By Andy Chmar
With the Philipstown Town Board in the process of adopting a six-month moratorium on applications for residential wind turbines, it’s a good time to reflect on these and other renewable energy systems and their potential role within our communities.
Renewable sources of energy, including wind, solar and geothermal, are reliable, efficient and clean, and they reduce dependence on non-renewable, carbon-based fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas and coal. Continued reliance on non-renewable sources will not only have such adverse environmental impacts as oil spills, acid rain, and water and air pollution, but also have the far more devastating consequences associated with greenhouse gas emissions. Committed efforts, in both the public and private sectors, should be undertaken to support the development and use of renewable energy.
Renewable energy generation at the residential level, however, is not the only way for home or business owners to reduce their fossil fuel consumption. Energy conservation is likely to prove an even more effective way. A recommended first step for any energy user is to explore ways to improve energy efficiencies within their home or business.
Good examples are installing better insulation, sealing leaks, and using Energy Star compliant appliances. Other conservation measures include lifestyle changes such as avoiding unnecessary trips in the car and using mass transit. In addition, both residential and commercial electricity consumers can easily sign up for green energy suppliers through their local utility companies, including 100 percent wind energy suppliers generating power from efficient and viable upstate commercial wind farms.
If in addition to these measures, the home or business owner wishes to pursue generating their own energy from renewable sources, then as with any significant project, they should consider all the environmental impacts, both positive and negative. Possible negative impacts of wind turbines include noise pollution, injuries to migrating birds, and scenic impairment resulting not only from the towers themselves but also from related tree clearing and access roads.
In the Hudson Highlands, commercial wind production has not proven to be cost effective, owing to the absence of reliable wind currents of adequate force. Similar wind flow issues affect the viability of residential wind turbines. To be productive and qualify for state and federal tax credits, the turbines need to be placed at high elevations, on towers whose heights (including rotor blades) may exceed 150 feet – well above the tree tops and the permitted height of most structures under local zoning codes. These towers could significantly affect the scenic integrity of the Hudson Highlands.
We are in one of the most scenically significant landscapes in the United States. And special protections must be afforded to sustain the unique character of this beautiful and historically important region of New York. Five federal and state designations attest to the importance of the Hudson Highlands region, including New York State’s designation of portions of the Highlands as a “Scenic Area of Statewide Significance,” thereby underscoring our responsibility to preserve its scenic integrity.
Much of our landscape, moreover, can be seen and enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of residents and visitors from numerous publicly accessible points, including the Hudson River, the Appalachian Trail, and five state parks.
Without minimizing these concerns, however, we believe that the possible negative impacts of wind turbines can often be addressed by proper siting: placing the turbines at sufficient distances from neighbors, avoiding major avian fly-ways, and avoiding sites on our most scenically significant landscapes.
As our municipal leaders consider these issues and try to balance individual property rights with public good and community values, the Hudson Highlands Land Trust is committed to providing what help it can in developing objective data to identify locations where wind currents may serve as a viable source of residential energy, and then evaluating these for visual and other community impacts.
With these analyses, sustainable residential wind energy production benefiting individual property owners and the environment, with little or no impact on scenic resources and the communities in which they are located, may be possible. However, until the proper analyses are undertaken, municipalities could risk making unwise land-use decisions either by denying property owners the right to construct wind turbines on sites where there would be no material adverse impacts or by allowing such turbines on sites where the impacts would be adverse, long-ranging and difficult to reverse.
Chmar is Executive Director of Hudson Highlands Land Trust.