As in all political struggle, wind energy challenges us to take control of power

Twelve years ago, in this very space, we quoted one of our favorite authors, the great English lexicographer Samuel Johnson: “Depend on it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

The “hanging” we were editorializing on was a proposal by Shell WindEnegy to put fifty 380-foot wind turbines on the crest of the Helderbergs in the towns of New Scotland, Berne, and Rensselaerville. 

None of those towns had wind ordinances at the time.

We thought that should concentrate the will of those towns wonderfully to come up with regulations on wind energy. We also urged them to work together to come up with plans for community wind energy.

Three of those towns — Berne, Knox, and Rensselaerville — did come up with ordinances that allow small windmills for homeowners’ use but prohibit large commercial wind farms. We commend them, and urge you to read this week’s account of how each got there.

Now we have a call from Guilderland — from Kenneth Kovalchik, the town’s planner — for the Hilltowns, Guilderland, and New Scotland to work together for the good of all. We endorse this call wholeheartedly. You can read in this week’s story how the call is personal for Kovalchik as his family’s farm is affected.

The call has new urgency all these years later as the governor’s proposed Accelerated Renewable Energy Growth and Community Benefit Act — a 30-day amendment to the proposed budget —  would speed the process of approval for large-scale renewable-energy projects and reduce the role of local municipalities to that of a review board. 

When Rensselaerville adopted its wind-energy law in 2010, the town attorney at the time was prescient in his remarks. Albany County, he said, had “cautioned the town boards that, at some point, the federal or state governments might adopt laws that could potentially override this local law and that the town board should watch out for that, and perhaps anticipate that, or perhaps generate regulations about siting in case this law gets overridden at some point in the future.”

That point has arrived. Now is the time for the Helderberg Hilltowns and the towns of Guilderland and New Scotland to work together to see that wind turbines are sited in such a way that that they don’t undermine the important historic and visual resources central to the area. And, just as importantly, so that health is not hurt by the flicker effect or by aerodynamic noise.

Twelve years ago, here in this space, we also advocated for community wind energy. We renew that call — more fervently — today.

We still believe, as we did then, that renewable energy is essential for the preservation of our Earth. Wind power is a clean and renewable energy source. It produces no pollution and is created every day by the heating and cooling of the earth. It is not affected by fuel price increases or supply disruptions. It creates more jobs per watt than all other energy sources, including oil and coal. Its cost is competitive with conventional sources. It can preserve farmland by providing steady, ongoing income for farmers while the land is still cultivated. Finally, and most importantly, there are enough reliably windy areas in the United States to produce three times as much electricity as the nation uses.

But, as we wrote all those years ago, there is one essential question. We had covered a presentation in Rensselaerville where one of the founders of New York Farmers’ Wind Power said, “There will be large-scale utility wind power in this area in the next 10 years.” He said the question is: Who will own them?

That is, indeed, the question now. As the potential for large-scale utility wind power hovers over us now like the slowly turning blades of a windmill, we urge our readers not to turn away from wind power, but to take control of it instead.

We urge local leaders now, as we did then, to work together to inform themselves so they can inform their constituents. Over two decades ago, the late Daniel Driscoll, an engineer from Knox, organized a regional planning forum that eventually spawned the Helderberg Escarpment Planning Guide, assembling in-depth research on the escarpment and the land below — its geology, soils, hydrology, plants, animals, agriculture, aesthetics, recreation, and historical and cultural resources.

“The communities in the region are interdependent — one on another — for the wise stewardship of their magnificent resources,” says the guide. “What one community does can help or hinder adjacent communities in their efforts to assure that future generations will be able to enjoy the Helderbergs as much as we do.”

A similar forum should be organized now on wind energy. Community-owned projects offer the same benefits as corporate-owned and then some — better stimulating the local economy, increasing local energy independence, and not requiring transmission lines.

Most of the need for electricity is on the two coasts where the population is clustered while most of the wind resources are far from those clusters; the lack of an infrastructure to transmit the power limits its development. But community-owned wind projects bypass the problem by supplying electricity locally.

The money from wind power comes from generating electrical power, not from land rental. We’d like to see that money, and that control, stay local. That way, wind turbines could be placed in locations where they won’t hurt human health or the local economy.

 

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