Wind and the State’s Energy Future

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Eye from Albany
July 2006

Wind and the State’s Energy Future
by Paul M. Bray

There should be enough hot air blowing in Albany to generate electricity capable of meeting the energy needs of the State Capitol and other state offices in the city. Or, that was what I thought when I imaged an idealistic scenario of thousands of small wind turbines sited at an appropriate scale to meet the needs of individual farms and businesses. I was inspired by the picturesque image of small windmills powering water pumps and grinding mills.

Forget the picturesque of the Dutch countryside, there is nothing quaint and charming about the wind turbines now that General Electric has entered the wind turbine industry and financial houses like Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan are financing “wind farms”.

At one of the excellent public policy conferences sponsored by the Government Law Center of Albany Law School and, in this case, the NYS Energy Research and Development Authority in June, we got a look at the state’s unfolding energy picture from the vantage point of the wind piece of the complex puzzle that energy generation has become in New York.

Wind power has its pluses and minuses. While it is clean, it is unpredictable and uncontrollable and can be a huge blot on the landscape. Wind power has a checkered history well documented by journalist Peter Asmus in his book Reaping the Wind: How Mechanical Wizards, Visionaries, and Profiteers Helped Shape our Energy Future. He writes about California’s first wind power conference in 1981 when, “Every conceivable shark in the country showed up. Guys who used to sell avocado groves, shopping malls, condos-you name it. There were all kinds of very expensive suits. It was like Oklahoma during the oil rush”.

Energy generation in New York State is very much of a mixed bag now that the $20 to $30 billion dollar electric generating industry was deregulated or “dismantled”. Utilities divested their generating assets. Traditionally, the electric utility industry was fixed and relatively stable with reasonable and stable long-term rates of return. We are now in a state of flux with wind power only part of what is unresolved.

Energy security ranging from supply issues to the impact of global warming and growing costs for fossil fuel are driving the development and use of renewable energy sources like wind, manure digestion and solar. The State has a minimum standard of 25% for the amount of renewable energy that must be purchased by state agencies and a statewide standard for renewables in order to cut CO2 emissions. This guarantee of market share coupled with State and Federal tax incentives are an excellent impetus for greater application of renewable generation.

What the State is missing is overall planning for our energy future and a comprehensive process for energy generation and conservation to support its renewable goals. The future is left by default to the NYS Energy Research and Development Authority. The Article 10 electric generation siting procedure remains in legislative limbo and siting large energy generating facilities is unlikely until this procedure is in place.

This brings us back to the prospects of energy from wind in New York State which has a potential of meeting 10% of the State’s energy needs. We have four wind farms in place and twenty-three in the process of development. The State’s best prospects for wind energy are its remote northwest area (counties from Jefferson to Clinton have the potential of 1,000MW of wind power) and off shore from Suffolk County. For some of upstate’s declining rural areas, wind power offers the welcome prospect of an infusion of much needed revenue for farmers and local governments.

The lead article “Wind power debate, How much is hot air?” in the summer issue of the Sierra Atlantic publication, reflects the ambivalence in the environmental community when it comes to wind power. Some environmentalists see wind as the ultimate good power source, “free, endless and clean” while others point to wind farms as a blight on the landscape, a danger to bird and bat populations and a nuisance because of noise and shadow and flickering effect.

A brew of small towns, large developers and state agencies (NYSERDA, Department of State, Department of Agriculture and Markets, Empire State Development, Parks Recreation and Historic Preservation, Public Service Commission and Department of Environmental Conservation) are fiddling with local planning and zoning, agricultural districts, empire development zones and SEQRA as the often conflicting values associated with local control, economic development, agriculture preservation, landscape aesthetics, diverse environmental issues ranging from air pollution to wildlife protection and reliable energy throughout the State come into play. There is no captain plotting the course or road map.

This sometimes takes place on sacred ground like the Adirondack Park and other times in remote and economically needy areas with part time local governments negotiating with mega-financial interests. It has yet to begin in the politically charged atmosphere on Long Island with all that off shore wind.

It should not be a surprise that some at the Government Law Center Conference concluded that New York “lacks a good planning and review process for wind”. That judgment applies to energy generation across the board.

Governor Pataki began his administration by killing off the State Energy Office that was created to do the planning for New York’s energy future. A good case can be made that the State’s next Governor seriously consider reviving the State Energy Office to perform the key functions of planning and policy making as the State does what needs to be done to guarantee clean, affordable and reliable energy for all the people of the State.

Paul M. Bray is President of P.M.Bray LLC, a planning and environmental law firm in Albany, New York. His e-mail is pmbray@aol.com.