The headline was exciting: Governor Cuomo aims to generate one-half of New York State’s energy needs from renewable sources by 2030! On January 25, 2017, The New York Times reported that the United States’ largest offshore wind farm will be built off Long Island, between Long Island and Martha’s Vineyard, and will be able to power 50,000 average homes; power will be generated by up to 15 turbines in a 256-square-mile parcel at a cost of $740,000,000. Turbines will be approximately 600 feet tall, connected to an East Hampton substation by 50 miles of undersea cable, with the aim of meeting all of East Hampton’s electric demand with renewable energy by 2020-2022. The United States’ only other offshore wind energy farm, off Block Island, began to function last year. Opposition from commercial fisheries and from consumers worried about higher energy prices was noted. Yet, China and many European countries have built hundreds of offshore turbines; to date, we have only five.
But offshore turbines are only half of the story. In New York State, especially in western New York, wind power plants on land are becoming more common and are generating community opposition. Industrial wind power plants are composed of dozens of wind turbines, generally requiring over one dozen square miles—a large chunk of a rural town. Opponents claim significant adverse environmental impacts (including danger to human beings) and a drop in property values that in turn lowers property tax revenues and sale prices for existing properties. Falling property values, due to unpleasant views, could extend for miles because turbines are often located at high points, especially if flatlands surround the turbines; visualize, if you can, a wind farm of 70 turbines, each at least 500 feet high! (The higher the elevation of the turbine, the more consistent and higher the speed of the wind.)
Proponents claim that construction of wind farms will provide employment. They suggest that farmers whose incomes depend upon uncertain weather conditions and fluctuating commodity prices might want to devote all or part of their land to wind farms in order to provide steady yearly income.
Regarding the environment, opponents claim that wind turbines have killed birds and have disrupted the flight paths of migrating birds. Plant construction has caused silt to form in creeks, ponds and wetlands, and water quality has been affected. Turbines have been known to leak oil and can throw ice hundreds of feet at high velocity. In 2009, a 187-ton tower collapsed on the Fenner Wind Farm in Madison County. Farmland removed from farming and devoted to wind farms diminishes the amount of food production and impacts the local economy. Large land areas devoted to wind farms plus barriers between the farms and housing decreases population in the affected area.
Harmful effects on human beings are also claimed. One of the most common complaints is noise; scientists say that a wind farm should be at least 2 miles from homes. High decibel noise can damage the ears, and continuous low-level noise is also harmful—it can even disturb sleep, which is harmful to one’s health. “Shadow flicker” occurs when blades hit the sun.
Wind farms do not exist in a vacuum. Because they do not generate continuous energy, they must be supplemented by gas-fired plants, nuclear reactors and coal plants. So, the more wind plants that are built the more backup power plants are needed—and those that are fossil fuel plants do pollute! Furthermore, electricity-load demand is highest during the daytime and in the summer months when wind turbines operate least; they operate most at night and in the winter. Because they operate mainly at night when other power plants are operating, wind energy is “spilled”—that is, it is dumped without being used.
Opponents argue that there are better ways to generate electricity. New York hydropower already provides 19 percent of New York electricity from this renewable source. Nuclear power is more cost-efficient and its power plants can be constructed on a far smaller footprint than a wind farm requires. Geothermal energy operates all day, producing neither waste nor emissions, and New York has enormous geothermal reserves.
Much additional work must be done before the 2030 goal can be achieved. At present, it is claimed that power from upstate wind turbines is often prevented from reaching downstate markets because of overburdened transmission lines. New York City and Long Island consume two-thirds of New York’s power, so this is a vital consideration because most wind and hydroelectric power is produced in northern and western New York, where supply exceeds demand and the power must then be delivered downstate. Therefore, in the planning stages are two new power grids, one in western New York and another from Utica to the Hudson Valley. These will take years to build, including the addition of new power lines. And because the power grid still needs continuing support from conventional fossil fuel-based plants to sustain operations when renewable power is low, financial incentives must be provided so generators of conventional power will not close their plants.
To encourage investment in clean energy technology, a 2011 New York State law (the Power New York Act, chapter 388 of the Laws of 2011, which enacts Article 10 of the Public Service Law) removed the power to approve major energy projects from state and local authorities and gave it to a state authority, the Board on Electric Generation Siting and the Environment. This board conducts a review process for major electric-generating facilities, defined as facilities generating 25MW or more. Article 10 creates the board that conducts reviews and makes siting decisions while considering local laws and providing reasons for deviating from local requirements; it provides for public participation in its decision-making processes. But local laws must be added and adjusted to provide for setbacks and buffer zones between turbines and homes. Meanwhile, it is reported that wind farm construction companies are busy telling town and planning boards that wind turbines are quiet and safe, while asking local landowners to sign easement agreements, agreeing not to complain about noise, loss of hunting resources, “shadow flicker” and damage from leaking oil and from ice thrown at high velocity!
Clearly, the advent of wind power in New York State necessitates changes such as construction of significant amounts of infrastructure and additions to local laws for the protection of wildlife, the environment and humans, including landowners, in the affected areas. Can all of this be accomplished by the governor’s target date of 2030? Stay tuned.
By Vivian J. Oleen
Vivian J. Oleen is an associate broker with Sopher Realty.