On the way home from Montreal a few weeks ago, I stumbled on what’s billed as the largest windmill installation east of the Mississippi. Maybe “stumbled” is not quite the word. It felt like driving through a 21st century Oz, with 250-foot-high towers churning in every field, and route 177 seeming like a narrow ribbon indeed as it rose and fell, gradually descending toward Lowville, Lewis County.
The Maple Ridge Wind Farm, which eventually will have 190 wind towers and a generating capacity of some 300 megawatts, is no shrinking violet. The towers dominate the landscape completely, and the thousands of dollars in annual lease payments that go to local landowners for every operating tower have a decisive economic effect in this chronically depressed agricultural area.
On balance, I think Maple Ridge, which reportedly can meet the electricity needs of 60,000 homes, is a good thing for the North Country. Similarly, wind power will help the country as a whole, indeed the planet, do what’s necessary for minimizing the effects of global climate change. This form of power is about as clean as they come. But some questions remain.
As I read the official New York State wind maps (available from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, et al.), Maple Ridge is not optimally located. Unless the grand plan is to exploit every usable site, not just the best ones.
The wind resources on the northwestern fringe of the Tug Hill Plateau, measured in average wind speed and steadiness, are pretty good, as anyone who’s spent time there can attest. I’ve battled some very worthy Tug Hill winds on my bike trips, and to be fair, I’ve also coasted for many easy miles with such wind at my back. But the winds there are not the best New York has to offer.
For the really potent stuff, you have to go to the offshore areas of eastern Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, as well as off the south shore of Long Island. The next best resources are found in the Southern Tier, especially a small pocket northwest of Binghamton, and a few high mountain areas in the Catskills and Adirondacks. Northwest Lewis County doesn’t match up. So why has a major wind installation like Maple Ridge been sited where the wind doesn’t blow the strongest? (Please note: The Catskill/Adirondack Forest Preserve, and any spot within sight of it, must be kept free of wind farms. The state constitution’s “forever wild” does provide protection, but with a host of greedbags on the loose, you never know…)
I won’t try to answer this question fully right now, but I can say this much: Various siting problems flow from defects in the economy and the political process. Wind farms are located where private concerns decide to put them, helped before the fact by state agencies like NYSERDA, and (minimally) regulated after the fact by local governments. Private developers don’t just look at things like wind speeds; they also look for weak spots in the armor of regulatory bodies, etc. They love nothing better than a small town or rural with a sagging economy, high unemployment, and few options. And among the things they avoid like the plague are lakeside scenic mountain communities with high concentrations of well-positioned weekenders and political influence.
I believe that if public, democratically-controlled entities were in the driver’s seat – and crucially, if localities directly ran the siting process and owned and managed the windmills – we’d see less friction and controversy and more rational siting decisions. Look for this angle to be developed further in upcoming posts, including one I’m working on about a windfarm proposed for farmland in western Monroe County.