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Regional Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, October 9, 2008

Community and commercial wind projects — can hey co-exist?

By Zach Simeone

In light of recent efforts by Shell WindEnergy to build commercial wind farms in Albany County, local wind experts and proponents of wind energy think that there are benefits to both commercial and local wind projects, and that they can co-exist with a little effort and creativity on the part of residents.

“The distinction to make is local ownership versus a large corporation,” said Kathleen Moore, a wind-energy meteorologist who has, on several occasions, served as a consultant for the Helderberg Community Energy, a local wind project.

“I think the idea behind community wind is that more of the revenues would stay in the community, and there’s local control and local input as far as the size and shape of the project, and where it actually goes.”

This, Moore says, is why commercial wind energy tends to face public opposition.

“What it comes down to,” said Loren Pruskowski, “is that, with local projects, you have more control, on both the siting level and the size. You can go at your own pace, and you can really work together to come to a common agreement with how you want to build this project.” Pruskowski is a founding member of the community wind project, and also the co-founder, owner, and operator of Sustainable Energy Developments, Inc.

“The downside is that it costs money,” he said, “and there’s not a whole lot of funding opportunities here to fund a local group to really develop a project.”

While she has done much work with local wind-energy efforts, Moore doesn’t speak against corporate developers, as she says that they bring financial benefits to rural communities all across America.

“There are benefits that flow to the community even when it’s a large corporation that’s doing the developing, and it’s important to recognize that,” Moore said. “And you need look no farther than the Fenner wind farm, which was the first really large wind farm, and then the Tug Hill wind farm.”

The Fenner Windpower Project, located at the town of Fenner in New York’s Madison County, is owned by Canastota Windpower, LLC, a subsidiary of Enel North America, Inc. There stand 20 turbines, each with a 1.5-megawatt capacity, totaling 30 megawatts. The project was started and completed in 2001.

On its website, Canastota says that it expects to deliver approximately 89 million kilowatt-hours of green power to the New York State electric market annually — enough to supply more than 7,000 homes each year.

New York State requires that 25 percent of all electricity be supplied from renewable sources by 2013.

Sometimes, Moore said, benefits will come in the form of payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs), “but that’s an agreement that is arrived at between the wind-farm owner and the town, basically,” she said.

“Those PILOTs can be a substantial amount of money, that then flows into the town’s budget or the school district, however they decide to work it out,” Moore added. “So, you know, it’s wrong to think that this is just something that is an extractive thing; they do work to try to bring some benefit to the community. But the fact is, they have their own business needs that they will pursue.”

There’s nothing unusual, Moore said, about a wind-energy developer approaching members of the community before approaching government agencies.

“People may not like it, but from a business point of view, it makes sense that people try and see how much interest there is with the landowners before they start talking to the town government about this,” she said. “I think smaller projects are easier to shoehorn in more congestive areas; finding the necessary land-ownership patterns for a very large project is more difficult.”

Birth of a local community energy group

Albany County Legislator Alexander “Sandy” Gordon was instrumental in coalescing Hilltown interest in a community wind project.

“I made a point to visit the four different town boards on the hill — Berne, Knox, Westerlo, Rensselaerville — to let each of them know that we were contemplating the community project,” Gordon said, “and asked each town if they had any interest in attending our meetings.”

He did this, he said, “to hear any of their thoughts on what we were talking about, and so there wouldn’t be any surprises.” The group sees occasional attendance from the Berne and Knox town boards.

Now, Gordon, a farmer in Knox, is a direct employee of Reunion Power, and is involved in preliminary work with landowners and local government for a wind project in Schoharie County.

“I’m definitely an advocate of renewable energy,” which includes wind energy, he said. “I don’t see wind as being a silver bullet, but I see it as a component, and one of the answers to our energy issues.” He said that it should not be overlooked, or tossed aside for people’s “personal or selfish interests.”

Helderberg Community Energy did a site-prospecting study, which identified nine locations that had potential for hosting a small wind project. “We arrived at the Octagon Barn as the site to do the study, because that was the one that had the greatest level of public acceptance,” Moore said of the site on Middle Road.

The Octagon Barn is owned by Knox Assessor Russell Pokorny and his wife, Amy, who live nearby. Their home is, as far as power is concerned, entirely self-sufficient.

“We have photovoltaic panels and a windmill, and we’re completely off the grid,” Pokorny said. All power in the house is drawn from 12 batteries in the basement, which are charged by the photovoltaic panels and windmill. They use public power to charge their batteries a few times during the winter, when there isn’t much sun, he said.

Pokorny attended a meeting between community members who have been approached by Shell. They discussed their feelings towards the deal offered by Shell, the overall sentiment being that they mostly just want to be left alone, said Pokorny.

“It’s not a good deal at all, and entirely favors Shell. Of course, the first offer is never one you want to accept; it’s like buying a used car,” he said. “But there certainly is a contingency there who is interested in earning some money off the possibility of putting wind turbines up there, and there are people who believe in clean energy.”

What Pokorny really wants to see is clean, renewable wind energy, and people benefiting locally.

“Whether the initiative is local or commercial doesn’t matter to me,” he said. “But we don’t have the big pockets that a corporation does, nor do we have the potential to do it as fast as Shell would. If a corporation came in, said they were interested in helping us do it, and gave us a good deal, I’d say, ‘OK, let’s talk.’ But it hasn’t happened.”

“A lot of people don’t know what their options are,” said Pruskowski. “They could sign a land lease with Shell, or they could look to working with the Helderberg group, but I think it’s real important that the land-owners start talking to one another so they can all get on the same page and agree to similar terms. In order for wind projects to be successful, you’ve got to get everybody on the same page,” he said.

“I know Shell has aggressive goals to try to get some land secured — a significant amount by Nov. 1, but that’s a pretty optimistic goal in my opinion,” said Pruskowski.

“A local community group can develop a project, and still choose to work with Shell in the future,” Pruskowski went on. “They would just essentially work together and figure out the terms that meet their needs as landowners, and figure out where they would want the siting.”

The other benefit of local projects, Pruskowski says, is that the locals have the biggest influence on the town with respect to shaping laws and ordinances pertaining to wind. “It’s just harder for a corporation to come into town and get favorable laws in the books than it is for a local organization to try and create those laws,” he said.

“As a group,” Pokorny concluded, “we believe in clean energy, renewable energy, and the local economy. What’s important to me is that the local economy benefits, and the money isn’t just taken away from the Hilltowns,” he said.

“My thought,” he said, “is that, if those landowners up there on the Hill in this Shell initiative could get together and come up with what they think is a good deal for them, and if it would result in Shell putting up these turbines, then we would have these clean, renewable energy sources, and the local economy would benefit.”

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