After attending the informational meeting on the proposed installation of wind turbines in the Town of Richmondville, I’ve decided to focus a debate or two on the nature of opposition to wind power rather than the pros and cons of wind energy in general.
After witnessing the outpouring of emotion and resentment toward Town Board members, County Planner Alicia Terry and representatives of Reunion Power I had mixed emotions. Some of the opponents' complaints were well-articulated and made substantive points criticizing the process as it has been unfolding in Schoharie County. On the other hand, the overall mood of the meeting was hostile. Many in the audience issued demands for policies that were impossible and nonsensical, injected rude and sarcastic comments during the presentations of Reunion Power representatives, and quite obnoxiously and insistently made statements that were patently false. When Reunion Power project manager Steve Eisenberg attempted to correct erroneous statements he was told to essentially sit down and shut up as he already "had his three minutes".
Many in attendance were nearly outraged by the fact that Reunion Power had already seemed to be discussing details and negotiations without going to the public first. But how else should the process work? If you’re a wind power firm you have to start by finding places where the wind is likely to generate sufficient energy. It is only logical that you then must have a specific location in mind before you begin the process of negotiating with the Town Board over permits and tax policies and such. Reunion power has to know that that an area has an available wind resource before it begins dealing with the public and Town officials about a possible development.
One resident suggested that there should be a bidding process to allow for competition between different companies. This seemed to be accepted by the crowd until the Town’s attorney Marvin Parshall was forced to explain that it was not the Town’s job to “solicit companies”. People were supportive of this idea, but it made no sense. What would the company be bidding for? Reunion Power will pay a fee or lease agreement to the private landowner, not the Town. If the landowner wishes to seek alternate bids or offers, he’s completely free to do so, or not to. There’s no need for the Town to seek bids, as they can either choose to tax this development at the Town rate or accept a payment-in-lieu of taxes. Either way, there would be no need for bidding. Bidding is for public contracts, where a company is providing a service and the Town or Village is bidding for the lower price for that service.
Then several in the audience called for the Town to enact a “moratorium” on wind turbine development. This prompted County Planner to attempt to explain what a moratorium was. Moratoriums are used to stop something that is currently legal and regularly taking place. For example, if the Town was seeing a great deal of residential development, which was perfectly legal under the zoning code, but potentially a problem for the local infrastructure, then you could institute a moratorium to stop building. You can’t put a moratorium on a building category when it’s not even an allowed use yet. If you want the Town to not adopt the wind law, then advocate against that. But a moratorium makes no sense.
Then there was a commonly repeated assertion that wind energy is not “green” except of course in the sense that it profits wind energy developers. But to suggest that wind energy is not a “green” alternative to coal-fired plants, oil-fired plants, and nuclear power plants is truly absurd and has no basis in fact whatsoever. Based on the current fuel mix in New York State, over the 20 year-lifespan of the average 1 MW wind turbine, that one turbine can be expected to displace 55 million pounds of carbon dioxide, 200,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide and 75,000 pounds of nitrogen oxide. These substances are responsible for global climate change, air pollution and numerous respiratory and other illnesses when they are present in concentrated amounts. Plus, wind energy developments use far less land than conventional electricity generating methods. The footprints of coal-fired plants, including the plants themselves, the mining operations and transportation systems required, are far larger. But there is also the potential that by producing more electricity through renewable resources such as solar, hydro, wind, and geothermal, we can use electricity for more things including powering our cars and heating our homes, further displacing fossil fuels, which not only lead to climate change but to costly military adventures abroad.
Why then, do many repeatedly claim that wind energy is not “green”? I suspect that many come from a conservative political orientation which is unsympathetic to environmental causes in general and rather than admitting that they don’t care about the environment, they would rather tell themselves and everyone else, that wind energy won’t have any effect on the environment anyway. They often preface their considerations with some statement like, “I’m all for green power but…” or “I consider myself an environmentalist but…”. The reality of the situation is that paying lip service to the environment has become politically correct, and a lot of people do not want to have to deal with the liability of being seen as someone who doesn’t give a damn. In fact, many of these same people are suspect of the reality of global climate change and believe it to be a hoax. They believe in conspiracies that have “big wind” interests trying to scam naïve environmentalists in order to make a buck. So the idea that wind energy is not “green” is in fact a little white lie.
All this being said, I can not fault a community for asking tough questions about the impacts of a large-scale industrial wind-energy development, and some did in fact have valid concerns. For example, one woman brought up the health effects of blade-induced light flicker on people with epilepsy and other disorders. This is a real concern and it is the Town’s job to work with Reunion Power and residents to come up with a law that prevents these problems from negatively impacting people. Then there’s the concern over the destruction of view sheds. This is a reasonable complaint, but it should not be overdone. Setbacks can be implemented to minimize the visual impact of these turbines, and they should be established as part of an open and participatory process, but the fact that a few homeowners will lose a good view and possibly take a hit in their property value should NOT be a deal-breaker. If you are someone who will be individually affected, I can understand your opposition, but let’s be honest, eminent domain-projects take place all the time and they result in people actually losing their homes. The effects of wind turbines on a view shed are highly subjective and qualitative and should not be the reason for preventing the development of wind turbines.
Another resident brought up the question of taxes versus a payment-in-lieu of taxes. According to the speaker, assessing the project at the Town rate and taxing at that rate would yield a much higher amount of revenue than a payment-in-lieu of taxes would. I won’t repeat the particular numbers that this individual cited, as he could be pulling them out of you-know-where for all I know. However, the point is an important one. I see no reason to trade a higher amount of taxes for a lower payment-in-lieu of taxes. Reunion Power was trying to sell the idea of a PILOT, but that’s to be expected. I think the Town needs to heavily consider this. The Town of Richmondville does not need to host this wind farm and should not be extending sweet-heart deals to any companies.
After the meeting, a local group set up to fight the wind power development (Schoharie Valley Watch) was attempting to make an issue out of the Town’s failure to appropriately publicize this meeting. Personally, I think the Town could have done a better job at getting the word out and yes, advertising on the sign outside the firehouse would have helped. However, to suggest that the Town was attempting to conceal the fact that a meeting was being held is totally ridiculous. First of all, the meeting was being held in the Village at the Village fire house. Richmondville Village Mayor Kevin Neary, who was present at the meeting and spoke out vehemently against the project could have personally put up the necessary signage or had someone else do it, at any time during the week. No, it's not the job of the Village Mayor to notify the public of Town meetings, but then again if the Town really was trying to keep the public in the dark, Mayor Neary had ample opportunity to do something about it. I can see how SVW would seize on this, but I would bet that it was just an honest oversight by a Town board that was under a lot of stress. These kinds of tactics just show how little groups like Schoharie Valley Watch have to offer by way of substantive arguments. What’s more, if the Town didn’t tell people about the meeting, someone sure did, because the place was packed. If any more people showed up they would have had a hard time finding a place to stand. With the emotions running as high as they are, I could just as easily see someone removing the lettering from the sign just to have the something to bash the Town about. Thanks SVW...Thanks for taking a debate about our country's renewable energy future to such a pathetic level of pettiness and stupidity.