Fri, Mar

Group Hopes to Lasso Breezes with 200 Windmills in Cambria County, Pa.

When a 6,300-acre piece of property was purchased earlier this year, its only use was going to be for recreation — for riders of snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles, horses and mountain bikes.

Dec. 14—EBENSBURG, Pa. — When a 6,300-acre piece of property was purchased earlier this year, its only use was going to be for recreation — for riders of snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles, horses and mountain bikes.

Now, the Rock Run Recreation site in Cambria County may also play host to dozens of windmills — generating clean electrical energy — all while people ride the trails around them.

"It's all green energy," said Philip J. Herbert, the managing director of Freedom Wind Energy, the company selected to develop the wind park. "We're substituting wind for traditional fossil fuels."

The plan was announced yesterday at the Cambria County Courthouse. Though developers from the Butler company are only in the early stages, the test phase of the project is about to begin as three 165-foot-tall meteorological towers are installed at Rock Run, in Patton, over the next several weeks.

Wind data will be collected for a year to learn if their plans are plausible. To be viable, there must be winds of 14 to 16 miles per hour for at least 32 percent of the year, said Kennan Dandar, one of the founders of Freedom Wind Energy.

With enough wind, and pending state and county approval, there could be up to 200 wind towers on the property. It would be, by far, the largest wind park in Pennsylvania.

Across the state, wind towers generate 135 megawatts of electricity. If developers get state and county approval for a full 200 towers, the park at Rock Run could generate up to 400 megawatts — enough electricity to power 135,000 homes, Dandar said.

As with other co-generation plants in the area, the electricity generated from the wind park would go into a power grid and likely be used by consumers along the East Coast, in New York, New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania.

No matter how many towers are installed, though, the priority at the Rock Run area will still be recreation, since that's why the property was initially purchased.

The Cambria County Conservation and Recreation Authority purchased the former coal-mining site out of bankruptcy for about $1.8 million, with a grant from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Both of those organizations will have to approve any wind towers to be built on the land.

Tom Strittmatter, the chairman of the authority, spent years working in power generation and immediately recognized the value of the property when he toured it for the ATV park. He saw the ridge lines and figured they'd be perfect for wind power.

After talking with officials at DCNR, the authority sought proposals from developers to build a wind park there. They accepted the one from Freedom Wind Energy.

The amount of greenhouse gases those turbines could reduce would be equivalent to planting 100,000 acres of trees, Herbert said.

Freedom Wind Energy also is involved in the development of three other projects — one in Somerset, another in Cambria County and one in upstate New York.

Financing for the Rock Run project would likely come from a combination of sources, including private money, foundation dollars and government funds, Herbert said. Construction on the project won't start for at least two years.

If the developers build 200 towers, that would be a $400 million investment, said Ron Budash, the executive director of the Cambria County Industrial Development Corp.

There isn't much tax revenue or job creation associated with the wind park — it might result in 40 permanent positions — Budash said, but there are other benefits.

A Spanish company that makes blades for windmills, Gamesa, has expressed interest in establishing a manufacturing plant in Cambria County, which would bring with it 180 jobs initially, with the potential to grow to 400.

The plant, along with the wind park, could help Cambria County set itself apart in Pennsylvania.

"If this comes to fruition, this will give us a distinct identity as "Power Alley," of the Laurel Highlands," he said.

There are 30 towers already on three sites in Somerset County, which was on the leading edge of the technology a few years ago.

Recently, however, reaction to the wind towers has become mixed, said Nick Felice, executive director of the Somerset County Economic Development Council.

People are happy to be producing cleaner energy, but now aesthetic issues have come up — tall towers blocking the view of the horizons, and the potential danger to birds. There has been debate on how many towers to allow, and currently there is no regulation in Somerset County, other than requiring that the towers are built several hundred feet from any occupied building.

"How many is too many?" Felice asked. "No one seems to know the answer to that question."

He knows of at least another 50 towers in development in Somerset.

Though some may consider them unsightly, the towers don't generate much in the way of noise — a slight hum from the generator, and whoosh when the blades of the windmill pass the tower, Felice said.

He calls wind towers the "double-bladed sword of capitalism." Environmentalists want to produce more clean energy, but they don't want to look at the hulking towers in their community.

"You can't have it both ways."

To see more of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.post-gazette.com.

© 2004, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.