April 23, 2005

Questioning Cornell about wind, Part 1

After Lanny Joyce, Manager of Engineering, Planning, and Energy Management in Cornell's Utilities Department, gave a presentation at the April 13th Tompkins County Environmental Management Council, it opened up to questions from the council and the public.

Steve Nicholson, the EMC chair, said he'd been on two tours of the Fenner wind farm site, including one conducted by their Town Supervisor, Russ Cary. Nicholson said that there were some things they'd have done differently, as there are twenty turbines there now, and none are on the windiest site in the county, which is further southeast. Apparently they started with a location that isn't visible from other towns, "to see how the public received it", and are now moving to build on the windier ridge that's visible from Cazenovia.

Lanny Joyce described how he's seen Fenner:

I've talked with Ross, with many others that have turbines on their property, in Fenner and in Madison. They're supportive now. As with anything that's new technology, or different, there's going to be detractors, and there are some very vocal folks associated with the Fenner-Madison projects that have written some pretty strongly worded emotional negatives related to those two projects, about sound, and shadow flicker, and other perspectives, and they clearly don't like it there.

Someone on the EMC asked how much the farmers get for turbines on their property, and Joyce replied:

A typical - the way I understand it - is about $5000 a year per turbine for rent, for a lease on the property. Municipalities and school districts split an additional amount that is not standardized and is semi-public. It sounded like for Fenner that was an additional $5000 per megawatt per year that got split between the school district and the county, and I think Ross would share those numbers with you. So for them, it's twenty machines times one and a half megawatts is thirty megawatts times five thousand is $150,000 bucks a year that the Town of Fenner and the school district share.

Joyce wasn't sure if those payments were temporary, or lasted for the lifetime of the project. Nicholson then opened the discussion up to questions, first from the EMC and then from the audience.

County Legislator Dooley Kiefer asked if there was information about sound produced by the turbines below audible frequencies. Joyce replied:

It's called in the industry, infrasonic noise, and the answer is yeah, there's quite a bit of information about it, actually. The British Wind Energy Association website has a flyer that we had at our meeting last week... that talks specifically about infrasonic noise.

As I understand it, noise is sound generated on a lot of different frequencies. It's either tonal, in that it's single frequency, like a gear box, or it's broad spectrum, just a mixture of frequencies. The tone-specific stuff, or single-frequency stuff, travels further. It's harder to dissipate in the air. The broader spectrum stuff just kind of gets lost quickly.

Infrasonic noise is something that was a big problem with the earlier generation of wind turbines that had the rotors downwind, and only had two blades. When the blade swept past the post of the support, it created a pressure wave, and it was really a bad thing. In Boone, North Carolina, for example, I know the DOE had a big test site where they were trying to study the infrasonic noise, and they eventually got told just to turn this thing off, because it's driving us crazy. And so, that older technology, two-blade-downwind, was a real problem for infrasonic noise, and that's not the case any more. The machines are three-bladed upwind configurations. So you can't have that pressure wave.

Is there no infrasonic noise or sound? No. I'm sure there is. I don't know what it is. It would have to be characterized, and it's machine-specific, so whatever turbine it is you're buying, you're going to have to get from the manufacturer what it is that it generates for sound, and then calculate how far away that would be sensed. Sound is about frequency and power level both. If you're beyond a certain distance, the physics would say you're not going to notice it at all, or even notice it a little bit. I think it's something you'd have to calculate and show whatever you're doing isn't going to be a problem.

Cindy Schulte, an EMC representative from Newfield, started discussion by saying that she hadn't heard much from her consituents until rumors of Cornell putting wind farms on Connecticut Hill started,

and then everybody's gabbing to me, and wanting to know what the EMC was... I'm really frustrated sitting here because I'm trying to be reasonable on this subject - I think it's great, anything we can do to get off of oil is a wonderful thing. But I heard these words come out of your mouth: "Of course everybody's first concern is the bird and bat population." I strongly disagree, because my first concern are the neighbors, not the animals. I would just like you to be careful how you word things, because even those of us who want to support you have a hard time doing so when you don't take the human factor into consideration.

EMC member (and Cornell student) Danny Pearlstein asked, "given that the neighbors have such a concern, and given that we're at the outset of this process... in the scenario that this doesn't go through, what are the alternatives?"

Joyce said:

We're continually looking at alternatives for heat generation in the plant, as the campus grows, we now have to pay attention to those technologies. How we do that in the heating plant will determine how the combustion part of our CO2 mix happens. How we buy electricity can dictate how much of these emissions happen. We chose right from the start to take a host approach and look at electricity and heat together, because it's the total use of energy that is what we are concerned about, not just take one or the other.

It'll be a combination of technologies, both out in the buildings and in the supply side that'll help get us there. All of it will have to be done as cost-effective as possible, because there is no mandate to do it without that.

EMC member Neha Khanna asked about the health impacts of infrasonic noise, and about the impact of commercial wind farms on property values. Joyce replied:

On the low-frequency sound, I think I answered that. We would have to do our own analysis of whatever turbine we would propose buying, and then characterize whatever low-frequency sound emissions might happen.

