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Farms Begin Raising New Crop: Electricity From Windmills

LOWVILLE, N.Y. - William and Patricia Burke have lived in their white Colonial-style farmhouse on the edge of the Tug Hill plateau for 36 years. And for 35 of those years they have cursed the winter wind as it whistled through every crack and hole in the house.

But this season they welcome the sound of the wind, because it represents their newfound security.

The Burkes' old farmhouse is now surrounded by a forest of 120 huge windmills. Each one, called a wind turbine, is 320 feet tall, about the same height as Big Ben in London or the same length as the football field at Giants Stadium.

This new wind farm, called Maple Ridge, is already the largest alternative-energy project east of the Mississippi, and a second phase, which will include 75 more windmills, is scheduled to be built this year, starting in the spring.

Mr. Burke, 58, has pinned the security of his fifth-generation dairy farm on the seven turbines that he allowed to be built on his 600 acres last fall. Each one will generate an annual lease payment of $5,000 to $10,000, based in part on the electricity generated, that will allow the Burkes to stay on their land after they retire.

"For me, this project is an excellent exit strategy," Mr. Burke said.

"Having the towers will allow us, when the time comes, to sell the cows, lease the land and keep the farm."

The towers can also be said to represent enhanced national security, because they are the kind of project that President Bush has promoted of late to help break the nation's addiction to oil.

The 120 windmills are spread out in a jagged 12-mile line through rural Lewis County, leeward of Lake Ontario. Powerful lake-effect winds can generate enough electricity to power about 500 homes from each turbine.

The turbines that have changed the Burkes' life have transformed the landscape and the economy of the county, an area where it seems most barns are as swaybacked as an old mare. Environmentalists say the windmills provide a glimpse of what the future of alternative energy could be in the Northeast.

These new-generation turbines are far larger and more powerful than any others in the region. The blades are 131 feet long, and although they seem to be rotating at a lazy Sunday afternoon clip, they are so large that their tips are actually racing around at 138 miles per hour.

When all 195 towers are operating at full capacity, they would generate a total of 320 megawatts of pollution-free electricity, the equivalent of a midsize power plant.

Maple Ridge is a symbol of the maturation of wind energy in New York from a demonstration project to a bona fide alternative to fossil fuel-based energy, and it has been accomplished with little help from the federal government.

"The president is now talking about ending our addiction to oil, but he's not following through with the national policies we would need to create a Marshall Plan for renewable energy," said Katherine Kennedy, a senior lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "We're looking at states like New York to give us the projects that will change the energy picture from carbon to a much cleaner mix."

Maple Ridge also represents Wall Street's new interest in renewable energy. The company behind the project, Horizon Wind Energy, is owned by Goldman Sachs. The Maple Ridge Wind Farm resulted from a partnership between Horizon and PPM Energy of Portland, Ore.

"The firm is committed to committing capital to environmentally friendly technology and investments, and wind energy is certainly one of them," said Neil Auerbach, a managing director at Goldman Sachs, who is involved in the wind project. "But this investment is by no means propelled solely by these
concerns. It was evaluated on its merits."

The company declined to discuss the actual costs of the project, but typically, each 1.65 megawatt turbine costs $2.3 million to $2.8 million to build. That would put the cost of the completed Maple Ridge project at somewhere between $450 million and $550 million. That sounds like a lot, but once the turbines are built, fuel costs are zero because the wind is free.

According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, wind is the fastest-growing electricity-generating technology in the world. Wind still accounts for less than 1 percent of the nation's electricity, but wind-generating capacity has tripled over the past five years.

Alec G. Dreyer, chief executive of Horizon, said New York was an ideal choice for the wind farm because the state has a growing energy market and an electricity grid that the company can easily hook up to.

Besides completing Maple Ridge this year, Horizon is working on projects in windy areas of Clinton and Wyoming Counties and elsewhere in the state. The projects could add 500 megawatts of electricity to the state's power grid.

The company said it was staying away from the most obvious wind source in New York, the Long Island shore, because it feared being caught in a battle with residents worried about the visual impact of the turbines.

New York has plenty of wind resources besides Long Island, Mr. Dreyer said, and it also has an open attitude toward alternative energy that welcomes
investment. In 2003, Gov. George E. Pataki set a goal of having 25 percent of the state's energy come from alternative sources by 2013. A utilities surcharge was added to consumers' bills to help start the projects.

New Jersey has also taken a chance on wind. Five turbines, owned by Community Energy of Wayne, Pa., on the grounds of the Atlantic County Utility Authority's water treatment plant will generate 7.5 megawatts of electricity this year.

Another factor has made upstate New York a particularly good place to build wind farms: The wind turbines are widely seen as an economic bonanza.

The only other sizable enterprises in this region are a Kraft Foods plant, a bowling pin factory and dairy farms. But the growing season is short, and many longtime farm families have given up on their dairy operations. Only Amish farmers are moving in, and so far none of them have allowed wind turbines to be built on their farms.

But for many other local residents, the towers represent millions of dollars in payments in lieu of taxes to support the schools and local governments. And for property owners who have them, each turbine can represent a new pickup truck, or a child's college education.

"I know of one man who left each of his kids a windmill in his will," said Martin J. Beyer, a retired farmer who owns a motel and has two turbines on his land. He said a few local residents, mostly those who do not farm, objected to the turbines, saying they obstructed rural vistas.

But they were outnumbered. "Does anybody pay any attention to electric light poles on the side of the road?" Mr. Beyer asked, saying, "That's exactly what windmills are going to be like in a year."

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company