Northeastern Pennsylvania Gives Windmills a Spin

There's one obvious reason this mountainous, sparsely populated township is poised to become one of the leading areas for wind power in the eastern United States.

Dec. 26-BEAR CREEK TWP., Pa. - There's one obvious reason this mountainous, sparsely populated township is poised to become one of the leading areas for wind power in the eastern United States.

"It's where the wind blows," said Todd B. Schmidt, of KBA Engineering, a Jermyn firm that drew up the plans for one of two wind farms to be built in the township next year.

In all, by the end of 2005, the hillsides here should be home to 48 windmills.

Northeastern Pennsylvania has the right kind of wind -- at the right elevation and the right speed -- to turn the 100-foot blades of wind turbines. Pennsylvania produces more megawatts by windmill than any state east of the Mississippi. And more than half of the working wind turbines in the state are in our region, with two in the Hazleton area and 43 in Waymart.

But it takes more than a lot of wind to make a wind farm. It takes federal tax credits that make wind power more competitive and millions in promised revenue for the township.

Township officials see wind power as a way to generate revenue and cut taxes while avoiding overdevelopment in the woodlands that make up most of the 70-square-mile township.

"Give me a wind park and conserving land and I'll take that any time over development," said township supervisor Ed Benkoski.

The township will collect $3,000 per wind turbine, or $144,000 per year, once the wind farms are in place. Those payments will be adjusted annually for inflation.

"Over a 20-year period that's $1.7 million. Over 30 years, that's almost $3 million. Because of that we eliminated our property tax for 2005," said Benkoski.

The smaller of the two wind parks, on Bald Mountain, will pay the township $42,000 per year, just about equal to the revenue generated by the property tax in this community of 2,500. The larger park, around Crystal Lake, will provide $102,000 annually.

The windfall for township taxpayers wouldn't have been possible if Congress had not passed an energy bill in September that reinstated a tax credit of 1.8 cents for each kilowatt hour produced by wind. A prior tax credit had expired in December 2003, stalling the development of wind farms throughout the country.

"Our project was ready to go in 2004," said Brent Alderfer, president of Community Energy Inc. of Massachusetts, which plans to construct the 14-turbine wind farm on Bald Mountain. "When (the tax credit) got delayed, we were stopped. It's an important piece of the investor return."

Community Energy is a for-profit company formed in 1999 with support from energy suppliers and environmental groups. Until now it has acted as a broker for wind power generated by other companies. Its customers include more than 15,000 residential customers, nearly 60 businesses and various government and educational institutions in New York and Pennsylvania. Those customers choose to pay 20 to 25 percent more for "green" power.

That choice is possible because of programs that allow consumers of electricity to choose their supplier and because all power producers in a region are hooked up to a huge interconnected grid. In our region, that grid covers all or parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia.

"We all get our power from the grid," said Alderfer. "It's one big lake or pool. These folks agree to sign up and pay a little more for wind energy."

Those folks include predictably "green" customers such as the nonprofit environmental group PennFuture and Sun & Earth, a producer of environmentally friendly cleaning products.

But not all environmentalists are totally sold on wind power.

"These people are selling themselves as green. But if you really want to be green you're going to have to earn that," said Brian Mangan, director of the Environmental Studies Program at King's College in Wilkes-Barre. "You're going to have to demonstrate these projects really are low-impact."

Mangan is particularly concerned about the possible deaths of birds and bats that fly into the windmills.

He said the developers of the two wind farms should agree to studies once the windmills are in place to determine if an inordinate number of birds and bats are killed. The operators could use automatic horns or other noise-producing devices to scare away the animals in times of poor weather when collisions are more likely, he said.

Alderfer said his firm has commissioned studies of bird and bat traffic at his company's site on Bald Mountain.

"We found no indication of either bird or bat populations that are endangered. There's a low likelihood or probability that we'd have heavy bird traffic there."

Wilkes University professor Kenneth M. Klemow, the botanist and wetlands expert for the Crystal Lake project, said studies will be done of bird and bat populations there to minimize the impact of the windmills.

John Connelly, project coordinator for the Crystal Lake site, said older wind farms in the western United States killed more bats and birds because the blades of the older turbines turned much faster and the windmills were placed much closer together.

Flying creatures aren't the only environmental concern at the Crystal Lake site, most of which sits on watershed land once protected from development to safeguard the Crystal Lake reservoir. That protection was lifted more than a decade ago after a filtration plant was built near the reservoir, which is owned by Pennsylvania American Water Co.

The location of a wind farm around the lake is a "betrayal," according to Hank Smith, a local environmentalist who was a vocal advocate for the government purchase of the land around Crystal Lake.

The bulk of the land that will contain the wind farm was owned until earlier this year by Theta Land Corp., which holds thousands of acres of former watershed. Theta sold the land around Crystal Lake to the Virginia-based, nonprofit Conservation Fund, which plans to turn the land over to the state or Luzerne County as part of a larger purchase of Theta land financed with $4 million in public money.

But Theta's agreement with the Fund allows Theta, not the state or county, to collect a share of the revenues generated by the windmills on the property for the next 50 years. Theta and Energy Unlimited Inc., which is developing the Crystal Lake wind farm, reached the revenue-sharing agreement before the land was sold to the Fund.

Theta's share should be about $100,000 per year in the earliest years of the contract, which includes annual increases for inflation, said Connelly, Energy Unlimited's project coordinator. Other private landowners whose land will be used for the two wind farms will also receive a share of revenues.

Smith, a board member of Defend Our Watershed, said he is "gravely concerned that placing windmills in the direct watershed of our water supply is in obvious conflict with the original stated purpose of buying the land, which was to protect the watershed.

"The county has spent $4 million to buy a parcel of land that will be used by someone else to make money."

Nick Dilks, a spokesman for the Conservation Fund, said Theta would not agree to the land sale unless it retained the revenues from the wind farm.

"It was a non-negotiable issue. The option would have been to walk away, and then you would have a wind park and a bunch of condominiums."

The wind farm will take only a small portion of the former Theta holdings around the lake, Dilks said.

"In a perfect world, maybe we would have protected every inch. But you have to play the hand you're dealt."

Theta President Robert McNichols could not be reached for comment.

But Klemow, the environmental consultant on the Crystal Lake project, said great care has been taken to avoid disturbing wetlands and stands of scrub oak -- thick, low-lying brush that provides a habitat for rare moths and butterflies.

"The entire footprint of the project is in nonfragile habitat. There will be absolutely minimal impact on wetlands."

Connelly said most township residents will be unaware of the windmills because the wind farms will be in remote areas. Only the tops of few will be visible from the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, he said.

"The turbines are not going to have a high visibility and they're not going to make noise," Connelly said.

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© 2004, The Times Leader, Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.