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Growing Pains Ahead As State Develops Wind Power

August 3, 2008

By Allison M. Heinrichs, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Aug. 3–Pennsylvania’s mountain ridges are on track to teem with industrial wind turbines — enough that, if placed on the 359-mile Pennsylvania Turnpike, they would stretch seven per mile.

The turbines will require clearing a combined 10,000 acres of mountaintops. Each turbine would reach heights that rival Pittsburgh’s skyscrapers.

They could make their owners more than $300 million in federal subsidies and power more than 1 million homes.

But they wouldn’t remove a single coal-fired power plant from service.

“It doesn’t work that way,” said Kerry Campbell, energy programs specialist for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. “Sometimes when wind is generating power, a coal plant gets to back off … but it wouldn’t be replaced.”

Gov. Ed Rendell has made wind power a central part of his plan to reduce air pollution. Legislation adopted in 2004 requires that 18 percent of Pennsylvania’s energy come from alternative sources by 2021, including 8 percent from wind and solar sources.

In the next year, officials expect Pennsylvania to double the amount of wind energy it harvests. If energy company proposals pan out, by 2011 Pennsylvania could produce almost 5,000 megawatts of wind power — 10 times its current capacity.

If the wind were constantly blowing, that would power one in nine Pennsylvania homes, which get about 97 percent of their energy from nonrenewable sources, such as coal and natural gas. Because Pennsylvania isn’t a particularly windy state, the reality is that the turbines could be counted on about 30 percent of the time.

Despite its so-so wind resource, the state attracted Spanish wind power production and turbine manufacturing company Gamesa to locate its U.S. headquarters in Philadelphia and build manufacturing plants in Cambria and Bucks counties. So far, the company has created 1,160 jobs here.

The sudden boom is not without growing pains.

Quiet as a ‘fridge

Just across the Eastern Continental Divide in Blair County, Todd and Jill Stull’s farm nestles in the Allegheny Mountains.

A tree-lined drive leads to the century-old white farmhouse and red barn the couple spent nearly two decades restoring. They’re raising two boys here, and this is where they hoped to retire — until six wind turbines were erected a few thousand feet from their home. The turbine heads loom over the Blue Knob ridge that serves as a backdrop.

The spinning blades create a deep whooshing sound with a metallic whine. The noise changes intensity with the wind. Todd Stull, a gastrointestinal doctor, said the noise sends him to the coal cellar for a quiet night’s sleep.

“If I’m working the next day and it is so loud that I can’t sleep, what am I going to do?” said Todd Stull, ducking to avoid a low ceiling as he descended his basement stairs. “This old, unheated coal cellar is the only place where the turbines won’t wake me. In the middle of winter it is 55 degrees in here and I sleep on this cot. How pathetic is that?”

A lawsuit the Stulls filed against Gamesa Energy USA and Allegheny Ridge Wind Farm is pending. The Stulls are seeking more than $50,000 in damages, but the ultimate goal is to still the turbines’ spinning blades.

The lawsuit is the first in Pennsylvania involving the operation of a wind turbine, said Michael Nixon, a national public interest environmental lawyer and consultant based in Pittsburgh.

“The outcome is important to all the rural communities of Pennsylvania and private property owners who value the quiet enjoyment of their land and their home,” Nixon said.

Gamesa declined to discuss the lawsuit.

“It’s important to have 12 regular citizens look at the facts of this case and determine what the just outcome is,” said attorney Bradley Tupi of Pittsburgh, who represents the family.

The Stulls did not protest construction of the turbines three years ago. Nor did they seek a stricter noise ordinance or call Gamesa to request that the turbines be located farther away.

“We’ve never had a reason to go to the township meetings and we only got the newspaper on the weekends,” Jill Stull said. “There was nothing in our mailbox telling us about it. The next thing we knew, they were cutting down trees.”

Officials in Juniata Township, where seven of the wind farm’s 40 turbines are located, also didn’t know much about turbines. Until Gamesa pointed the supervisors to a model ordinance the company helped craft, the township didn’t have a law governing wind turbines, township supervisor David Kane said.

The ordinance requires that turbine noise be 45 decibels or less — the noise made by a typical refrigerator. The Stulls say that on windy days the turbines sound as loud as a jet engine.

Gamesa pays the township $3,000 per turbine, or $69,000 this year for 23 turbines. The township plans to spend $23,000 for a noise study because of the Stulls’ complaints.

Kane said the turbine money will allow the township to cut property taxes.

“We’re 100 percent satisfied with (the turbines),” Kane said. “They’re nice, and Gamesa is excellent.”

Beating out Texas

Four years ago, Gamesa looked at all 50 states for a North American headquarters. It narrowed the possibilities to Pennsylvania and Texas.

“A lot of the company did want to go to Texas,” said Gamesa USA CEO Julius Steiner. “Texas has, historically, been the state with (more) wind farms.”

But the Keystone State showed potential. Rendell gathered bipartisan support for ramping up the state’s consumption of wind power. Maryland and New Jersey passed similar proposals.

With laws guaranteeing a market for wind energy in the mid-Atlantic, Texas looked less attractive.

The state provided Gamesa nearly $20 million in grants and loans for its manufacturing facilities. The Fairless Hills complex in Bucks County is exempt from state and local taxes through 2019. The Ebensburg plant is tax exempt until 2011.

“That this was Gamesa’s first U.S.-based manufacturing plant and they picked Ebensburg. That was really huge for us,” said Linda Thomson, executive director of the Johnstown Area Regional Industries, a nonprofit agency. “It gave us an identity and an opportunity to show that we can attract and work with the European alternative energy market.”

Jobs are the other big benefit, Thomson said. The unemployment rate in Cambria County is 5.7 percent, above the state average of 5 percent.

The two plants employ almost 1,000 people in jobs that pay $12 to $18 an hour with a health plan. Last year, the company voluntarily recognized its employees’ decision to join the United Steelworkers of America.

Troy Galloway, 44, of Hollsopple in Somerset County has worked at the Ebensburg plant for two years.

“I saw Gamesa as a job with a stable future,” said Galloway, a father of three and former steelworker. “The green part of it made it a feel-good job. But the biggest thing was that I saw it as something that would last until I’m ready to retire.”

Underscoring Galloway’s belief that his job is stable, Steiner pointed to the Department of Energy’s recent report that 20 percent of the nation’s electricity could come from wind by 2030. Today, wind power contributes less than 1 percent of the nation’s needs.

Presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama support increasing America’s wind industry.

Billionaire businessman T. Boone Pickens recently announced a $1 trillion energy policy proposal that would have private industries installing enough turbines to supply at least 20 percent of the nation’s electricity.

Generating electricity from wind, instead of coal, would offset nearly 275 million tons of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide — double what Pennsylvania creates when consuming electricity each year, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

“In order to accomplish that, we — not Gamesa, but we as a society — would have to install 75,000 wind turbines around the United States,” Steiner said. “Last year in the U.S., we made about 500. If you look at the need to manufacture and install 75,000 by 2030, you’re talking about an enormous amount of jobs and a huge, huge impact on the economy.

“And, Pennsylvania has a head start.”

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