Does the Future of America’s Climate Battle Run Through This State?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because in many parts of the nation, wind is cleanest — and cheapest.
It was a Kodak moment for Andrew Cuomo. Basking in the prestige of Columbia University on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, he was flanked by former Vice President Al Gore and so many state legislators that the New York governor joked they could “hold a quorum.” They gathered because Cuomo had promised landmark legislation. And he delivered, proposing one of the most ambitious state climate plans to date: Namely, half of the Empire State’s power needs would come from renewable energy sources by 2030.
That was in October 2015. As the staunch progressive proselytized, the tiny towns of Somerset and Yates, just south of Lake Ontario, were in the midst of their own tug-of-war with the specter of alternative energy. Almost 400 miles from New York City, the distance seems even farther, spiritually, for these upstate communities. Here, farmers drive their tractors on highways, and locals motor past acres and acres of farmland to reach a bar open later than 9 o’clock. For some in western New York, a pending wind project represented a chance to start anew, offering new jobs, added tax revenue and more than a million dollars annually to local landowners. For others, it was a threat: Dozens of noisy, behemoth windmills that would mar picturesque views and kill property values, ruining a rural way of life just to keep the lights on seven hours away in Times Square.
The people mostly against [wind power] are older, retired — there is a generational gap. And I think that’s true nationally too.
Susie McNulty-Atwater, engineer, Somerset resident
In the years since Cuomo’s bold declaration, more states, from Hawaii and California to Washington and Colorado, have doubled down on similar climate goals. As a nation, so did the United States, when it signed the Paris Agreement in December 2016 with a dream of cutting a quarter of greenhouse gases within a decade (until President Donald Trump scuttled those global ambitions by pulling out of the agreement). But key to the states’ success will be taking the ambitious aims from the top levers of government and selling them to the communities who, from their own backyards, will be tasked with housing nuclear, storing solar and collecting wind energy. In its conflicted balancing act, upstate New York provides valuable insight into the opportunities — and challenges — awaiting Cuomo’s plan and others like it.
The drama there has created unlikely enemies and allies, from the children of coal miners who now embrace wind as an economic engine to environmentalists who back conservatives because they oppose turbines for the harm they can do to bird life. But if there’s one thing the two sides can agree on, it’s that such battles are likely to play out similarly across the nation. “In the future, every state can have a wind project,” says Taylor Quarles, the developer for Lighthouse Wind, the upstate project proposed by Virginia-based Apex Energy that has riled residents of Somerset and Yates. “This is not just a local issue in New York,” adds Somerset supervisor Dan Engert, a critic who has accused Apex of railroading the town on its path toward profit: “This is something that goes beyond.”
Just south of Somerset, there’s a single power outlet and no Wi-Fi in Jim’s Diner, where waitress Sherry McKenna laments the loss of jobs and the deculturalization she blames on technology. The young grandmother is cheery, the type to toss a stranger a homemade blueberry muffin for the road — but don’t get her started on those windmills. “The only ones that are going to profit are the ones who are getting paid to have them built in their yards,” she quips, and she frets that they will depreciate home values. “Who knows, maybe they’re not going to be so bad,” chimes in the cook, Ash Parmerly, but the 29-year-old isn’t exactly bullish either. “Trust me, I know we can’t live on fossil fuels forever. But if [wind power] causes more problems than it solves …”
The small town’s hand-wringing has manifested itself in the yards of otherwise apolitical farmhouses, with warring signage pitting proponents — “Harvest the wind” — against critics — “Too big. Too close” and “Gov. Cuomo, give us our home rule.” Yet, bizarrely, almost four years after Apex Energy first walked into Somerset and Yates, nobody really knows what they are fighting over. The number of windmills? “As many as 75,” Engert says. Probably “50 to 60,” Quarles counters. Their size? As much as 700 feet high “along the lakeshore,” Engert says, decrying a turbine height that so far has only been seen in Europe. That’s “a nonfactual number,” Quarles responds, although he admits the company queried the Department of Defense about the safety of 650-foot structures — about midrange for Manhattan skyscrapers but more than 100 feet taller than One Seneca Tower, the loftiest structure in nearby Buffalo.