Khanna repeated the question, specifically on health effects, and Joyce replied:

I can't answer that question. I don't know. It's something that clearly has been very important for folks who are concerned, and I think we need to have some careful literature review, and then a study appropriate to whatever it is we're proposing. I'm sure the industry's working really hard to make it possible for everyone to understand this issue. If they don't, they're going to have a real problem, the wind industry in general, so I wouldn't think Cornell would have to invest everything here, on that particular topic.

On the property values side, there's been one prominent study, finished in the last year. That's a real eastate value assessment done very quantitatively, that was sponsored, I think, by DOE. You can find it on the AWEA web site, a wind energy association web site... which has this report, which really it's quite fat, it's 85 pages or something like that. I printed it and looked at it, and it basically studied about fifteen wind sites around the country, including Fenner and Madison, and showed how real estate property values next to or right around the turbine wind farms had changed relative to the neighbors that weren't that close in the same towns and the same areas. What that study showed was that property values increase at the same rate as others in the area, and in some cases faster and higher.

EMC member Steve Ozuff raised the prior example of the Landfill Neighborhood Protection Committee, organized to protect property values around a proposed county landfill, with the county buying houses if values fell.

Someone else noted that Tompkins County is trying to reducing its own emissions 20% from 1998 levels by 2008, and:

in the last year or so, we've been interested in having the county itself being able to purchase renewable energy. In the energy committee, the only option that's really feasible for us is to purchase green energy - renewable energy, wind energy...

We're also looking at longer-term, where it's possible for the county itself to build its own wind turbines and things like that to start our own source of renewable energy, and what in your opinion are the possibilities of Cornell sharing their toys? Of being able to put a wind turbine up there that the county could be using, or having neighbors being able to use this electricity, things like that. Energy co-oping, lots of different groups that might be interested in either using some energy that Cornell is producing, or in setting up their own tower to use the same site for instance.

Joyce sounded positive, saying "it sounds like an idea worth investigating." The questioner, as a followup, asked "How are we going to get the electricity from Mount Pleasant to Cornell campus?" Joyce had a longer and more complex answer to that:

We're actually not sure which way we would do that. There's interestingly on Mount Pleasant two possibilities. One is to have it come back to campus, because campus isn't that far away by wind industry standards. Five miles, though, from Mount Pleasant back to campus. The other option is to tie it into the grid. It turns out that NYSEG transmission lines actually run across Mount Pleasant, not too far to the north.

So, the option is there to do either thing. The economics are very different. For one case it's behind the meter, and you avoid a higher percentage of the total cost you're paying for electricity. It's worth more. No rebates are needed. In the case where you've tied into the grid, you need at least a federal rebate to make it break even with the expenses. In New York State, what we've done is the governor and the PSC have added a renewable portfolio standard benefit, which is another increment of rebate, that makes wind look better - good enough to finance it in New York State. That's part of the reason why there's so much activity in 2005 with the newly renamed, I understand, Maple Ridge project on the Tug Hill Plateau. It used to be called Flat Rock....

The two different choices have different environmental impacts. One has to build a circuit back to campus. The other one has a short circuit. They have different economic income streams. One is an avoided cost, the other is you sell it to the grid, at the wholesale price, when you grid-connect. That runs around 4 cents these days on an annual basis, where it use to be 2.5 cents, as recent as three years ago it was down really low, at 3 cents. It's gone up a lot because the price of natural gas has doubled. The price of coal is headed up. The wholesale price for electricity is dictated by the last person into the grid, the highest price usually is least efficiency. Wind energy's now, if it can get it out of its own fence, and connect to the grid at 4.5 cents it's close.

The federal rebate... you're actually doing better than break-even, and with the state rebate, you're good enough to get a bank to finance. I think we're going to get more in New York State because the state's decided to fund it as a tax on our electric bill. The income stream for that is the tax on everybody else's - all of our electric bills.

So it's two different things, and we don't know which way it'll go. That would be something we have to look at in the feasibility study, what makes sense. People have said to us, "well, if you're just going to grid-connect it, why do it on Mount Pleasant? Why not go somewhere else? Get anywhere off of this hilltop, please." And the answer is "well, we were comfortable thinking about it on Cornell property near campus. I don't think we're comfortable thinking about it far away from Cornell, grid-connected, because we're not in the wind development business, we're in the education business.

Asked if net metering would matter for Cornell, Joyce replied that:

As a generator now, we're already subject to the tariff that's necessary if you generate. NYSEG's always going to be there when we aren't generating. If the hydro plant doesn't have water in the creek, or the campus steam load is really low in the summer time, we're not generating hardly anything, so NYSEG has to provide all of it. We still have to pay for the benefit of being connected when we need them.

There's a lot more to cover, but this will have to do for one article. I'll have more up in the next few days.

Posted by simon at April 23, 2005 12:47 PM in , ,
Note on photos


Kenneth Donley said:

I live directy across the road from the field in which the proto-type wind mill has been erected.Can you tell me,if approved,how close to my home can a wind turbine be errected? I have two small children that I'm worrried about. My oldest son suffers from extreme migraine headaches and is sensitive to high freqency noise. I'm also concerned about the "strobe light" effect that will occur,especially since my home faces west. Also, what are the possibilities of an environmental impact study? In the early Fall a migration of woodcock come through and use the field as a fly route.

If you live across from the Cornell test tower on Mount Pleasant, you don't need to worry:


If it's another development, I have no idea.