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Wind: The Farmer's New Cash Crop

How a small farm town traded its dairy cows for renewable energy.
 
 
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In the spring of 1999 a stranger named Bill Moore arrived in the small town of Lowville, the county seat of Lewis County, New York, and checked into the Ridge View Motor Lodge on Route 12. Like many towns in this county, Lowville (the "Low" rhymes with "now") is blanketed with countless parcels of farmland and pastureland that are whipped, especially in winter, by powerful winds gusting out of Canada, 60 miles to the north.

This is dairy country, though the constant pressure for cheap milk has made the economics too chancy for single-family dairies. Moore, a broad-shouldered Yale man who had worked on Wall Street, had a passion for renewable energy and owned a company, Atlantic Renewable, that had already developed two wind farms -- one with seven turbines and the other with 20 -- 75 miles south of town. He had what he considered a good proposal for the 27,000 citizens of Lewis County: Milk wind, not cows.

When he started telling the locals about his notion, Moore was met with indulgent smiles but little genuine enthusiasm. "I made a presentation at a town meeting, and they looked at me like I was from Mars," he says. "They were polite. They didn't openly laugh."

Next, he wandered the countryside, knocking on farmhouse doors to ask permission to erect meteorological equipment to test the wind speed. "I was thrown out by a number of people," he says. "They've listened to a lot of sales pitches over the years: seed salesmen, fertilizer salesmen." As he'd learned over the years, farmers were a tough crowd to win over.

Eight years later, though, it's as if the cool reception Moore received never happened at all. Windmills stud the flat, stark landscape as far as the eye can see. Each turbine is taller than the Statue of Liberty, and nearly all of them are spinning inexorably toward the future of Lewis County -- and perhaps our own.

This is the Maple Ridge Wind Farm, the nation's largest new alternative energy project east of the Mississippi River. In the last year or so, 195 turbines have become operational in the towns of Lowville, Harrisburg, and Martinsburg, capable of producing 320 megawatts of electricity, the amount generated by a medium-size power plant, or enough power to run 98,000 homes.

What lured Moore and kept him commuting between Lowville (pop. 4,548) and his home in Maryland was the knowledge that this part of Lewis County was uniquely qualified to become the East Coast's largest wind farm. From the back of the motor lodge, he could see the land rising to a kind of rocky ridge.

This is the Tug Hill Plateau, which has stood up to harsh Canadian air skating off Lake Ontario as long as there has been wind, stone, and soil. The plateau, about 600 feet higher than the surrounding countryside, sits west of the Adirondack Mountains in farm country. The Irish, German, and Polish immigrants who settled here a century ago did so because the land was cheap, and they soon learned why. The plateau is colder than the surrounding lowlands, and the growing season two weeks shorter. A few hundred feet above the plateau, wind speeds of 100 miles per hour are not unknown.

You wouldn't know it from the oversize fiberglass cow that stands optimistically beside the local farm co-op store, but the milking industry here is in decline. There are a few employers in the area -- factories that make Kraft Philadelphia-brand cream cheese, bowling pins, gift boxes, and book covers -- but they hardly provide work for everyone. The sons and daughters of the dairy farmers are leaving in droves for jobs elsewhere. The scenery has fallen into something resembling an Andrew Wyeth painting: Collapsed silos, dilapidated barns, and abandoned farmhouses are everywhere.

Moore felt strongly that his offer could bring new jobs, stabilize tax revenues, and elevate the quality of local schools, but to make it happen he would have to persuade more than 78 landowners to let him collect his data by erecting giant turbines on their land. He had to help the citizens of Tug Hill fall in love with wind.

Moore, a 59-year-old dairy farmer named Bill Burke belongs to the fifth generation of Burkes born on Tug Hill. He and his wife, Patricia, live in an Italianate-seeming white house with black shutters that is perched on the edge of the plateau, with wind turbines to the front and back. He's raised and milked cows on his 598 acres for more than 36 years and was just getting around to formulating his "exit strategy": Sell off 200 head of cattle, sell off equipment, sell off land, and settle down to a retirement blissfully free of debt.

"I don't know if you know what it's like for us farmers," he says, "but most of us are in debt from the moment we start up in business. I bought out three farmers when I got started, and now there's no one left to replace me." He wouldn't go out of his way to encourage his son or daughter to follow in his footsteps: "No money in it." Maybe, he thought, he'd substitute-teach at the school where his wife was principal. Or maybe he'd sell seed or feed.

Then along came Moore, touting wind. "I was on board from day one," Burke says, "but I could see others would take some persuading. We'd hold meetings and no one would show up. Not because they opposed the idea. They just didn't think it would happen." Noting that there are more than 100 landowners, Burke says, "Getting them all to agree on something is like trying to herd ducks."