Both could be right. Or wrong. After a slew of angry editorials and a lawsuit, after dozens of studies on migratory birds and environmental impact, after 100 signatures and 10,000 acres signed over by private landowners … after all that, the actual proposal detailing what Lighthouse Wind would look like hasn’t been submitted. Construction was originally slated to begin by 2018, but Quarles now says 2020 is the earliest the company could start building: “It’s cost more, and taken more time, than we thought.”
The delays and standoffs hint at the struggles other states will encounter as local and regional concerns face off with statewide priorities. In New York, much is still left to be done: There are 20 wind energy projects across the state, with a capacity of more than 1,812 megawatts — enough to power around 500,000 homes. That sounds impressive, but it’s only about 2.6 percent of the state’s energy output. For perspective, Apex Energy’s four wind projects in New York — including Lighthouse Wind — would total nearly 600 megawatts and power 150,000 homes. That’s why state officials tell OZY that the bigger contribution to Cuomo’s energy goal will come from a Long Island offshore project to produce 2.4 gigawatts of wind energy and power 1.25 million homes by 2030. Experts call it the largest commitment to offshore wind in U.S. history.
And yet, the state also says upstate projects are crucial for geographical balance. The technology is a powerful counter trend to the flight of jobs to crowded urban centers, representing “an incredible opportunity for rural communities to have income and tax revenue,” Quarles says. A little more than a year ago, the Bureau for Labor Statistics listed wind energy technician as the fastest-growing job in the country; the industry already has created 100,000 jobs with a total of 380,000 anticipated by 2030. A University of Texas study recently showed that wind energy is the cheapest and cleanest form of energy throughout much of the nation, including western New York. Three-fourths of Republican congressional districts have some wind-related project or facility, and Trump country is surprisingly pro-wind: 77 percent of Trump’s backers “support more wind turbine farms,” according to a Pew Research study released in October. Thanks to technology, Quarles says, previously resistant states like Georgia and Tennessee are suddenly considering wind production.
Proponents of Lighthouse Wind tout the positives: The local school system, hemorrhaging students, will benefit from increased taxes, while farmers, hit hard in recent years, will receive a total annual payout of $1.5 million. “That won’t just go into their bank account or mattress — it will be reinvested,” Quarles says. “Is it going to change our town? No doubt,” says Susie McNulty-Atwater, a 40-year-old engineer who lives in Somerset with her husband and two young children. But she has seen firsthand the benefits. She grew up in western Pennsylvania, where everybody, including her father, worked in the coal industry. Folks back in her hometown, Carroltown, have embraced the wind industry. “It brought jobs to the area,” she says. “And they are cleaner and safer.” Now she hopes that Somerset will follow suit. “From my experience, the people mostly against it are older, retired — there is a generational gap. And I think that’s true nationally too.”
This may all seem a bit like déjà vu for John Knab. As town supervisor for Sheldon, about 45 miles south of Somerset and Yates, he faced a similar struggle over a proposed 75-turbine project that took eight years before finally breaking ground. “It was real controversial,” he says, with many of the same complaints as those voiced in the twin towns to the north. But the positive effects were felt immediately: Sheldon was able to eliminate its town tax, rebuild roads and buy new snowplows. Real estate prices rose, and the 38 landowners pocketed an extra 15 grand per year.
The failure to launch has been frustrating for Quarles, the type of true believer whose previous job was leading rebuilding efforts in Haiti for the construction nonprofit Building Goodness Foundation. There, the developer saw the years-long effort turn into tangible change. He’s taken the long view here too. Even though Engert accuses Apex of arriving in the dark of night without courting the town first, Quarles notes that the company is listed on town meeting minutes dating back to November 12, 2013. They’ve hosted town hall discussions and opened an office in nearby Barker. When Apex published proposals on how to approach the project, they gave stakeholders an entire year to chime in — far more than the 150 days required by the state. “It’s universal throughout history: the fear of the unknown, the fear of something new. It’s a new concept, and there’s a lot of misinformation,” Quarles says.
For him, that long process was meant to foster more community input — and support. But for folks like Engert, it’s only drawn suspicion: “It’s a war of attrition. We’re churning along, and they’re just draining the resources of a small town in order to, in my estimation, make us go away.” That charge is false, says Quarles. After all, the state requires them to provide (some) legal funds for those affected. “We want to do everything we can to make it digestible, accessible,” he argues. His points fall on deaf ears, though: “It’s frustrating,” Engert says. “I wish it had never happened. I wish they had never set foot in this town.”