Implementing Utility Scale Renewable Energy: Urgency, Obstacles and Solutions

by Ellen Cardone Banks, Conservation Chair

The climate crisis threatens the lives of millions of people, the extinction of one-sixth of all species on earth, catastrophic storms, devastation of coastal cities, epidemics and crop failures. It seems that most of the public lacks a sense of urgency for what must be done to reduce the worst effects of climate change.

The Sierra Club, nationally and locally, advocates for a complete end to the mining, production and burning of all fossil fuels and a transition to 100% clean renewable energy in all sectors — electric generation, transportation and buildings, with a just transition that builds jobs and serves the communities most harmed by fossil fuel pollution: communities of color and low income.

The Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), passed by the New York State Legislature in June and signed by Governor Cuomo July 18, 2019, leads the nation in advancing climate goals. There will be challenges in reaching them. Our species is not well equipped by evolution to react reflexively to the danger of two degrees Celsius or two meters of slow ocean rise, but the same highly evolved brains that enabled us to do so much harm to Earth also permit us to react with intelligence if we pay attention.

The barriers to renewable energy that we confront today are in part technical ones that require us to understand the complexities of state agencies, megawatts and gigawatts, intricacies of power grids and a baffling profusion of acronyms, but moral and ethical issues also need to be part of the discussion.

The hydropower project at Niagara Falls supplies almost 20% of the power for New York State. It was built during an era when big projects, many involving destruction of cultural and architectural treasures, were less questioned by the public — no accident that it is called the Robert Moses Power Project. As a thought experiment, what if the town of Lewiston had had the clout in the late 1950s to forbid the construction of the project, to claim that hydropower caused strange diseases, or to keep its energy off the grid, for local use only?

Of course, no one owns the sun, the water, or the air, but can the right to control energy resources reside with a few small communities? The Sierra Club supports local voices and local control wherever possible. It’s easy to stand with local resistance in opposing hydrofracking and pipelines, even if some landowners welcome them, because there is demonstrable harm that extends beyond the landowners’ property lines. To me, there is a clear moral line between signing over one’s property for more land, air and water destruction and carbon emissions, often under threat of eminent domain, versus being prevented by a town from signing leases for clean renewable energy, especially when the municipality is under the influence of false claims spread by the fossil fuel industry.

Do communities with abundant wind and solar potential have an obligation to share this resource for the greater good, if landowners agree? These questions are timely in several regions of our state, including those with wind power potential near Lakes Erie and Ontario.

The evidence is convincing that small-scale solutions, like rooftop and neighborhood solar, geothermal heating and cooling of buildings, energy conservation and storage, and small wind, are all vital and community-friendly options. But these cannot entirely solve the climate crisis, even though some of our coalition partners in the pipeline opposition movement wish and claim that they can. Utility-scale renewables are essential to meet our essential climate goals.

The League of Conservation Voters (LCV) has been conducting roundtable discussions around the state about barriers to the permitting process of utility-scale renewable energy projects, with participation of Sierra Club volunteers and staff, other nonprofit participants and renewable industry representatives. “Breaking Down the Barriers to Siting Renewable Energy in New York State, a document prepared for these meetings, calls for improving community engagement early in the process of utility-scale renewable projects, and promoting public education.

Community support for these projects would improve their chances of getting built, and ideally would not be difficult to achieve: explain why an area is suitable for wind power, show how only a quarter of an acre is occupied by a turbine, that grazing and crops continue to flourish, discuss landowner compensation and community benefits through PILOT(payments-in-lieu-of-taxes) payments, and invite landowners to sign leases. When there are fair, accessible and respectful presentations with one-to-one conversations and group meetings, community support has happened.

For example, the first wind farm I saw up close was Maple Ridge, on Tug Hill, north of the Adirondacks — at 321 MW, the largest in the state. A fifth-generation dairy farmer, Bill Burke, at the time was employed by the wind company He told me in 2014 that there had been almost no local opposition in the early 2000s; along with milk and maple syrup, farmers welcomed a third “crop” they could sell — wind — that, as they say, had been beating them down for decades. Lowville and other towns receive PILOT funds for school and community improvements. Sustained, well-paying jobs have kept almost 20 young families from moving away.

What was different?  Maple Ridge was started before an earlier Article 10 NYS Public Service Law approval process. Most significantly, that occurred before a nationwide, anti-factual, fossil-fuel-funded opposition was organized. No one moved into town for the purpose of opposing the wind farm or changed their voter registration to a summer cottage address so they could elect anti-wind town officials. No glossy brochures were sent out with photoshopped pictures of turbines flinging their blades across the countryside, bursting into flames, and filling junkyards in Europe because they “just plain don’t work” and were simply a “construction scam to be torn down after they are built.” No fake diseases were invoked (“wind turbine syndrome”) or imaginary mass slaughters of birds. No lease-signing landowners were threatened, ostracized or intimidated.

All these things have been happening for several years in proposed wind farm sites near Lakes Ontario and Erie. Wind power is up against the wealthiest industry in the world, one that will stop at nothing to get each bit of gas and oil out of the ground. Community engagement becomes highly challenging in such circumstances.

