If you have ever driven off campus, you have likely noticed giant windmills looming on the horizon. Part of a system of some twenty turbines, these iron giants comprise the Fenner Windpower Project, just one component of a nationwide initiative to utilize clean and renewable energy. Operational since the fall of 2000, the mills have the capacity to power about 10,000 homes solely by harnessing the energy of the wind as it sweeps over the Adirondacks and down the Chenango Valley. Despite their efficiency, the mammoth cost to assemble just one of these turbines (about $2.5 million dollars) has stirred local and national debate over cost versus benefit at the Fenner site, not to mention the intrusions they cause for residents.
For some residents, the lower energy bill is not worth the headache – literally. Pam Foringer had been living in Fenner with her husband for 15 years when, in 1999, she first got wind of the developing project and noticed a test mill that was being erected to the south of her home. Since then, something commonly referred to as the “flicker effect” has been plaguing her with migraines. Because her home is located within 700 feet of one of the turbines, each time the blade passes around, a long shadow momentarily shrouds her house in darkness. As quickly as it comes though, the blade ascends back into the air, letting the sun again stream through her windows. The cumulative effect of this is something Pam characterizes as “strobe-like” in a letter posted on GreenBerkshires.com, a website dedicated to preserving the scenery in the Berkshire Hills of Western Massachusetts.
Community Energy, Inc., which boasts that it has expanded the market for wind-generated power, says the carbon dioxide not emitted into the atmosphere thanks to the wind farm is equivalent to removing about 7,600 cars from the road. The company describes the blade design as allowing for “high efficiency and almost undetectable sound,” for minimal intrusion in neighbors’ lives. In Fenner, though the turbines which are produced by appliance titan GE, have to be shut down when the wind speed gets too high the routine restart sounds not unlike a 747 jet and even when the blades are spinning at the usual speed, the turbine makes a mild but perpetual grinding noise that would probably not be well-described as minimally intrusive. This is just one of the issues some Fenner residents say the builders could have taken into consideration.
In fact, the shadows that are continuously cast across Ms. Foringer’s property were mentioned at planning meetings and could have been avoided. With the help of advanced software, builders should be able to project the shape and length of the shadow cast by the turbines, even with mountains and dense foliage hampering the calculation. With more careful planning, these shadows would perhaps not be so problematic.
Wind farms have also become a partisan issue on Capitol Hill, with many politicians pushing for the implementation of renewable wind energy facilities as a solution to some of our nation’s dependence on foreign crude oil. In a time when gas prices are double what they were just four years ago and where it is becoming more and more of a financial burden to heat a home during the winter, these kinds of declarations do seem attractive. The problem, though, is that these wind farms are causing upheaval for the same people they are supposed to be helping. The Fenner Windmills are at an ideal location because they are remote and have wind speeds averaging around 17 miles per hour. Imagine the backlash if a farm like this were to be proposed on Long Island. The idea that wind energy could significantly combat costs for foreign energy is not feasible because windmills could only be put in rural areas like Fenner, or offshore.
While the Democratic Party is mostly in favor of offshore wind farms, in 2003 Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy famously came out against the Cape Cod Wind Associates in their efforts to place a wind farm off the coast of popular tourist destination, Nantucket. The consortium has since won their case and is proceeding with the project, much to Kennedy’s dismay.
Some politicians who oppose drilling in Alaska to relieve the nation’s dependency on foreign resources in favor of “renewable energy alternatives,” also oppose their own proposition when it hampers their lifestyle. Another case in point is Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who believes that a strict set of guidelines should be in place for the erection of offshore turbines, but does not see the need for such restrictions in places like the Berkshires, which, like Fenner, just don’t seem to have enough residents with much influence or wealth.
The flip side of the issue is that, aside from the benefits to the environment, the presence of the wind farm at Fenner brought additional construction and maintenance jobs to an area that needed them. It is hard to make ends meet in an agriculturally based town that is as far north as Fenner because harvests happen late in the season, generally when other farmers are trying to sell the last of their crops at a discounted price. Town Supervisor Russell Cary was quoted in Plattsburgh’s Press-Republican as feeling that the wind farm would provide financial assistance through jobs and tax cuts for local farmers slowly being priced out of the market.
Having admitted that the construction of the farm at Fenner could have gone more smoothly and that there is certainly a learning curve, officials have opened an educational center called FREE (Fenner Renewable Energy Education). The goal is to make Fenner a model for future wind powered energy sites, educating the public on the pros and cons of this kind of enterprise, although FREE officials seem fully sold on their positive impact. In a press release, FREE President Joan Livingston said, “The Fenner Wind Farm has enhanced our quality of life, brought more tourism dollars to our region and given neighbors a greater sense of pride in our town.” The farm was also featured on an installment of The History Channel’s “Modern Marvels” series, further informing the public of the facts about these steel mammoths.
While renewable energy initiatives continue to be trotted out in Washington as an attractive solution to energy needs, Cary has been preparing for the arrival of five additional turbines and pledging to look deeper into the contracts for errors made the first time around, including placement to avoid the flicker effect. At the same time, each night, the lights atop the turbines that alert aircraft remind Fenner residents of their commitment to clean energy. It begs the question: are these windmills a symbol of progress in the energy field, or just an intrusion? Are they really feasible on a widespread basis or only used as a tool for political gain? With the Fenner growing by another 20% in just three years, Colgate students and Madison County residents may find out soon enough.