The long spell of frigid weather afflicting the whole Northeastern United States this winter has led some to ask, “Where’s the global warming?” But this event is consistent with climate scientists’ predictions going back several decades. As greenhouse gases produce a general warming trend earthwide, making 2014 one of the warmest years on record, melting Arctic ice is causing the jet stream to dip further south. While we freeze, severe droughts and wildfires have been afflicting the Southwest throughout this decade.
Climate scientists remind us that day-to-day weather varies, while climate shows a steady warming trend throughout these daily variations. Weather is local, but climate is complicated, and worldwide measures are necessary to identify climate trends. The 2014 U.S. National Climate Assessment reported a 71 percent increase in the amount of rain and snow falling in the heaviest storms between 1958 and 2012.
The overwhelming consensus of climate scientists is that greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide and methane from the production and burning of coal, oil and natural gas, are the main cause of climate change, and that catastrophic changes will happen if these emissions are not drastically reduced in the next 10 or 20 years. To keep our lights on, our homes warm and our mobility preserved, we will have to switch to alternative sources of energy for all these purposes.
Fortunately, this can be done, though there is not any time to waste. Scientists Mark Jacobson and Marc Delucci crunched the data and showed how, worldwide, energy for all purposes can be generated from renewable sources such as water, wind, sunlight and reduced energy waste, by 2030, at no higher cost than today’s fossil fuel-dominated sources, when all production, use and costs due to pollution are included. Their predictions include development of electric power in currently underserved regions of the world.
Many people think that the prospect of converting to entirely renewable, fuel-free sources of energy is an impossible dream, so they just try not to think about it. A good preview of how a renewable energy future is possible can be found near the eastern end of Lake Ontario.
Lewis County, at the edge of the Adirondacks, has many claims to fame. The Tug Hill Plateau, holder of New York State records for most snow in a single day and in a season, gets so much snow that some hunting camps have second-story doors to climb inside over the snowpack. It boasts the highest production of maple syrup in the state, and its dairy farms supply a cream cheese factory that claims to be the largest in the world. With the third-smallest population of New York counties – about one-thousandth of the state’s residents – Lewis County supplies 2 percent of the renewably sourced electricity in the state, thanks to the Maple Ridge Wind Farm, a 6-by-12-mile stretch of 195 wind towers with a 321 megawatt capacity. West of the Adirondack Park and east of Watertown, the county gets lake-effect wind and snow from Lake Ontario, which many considered a negative aspect of living there, until they found that the wind could be a new “crop.”
Bill Burke, a fifth-generation dairy farmer who has wind towers on his property, offered a tour last summer of Maple Ridge from its visitor center kiosk. Discussion of the wind farm proposal started in 1999, he said, and there was very little opposition. He compared it to his grandfather’s times, when electricity came to the county and a few holdouts weren’t sure they wanted to give up kerosene lanterns for posts and wires along the roads.
After community hearings and discussion, 92 landowners in the Lowville area (pronounced to rhyme, aptly, with “Cowville”) leased portions of their land to the project, and by 2006, 195 wind towers were up and running, making Maple Ridge the largest wind farm in New York State and the second-largest east of the Mississippi.
Each tower has a footprint of less than half an acre, and Burke pointed out that the landowners operate their farm equipment right up and around the towers, much as they do with trees. Cows graze calmly around them, and whatever sound comes from the blades is drowned out by the wind itself. While many of the towers are in pastures and croplands lining a highway, others are set back from the road, on hedgerows and maple groves. The scene of miles and miles of wind towers along Route 177 is worth a side trip on an Adirondack vacation.
Burke, who has served on the Lewis County Legislature and Lowville School Board, and who is a part-time employee of the wind farm company, said that about 75 landowners with wind towers on their properties receive annual payments based on the electricity produced, not a fortune, but a welcome supplement to dairy farm income. A greater economic benefit to the region comes from PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) money to the county and the school districts. The Town of Martinsburg, site of most of the towers, gets between $800,000 and $1.2 million a year, which has reduced the local tax rate and provided for infrastructure improvements. Moreover, as in other rural areas, young people have moved away from Lewis County for decades to find work, but the 20 to 30 permanent jobs in managing and maintaining the wind farm provide an option for young adults to stay and raise families there.
Wind towers are designed to shut down when wind speeds are too high for safe operations. When a rare tornado blew right through the Maple Ridge Wind Farm in August, damaging several houses, there was no damage to the towers.
A couple of years ago, Burke noted, technicians observed a slight graying on some of the white wind tower blades. Tests on the coating revealed that it was coal ash. Though the exact source was not identified, very likely it was carried on the wind from the coal-fired power plant at Somerset, on the Western New York end of Lake Ontario.