To educate themselves about Moore's proposition, Burke and his wife drove south to Madison County to inspect Moore's seven-turbine wind farm; five of the turbines are on the property of dairy farmers Carl and Bonnie Stone.

The Burkes parked in the Stones' driveway, as many visitors do, and started asking questions. The Stones, who are unfailingly patient with the tourists, engineers, college students, and wind enthusiasts who come to gawk at their turbines, welcomed the Burkes in after hearing their story. Emboldened by what they learned, the Burkes soon agreed to allow the developer to collect data and ultimately to erect seven turbines on their property. The guaranteed income -- a minimum annual payment of about $6,000 per turbine, adjusted annually for inflation -- has transformed their lives.

"It's paying for me to retire," says Bill Burke. "It's given us a chance to stay in our house," adds Patricia Burke. "We don't have to sell after all. We sold off the herd one spring, and the heifers later, and now we just have to decide what to do with the land." (They plan to lease to area farmers.) For now, Bill has given up the notion of selling seed. He and Patricia travel the state stumping for wind power.

At the heart of their acceptance of such a project in their own backyard was money. They had spent their lives dealing with the economics of the milking business; now their future, and that of their neighbors, was linked to the arcane economics of wind power.

The money behind wind power is as capricious as the wind itself. On and off for the last two decades, Congress has dangled subsidies like fluttering kite tails in front of eager wind developers, hence the inherently stop-start nature of the industry. Some years you get it, some years you don't. As a result, some years you build, some years you don't.

All major energy producers get subsidies from the federal government, but Big Wind's take is puny. In 2003, the United States doled out somewhere between $37 billion and $64 billion in write-offs, low-interest loans, income and sales tax breaks, construction bonds, and so on to the energy sector.

Of that, Big Wind -- companies engaged in industrial-scale wind power generation -- received perhaps 1 percent. The juiciest wind subsidy -- the Production Tax Credit (PTC), which credits wind developers 1.9 cents for every kilowatt-hour they produce -- is scheduled to expire at the end of 2008. Congress will most likely renew the PTC, but not before making Big Wind sweat it out. Meanwhile, developers are rushing to get wind farms operational before the deadline so they will be eligible for the credit.

In some states a second important economic tool is making wind power a virtually risk-free investment. In 2004, New York established what is known as a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), a law requiring power utilities to purchase at least 25 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2013.

The deadline is absolutely critical: Number crunchers estimate that by 2010 New York State will not have enough power to run itself. Critics say the standard is artificially inflating the green power market, but New York is hardly alone: At least 20 other states have passed similar mandates.

So for the moment, a wind power boom -- boom with a lower-case b -- is on. Wind power generating capacity in the United States grew by about 25 percent last year, and we'll likely see the same percentage growth this year, if not more. U.S. wind power plants are now capable of producing 31 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity a year, enough juice to run three million homes and avoid the release of about 23 million tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This is quite encouraging, but still modest when viewed against the backdrop of the total U.S. energy market: 31 billion kWh represents only 1 percent of the nation's electricity needs.

Historically, investors have been reluctant to go anywhere near wind because it turns the traditional economics of the energy business on its head. Constructing a coal- or oil-fired power plant, for example, consumes 20 percent of an energy producer's lifetime budget; buying fuel and operating the plant gobbles up the remaining 80 percent.

Wind and solar power are governed by an opposing rule of thumb: 80 percent goes to costly, up-front infrastructure and 20 percent to upkeep. So yes, the wind is free, but catching it will cost you dearly: A three-blade, industrial-size turbine now costs about $1 million.

At that price, we are no longer talking about wind power as a personal statement by off-the-grid homesteaders. (Residential wind power systems are still quite expensive for the average homeowner: about $40,000 for a 10-kilowatt system.) Instead we're talking about multinational corporations sinking hundreds of millions, even billions, of dollars into wind on the safe bet that fossil fuels will someday run out. They're betting too that the world's governments -- not just the folks in Washington, D.C. -- will eventually cough up richer handouts that will make Big Wind an attractive proposition.

Subsidies are a fine tool to stimulate a nascent technology, but the trouble with the boom/bust model is that some players may be tempted to make a short-term investment, then cut bait. Since its inception, Maple Ridge has been passed like a baton to increasingly large conglomerates. First, it was developed in part by Houston-based Zilkha Renewable Energy, which was purchased in spring 2005 by Goldman, Sachs, the investment banking giant.

Goldman formed a new corporation, Horizon Wind, which operates Maple Ridge under a joint partnership with the Portland, Oregon?based PPM Energy (which acquired Atlantic Renewable in 2005) and is owned in turn by Scottish Power of Glasgow.

This spring, both Horizon Wind and Scottish Power were themselves bought by larger international energy providers. Horizon went to Energias de Portugal, the world's fourth-largest wind power producer, for $2.15 billion; Scottish Power was absorbed by the Spanish company Iberdrola, the world's largest renewable energy provider, for $22.5 billion.

