Op Ed: Defending the Wind Farm

An operating wind farm is not inherently dangerous, any more than a car driving or airplane flying...

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By Professor Francis Vanek via Ithaca Times, 01/13/16

Thank you for your Dec. 23 coverage (“Enfield Wind Farm on the Defensive”) of the Dec. 17 Town of Enfield meeting to discuss the Black Oak Wind Farm. As an engineering educator who has been teaching, writing, and researching about wind farms for more than 10 years, I am writing to address some of the concerns raised. (Full disclosure: I am a small investor in the project, and also have a strong interest in it as an educational resource for teaching local college and high school students.)

The first concern is safety. An operating wind farm is not inherently dangerous, any more than a car driving or airplane flying, as long as common-sense precautions are taken. I have toured working wind farms with students on several occasions and walked around the base of spinning turbines without any fear of injury.

Previous occurrences of turbines catching fire or collapsing (as happened at the nearby Fenner wind farm) were cited at the Enfield meeting. However, these incidents are very rare, given that there are on the order of 30,000 to 40,000 large turbines all across the U.S. No industry is 100 percent perfect all the time. Mechanical failures, fires, and other accidents do occasionally happen. As long as industries play by the rules, the U.S. does a pretty good job of keeping industrial injuries and deaths to a minimum, and this includes the wind industry.

In fact, the setbacks described in your article provide a reasonable layer of protection to the public. They provide enough distance from a turbine to prevent harm from the unlikely event of a fire or tower collapse. Furthermore, wind has a safety advantage compared to conventional energy since unlike coal or oil (recall the Upper Big Branch mine or Deepwater Horizon drilling rig disasters) the energy source itself, in other words the wind, is not flammable.

I would also like to address the question of birds, noise, and alteration of the landscape. Regarding birds, the National Audubon Society has publicly endorsed “properly sited” (in regard to the presence of birds) wind farms because of the much larger threat that climate change poses to the health of bird species.

Regarding noise, I have visited and spent time at six different wind farms in our state and Ontario, and one of the questions I have examined is whether wind farms create significant noise that rises above background levels. From personal experience, I have found that, especially outside of the setback distance, moving turbines do not make excessive noise, and in any case in a high wind when they are rotating at top speed, other sound created by the wind drowns out the noise of the turbines.

As for aesthetics, I personally find wind turbines interesting and attractive. I also recognize that not everyone would agree, and I respect the fact that opinions about aesthetics can differ. At some point, however, the right of one property owner for a certain kind of view should be balanced against the right of another to host a turbine on their land and earn royalties that come from generating wind energy.

Turning to economics, I can attest to the potential community benefits of the wind farm mentioned in your article. Of the nine towns in Tompkins County, only Enfield has the quality of wind resource available at the site. If the wind farm is built, those that host turbines earn royalties in proportion to energy generated, those with a Good Neighbor Agreement (GNA) earn a flat annual fee, and the town on the whole earns a Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) payment. Opponents of the project voiced concern at the meeting that the substation would allow for eventual expansion of the project, but this might be a good thing: if the experience is positive, more turbines could be installed in the future, leading to more royalties, more GNA payments, and more tax revenue for Enfield. Other wind farms have gone this route. Furthermore, wind energy, like solar photovoltaic, is very consistent from year to year. One wind farm for which data are available is Lake Benton, Minnesota, and over an 11-year period annual output never varied by more than 18 percent from the average, and in most years not more than 10 percent.

In closing, compare the wind farm to another energy opportunity in our region that has been getting press lately, namely fracking. When a fracking project is developed, it generates royalties for a time, but when the gas is used up, that is the end. The economic benefit of wind energy, by contrast, is available indefinitely. The wind will keep blowing and blowing.

Francis Vanek, is a professor at the School of Civil & Environmental Engineering, Cornell University, and he is a resident of the town of Ithaca

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