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When Big Wind Gets Dirty

New York State is experiencing something of a clean-energy bonanza—thanks to a 2004 law under which the public utility commission offers favorable contracts to renewable-energy producers, the state already has 451 turbines up and running, with another 840 on the drawing board and Spanish company Iberdrola S.A. announcing that it will spend $2 billion to build hundreds more. Sounds good, right? Well… not exactly. Nick Confessore of The New York Times has an excellent investigative piece today about the wind boom's seamy underbelly:

[I]n the small towns near the Canadian border, families and friendships have been riven by feuds over the lease options, which can be worth tens of thousands of dollars a year in towns where the median household income may hover around $30,000. Rumors circulate about neighbors who can suddenly afford new tractors or trucks. Opponents of the wind towers even say they have received threats; one local activist said that on two occasions, she had found her windshield bashed in.

"My sisters and brothers won’t even talk to me anymore," said Mr. Tacy, who with his wife has become active in recent years in a network of people who oppose the wind companies. "They tear communities apart." Opponents of the farms say their scenic views are being marred by the hundreds of wind towers already in place, some of which stand nearly 400 feet tall. They also complain of the irritating hum of spinning turbines and what they say are wasteful public subsidies to wind companies.

But corruption is a major concern. In at least 12 counties, Mr. Champagne said, evidence has surfaced about possible conflicts of interest or improper influence.

The whole story's very much worth reading. A number of towns in the North Country are in dismal shape economically—Massena, New York, for one, is losing its flagship General Motors plant next year, while Franklin County relies heavily on its five state prisons. Wind power could offer a much-needed salve, creating jobs and offering a nice chunk of income to willing landowners. But a growing number of towns feel like they're being steamrolled—there are few laws regulating turbine construction, and the town officials making these decisions are often nestled up with the wind companies. Already, voters in Brandon and Malone have decided to ban all wind turbines from their towns.

Now, this isn't an argument against wind power, per se—after all, no matter much wind turbines might block scenic views, they don't come anywhere close to doing the sort of horrific damage that mountaintop removal mining has inflicted on West Virginia. Plus, there's that whole global warming thing. (On the other hand, the noise complaints are considerably more troubling—the Oregonian had a story recently on "wind turbine syndrome," exploring the possibility that the low-frequency noise and vibrations from wind machines can trigger headaches, insomnia, irritability, and so forth.) Then again, no one in New York lives in West Virginia, so these arguments only go so far.

Still, no matter what the energy source, it's not surprising that large companies looking to get a bunch of easement agreements in a short period of time are going to engage in unseemly line-crossing. We reported recently on a similar story with the shale-drilling boom in Pennsylvania. I do wonder, though, if there are better ways to structure clean-energy policies here. It might be useful to look at the feed-in tariffs in Germany and Denmark, which aren't too dissimilar from New York's law, but explicitly favor small producers. Those policies have been absurdly successful at ballooning the clean-energy industries, but with a twist: More than 50 percent of all wind projects in Germany are owned by farmers and local cooperatives. I'd be curious to know if that's a way of avoiding some of the corruption issues and community infighting that upstate New York is now seeing.

(Photo credit: Christinne Muschi, The New York Times)

--Bradford Plumer