An interview with Lowville School Superintendent Cheryl Steckly revealed that PILOT payments have offset declines in state aid, built up the district’s capital reserves and kept school tax rates free of increases for eight years. Technology upgrades included wireless Internet throughout the K-12 school building and classroom computers for each student’s use. New science labs, art rooms and an art gallery, a redesigned cafeteria and a new athletic stadium were constructed, and roofing, heating and air conditioning were upgraded. Advanced Placement courses increased to 12 subjects, unusual for a district with a total of 1,400 students.
As in many small towns, the school is a community center as well, Steckly said, so even families without children have benefited from upgrades to fitness facilities and meeting spaces used after school hours. Additionally, she said, the wind farm has provided the children with learning opportunities and field trips about 21st century energy and jobs. Graduating seniors have their class picture taken around the wind towers.
Western New York has several wind energy installations: Steel Winds on the old Bethlehem Steel property on the Lackawanna waterfront, and farms in Bliss, Sheldon and Wethersfield in Wyoming County. A new wind farm has been proposed on the Lake Ontario shore in Niagara and Orleans counties, not far from the coal-fired power plant in Somerset.
While very few landowners opposed the Maple Ridge Wind Farm in Lewis County (according to Burke and other local sources) there was some early opposition to the Wyoming County installations, and some landowners in the Niagara-Orleans area have also voiced disapproval of the planned project there.
Supporters of wind power cite concern about the effects of burning fossil fuels on climate change. There is strong agreement among climate scientists that we have exceeded the limit of safe concentration of carbon dioxide, and must reduce emissions of coal, oil and gas in order to prevent catastrophic consequences in the next few decades. Moreover, they point to health effects, such as asthma, from burning fossil fuel, along with the effects on land and water from coal mining and hydraulic fracturing. They express concerns about the increasing economic and political power of fossil fuel corporations.
Regarding job development, Western New York is well-situated for wind tower manufacturing, with a highly skilled work force and proximity to both rail and water shipping. Because of the size of wind blades, transportation is a significant cost. Labor and commerce groups have suggested that wind tower plants would complement the SolarCity solar panel factory under construction.
Some of those opposed to wind power just don’t like the appearance of wind towers. In contrast, several Lewis County residents appearing in the film “Tapping Maple Ridge” find that the newness wears off and they just become part of the rural landscape, as electric poles and wires did in the early 20th century.
Opponents suggest human health effects. Internet searches turn up postings about “wind tower syndrome,” said to include headaches and psychological symptoms, as well as “flicker effects” caused by viewing the turning blades. Several scientific reviews, however, including one by Knopper and Olson in 2011, reveal that there is no such “syndrome” in accepted medical classifications of conditions, that the “syndrome” was identified from one brief survey without medical evidence or controls, and that “annoyance” due to dislike of wind towers is the most accurate way of accounting for the discomfort.
Well-designed, controlled studies find no differences in these conditions among rural residents living near to or far from wind installations. Noise levels on the ground near current-day wind turbines are about 40 decibels, comparable to quiet conversation. In Maple Ridge, with its almost 200 towers, what you hear is the wind itself.
Another scare – related to “flicker effect” from shadows in the turning blades causing seizures – has also been discredited by several reviews. At most, flickering shadows occur for a few minutes a day near sunrise and sunset and can easily be avoided by not looking steadily at the blades during these times. There is no documented increase in epilepsy among people residing near wind farms.
Another argument against wind farms is their effects on wildlife. Do wind towers kill birds? In a 2010 report from the Sibley Guides, a well-respected source of bird information, collisions with windows and capture by feral or outdoor cats are responsible for 10,000 times more premature bird deaths than wind towers. The Audubon Society, after reviewing scientific studies, announced support for properly sited wind towers, and noted that the immediate and long-term effects of burning fossil fuels, including toxic emissions, loss of habitat and global warming-induced ecosystem changes in insects and plants that birds feed on, are threats to many bird species. Climate scientists predict that many bird species face extinction due to climate change.
John Flicker, former Audubon president, stated, “As the threats of global warming loom ever larger, alternative energy sources like wind power are essential.”
As the climate changes, with overall heating of our planet, along with related episodes of extreme cold and storms, our lives will change one way or another. There may be unchecked climate change: loss of coastal cities, Florida disappearing under water, massive floods and starvation in tropical regions of Asia and Africa, and loss of 40 percent of species. Or there may be some changes in the landscape and waters – more wind towers and solar panels along with wave and geothermal power – and a worldwide clean energy future. The choice can be ours.
Ellen C. Banks, Ed.D., a Williamsville resident, is a retired professor of psychology at Daemen College and has been active in environmental research and advocacy.