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Life under the blades

The future of wind power in upstate New York

A wind farm in northern New York (Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)

In 2019 Gov. Andrew Como unveiled his “Green New Deal” that set a goal of 75% all-renewable electrical energy for New York state by 2030. This “vision” included nuclear as well as hydroelectric power, which together contribute about 50% of the state’s electrical energy. Wind farms, which were being built mostly in upstate New York, were to be an important contributor for meeting this goal of clean, green energy.

From 2012, winds’ contribution to the electricity in the National Grid area of upstate New York did seem to be moving in this direction. From a very modest 1% of the overall supply of electrical energy it rose to 6% in 2015. However, more recently this trend has been reversed, and as of May 2020 only 2% of National Grid’s energy came from wind sources.

The main reason for this reversal lies in the spiraling local opposition to wind-farm construction in upstate New York, which, as a recent letter to the Adirondack Daily Enterprise indicated, has been “to preserve LOCAL control of our landscapes, resources and lives” (Nov. 24). In response, in April 2020 the Cuomo administration took responsibility for wind farm siting out of local hands by creating the New York State Office of Renewable Energy Siting, which to opponents constituted a violation of the principle of “home rule.”

Opposition to wind farms in New York state varies from concerns about the danger the increasingly higher structures of more than 600 feet in height represent to migratory birds and bats, views affected by structures larger than any skyscraper upstate, but most of all for concerns about the infrasound they generate from their constant humming and vibrations. Allegedly it causes sleep disturbances, headaches, concentration and memory problems, instability and anxiety, tinnitus and issues with equilibrium, which all contribute to what opponents describe as “wind-turbine syndrome.” Anecdotal evidence indicates that farm animals suffer more miscarriages than usual and hens lay soft-shelled eggs.

It is not easy to study these claims scientifically as there are already many sources of infrasound in the environment, such as diesel engines on our roadways and natural wind flow through neighborhoods. Nevertheless, negative opinions remain deep-seated and fixed. A few years ago, I visited the Maple Ridge Wind Farm on the Tug Hill Plateau, which at 320 megawatts of installed capacity is the largest in the state. One of the local farmers, who had six wind turbines on his property, had also become a tour guide at the wind farm’s visitor center. Not all the visitors were wind-farm friendly, and one group, he told me, was bitterly opposed to what they were convinced was their noisy, disturbing operation. He invited them to his home to listen for themselves to see if this was indeed so, but none took him up on his offer. Recently, I was driving through Kansas, where wind turbines have sprung up like weeds among the corn. Over 40% of the state’s electricity comes from wind, and they stretch along Interstate 70 for mile after mile. Some were quite close to the interstate, and I stopped to take pictures. They were obviously spinning away, but it was impossible to hear them. Clearly, it does not require a great deal of distance away from these hulking monsters to be unaware of their thumping sound and their flicker shadow.

Much of the current opposition to wind-farm construction is reminiscent of the bitter hostility in the 1980s and ’90s to nuclear power. Cancer corridors emanating outward from their reactors, the result of escaping radioactive gases, supposedly highly radioactive tritium seeping into the groundwater, the danger of meltdowns after seismic events, and later on the fear of terrorist sabotage were all trotted out in cataclysmic scenarios. The result was interminable construction delays and spiraling construction costs. Niagara Mohawk, the main utility involved in developing nuclear power in upstate New York, passed these costs on to its consumers.

It will be most unfortunate if wind farm construction in upstate New York follows a similar path. The North Country definitely needs additional economic activities if the area is going to reverse the trend of young people moving out. Towns like Colton, Potsdam and Canton cannot ever become tourist hubs like Lake Placid, but a dynamic wind energy industry can provide more attractive employment, especially for graduates in technical fields from local universities rather than being sales associates at Walmart. A large enough industry may provide more than just jobs in construction, operation and management, but also in research and development, and lead to partnerships with, for example, Clarkson University’s School of Engineering. A great deal of research still needs to be done to improve wind turbine efficiency and to make them more environmentally friendly. This is what happened in the nuclear industry, which also had to have its teething problems ironed out and now is by far the most reliable form of electricity generation.

A dynamic wind energy industry will also add to local tax bases and provide relief for homeowners. This will be money that can be used to improve local schools and other public facilities. An essentially clean industry will contribute to enhancing rather than undermining property values. Farmers, like the one in the Tug Hill plateau, will also benefit from the regular income that wind turbines on their properties will generate for them without any significant interference in how they use their land. Hopefully, the new siting board will be able to assuage some of the concerns of the wind industry’s opponents, and the transition to all-renewable electrical energy in upstate New York can continue to move forward.

Roger Gocking lives in Saranac Lake.

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