community interest, not self interest, she says, adding, “What might be good for your community may not necessarily be good for the country in terms of making a big wave in new renewable energy.”

In Cape Vincent, both sides are now focused on town council elections this fall. Two anti-wind candidates hope to unseat pro-wind incumbents and kill the projects for good. Wind Power Ethics Group members are registering seasonal residents to vote — a tactic many wind proponents who are long-time residents find distasteful — and they’re confident they’ll prevail.

The local wind boosters are equally optimistic the breezes will blow in their favor. In fact, the equation could change dramatically with the New York legislature’s approval of Article X last month, which hands a state board most of the decision-making power over siting new power plants of 25 megawatts or greater. Acciona and BP may now have the option of continuing with the local permitting process or switching tactics to pursue the state permitting process. Both have been reported as saying they are considering their options.

Whatever happens, Gary King, a retired businessman who has lived in Cape Vincent for most of the past forty years and cofounded Voters for Wind, sees turbines in the town’s future.

“Even if we lose, we’ll win, because the energy problem is not going away,” says King. “There’s going to be more and more pressure on towns that have what’s needed. Wind, and vacant land, and the majority of the people that want it — it’s here.”