Streams

NY is Northeast's Wind Capital

Friday, October 10, 2008

America’s wind energy boom has largely bypassed the densely populated Northeast. But the region’s trying to catch up. Recently, Maine issued more wind project permits than the rest of New England combined. Rhode Island’s getting in the game with a vow to generate 15 percent of its electricity from wind power.

But today, New York is the Northeast’s wind capital. There, giant wind farms are producing renewable energy and reviving rural economies. But the turbines are also dividing neighbors and sparking an angry debate. As part of a collaboration with Northeast stations, David Sommerstein of North Country Public Radio reports from the region's largest wind farm.

REPORTER: The Tug Hill Plateau rises west of the Adirondack Mountains. Dairy farms dot the rolling countryside, as they have for more than a century. Today, though, shiny white wind turbines soar above Lynn Steiner’s grazing cows.

STEINER: I look at them as being no different than a tree now, looking at a big tree.

REPORTER: That would be a tree 40 stories tall. It was easy for Steiner to get used to the windmills. The power company pays him $25,000 a year in rent because four are on his land. Steiner says at first, he was skeptical of a big corporation offering big money. But then all his neighbors signed up.

STEINER: If the hayride’s going by and everyone’s jumping on it, you might as well jump on it. I think you’re crazy not to, personally.

REPORTER: The Maple Ridge Wind Farm’s 195 turbines spin out renewable electricity for 100,000 homes. And they’ve vastly altered the struggling towns of the Tug Hill Plateau.

BURNAT: We were broke…[laughs] It’s really turned everything on its head.

REPORTER: Steve Burnat is supervisor of the town of Harrisburg. The wind farm is paying Harrisburg payments in lieu of taxes that nearly quadruple the town’s budget. Burnat says the town’s using the money to pave roads, buy trucks, pick up trash for free, and keep taxes down.

BURNAT: As far as the future, it really looks bright.

REPORTER: Sounds like a win-win, right? Yet each new wind farm proposal in the Northeast – whether it’s in Vermont or off the shore of Cape Cod, or even here in New York - sows resentment, conflict, and sometimes lawsuits.

REPORTER: Take the little town of Cape Vincent. That’s where two companies want to erect up to 200 turbines. Tom Rheinbeck is the town supervisor.

RHEINBECK: Aw, it’s split the community. I mean it’s got neighbors fighting with neighbors.

REPORTER: They fight over the way the turbines look, how much noise they make, how many birds they kill, how they affect property values. Most often, the feuds come down to who gets paid. Paul Carr, a wind critic in the Cape Vincent debate, says people who don’t have enough land to host a wind tower still have to live with them.

CARR: If I’m going to have any kind of intrusion, I want to be able to sign up for it, and I want to be paid for it.

REPORTER: In fact, the money issue is giving wind foes traction in New York. The state attorney general is investigating alleged conflicts of interest involving public officials who signed private deals to host turbines on their own land.

The Maple Ridge wind farm isn’t one of those under investigation. But it has been operating for almost three years now. It can shed some light on life beneath the wind turbines.

REPORTER: So I’m standing at the top of the Tug Hill Plateau. I’m right at the base almost of one wind turbine, and as you can hear, they sound a little bit like a plane flying overhead. Listen to this…

Most Tug Hill Plateau residents aren’t bothered much by the noise. They’re more upset that the turbines sometimes disrupt TV and radio reception. And the biggest complaint is locals don’t get the electricity. It’s sold wholesale onto the New York power grid, mostly serving the New York City area.

BOUCHER: You learn to live with ‘em. You can learn to live with a lot of things.

REPORTER: Norman Boucher stands on his driveway and shrugs. He looks at 96 turbines, cluttering one of the best views in the area.

BOUCHER: I can see the Adirondacks, I betcha I can see a 100 miles. I still can see that distance, but now of course you’ve got all these towers in the way.

REPORTER: The wind company’s paying Boucher a couple thousand dollars a year just to put up with the altered view. Boucher says, hey, we need new sources of energy.

BOUCHER: We can’t afford to burn all this fuel anymore. We gotta make power somehow.

REPORTER: Thing is the renewable power just happens to blow strong and steady in his backyard. For WNYC, I'm David Sommerstein.

Northeast environmental coverage is part of NPR’s Local News Initiative.

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