The Wind Powers That Be

When the idea of wind energy first entered the national conversation way back in the early days of environmental consciousness and the OPEC stranglehold on oil production and exports, it sounded like an unassailable proposition. Here was a natural resource that was everywhere in abundance (well, maybe a little more abundant in the Windy City), didn’t pollute the environment and would be almost as cheap and easy as breathing itself. Being against wind energy was like being against nature, peace and all other good things.

In recent years, however, this energy panacea has not been all that was hoped for. Economically, it has been found lacking in efficiency — hence all the government subsidies to get such projects going and sustain them. And ironically, there are cases in which opposition to wind turbines has been mounted on environmental grounds.

The controversy currently swirling around Lighthouse Wind, an ambitious wind energy project in western New York State, is a case in point.

A proposal by Apex Clean Energy for 70 propeller turbines in the rural expanses east of Niagara Falls on the shores of Lake Ontario has encountered stiff resistance from at least some members of the local communities.

Most existing turbines are in the 500-foot-high range. The proposed turbines would tower more than 600 feet over the region’s flat farmlands; taller than the tallest buildings in the region, they would also be the tallest of their kind in the state.

“There’s nothing this size on land,” opponent Pam Atwater told The Associated Press. “We’re not even really talking about aesthetics or anything like that. But of course it’s going to have an impact. The terrain here is flat. You can see for miles.”

If it’s not esthetics they’re talking about, then what is the problem?

Birds, for one thing. Wildlife groups say these giant structures will stand right in the pathway of migrating birds.

Planes, for another thing. The turbines could interfere with flight operations at a nearby military base.

And then there’s another kind of power at issue. It’s called politics.

The project is the first major test of a new law — Article 10 of the Power NY Act — which puts the decision-making responsibility on energy facility sitings in the hands of a state board. The idea is to streamline the long, messy process of approving such enterprises; but it means taking power away from local municipalities.

“How would you feel if you had no say? If the state came in and told you,” asked Dan Engert, Town Supervisor of Somerset, which would be the unwilling home to the turbine towers.

“They’re not just going to put up a building. We’re not going to just have something that impacts one part of your town or your city; we’re going to completely litter your entire town from one end to the other with these industrialized structures,” he said.

Not everybody in Somerset is against Apex. Besides those who are generally in favor of clean energy, there are the farm owners who have agreed to lease their lands for construction of the turbines. For them it could be a lifesaver.

“I have all these tractors and tractor trailers to harvest the corn, our monthly cost of diesel is well into the six digits on a harvest season,” a local farmer said. “If I can help that with a supplement from a consistent energy-producing wind turbine, it’s going to be huge for our business.”

Apex argues that the wildlife issue has been overdone.

“It is a common misconception presented by the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) and others that the mere presence of birds equates to risk,” said Dave Phillips, Apex director of wildlife and environmental permitting.

“Lighthouse Wind will rely on the facts resulting from careful study, as well as input from agencies and stakeholders, rather than prejudicial comments unsupported by fact, such as those presented by ABC.”

We are not against wind energy. It certainly does continue to offer a clean alternative to coal and petroleum, and that’s something that all of us, farmers and urban dwellers, can appreciate.

Nor does the trend toward building bigger turbines stem from some maniacal desire to blight the landscape. To increase efficiency, Apex and others are applying for permits to build bigger turbines because they generate more power for the money.

But how does society calculate the esthetic cost against the economic and environmental benefit? And who should decide?

The experts must be consulted, and the purveyors of wind energy should be given a fair chance to prove their case that the certain benefits far outweigh the risks.

But surely those whose homes will be directly in the path of progress, if that’s what it is, should have an important say in the matter.