Pam Atwater lives on six and a half acres in the Niagara County Town of Somerset. Her home is primarily fueled by energy from the solar panels on the rooftop of her barn and a geothermal system that heats and cools her house.
Despite her embrace of renewable energy, Atwater leads a group fighting to prevent a Virginia-based company from placing 47 wind turbines across the southern shore of Lake Ontario in her community and the neighboring Town of Yates. The project could create enough energy to power 53,000 homes.
The 591-foot wind turbines would be among the tallest structures in upstate New York. The tallest building in Buffalo, One Seneca Tower, is about 60 feet shorter than the proposed wind turbines. The turbines at Steel Winds in Lackawanna are only about 400 feet tall.
The turbines would stand about 25 times the height of Atwater’s house.
“I don’t have an issue with renewable energy,” she said. “I think it’s important to differentiate between large-scale, industrial renewable versus more localized and what you can use directly yourself.”
Residents are concerned the massive turbines would change the feel of their quiet, lakeside community that’s dotted with farms and summer cottages.
“This project would utterly transition this community from a quiet, rural, agriculturally-centered community into a massive, sprawling, industrialized factory,” said Somerset Supervisor Dan Engert.
The company proposing the project, Apex Clean Energy, says it’s an ideal location for a wind farm. The area, some 50 miles northeast of Buffalo, is one of the windiest sites in the state. What’s more, it’s close to energy transmission lines from a coal-fired plant in Somerset.
But opponents of the project say it’s one of the worst places for a wind farm because it’s located on an internationally-recognized bird migratory pathway, which could lead to bird deaths from collisions with the turbines. The birds at risk include bald eagles.
The American Bird Conservancy lists the proposed location as one of the ten worst locations in the United States to put wind turbines.
The majority of the proposed turbines, 39, are located in Somerset, while the other eight are in Yates. The two towns passed local laws preventing the project from moving forward as proposed. But a state law aimed at streamlining applications for large energy projects could override these laws.
The ongoing debate over the project has splintered residents.
Plastered on the side of sheds and perched on lawns are signs that read “Too big, too close,” or alternatively, “Yes. Harvest the Wind.”
“It has been extremely divisive and just an awful experience for my community to go through,” said Engert.
Considered an “optimal site”
Apex started permit work on the project in 2014. Since then, the company has signed 50 leases with landowners that would allow it to put wind turbines, roads, cables, and other infrastructure on their properties. Landowners would receive annual payments that range from $3,000 to $200,000.
The company can access about 10,200 acres through these leases.
Floyd Koerner Jr. is one of the landowners who signed on. He might end up with three wind turbines on his property, which could provide him with annual payments of $60,000.
He thinks the wind turbines would be an overall win for the community.
“Our tax base has eroded in the town of Somerset with a coal plant mostly out of commission. I think residents, as a whole, are looking for ways to offset that loss in tax base,” he said. “I think the windmill project will help with that.”
Koerner said his taxes for the town, county and school district have gone up over 50 percent in the last decade.
“I feel bad for people on a fixed income,” he said. “My goodness! That’s a big financial burden.”
The company forecasts the wind turbines could pump $1.5 million annually in payments in lieu of property taxes to Somerset and Yates, the counties of Niagara and Orleans, and the school districts of Barker and Lyndonville. This would be in addition to funds from leases and ‘community benefit’ investments, which could include paving of roads, purchasing ambulances, or renovating public buildings.
The company also expects to create between 200 to 300 temporary jobs during the construction period, such as construction workers and electricians, and up to 13 full-time jobs for operation and maintenance.
One of the reasons the company picked the location is because of existing transmission lines from a coal-powered plant located in Somerset that is operating at partial capacity, said Paul Williamson, senior development manager at Apex.
“It is situated right next to existing infrastructure that would allow the generation to be transmitted throughout the state of New York,” he said. “It really is an optimal site.”
It’s also one of the windiest locations in New York, said Dave Phillips, vice president of environmental at Apex.
“It can generate a lot more power, much more efficiently,” he said.
The company has other wind projects in New York in development, including in Orleans and Madison Counties. It recently withdrew its applications for state permits for a project on Galloo Island, on Lake Ontario.
There are currently 56 wind farms operating or proposed throughout the state. A quarter of these projects are in Western New York. This includes, for example, the High Sheldon Wind Farm in Wyoming County, and Arkwright Summit Wind Farm in Chautauqua County.
The wind turbines proposed for Somerset and Yates, at 591 feet, would be among the highest structures in upstate New York.
“They are massive! They are obscene!” said Engert.
But reducing the size would come at a cost to efficiency. The taller the structure, the stronger the wind, said the company.
“As turbines are getting larger in capacity, we can generate the same amount of power with fewer turbines,” said Phillips. “In other words, where we were going to put 100 smaller turbines, we now may put 50 larger turbines.”
With fewer turbines, the company is able to have less of an impact on wildlife, he said.
The wind industry is transitioning toward these larger-sized turbines, said Williamson. This includes a number of other proposed wind projects in New York with similar heights to the Lighthouse Wind project.
The unsightly nature of these turbines has also caused tensions in other parts of the state. The state instituted a 30-mile setback for an offshore wind farm off the coast of Long Island after community pushback.
In 2017, Gov. Andrew Cuomo assured the community that with the setback, “not even Superman standing on Montauk Point could see these wind farms.”
The turbines for the Lighthouse Wind project in Somerset and Yates would be at least one-third of a mile away from homes of residents who have not signed leases with the company.
Heavily traveled pathway
The proposed project lies in the path of a globally recognized migratory route that hosts millions of birds each year, moving from South and Central America to Canada to nest.
