Winds of change blow in Knox

By Zach Simeone

KNOX — The town is developing wind-power regulations, while associates of Helderberg Community Energy look at new ways to approach their wind project and analyze the data from the recently decommissioned meteorological tower on Middle Road.

A draft law has been circulating, though the planning board is working on several textual changes on the order of the town board.

The Hilltowns, two years ago, had no zoning on wind power when Shell WindEnergy made plans to line the crest of the Helderbergs with turbines; the company eventually withdrew its plans.

“We’re still working hard on it,” said Daniel Driscoll, a longtime member of the planning board. “The item that we’re working on next, I think, is causing some detailed discussions, and that is protecting residents in the area from property devaluation that might result from the construction of a commercial wind turbine farm. So, that’s going to be the issue that we deal with next, I believe. But I think we’re getting very close.”

The planning board meets at Town Hall on the second Thursday of every month at 7:30 p.m.

Driscoll added that Knox has been working with the neighboring towns of Rensselaerville and Berne. Rensselaerville, at the end of the summer, passed a law that completely bans large-scale wind development in town; Berne has been working for years at revamping its comprehensive plan, which will involve recommendations for wind-power development.

Driscoll, a certified sound engineer, has lent his expertise to all three towns in their work. He also said that, as the four years of data from the meteorological tower in Knox become available, they will factor into planning board’s work as well, and the board has already been using the first year of data.

“We realize that this is kind of a minimal amount of wind we have up here,” Driscoll said. “Given the subsidies that developers can get from the state and federal government, a small wind farm would be an economic viability, but some of our planning board members are concerned that, even though that’s true, those federal and state subsidies might be more efficiently spent some place else that has better wind. In other words, the taxpayer’s not really getting a complete bang for the buck with the subsidies by having it here in Knox.”

From the tower

Four years ago, the group now called Helderberg Community Energy placed a 165-foot meteorological tower on Middle Road. It had been measuring the characteristics of the wind that blows through the Hilltowns until it was taken down on Oct. 23. It was placed there as part of the Helderberg Wind Project, which had planned to place three, 1.5-megawatt turbines on Middle Road, away from roads and houses.

The Pokornys, Russell and Amy, have been at the forefront of the project since its beginning. The couple lives in a home in Knox that is completely off the grid.

Amy Pokorny told The Enterprise this week about a $99,000 grant that came from the United States Department of Agriculture last December, which is to go towards funding different aspects of the project.

“It’s a rural business enterprise grant,” Pokorny said. “So, we have to invoice our work, and we’re waiting for our first payment. We expect to have our first payment some time in the next couple of months.”

The grant money, she said, actually went to the Hudson Mohawk Resource and Conservation Development Council, and will then trickle down to Helderberg Community Energy, Sustainable Energy Development — which is handling the business end of things — or to Kathleen Moore at Integrated Environmental Data.

Moore, a meteorologist with expertise in the remote sensing of wind speeds, has been analyzing and reporting on the data from the meteorological tower.

“We’ve done a number of tests out there to test a variety of remote sensing equipment,” Moore said of the meteorological tower. “So, that tower has functioned as a kind of test facility for groups other than Helderberg Community Energy, but with the provision that Helderberg Community Energy gets to use the data.”

From the tower, Moore has been able to use SODAR (Sound Detection and Ranging) and LIDAR (light detection and ranging) to measure winds.

“They use pulses of sound or light to derive wind speed and direction up to many meters above the ground,” said Moore. “I’ve been using those devices for about 10 years now in connection with wind energy.”

Anemometers, which can be used to measure wind speed or pressure, were placed at 30 and 49 meters above ground at the tower. The first year of data shows an availability percentage of 97.8 for the data, which Moore explained.

“When it comes to anemometry, availability refers to periods when the data are good,” she said. “Anemometers can get iced; if it gets iced, you’ve got to throw those data out.” She said of 97.8 percent, “That’s a pretty good percentage. We had a relatively low amount of icing.”

Moore still has some planning to do before she fully processes the data from the tower.

“I have analyzed most of it, but I’m still working out some techniques for doing long-term correlations,” she said. “I have the data, they’re assembled in a form to run through my programs, but I haven’t actually done it yet.”

It’s part of a process called measure-correlate-predict, she explained.

“You have measurements, and you have a long-term reference; there are a couple different possibilities; you make a correlation; and then you predict,” said Moore. “It’s not a forecast as much of a hindcast on that correlation, and then you can take the long record and say, ‘This is what the wind resource is at a particular location,’ and there’s a range of statistical techniques you can use. So, you kind of have to look at a given data set and decide what’s the best way to do it.”

Changes may have to be made to the original plan by HCE, she went on.

“The problem is, a couple years have gone by, and technology changes, and finance changes, so the best turbine to choose might not, in fact, be the GE 1.5,” she said, referring to the 1.5-megawatt turbine manufactured by General Electric, which was part of the plan for Middle Road. “That’ll be a subject for discussion.”

Either way, there are other factors besides wind speed that contribute to the feasibility of a wind project in Knox, she said.

“It always was feasible, depending on what the price of electricity is,” she said. “What’s the cost of money? What’s the source of funding? Who’s going to buy the electricity, and at what price? That’s outside my area of expertise.”

The business end

Pokorny said that one thing that makes it difficult for HCE to form a business plan is the fact that the cost of gas has dropped, “which has affected the relative profitability of wind projects, because it is a little more expensive initially,” she said. “The prices have been unstable.”

Loren Pruskowski, co-founder of Sustainable Energy Development, has been working at it for years. Pruskowski, too, points to the changing gas prices.

“That, coupled with the credit crisis — it’s been hard to figure out how to apply incentive to the market,” said Pruskowski. “The credit crisis rearranged the financing community for wind power, and a lot of the people who used to give money to projects just couldn’t anymore, because they didn’t have the money.”

He went on, “Then, new incentives came online from the federal administration to try to promote projects, so a new normal is trying to be established in the financing community, but nobody knows what that normal is.”

The difficulty with getting loans from banks is another roadblock, he said.

“One of the most important things to realize is that it’s really hard to compete on wholesale markets for a small wind project,” Pruskowski said. “So, we’re going to start examining ways to capture retail value for electricity, and that’s where the focus needs to be moving forward.”

More Hilltowns News

  • The Berne Town Board held a public hearing on a new animal-control law this week and received mostly minor suggestions for alteration from a public that seemed largely pleased with the proposed regulations. 

  • The Albany Water Board, steward of the Basic Creek dam in Westerlo, has received $100,000 from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to come up with a design for a rehabilitation project for the high-hazard dam, which is in substandard condition.

  • A digital equity map, put together by a coalition of organizations including the New York State Education Department and the New York State Library, shows that approximately 15 percent of Hilltown households don’t have internet access, whether because they don’t have an internet subscription or because they don’t have internet-capable devices.

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