Lucrative subsidies are drying up in Europe, so it is logical that renewable energy providers would seek holdings in the United States, which is just beginning to get the hang of wind. Noting that the United States is the fastest-growing wind power market in the world, the president of the Portuguese firm told Bloomberg Media, "If you want to be a top player, you need to be in the U.S."

So far, there are wind energy projects in 40 U.S. states, and more coming from the multinationals. For some people, this is cause for rejoicing. Bigger companies can erect bigger projects, pay handsomer royalties to the landowners from whom they lease land, and usher in a world of green power faster than that earnest, mail-order turbine staked out in your organic garden. But others care not a whit for Big Wind.

Watching the flurry of profit-taking, they see not a new kind of energy business but simply business as usual. "This is not about green power," says Gordon Yancey, owner of the Flat Rock Inn on Tug Hill, who opposes the wind project that is literally in his backyard. "There's nothing green about it. The only gree in it is greed."

Money makes it all so easy to swallow, and that's the most understandable reason why so many people in Lowville welcomed the turbines. "They've offered us landfills and low-level nuclear waste," says Arleigh Rice, a retired dairy farmer and Lowville's town supervisor, or chief fiscal officer. "I'll take windmills any day." (While those other options promised tax payments and new jobs, they did not offer individual royalty payments.)

During the two phases of the wind farms construction, each of which lasted six months, every hotel, diner, and restaurant in town was full with 400 construction workers, a mix of locals and out-of-towners. The wind companies bought up 25,000 truckloads of gravel and 77,000 cubic yards of concrete from local suppliers.

The newly built operations and maintenance facility just up the road from the Burkes' house will serve as a headquarters for as many as 15 to 20 full-time staff employees -- a similar mix of locals and out-of-towners -- who monitor and repair the turbines. (On any given day, nine or ten of the turbines are down for routine maintenance.)

Rice's counterpart in nearby Martinsburg is an engineer named Terry Thisse. He's a rugged-looking man in a red down vest who sells Jet Skis, ATVs, motorbikes, and snowmobiles from his sporting goods store near the largest local dairy. He explains that in lieu of paying full taxes on the turbines, Maple Ridge's owners will make reduced payments to the county for the next 15 years; according to Thisse, this is a better deal than Maple Ridge would get if it had to pay the presumed property taxes on the turbines.

"This allows us to get a leg up while we're laying out the high start-up costs," says Moore. After 15 years Maple Ridge will pay the full tax, and by agreement landowners will never be responsible for any portion. (This is a common arrangement between Big Wind operators and host communities.) The exact size of the reduced payments will be determined by the kilowatt hours produced, but the total infusion to the community is expected to be $8.5 million annually.

The county divides the revenue among towns according to the number of turbines they host. Martinsburg, a town of only 1,249 people, has 102 turbines. Though it typically collects $370,000 a year in property taxes, tiny Martinsburg's first payment from Maple Ridge, for the first phase of construction, amounted to $1.13 million. Harrisburg, population 423, with 78 turbines, received $1 million.

Lowville, with a population of 4,548, reaped only $110,000, since the windmills there number just 15. "Obviously, money like that can do a lot of good in a community like this," Thisse says. "We had to hire a consultant just to help us invest it. The goal is to operate solely on the interest. It's a nice situation to be in. We've got 60 miles of dirt roads in town. So we're probably going to be able to finally pave them." By agreement among all the towns, local schools get the largest share, 40 percent, or at least $3.4 million annually, according to the most current figures. This last disbursement is widely regarded as the smartest investment in Lewis County's future.

A grandmother of two and former middle school principal, Patricia Burke is looking at the big picture. "Our town's population is steady but there's been no growth in years," she says. "We're looking at this as a way to provide jobs and maybe keep some of our children here." Thus far, it has certainly worked for the Burkes: Their son, Robert, landed a job in the operations department at Maple Ridge, and Robert's wife, Jenny, was hired by Moore to run the project's downtown office, just above the JC Penney catalog store.

Still younger residents have also fared well. Not far from the Burkes' home is the sprawling log cabin owned by Kyle and Betsey Burbank. Kyle, a veterinarian, was captivated by the proposal Moore made one day over coffee in the family's kitchen.

But Betsey, a home-schooling mom, was fearful that the windmills would be harmful to the couple and their sons. "We went down to visit some of the other windmills. I got some articles and read up on the topic," she remembers. She was satisfied that there was no such danger. "After that, I was gung ho." Today the family hosts four turbines on their 250-acre farm.

On a recent morning, the three older Burbank boys, who range in age from 6 to 11, are crowded around the kitchen table, anxious to finish up their math worksheets so they can tend to the Holstein cows they are rearing for the 4-H club. Betsey explains that construction of the windmills was a major event at their home, taped via camcorder and incorporated into her sons' lesson plans on green energy.

