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Regional Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, November 13, 2008

Winds of change

By Zach Simeone

ALBANY COUNTY — Shell WindEnergy has abandoned its wind-power endeavors here, but doors to new energy opportunities may be opening. Rhizome Integrated Energy is looking to bring its own wind project to the area, and landowners are currently in talks with other businesses, though they would not say which ones.

Before pulling the plug on its plan, Shell intended to put up two wind farms, with 25 windmills at each location. They would have been on the crest of the Helderberg escarpment, in parts of New Scotland, Rensselaerville, Broome, and Berne. This included, according to a map that Shell representatives showed landowners, part of the Partridge Run Wildlife Management Area.

None of those towns have zoning regulating the placement of windmills, though Rensselaerville addressed it in a recently adopted comprehensive plan.

Each of Shell’s turbines was to be 380 feet high, from the ground to the tip of the blades, and 20 feet around at the base. They were to produce two megawatts of power each, totaling 100 megawatts.

Rhizome Integrated Energy has smaller plans, according to Ben Fisher, a spokesman for the New York City-based energy company, which is looking to begin construction of a wind farm in Albany County within the next 12 months.

“Yes, this is actually happening,” Fisher said. “I can confirm we are engaged in preliminary discussions with several individuals.”

Rhizome’s current plans are to build a 25-megawatt wind farm in the Hilltowns. “Any greater production is dependent on what the Hilltowns people are comfortable with. The amount of power we intend to produce depends on the landowners’ comfort with the presence of the turbines,” said Fisher.

Shelling out

Cynthia LaFave, a lawyer and one of the landowners approached by Shell, said it would have been “devastating” if anyone had signed off on the deal that Shell had offered, and provided legal advice to other residents who had spoken with the oil giant.

“I represent a number of landowners who are in the footprint Shell was intending to lease,” said LaFave. “Not one of those landowners was willing to accept the offer by Shell, as it was not an offer that was fair,” she said.

Shell’s option and lease agreement offered landowners a fixed annual royalty payment of 4 percent of gross revenue per windmill on the property, plus $6,000 per year, per turbine, once commercial operation began.

In a letter to these landowners, Shell stated that it will compensate them for up to $2,000 in documented legal fees, as offered in the original contract.

“I think the sentiment was that what Shell was offering us was absolutely not going to be a viable project for the landowners,” she said. “We were being offered such a small amount, compared to the totality of the project, and landowners felt they weren’t being dealt with fairly.”

“I would have to agree with that sentiment,” said Steve Dickerson of Camp Winsoki Road in Rensselaerville, though he was not one of LaFave’s clients. “The neighbor that I was talking to, Pete [Boudreaux], was in the same boat.”

Shell’s contract was “weird,” Dickerson said. “As it stood, we were pretty negative against it. I would have to assume that the ones who weren’t going to sign the contract are happy as well, since they don’t have to worry about their neighbors doing it. It would have been nice if there was a more public discussion about it,” he concluded, “but [Shell] chose to run.”

While Shell has pulled the plug on its project, LaFave doesn’t see it as a missed opportunity, she said, as it wasn’t offering anything substantial. “It is not a terrible thing to us that Shell didn’t want to go forward with this,” she said. “To tell you the truth, I don’t think we could have negotiated a worthwhile deal.”

When people are approached with an offer like the one made by Shell, “it’s very important for them to know that they don’t have enough knowledge about what they should be getting out of it, and you’ve got to go to someone who can help you,” LaFave said.

“You have to go to someone who knows how much you should be getting, how much the property is worth in this kind of project, and what the long-term viability of the project is. If anyone had signed this deal, and it went forward, it would have been absolutely devastating,” she said.

LaFave went on to say that there are other companies considering the Hilltowns for a wind project. “We are dealing with some other companies at this point, and we’re talking to them about projects up on the Hill,” LaFave said. She would not, however say which companies.

Integrating Rhizome

Fisher says that Rhizome is well aware of the offer made by Shell, and plans to improve upon it. “We can do better,” he said.

“We know that Shell indicated to certain landowners that their two-megawatt turbines are 45 dbA at 500 feet,” Fisher said, referring to noise-emission levels. “Well, we can safely tell you that that is patently absurd,” he said.

“Additionally, we can tell you that the 4-percent royalty payment is equally absurd,” Fisher went on. “A landowner has every right to demand 10 percent, 15 percent, or even 20 percent of electricity sales, and that translates into, by the way, real money.”

Fisher added that, while Shell told residents it had been approved to build on state-owned land, like the Partridge Run Wildlife Management Area, Rhizome is not planning to use federal or state land. “We want to work with nature — not change it,” said Fisher. “That is the mission of sustainable development.”

Alienation of state land for building would require authorization from the state legislature, Rick Georgeson, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, said last month. Shell hadn’t started any process to do so, he said. “Sounds like they’re telling falsehoods,” Georgeson concluded.

The state is running out of power, Fisher said, in terms of both supply of power and availability of transmission lines. “Even here in New York City, there is projected to be a greater demand for electricity than supply of electricity by 2011, hence Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg's recent request for proposals,” Fisher said.

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

As the Hilltowns grapple with wind energy, Russell Pokorny and the two-year-old Helderberg Community Energy plan to launch an “educational foray” in Berne after attending the town’s meeting on a wind ordinance last week.

“It’s important how the people in Berne view wind energy,” Pokorny said this week. “A lot of people are pretty panicky, and I think it’s based on misinformation. There’s a lot of negativity towards wind, some of which was sparked by the Shell thing, and we need to communicate to people that there are benefits,” he said.

The group will be putting together a tri-fold, informational brochure, and will be handing them out at town meetings, Pokorny said.

Fisher said that Rhizome plans to address current energy challenges by working with landowners to make its wind farm profitable for everyone involved. “We plan to give landowners very substantial and sizeable stakes in the power produced by the turbines that reside on their land,” Fisher said, “and I encourage everyone who was involved in the Shell deal to get in contact with us.”

Many of those landowners, he said, already have.

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