Besides community engagement, the LCV conferences have addressed flaws in the permitting process.  In 2011 the state enacted the second version of Article 10 Public Service Law process for approval of utility-scale energy projects—renewable and fossil-fueled—greater than 25 megawatts (MW). It was designed to streamline a large number of state and local permits, but permitting has almost come to a halt, with only one large project having been approved in the past eight years, while 25 projects were approved prior to the current Article 10.  (The earlier version of Article 10 expired on January 1, 2003.)  Other projects have been suspended or withdrawn as developers cut their losses after much investment in years-long wildlife and other site studies.

Speakers at the LCV meeting in Buffalo pointed out excessively long comment periods that still take about nine months (a previous administrator was said to have preferred a five-year process). Applications go to the Department of Public Service, which was described as “adversarial” by a speaker, requiring 41 “exhibits” while only five are of real concern for wind applications: noise and vibration, ecology, wetlands, socioeconomic effects and local laws. Reviewers were described as being isolated in their specialties and do not consider overall consequences. Required distance from wetlands is 500 feet, double that of other kinds of construction permits.

Finally, speakers said that the Department of Public Service (DPS) is more responsive to opponents of projects than to supporters, and that administrative judges should have more oversight to assure a fair process.

Under Article 10, affected municipalities and other parties also affected may register as intervenors and receive funding to hire experts and for other application expenses. There is a code of conduct for wind development companies, but a speaker suggested there should be a code of conduct for intervenors that would require them to disclose their sources of information, who is a paid lobbyist and financial considerations.

Several LCV conference participants pointed out a contradiction between the state’s climate goals, especially with the CLCPA, and the permitting process, which seems more discouraging than supportive of the quantity of renewable electrical generation that will be essential to meeting CLCPA goals. The decision process, some said, tends to be more appropriate for permitting an ordinary industrial or commercial enterprise than for one with climate-saving potential. In fact, a common phrase for opponents is “industrial” wind farms — as if all utility-scale generation is not “industrial” and as if they do not have dormant “industrial” coal plants nearby.

When small towns pass severely restrictive zoning and other anti-renewable laws, the state has been reluctant to overrule them, even though Article 10 so authorizes. With the far more potentially devastating effects of climate change compared to minor local disruptions, perhaps local esthetic preferences, including the myth of a pristine countryside or simple fears of the new, should not be permitted to override renewable energy goals, especially since these projects displace fossil-fuel generation that does proven damage both locally and globally.

Another concern is the volume of anti-wind comments sent during the public comment periods, encouraged by the organized opposition. Most of these repeat anti-factual and anti-scientific themes. We have been concerned that the quantity of these communications may carry more weight than their verifiability. The criteria for evaluating public comments has been unclear, though one LCV meeting participant suggested that they are screened by staff members with knowledge of the research and that repetitious and false claims are screened out.

The scientific consensus that wind (and solar) pose minimal harm to the environment is only strengthened as projects increase and data accumulates. There is no legitimate reason that false assertions should have credibility with the agencies funded by taxpayers and ratepayers when utility projects are up for approval. Peer-reviewed publications based on multiple studies show the following:

  1. There is no such thing as “wind turbine syndrome.” People who are upset about wind farms sometimes display common symptoms, such as headaches and digestive upsets, which alarms on the internet suggest are caused by wind turbines. This is a nocebo [spell out first instance] effect: the symptoms may be experienced but the cause has no scientific credibility.
  2. “Infrasound” is a pervasive occurrence of low frequency sound associated with things like waves, wind in trees, low-register musical instruments and motors, among other things. It is not unique to wind turbines and is only potentially disturbing at very great intensity, not the magnitude and distance of a wind turbine from people on the ground. People do not return from beach vacations sick from wave infrasound!
  3. Birds: Science-based wildlife organizations support wind power and recognize that the main danger to bird populations is climate change. Collisions with buildings and vehicles, cat predation, and fossil fuel mining and emissions are much greater sources of harm to birds. Bird (and bat) safety around wind turbines is monitored and improving with new technology.
  4. Real estate values are either unaffected or slightly increased by proximity to wind farms.
  5. Wind farms do not pose any harm to military installations, either to their aviation or radar. Wind farm designs are subject to approval by the Department of Defense, which is a strong supporter of renewable energy as it recognizes the national security risks from climate change.
  6. Wind turbines do not pollute land or water with oil. This is one of the more bizarre assertions that is showing up recently about both offshore and land-based wind.
  7. The assertion that wind turbines don’t work and are a construction scam is belied by several European countries that have had many days of being powered solely by wind, and the high proportion of wind energy in the Midwest and Texas.

This paper has focused on wind power, but many of the same considerations apply to utility-scale solar and other renewable projects. Objections to solar do not seem to be as intense or nationally coordinated but are also prone to fossil-fuel industry attacks, opposition to changes in rural landscapes and misinformation.

We are in a time of systematic attacks on science and expertise in our national discourse, led by the present federal administration and its lobbyist-filled cabinet. False assertions and “alternative facts” should have no place in public life, let alone in energy siting. Public agencies should be empowered to reject and discredit any comments that are not evidence-based. The only widespread objections to wind turbines and solar installations that are not denied by science are aesthetic and traditional — they are new, different and very large. In view of the climate crisis and what it will take to mitigate its effects, these objections should not prevail. The likely consequences of inaction are too devastating.

The Atlantic Chapter will be joining the dialogue about the barriers to permitting and needed changes in the Article 10 process, and advocating for a process that serves climate goals and environmental protection.