New York Times
June 5, 2003
Windmills Sow Dissent for Environmentalists
by Katharine Q. Seelye
THOMAS, W.Va. - Vincent Collins, a lawyer from nearby Morgantown,
has been vacationing in this scenic area for 35 years. A few years
ago, he bought a 1.2-acre lot near here and planned to build a house
on it. But once he saw the windmills, and learned of plans for more,
he scrapped that dream.
Soaring above the treetops are 44 sleek white steel cylinders, 228
feet high. Churning on each tower are three glinting fiberglass
blades, 115 feet long. Like quills on a porcupine, they spike the
emerald spine of Backbone Mountain for six miles along the Allegheny
They have also generated huge turbulence within the environmental
movement. Proponents of wind farms view those who oppose them as
heretics, obstructing the promise of clean renewable energy, while
opponents decry them as producing insufficient power to warrant their
blight on the landscape.
For now, the wind farm here is the largest east of the Mississippi,
but the wind-energy industry, long a staple of the California
landscape, is blowing eastward. Unobstructed winds, favorable
economics and the absence of local zoning laws are attracting
developers, and soon more than 400 turbines could be sprouting across
40 square miles of West Virginia's most scenic mountaintops.
"I can't believe how large and hideous they are," Mr.
Collins said. "When you hear the word `windmill,' you think
Holland and Don Quixote. That's wrong. They look like alien monsters
coming out of the ground."
The growing industry has caused a kind of identity crisis among people
who think of themselves as pro-environment, forcing them to choose
between the promise of clean, endlessly renewable energy and the
perils of imposing giant man-made structures on nature.
To some environmentalists, the opposition to wind power from within
their ranks not only stifles the growth of a new source of energy but
also calls into question the integrity of the environmental movement
Charles Komanoff, a longtime economic consultant to environmental
groups, said the opposition by "well-heeled environmentalists,"
stoked the preconception that they were more concerned about their own
backyards than about the common good.
"They want to have it all and they won't brook any trade-off,
especially a trade-off that sacrifices their own comfort," said
Mr. Komanoff, who is based in New York.
At the same time, the wind farm developers appear to have the
environmental high ground.
"We believe in clean energy," said Steve Stingel, a
spokesman for Florida Power and Light, which bought the rights to the
wind farm here and then built it. The company is the largest generator
of wind power in the United States, with 30 wind farms in 10
Wind now accounts for less than 1 percent of all electricity produced
in the United States. But the American Wind Energy Association, the
industry's trade group, predicts it will grow to 6 percent by
The case for wind has been fortified in recent years by advances in
technology that make it more efficient and a federal tax credit that
makes its financing more feasible.
But the reality for people like Mr. Collins is something else.
Windmill farms must be large to be financially viable. Critics worry
that beyond the blemish on the natural landscape, these
industrial-sized towers can chop up migratory birds. One farm in
California was dubbed the "condor Cuisinart," and the
ornithologist monitoring the wind farm here just reported that at
least two dozen song birds winging their way north had been
Another complaint is that wind farms can do little to reduce overall
dependence on fossil fuels, because of the unreliability of constant
wind and the inability to store its power.
"They put out such a minuscule amount of electricity," Mr.
Collins said. "It's nuts."
Similar complaints, coming from prominent environmentalists like
Robert F. Kennedy Jr., have stalled installation of the nation's first
off-shore wind farm, proposed for the waters of Nantucket Sound off
Cape Cod. And they have forced the Long Island Power Authority to
scrap its plan for wind turbines off the eastern tip of Long Island.
But the utility has now proposed putting up to 50 turbines, each 488
feet high, off Long Island's south shore between Fire Island and Jones
Beach, two immensely popular summer resort areas.
Mr. Kennedy, for one, said he found "zero" irony in the fact
that he had devoted himself to environmental advocacy and yet opposed
the wind project on Cape Cod, his Kennedy grandparents' summer
"There are appropriate places for everything," he said in a
telephone interview. "You would not want a wind farm in Yosemite,
and you wouldn't want one in Central Park."
Mr. Kennedy added: "I love wind energy, but let's develop some
rules about how you divide up the commons. You're essentially giving
the commons over to a profit-making enterprise."
It is not only homeowners with nice views who object to wind farms,
but business owners as well. Indeed, it was Wayne Kurker, owner of the
Hyannis Marina, who first notified Mr. Kennedy about the proposed
project in Nantucket Sound.
"I didn't like the idea that what we consider our Grand Canyon
was all of a sudden going to be industrialized," Mr. Kurker said
of the wind farm, which would consist of 130 turbines over 24 square
Mr. Kurker founded the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound and has
been joined by scores of local politicians, chambers of commerce
worried about the effect on tourism, and celebrities like Walter
Cronkite in opposition to the project.
The main reason wind is taking off now is the huge financial incentive
provided by government subsidies. While critics argue that these
subsidies are only making developers rich, supporters say they are
peanuts compared with subsidies for fossil fuels and they provide
much-needed revenue to ailing rural economies while also delivering
The main subsidy is the federal tax credit, which is set to expire at
the end of the year but is likely to be renewed by Congress. The
credit allows windmill companies to deduct 1.8 cents from their tax
liability for every kilowatt hour they produce for 10 years. The
savings are huge.
For example, Jerome Niessen, president of NedPower, which has received
permission from the West Virginia Public Service Commission for a
200-turbine wind farm near here in Grant County, said he expected to
generate 800 million kilowatt hours per year, for a tax savings of $16
million a year for 10 years, or $160 million - on a wind farm that
will cost $300 million to build.
NedPower is to pay $500,000 in local taxes, making it the
fifth-largest taxpayer in the county. (That is far less, however, than
the $3 million the company would have paid just two years ago, before
wind energy lobbyists persuaded the government to tax towers and
turbines at a lower rate.) The company has also developed a
public-private partnership with two local schools, which will earn
royalties from the wind farm of about $75,000 a year.
The company will pay local landowners $2,000 to $4,000 an acre to
lease the necessary 8,000 acres for the towers. And putting up the
towers, which will rise 330 feet high and extend across 10 to 12 miles
of mountain ridges, will provide 200 construction jobs for a year and
15 permanent technician jobs.
"Fifteen jobs might not sound like much," Mr. Niessen
said. "But if one coal mine after another has closed and if
another chicken-processing plant has closed, 15 jobs is a