Because of this, the American Bird Conservancy named the proposed wind farm as one of the top ten worst locations in the country for wind energy projects.
“Vast numbers of songbirds and raptors concentrate within six miles of the shoreline during spring and fall of each year,” the organization said in a press release. “This area also has pockets of key habitat for sensitive grassland birds, which could be displaced by the wind turbines. Federally protected Bald Eagles from a nearby wildlife refuge are also at risk.”
The organization estimates about one million birds are killed annually by wind turbines in the United States. With the growth of wind energy, this is expected to increase to as many as 5 million by 2050.
To avoid bird deaths, the organization said, companies shouldn’t locate wind turbines in areas where there is high risk of bird collisions.
“In my opinion, there are probably two places that are absolutely the worst places to put wind turbines. It’s the Great Lakes region and the Gulf Coast of the United States,” said Shawn Graff, vice president of the Great Lakes Region at the American Bird Conservancy. “In these areas, during migration, the number of birds is huge.”
The U.S. Department of Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service also expressed concerns about the location of the project. A 2016 letter from the department to the New York State Public Service Commission said its radar data showed “large numbers of flying animals using the project area.”
“Based upon that information, the risk to wildlife from operating wind turbines could rise to severe levels,” it wrote. The department noted it previously “recommended that wind energy projects be constructed at least three miles from the shoreline of the Great Lakes to reduce this risk.”
The majority — 41 out of 47 — of the company’s proposed turbines fall within those three miles. Apex officials say pushing the turbines further inland would reduce wind speeds.
Danger to birds debated
The company acknowledges birds would die as a result of the project, but says concerns are overblown.
“The presence of a migratory pathway doesn’t necessarily equate to increased risk,” said Phillips.
A study of a 14-turbine wind farm on the coast of Lake Michigan, also an important bird migration area, found the annual death rate was about 4 birds killed per turbine. No bald eagle fatalities were recorded. They are known to migrate through the area.
This study said these findings did not support the theory that large numbers of birds are killed within five miles of the shores of the Great Lakes.
Another study looking at three wind projects on the Texas Gulf Coast found that death rates “were comparable to fatality estimates at other wind energy facilities in North America” despite being located in an area with high levels of bird migration.
Phillips said an estimated 600 to 900 birds per year could be killed by the Lighthouse Wind project.
A bald eagle’s nest was found on the project site. All turbines would be at least a mile away from the nest, according to the company.
If bald eagles are considered to be at risk from the project, Apex would be required to engage in conservation efforts to benefit the species.
Climate change bigger threat
The Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter endorsed the project as environmentally sound, arguing birds face more serious threats.
“The effects of climate change could cause a mass extinction of many species of birds in our lifetimes,” said Ellen Banks, the group’s conservation chairperson.
Susan Campbell, a grandmother of 13 who lives in the village of Lyndonville, located in Yates, agrees. She says she owes it to her grandchildren to support projects that help limit the state’s dependence on fossil fuels.
But her support has come at the cost of souring relationships with some of her neighbors. Campbell said she was called a “wind whore” after she spoke in support of the project, and her husband, a Vietnam War veteran, was called a “communist bastard” at a local deli when another customer saw a sticker on his truck supporting the wind farm.
“There are a lot of people that I talk to on a regular basis who are for the turbines, but they are hesitant to come forward,” she said.
Proximity to air base
There is also concern that the wind turbines could interfere with training and radar operations at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, which is the largest employer in Niagara County.
Save Ontario Shores, the opposition group, expressed concerns this project could potentially be a liability when the federal government next considers military base closures. The Niagara Falls station has previously been considered for closure.
This has prompted both federal and state lawmakers to propose legislation to squash the project, calling for restrictions on wind projects near military installations. The nearest proposed turbine to the Niagara Falls air base is 22 miles away.
Federal law requires a Department of Defense review of wind projects to prevent negative impacts on a base’s viability. The department completed an informal review of the project and wrote a letter in 2016 that said the project is “unlikely to impact military testing and/or training operations in the area.”
Overriding local laws
Both Somerset and Yates passed local legislation that would prevent the project from moving forward as proposed, including a prohibition on wind turbines within three miles of the shore.
But a state law empowers a ‘Siting Board’ to override local laws if they are deemed ‘unreasonably burdensome’ on developers of large electricity projects. The board will include five members from state agencies, including the commissioner of the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, and two members from the two towns.
“This company would have to ask for extraordinary waivers to overrule not just one element of our local law, but many, many elements of our local law,” said Engert, the Somerset supervisor.
This power is enshrined in Article 10 of the Public Service Law, signed by Cuomo in 2011, in an effort to streamline the process of approving large-scale electricity projects.
Under this law, the Siting Board reviews the company’s application and decides whether to approve it. Apex plans to submit its application this year.
There are 28 active wind and solar proposals currently before the Siting Board. No projects have been denied, and only one has been approved.
Renewable energy projects like Lighthouse Wind are part of an ambitious effort by the state under Cuomo to reach 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2040. This plan includes more than doubling the energy that comes from land-based wind and solar projects.
“In order to meet that goal and meet those obligations, projects like these will have to be developed,” said Williamson.
Apex said a favorable state regulatory environment played a role in the company choosing New York to locate its project. It also has a “fair amount of confidence” the Siting Board will approve the project, according to Williamson.
But this favorable regulatory environment has left some communities, like Somerset and Yates, feeling left out of the equation.
“The feeling we’ve had from the company is ‘Why deal with the locals?” said Engert. “We are just going to count on the state agencies to approve the project.”