Perhaps more significant, though, is the fact that the Burbanks are socking away the income from the four turbines -- about $26,400 annually -- in a college fund for their sons, who now number four. (Newborn Isaiah is upstairs sleeping.) In fact, says Betsey, the boys have each claimed a wind turbine, joshing the others about whose blades are turning -- and earning -- the most.

Josiah, age 11, hears his mom talking and leaps up from the table. "Ooh, ooh, can I show them?" he pleads. When she acquiesces, he rushes to the edge of the porch and points to the turbines rising on the horizon above the stark, flat pastureland. The wind is biting. He is dressed only in plaid shirt, jeans, and socks. "That one's mine ," he says proudly, shouting to be heard over the baying of his father's beagles. "That's Abraham's. That's Malachi's. And if you look over here, around the porch, you can see Isaiah's."

For those who oppose large-scale wind projects, Tug Hill has become a symbol of wind gone wrong. A 21-minute amateur film, "Voices of Tug Hill," can be found not only on YouTube but anywhere citizens debate the merits of major wind projects.

In the film, a handful of Lewis County residents blame Maple Ridge for a multitude of sins that can never be righted or explained away: the spoiling of their landscape (or "viewshed," in industry-speak), the sound of the whirling turbines, the potential threat to wildlife. Naysayers always say they are not against wind power per se, but against industrial wind power, against corporate intrusion into their small-town, pastoral spaces.

Anne Britton, an activist and a resident of Brandon, New York, about 106 miles northeast of Lowville, says, "It's about big companies making money. They're laughing at us. They're collecting their money and going back home." Thanks to Britton's efforts, Brandon declared a six-month moratorium on large-scale wind projects last fall and extended it for another 12 months in spring 2007. "We're hoping that if we kick up a fuss, they'll just go away," Britton says.

While Maple Ridge was still in the planning stages, Moore hired Paul Kerlinger, a migration biologist who often consults with wind power companies, to document over four years the number of dead birds or bats found beneath the turbines.

Kerlinger says the study is not complete. A preliminary report shows that bird deaths have numbered in the hundreds annually -- but that a potentially more worrisome number of bats have been killed. No one knows why. One theory is that bats switch off their sonar while migrating. Maple Ridge is exploring technology that will make the turbines more obvious, or less attractive, to migrating bats.

On the sound issue, Moore says that modern turbines generate less noise -- about 50 decibels, the volume of a refrigerator hum -- than their clunkier predecessors. But hearing is strongly personal, and what people hear depends very much on wind activity at ground level, where people actually live. Some people swear they can hear turbines on a low-wind day in their homes with the windows open. Some say they hear nothing. Others say they do hear a hum over long distances but have so habituated themselves to the noise that they manage to ignore it.

But Gordon Yancey, whose tavern commands a majestic spot on the plateau, says he despises the whooshing sound of windmills. His neighbors dismiss his comments, since he rents snowmobiles for a living -- and what could be noisier than snowmobiles? "Well," he says, "let's look at that. A snowmobile makes a lot of noise but then it goes away. These things are like being next to a freight train that never arrives."

Moore thinks that those who object to wind power are in the minority. "This all comes down to an emotional reaction to change," he says. "They don't like the way the turbines look or the way they have transformed their viewshed, so they come up with a semiscientific argument to sound cogent. The majority of people in Lewis County like the project. But this is all a highly subjective thing." In other words, he could talk himself hoarse and he'd never persuade everyone.

Ultimately, what makes Maple Ridge so interesting and so important is that never before on the East Coast have so many instruments of electrical generation been inserted into the domain of the private citizen. It's one thing to know that your electricity comes from a coal-fired or nuclear power plant six counties over. It's another thing entirely to accept gigantic whirligigs on your own land, to share your life with them, to stake your children's future on them, and to bequeath the financial legacy to your grandchildren.

We make concessions every day for the other fuels and tools in our lives: Oil and coal pollute our water, air, and bodies; nukes leave us with centuries of toxic waste; heck, compact fluorescents contain mercury, even as they lead us to a bigger goal. There's no free lunch here, and Maple Ridge may be an education for us all as we head into the renewable energy future so many of us say we want.

For Moore, 51 and a self-described child of the sixties, this project is part of a larger personal goal that goes back more than 25 years, when he wrote his undergraduate thesis on energy regulation. "I've wanted to do this for years, show people that renewables are real, that they are here and now," he says. "Every time I drive to Lowville and see that plateau with the wind coming across it and the turbines catching it, I get a big thrill."

Editors: If you are interested in reprinting this article, please contact Featurewell at: featurewell@gmail.com/212-924-2283.

 
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